Wine, Women and Song


by Geoffrey Clarfield (November 2011)

As they approached the city, which filled the strangers with astonishment, “This” said Imlac to the prince, “is the place where travellers and merchants assemble from all the corners of the earth. You will find here men of every character, and every occupation. Commerce here is honorable; I will act as a merchant , and you shall live as strangers who have no other end of travel than curiosity. It will soon be observed that we are rich: our reputation will procure us access to all whom we shall desire to know; you will see all the conditions of humantiy, and enable yourself at leasure to make your choice of life.” They now entered the town, stunned by the noise and offended by the crowds…

They Enter Cairo and Find Every Man Happy
— Rasselas, Samuel Johnson 1759

An unimaginable number of people walk the streets of Cairo. It is as if a river of humanity is in a continuous state of flow. There is never a moment’s stillness. As in an oriental carpet there are all the symptoms of the “horror of a vacuum” on display so, in Cairo, an individual, a group or an institution takes up every physical and sound space. Groups of young men, sometimes six or seven abreast walk the streets with their eyes collectively directed outside of themselves, looking for something, I imagine something forbidden, perhaps wine or women, but not song.

On the street women are conspicuous by their absence. They almost never walk alone. They are usually seen in groups and mostly accompanied by their menfolk, brothers, fathers or husbands, suggesting that behind the façade of what was once the most modern country in the Arab world earlier cultural currents are reasserting themselves and these run deeper than the Macdonalds and Pizza Hut that stand across the road from the museum of Pharaonic antiquities. These are the currents of a modernizing, or if you like, fundamentalist Islam, ever watchful for the corrupting signs of the West. On the streets of Cairo women never make eye contact with a stranger.

Five times a day the muezzin call the faithful to the mosque from loudspeakers set at full volume. At any one time you can hear the message of Islam broadcast from hundreds of minarets at volumes only heard at rock concerts in the West, attesting to the fact that in this country religion is on everyone’s mind, all the time. As it says in the call to prayer, “Prayer is better than sleep.”

Yet music bursts from every café, shop, kiosk and open stand. Not live music, but recorded local pop music and unlike the other third world countries where American pop music is smothering indigenous traditions, here in Cairo all the music is Egyptian.

You can walk by three cafes, each one beside the other, each one broadcasting Egyptian music. It does not appear to disturb anyone that you can hear all of them simultaneously and that it is difficult to concentrate on any one of them. Perhaps it is a matter of habituation. Perhaps people brought up in hyper urban situations like Cairo, whose population is now 20 million can tune out the “noise” that they do not like and only contemplate that which they enjoy.

But you do not hear the rich diversity of traditional Egyptian music from the villages of the Delta or the cataracts of Nubia. That lies mostly unlistened to in the specialist archives of Europe. Most Egyptians listen to only three or four kinds of music, a popularized version of Ottoman court music, speeded up versions of village music called “balady” with typical Egyptian melodies and occasionally the more pentatonic African sounds of pop music from Aswan and the south.

The improbable suites of what Egyptians consider to be the “old” masters (early 20th century) such Abdel Wahab or Riad Sumbatis as sung by the late Om Kalsoum fill the air. They are played by a massive orchestra using quarter tones where each line of music is reproduced by up to fifteen violins or cellos, all playing the same tune in unison. They last for hours. Every once in a while the orchestra breaks into a free rhythmic episode and the singer improvises modally in the old Ottoman style. All the musicians in these orchestras wear tuxedos, black suits and ties and all the instrumentalists are men. Women almost never play a musical instrument and the visual impression given is that of a traditional symphony orchestra, until you hear the music. It is tantalizing and intoxicating.

Listening to Om Kalsoum one does not need to smoke hashish. The atmosphere she creates is total, dream like and suggestive of the sexual tension in Arabic music and its lyrics which is marked and palpable. It is not the in your face sexuality of rhythm and blues and hard rock, but the tortured love of the forbidden and the attractions of lust which seem to permeate Arab society and from which so many of their customs and avoidances seem to spring.

