[Commentary ]A Concert in Cairo | Harper's Magazine

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A Concert in Cairo


I arrived in Cairo the same morning as Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the fifth day of the no-fly zone over Libya. “Welcome to the new Egypt,” my taxi driver told me as we drove from the airport. On the broken sidewalks of Tahrir Square Islamic scholars were marching against the Mubarak-appointed Grand Imam of Al-Azhar; in front of the Arab League young men in suits were demanding jobs. The protesters seemed unfazed by recent army crackdowns and the severe anti-protesting law approved by the post-revolution cabinet.

My first call in Cairo was to Zein Alabdin Fouad, an Egyptian poet I had met years before in Beirut. During the weeks of protest and unrest, Zein held nightly readings in Tahrir. He had just finished a two-hour lecture at Cairo University, his first since the revolution. “There is a concert tomorrow night at the Cairo Opera,” he said after welcoming me to the city. “Traditional, patriotic music. I think you will enjoy it.” We agreed to meet at six.

The Cairo Opera House sits in the center of a sprawling arts complex in Gezira, an island of affluent neighborhoods in the middle of the Nile. The towering main hall, completed under Mubarak in 1988, is ringed by a smattering of similar-looking museums and libraries. The architectural style of the whole complex could be called Military-Triumphant. I met Zein beside a disused tile fountain in front of the main hall, and he told me he was not simply attending the concert but introducing the performers, Eskenderella. Zein has known the troupe’s lead singer and composer, Hazem Shaheen, since he was a boy. Hazem was born in Alexandria, Lawrence Durrell’s “great winepress of love,” where young businessman Khaled Said was brutally beaten to death by police officers in 2010 after exposing police graft. Said’s death inspired a then-unknown Google executive, Wael Ghonim, to launch the now million-member Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said,” which was one of the principal virtual drivers of the January 25 uprising.

Zein led me into the hall, through a metal detector to an open-air arena. Six hundred chairs were arranged on the marble floor under a taut tarpaulin roof. I chose a seat near the front. Within minutes the remaining chairs were full and younger attendees arranged themselves by the hundreds on the steps leading down to the parterre. The evening began with a moment of silence for the many Egyptians—some activists say more than a thousand—killed during the revolution. Zein took the stage. The band, composed of five oud players, a darbuka drummer, and three female vocalists, was arranged behind him. “Art and revolution have the same face,” Zein began. “Art is the seeds of the revolution, revolution is the harvest. This troupe is the tree of Egyptian art.”

For several years, Eskenderella has played Egypt’s most beloved patriotic songs—especially those by Sayed Darwish, the father of modern Egyptian music and the balladeer of the 1919 revolution. During the January and February uprising, Eskenderella played concerts to the tireless crowds in Tahrir. As protesters stood fast, the patriotic ballads acquired new meaning. At the opera, they opened with Darwish’s “Oum ya Masri,” (Rise up, Egyptian). “Rise up Egyptian, Egypt your mother is calling,” Hazem intoned. An oud solo seamlessly joined the song to “Biladi, Biladi, Biladi,” the Egyptian national anthem, also composed by Darwish. Some stood; a women to my right sang softly with tears in her eyes. “My homeland, my homeland, my homeland; you have my love and my heart.”

My first trip to Cairo was in late 2007, for a well-orchestrated meeting between Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy in the manicured gardens of Heliopolis. Now from a seat at the Opera, only six weeks after Mubarak’s removal, I saw the autocratic veneer being scrubbed clean, as Eskenderella played on: pieces by Sheikh Imam, a blind musician famed for his odes to labor and student organizers under Nasser and Sadat; also one of Zein’s poems, written in 1972, “Who Can Suppress Egypt Even for an Hour?” The audience grew throughout the performance, lining the back and sides of the arena. They punctuated the songs with cheers of “Ya Masr” and standing ovations.

As the concert neared its scheduled end, Mamdouh Hamza, a well-known Egyptian engineer and the evening’s patron, began to worry about the time, and he waved for the band to finish. Hamza’s revolutionary credentials are impeccable—he bought blankets and sound equipment for Tahrir’s masses, Zein would later tell me, and paid for dozens of protesters with eye injuries to be sent to Germany for special treatment. His intervention in the concert, however, was not welcome. The band and audience objected but were rebuffed. Eskenderella left the hall in protest, as did Zein. A young man ran to the front of the arena and, invoking the principles of the revolution, encouraged the audience to leave. But nearly everyone stayed. The concert was to be followed by a lecture by Alaa al-Aswany, the popular political commentator and author of The Yacoubian Building.

The brief confrontation was chiefly administrative, but it underscored the lingering enthusiasm and tension behind’s Egypt’s unfinished revolution. As the movement segues from the streets to politics, fissures have emerged in a formerly unified but multifoliate coalition. The Muslim Brotherhood and other conservative forces showed a remarkable ability to mobilize ahead of the March 19 referendum on constitutional amendments. Young secularist activists have voiced alarm over the lingering power of former National Democratic Party officials and the new law criminalizing disruptive protests. The opaque Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, now ruling the country, has drawn criticism for its treatment of protesters before and after Mubarak’s February 11 departure. Civilians have been tried in military tribunals, young people detained and beaten under the Egyptian Museum, and female detainees forced to undergo humiliating physical interrogations. How these concerns are addressed remains to be seen.

Aswany spoke for less than an hour. He saluted the revolution’s victories and dissected some of the challenges and sectarian fears facing the nation’s reborn citizenry. When the floor was opened for questions, dozens handed forward notes and stood in line to comment. My generous neighbor did his best to translate for me and explain political points I did not understand. After the first round of comments, with the question line still long, I decided to give him a break and left.

I walked back downtown across Tahrir Bridge, the Qasr al-Nil. Young newlyweds were taking photos with their yodeling wedding party. Fireworks shot out over the Nile, illuminating the ashen remains of the National Democratic Party headquarters. In a new nightly ritual, hundreds of men and women had congregated in large circles at the corner of Talaat Harb Street and Tahrir Square, forming a large, open-air political salon. They argued about the protest law, government corruption, and American intervention in Libya. Street vendors were selling T-shirts and fake license plates memorializing the January 25 uprising. The streets would stay busy until midnight, when the city’s curfew set in.

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