Before traveling to Egypt over Hebrew University’s two-week long Passover break, I bragged – to the horror of my friends and family, both Israeli and American, “I’m doing the opposite of the Exodus; I’m going to Egypt for Passover.”
As a result of the complicated manner in which I was to travel to Egypt, I was left with a lot of time to listen to music. The trip required an eighteen-hour bus ride from Tel Aviv to Cairo, including a wearying three-in-the-morning border crossing. Unfortunately, I had overlooked the length of the trip and neglected to bring anything more to listen to than a mini-disc player borrowed from a friend whose tastes ranged from Madonna to Busta Rhymes. As soon as our bus pulled out of the station I regretted that the only thing I had to listen to was a collection of pop songs I had not heard since junior high. As the week and a half I spent in Egypt went by, I regretted even more not having found appropriate music to accompany me through Egypt.
The bus trip was a tiring and peculiar journey. While still in Israel, some teenage boys in the back of the bus smoked hash and tobacco, filling the entire bus with its sweet musty smell. The rest of the passengers, apparently unconcerned by the smoke, politely chatted with me in broken Hebrew and English about their trips to America. Halfway through the Negev, we stopped at a dude ranch-themed rest stop. A large plastic iguana rested on the top of the building and cowboy boots, spurs, Stetson hats and horse saddles were mounted to the walls inside. Placed in between the kitsch adornments were pictures of pre-Israel Revisionists and Likudniks – Begin, Shamir, Netanyahu, Sharon.
The most surreal aspect of my trip, perhaps because of my disturbed sleep, was the entrance into Egypt. The desert pillars looked like the foundations of giant sand castles. The signs were in a script foreign and indecipherable and the language whispered between the sleepy travelers, with its Semitic hints, sounded like a language spoken in a dream—a distorted and incomprehensible Hebrew. At another rest stop just west of the Egyptian border city Taba, I realized I was in an entirely different world. I maneuvered through a crowd of Western tourists and Arab bus and truck drivers in a cafeteria empty of any adornments except for prayer rugs in the southeastern corner. I tried to figure out what the strange labels on the bag of potato chips represented - was that a chili pepper or a crescent moon?
After spending a week and a half in Cairo, Alexandria and the White and Black Deserts, the surreal and ghostly feel that had overcome me on my trip down seemed more a result of clairvoyance than a lack of sleep. Egypt has the ghosts of its past marked everywhere—it is a place where you can’t escape shades of other times, no matter the setting.
In Cairo, there were cosmopolitan Arabs dressed entirely as if Egypt were still under Western colonial rule. Muslims with turbans and long beards traveled on donkeys. Coptic Christians with their hieroglyph tattoos sold their wares in Old Cairo and claimed to be descendents of “true Egyptians.” There were Nubians in white robes. There were police, some wearing white for the summer, some wearing black for the winter (a café owner explained that this was because it was spring) and all with machine guns and whistles and arm bands that said in big English letters: “Tourist Police,” or things written in the sudden shakes of Arabic script that I could not understand. Overlooking Cairo were ancient entities — three large pyramids that emerged from the wide colonial buildings, skinny minarets and heavy grey smog. Diversity in Egypt is not as abstract as the idea of multiculturalism. Cultures old, new, and dead were physically piled one on top of the other, exposed almost as if they were a large, cross-sectioned archeological mound layered with different civilizations.
In the White and Black Deserts, the towns looked as if they had been untouched for the past fifty years. Large safari jeeps from no later than the ‘70s drove by; men in turbans sat outside tourist shops and markets smoking shisha and donkeys carrying loads of fresh produce were kept motivated by stick-carrying boys. The deserts themselves could have been the inspiration for Dali paintings. In the White Desert, large chalk-white rocks emerged from the sand, their color changing to egg-yolk yellow in the morning and evening, and to pale blue at night. In the Black Desert, vast black expanses, almost like large airport tarmacs, dotted the sand in long narrow strips.
In Alexandria, the effect of the architecture was similarly phantasmagoric. Decaying, but still grand colonial buildings stood next to a row of statues of rulers of Egypt since its independence. A large ‘Postmodern’ structure (as the brochure advertised) sat along the coastline—the new Alexandrian library. It was a brand new ghost of an ancient wonder. The library, though built to accommodate more than eight million books, was almost entirely empty, with less than 100,000 books on its shelves.
In its music, too, I found that Egypt juxtaposes its specters. The Egyptian Nubian Mahmoud Fadl’s Drummers of the Nile Go South: Nubian Travels is a surreal exploration of Egyptian culture through music. In each song, Fadl, fellow Nubian drummers Gaafar Hargal and Hamdi Matoul, Cairene wedding singer-diva Salma and many others rediscover a musical mode once found in Egypt. Back in my Jerusalem apartment, listening to this CD, what I wanted most was to go back in time and have this incredible album accompany me on my journey. It certainly would have been better than Busta Rhymes.
The album begins with forty-seven seconds of a solo Oud playing a melancholy tune called ‘Ambesto. From there, it goes directly into the banging of Nubian drums, with their unique beat, in ‘Nubian Walk.’ The next song, ‘El Semsemya,’ features the sound of a Q’anun, a descendent of a harp that is played with two thin finger-like sticks. The song is distinctly Arabic in sound. It starts off slowly but then picks up into an almost entranced ecstasy. Although I am not certain that there is any connection, the song always brings to my mind an image of Sufi dancers twirling like tops, their white skirts billowing out in a circle around them, their heads lifted to the sky in mystical fervor.
The next two songs are distinctly Nubian in sound. ‘Jibal Al Nuba,’ which is translated as ‘Mountains of Nubia,’ sounds like a Western African song with its woman singing to claps and drums. ‘Jirk,’ is another song consisting solely of the deep-echoed Nubian drums. The latter song almost sounds like music one would dance to at a nightclub.
My favorite song, though, is ‘Al Adil Welzein,’ which means ‘Save the Beautiful Broom.’ Although I don’t understand the lyrics, I can feel the mourning for the loss of Nubian culture and the sadness and powerlessness in the song. There is also, however, joy present in the voices of the Nubian women who sing it. It is a song that transcends language and one that, to my mind, is reminiscent of the sentiments and repetitive call-and-response techniques of old slave songs sung with a yearning for redemption and freedom.
In all of Fadl’s songs, there is a tormented, surreal sound. The songs do not sound like they are of this time, but rather like echoes of the past. This quality allows the music to function as a representation of the protean landscape and culture of Egypt. Nubian culture may no longer exist physically but the joy and sadness of what once existed is captured through these songs. There is a melancholy to the Oud, a rapturous elation found in the Q’anon, and a soulful mourning in the call-and-response of women who sing to only drums and clapping. Fadl’s album, virtually unknown by the Western music-listening public, is certainly one to check out. His newest album, which was released in 2004, is titled: The Drummers of the Nile in Town: Cairosonic. To learn more about Fadl go to his official webpage: www.mahmoudfadl.com ; and to purchase mp3s from the reviewed album go to: http://mahmoudfadl.calabashmusic.com .
Photographs courtesy of David Marcus and David Glotter