About twenty years ago the Japanese built a new “Opera House” in Cairo but apart from infrequent performances of Aida (written by Verdi to honor the opening of the Suez canal over a century ago) there is no local interest in opera and the name is deceptive. Despite almost two hundred years of intense contact with Europe, Egypt remains, even more so today, an Arabic, Islamic country which is socially and culturally at odds with the West with its feminism, liberalism and to Egyptians its incredible laxity when it comes to religious belief and practice.

“When you leave the hotel, turn right, walk straight for a half an hour and then you will come to Mohamed Ali Street. On that street they still make Arabic musical instruments. You will find everything there, oud, kanoun, durbaki, everything. But do not accept their first price. You must bargain for everything. Mohamed Ali Street, you can’t miss it. “

So advised the plump matron of my hotel, a blue eyed, middle-aged woman named Suzie who was amused that the first thing a tourist like me asked for was the way to the music shops. The pyramids and the museum are usually the first port of call for foreign visitors.

So, I left the baroque mirrors and chandeliers of the Cosmopolitan Hotel (once one of the many palaces of King Farouk, the decadent yet easy going ruler of Egypt before the socialist austerity of Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Arab nationalist military dictatorship).  I had returned to the street. I was in downtown Cairo, not the Islamic Cairo described by the Nobel prize wining novelist Naguib Mahfouz, but that of the period between the 1880s and Nasser's coup of 1956, a city of graceful European buildings, each room with its balcony and each corner of each building carved in elegant imitation of neo classical Roman and Greek patterns that characterized European architecture from before 1900 until the end of W.W.II.

These buildings were open, not closed. One could imagine impeccably dressed Europeans and Europeanized Egyptians sipping tea and looking across at others doing the same while they contemplated a night at the Casino, gambling and carrying on with Greeks, Jews, Armenians and the then substantial English and European community that practically ran Egypt during the period form 1880 to 1956. This architectural heritage is the only remnant of a society so well described in the novels of Lawrence Durell, a society that disappeared overnight with Nasser's expulsion of over a million foreign nationals shortly after he came to power.

The nasal strains of music hall, “Winchester Cathedral” “Tutankhamun boogie” and the Pre war French chansonniers are no longer part of the culture of Cairo. These are as long gone as the great mammoths of the American continent, or the luxury passenger liners that used to regularly ply the waters from India through Suez to Europe. The architecture remains the same but the social relations that gave birth to it are gone. The proof of this is easy to see.

As I stood on my hotel balcony looking across the road at other similar buildings, every other balcony was shut and curtains blocked the view into every and any of the other buildings. After nearly two centuries of intimate interaction with the West, Egypt is turning back to its own perceived cultural origins in the deserts of Arabia. The hotels on the coasts and the antiquities may draw the tourists but the culture of the tourists as it was in Durell’s or the present time is no longer on the Egyptian social and cultural agenda.

I turned right and arrived at Mohamed Ali street.  It was a street like all others in Cairo. Turbaned peasants in long blue gallabiyas carried various packages from here to there. Fruit vendors sat beside racks of red apples, yellow guavas and green cabbage. Young men in Italian style pants and colored shirts loaded and off loaded lorries and pickups. Round brown bread, baked as they do in the villages, was piled high in small shops. Middle aged men sat in cafes, puffing on their hubbble bubble water pipes (narghilas) and noisily slapping down the round tokens of their backgammon boards. Hordes of small taxis plied the streets and there was a regular cacophony of car horns, despite the fact that because of overcrowding, cars could not move faster than twenty to thirty kilometers an hour.

What made Mohammed Ali Street different to my eyes was a row of shops filled with traditional Arabic musical instruments. I made a quick walk down this strip and counted over one hundred ouds (arabic lutes) and durbakis (hand drums) for sale. I could also see that the workshops that made these instruments were behind or beside the “show” rooms, which were sometimes no bigger than a hole in the wall where only one or two people could sit.

I entered the first shop and greeted an elderly man in Arabic. His name was Claude and he spoke English fairly well. He sat facing me with a small television behind him, broadcasting an old concert of Om Kalsoum, the greatest popular singer to ever grace the stages and radio stations of Egypt. However he had the volume turned off. Seated beside him was a nervous, thin man in his thirties sipping a glass of tea.

“I am interested in buying an oud” I said.

“My name is Mohamed. I am a professional oud player. I am teacher. I give you lessons if you like”, piped in the young man without invitation.

Claude ignored his statement and took a poorly made instrument off the wall. It was asymmetrical and the finish was rough.

I sat down and tuned the lute and then asked for a long pick.

“So you know how the oud is played,” he said with surprise.

“A little,” I answered in broken Arabic.

I picked up the lute and played part of a well-known suite sung by Om Kalsoum. I finished with a free rhythm improvisation called “taksim” in Arabic. From the look on their faces it would appear that I played the piece well enough. Before he or I could speak the tea man came in from the street.

Claude said to him, “Please bring this man a cup of tea. He is our guest!” Turning to me he said, “Will that be one or two teaspoons of sugar?”

The young man now looked at me with a different expression on his face and said

“By God, you are a professional!”

“Not like you” was my immediate reply.

It is an odd experience when it happens, but gratifying each and every time. A total stranger can walk in off the street but if he plays the local music he immediately becomes an honored guest. I had experienced this many times during my travels in the Mediterranean and in the Arab World. Now that the ice was broken Claude, myself and our young friend entered into a leisurely conversation about the state of musicians and music in contemporary Egypt.

Claude was seventy years old. He was born in Cairo at the time of the great depression from parents who had emigrated from Aleppo in Syria. From his name I assumed that he was a Christian. His friend Mohamed was a fine oud player and was happy to demonstrate his dexterity for me. But when I asked for one of my favorite Farid al Attrash songs he excused himself and said that he would do so after he came back from prayer at the mosque.

Claude had learnt the luthier’s art when he was a young man and had been living from his craft for the last fifty years.

“Oh my friend” he said, “Things were much better before television came. Then people really listened to music. They had the time for it. I remember in the forties Farid al Attrash and Om Kalsoum would perform in front of an audience without the use of the microphone. Now everything is electric. You have electric, guitar, electric drums, electric piano-the real piano is now completely dead-you have electric voices, electric, electric, electric. There is no music left! And the oud. The oud is the king of instruments and less and less people play it. Now the organ plays everything.”

Mohamed had come back from prayer and was listening carefully to Claude’s lament nodding his head in the affirmative.

“Mohamed, do you live from your music?” I asked.

He paused and said,“Yes. I play at the big hotels, the Sheraton, the Hilton, but I make my money from teaching. There are still many young men who want to play the oud. “

Within an hour of my arrival Claude was giving me his better instruments to try. I admired the sound of the better ouds and he pointed to a newspaper article on the wall describing an oud that he had once made for the great singer and player Syrian Druze but Egypt based pop star Farid al Attrash, and that had cost thousands of dollars.

“I will make one for you if you like” he said jokingly.

I said, “A good oud is important, there is no doubt about that. But playing the string with a plastic pick as is now the custom is easier. Yet it takes away from the delicacy of the sound. I once used to use an eagle’s feather like an Armenian player that I once knew, but it demands daily practice.”

“I have eagle feather for sale, “ he said

He then pulled out of a drawer some uncut eagle feathers and was willing to sell them to me for little money. I politely declined and he ordered me another cup of tea. Mohammed then got up to go and before leaving he said,

“My oud is good. I sell it to you for one thousand Egyptian pounds”

“Tomorrow, God willing,” I replied and after shaking hands Mohamed left the shop carrying his oud in a soft leather case.

Claude sipped his tea and than looked around to make sure that the tea man was out of earshot.

“Oh my friend, things are very difficult here in Egypt.”

“What do you mean?” I said

“Women” was his answer. “It is very hard to find a woman.”

“Do you have any magazines? You know the kind I mean, from Europe.”

I said that he didn’t carry them but you could get Playboy or Esquire from any shop overseas. Claude then told me that it was nearly impossible to get them in Egypt.

“Things are very tight here. I am seventy and I am unmarried,” he went on. “Here to get a woman you need to take them places, buy them things, spend time with their families. Tell me, are things better in Morocco?”

I said that I believed that Casablanca was a more liberal city than Cairo but that I had not been there for many years so I really didn’t know.

Claude was frustrated. No doubt when he was a young man before the Nasserite revolution, and the contemporary Islamic reaction, making lutes for musicians and spending time with dancers, he had lived a fast and furious life. He did not mention to me that the Islamic movement in Egypt regularly tries to convince female singers to step out of the public eye, stop performing in public and return to family life. They have had some remarkable successes. Clearly music, musicians, singers and their support groups are seen as potential corrupters of the strict sexual morality of resurgent Islam.

Poor Claude. He had gambled and lost. Now there was no world where he could be lionized and boast that he was the lute maker for the great Farid al Attrach. The social climate had changed. He had not invested in marriage and unlike the old blues and jazz singers of America there was no “scene” where he could get any action. And so he felt comfortable in sharing his greatest frustration with a visiting member of the musical fraternity – me.

As I got up to leave he shook my hand and said, “I am open until eight in the evening. A man like you should not travel without an oud, even a cheap one which I will gladly sell you.”

“Thank you for your kindness,” I said to him and set out for the next shop.

I spent the next two hours sampling a broad range of instruments on Mohamed Ali Street. Each time I was asked how it was that I had come to play the oud like an Arab, I answered that I learnt it in Morocco twenty years ago. The truth was that I had gone to Morocco because I played the oud and not vice versa. Anyway I was looking for an oud not a chance to tell my life story.

I finally did find the oud of my choice. It was not cheap by local standards, but well made and had a pleasing sound. As I was sitting in the shop testing it a young man in his twenties came into the shop and introduced himself. His name was Nabil. He was a fine oud player. We spent much time trying and comparing the various ouds in the shop.

In the course of our conversation he told me that he had just graduated from the commerce department at Suez University. He was still unemployed and looking for work but loved music. My familiarity with Arabic music seemed to put him at ease and soon he started telling me how hard it was to get a job. When I asked him if he had ever performed in public or for money he said that he played mostly with friends. One of his friends had invited him to join a band that played for money but he had so far refused to join.

Nabil told me that performing in public could lead to womanizing and drinking. I said I could understand that it would be hard for a Muslim to avoid drinking among musicians but that as far as womanizing goes it was his conscience that would guide him and it was up to him to whether he gave in or resisted temptation.

However when Nabil told me that he was a Copt (indigenous Egyptian Christian), I then said that he had only one worry since he could drink without compromising  his beliefs.

“No,” he said. He stopped playing the oud and his face became very serious.

“In the Bible,” he said, “It says that you should not drink alcohol.”

Somewhat surprised I asked,

“What about the story in the Bible when Jesus turned the wine into water. I assume that everyone drank it afterwards, no?”

“No!!” was Nabil’s emphatic reaction. “The Bible does not say that. Do you read the Bible?” he blurted out.

Carefully I replied, “I have read the Bible …but in truth probably do not know its contents as well as you do”

“You mean people do not read the Bible in the West?” he countered.

“Well” I replied, choosing my words evermore cautiously, “Many read the Bible but these days, probably the majority do not.”

“How can they live?” Nabil asked incredulously.

“It is just not as important there as it is here. We do have religious people back home just like you have here. It is just that the government does not get involved in religion as it does in the Arab world. In America and Canada you choose your religion. You are not compelled.”

“Why is that?” he said.

“That,” I answered, “Is a long, long story.”

He sat quietly still not playing the oud. Then he asked me,

“Should I play music for money with my friend? Will it not lead to women and drinking?”  

I suppose the fact that I was twice Nabil’s age put me in the category of uncle and he had no hesitation to ask me to give him advice on, for him, what was such an important issue.

I answered “Truly there is a lot of drinking and womanizing among musicians. There always has been. But it is your decision whether you join them. As far as I can see it, there is a lot of unemployment in Egypt and it is very, very hard for a young graduate like you with a B Com to get a job. If music will pay the bills, go for it!”

I looked at my watch and realized that I had to return to my hotel and get ready for my flight. I thanked the owner of the shop for showing me his instruments. I shook hands with Nabil and wished him the best and then stepped out on to Mohammed Ali street, no longer a member of the musical fraternity, just one more foreign tourist walking back to his hotel.

I could not help but compare the fate of Claude and Nabil. Claude grew up loving music during a period in Egypt’s history where wine, women and song were the order of the day and was now mourning his youth. Nabil, as much as he truly loved music, would not perform because it may lead to wine and women. He was growing up in a social climate where music was suspect and the regime wary of getting involved in encouraging the arts for fear of antagonizing the Islamic authorities. It was as if Claude had grown up during the reign of Charles the I whereas Nabil was considering a career as an actor during the stewardship of Oliver Cromwell who had closed all the theatres of London. As I walked to my hotel I remembered an old joke.

Question: “Why are Puritans against sex?”

Answer: “Because it leads to dancing.”

Bernard Lewis, an historian of Islamic civilization has pointed out that despite the initial “foreignness” of Islamic society to outsiders, it is really part and parcel of Western civilization taken in its broadest sense. He goes on to explain that Islamic civilization is based on two pillars, a Biblically inspired faith as preached by Muhammad and elaborated by his followers complemented by the science and philosophy of Greco Roman civilization. This Hellenistic influence on Islam has usually coincided with an open society, open to the arts, music, mysticism and scientific inquiry. It is correlated with those periods where music was most developed in the Islamic world.

Fernand Braudel one of France’s greatest historians has made the argument that there indeed was an Islamic humanism during the Middle Ages, one that fueled the intellectual birth of modern Europe. Part of that humanism was the development of a sophisticated version of modal classical music called “maqamat.” Another scholar, George Henry Farmer has argued in numerous scholarly articles that without the influence of medieval Arab music theory and practice based on maqamat, European classical music would not have developed the way it did.

However recent trends in the Islamic world suggest that Lewis, great scholar that he is, may be wrong. Islamic civilization may have already turned its back on its Hellenistic traditions. The Arab spring will turn into a radical Islamic winter and after having purged itself of its Jewish minorities in the fifties it is now dead set on expelling its Christian minorities. Nabil will be lucky to find a job and lucky to grow old in Egypt. It is unlikely that that will come to pass as the Copts of Egypt are the first victims of the Egyptian “Spring.”

Contemporary Islamic regimes appear to be distancing themselves from the Hellenistic stream of Islam. Instead, they emphasize the Quranic side of this civilization. In the history of Islam whenever this has happened the arts and music suffer, for musicians and artists inevitably express their individual desires and passions in ways which are persuasive and often provide models of behavior for those that are opposed by the regime in power. It would appear then that in contemporary Egypt wine, women and song are perceived as serious threats to a coming theologically based social order.

Ethnomusicologists that specialize in the Middle East have spent years collecting tribal, folk and urban musical traditions of the countries of the Islamic world. It was they who in the last fifty years acknowledged the existence of a modally based “Pan Islamic” classical music tradition that stretches from Morocco to the borders of China. This tradition was the heir of the urban music of Hellenistic elites and was the delight of the Sultans and their courts from Fez to Kashghar. In the course of a thousand years of Islamic history regional traditions developed, each with their own characteristics but within a system of theory and practice that is of equal sophistication to the classical music of India, recently made popular in the West by Ravi Shankar and his colleagues. But at the same time those ethnomusicologists miss something fantastically important. It is the Western scholars that call this music Islamic. In truth it is the secular music of the peoples who live in Islamic states, which is an entirely different matter worthy of its own scholarly treatise.

Independent India, inspired by poets such as Rabinadrath Tagore, has reclaimed its indigenous musical heritage. Its folk traditions are well archived and its traditional classical music is flourishing. So the comparative lack of official interest in and support of modern and traditional music in the Arab world is not a function of economic underdevelopment, for the riches of the Saudis and the Kuwaitis could easily bankroll an Arab musical renaissance.

That Renaissance will have to wait until a time in the Arab world where poets, songwriters and composers are left to practice their craft freely, to build on the past while creating the future. At that time musicians in the Arab world will comb the archives of the West for their inspiration, as Western scholars once combed the libraries of medieval Islam in order to rejuvenate their own culture. And they will eventually find a good record of their music and culture in the archives of Israel and other democratic countries as by that time they will have been sufficiently neglected and persecuted their own artistic tradition so much that it will have all but disappeared from the public memory. In the meantime, Nabil will agonize over whether he will lose his soul if he is paid to play the oud and Claude will remember with painful nostalgia the wine, women and song of his youth. And without perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, they both may or may not know that their days in Egypt are numbered.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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