Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Egyptian Sufi Celebration: Carnival Mysticism

Mahmoud Al Tuhami singing at Abou Teeg (Eyre)
There is no American equivalent to a mulid, a Sufi saint celebration commonly celebrated in Egypt.  Imagine a cross between a town fair and a revival meeting with a ripping hot, down-home gospel act belting away all through the night.  A brilliant paradox!  A mulid is part carnival, with colored lights and banners, party hats, food and souvenir vendors, and an air of family fun.  At the same time, the action centers around extremely elevated music featuring a highly skilled religious singer--a munchid, who improvises stirring vocal interpretations of deep Sufi poetry.  This is popular Islam, expansive, joyful, communal and celebratory.  The munchid and his musical ensemble perform on a high stage at the center of the action, gracing the chaotic activity all around with an air of spiritual transcendence.  On the "big night" (layla kabeer), the high point of a celebration that can last a week, a series of munchids hold forth lasting nearly until sunrise.  And no one leaves until the last note sounds.

Mulid at Abou Teeg (Eyre 2011)
The mulid we attended on July 21 was among the most extraordinary musical experiences Sean and I have ever known, and will make for a singularly memorable segment in Afropop's upcoming Egypt program series.  We have first to thank our Alberta-based Egypt scholar Michael Frishopf for connecting with us with his friend in Cairo, Taha Gad, who in turn led us into the inner circle of the Al Tuhami family of El Hawatka in Upper Egypt.  (This is the way things work in Egypt.  Chains of connection get you to your destination.)  Yasin Al Tuhami is perhaps the most respected munchid in Egypt, and we had the privilege to meet and briefly interview this charming elder shortly before making our way to the mulid, where his son, Mahmoud Al Tuhami was featured munchid for the "big night."  Everyone treated us with overwhelming warmth and hospitality, feeding us lavishly, explaining what we were about to experience with patience and humor, and facilitating our documentation in a way that would be any field recordist's dream.

 I should explain that El Hawatka and Abou Teeg, the town where the mulid took place, both lie near the city of Aysiout, a good six-hours drive south of Cairo.  We drove down in a hired van under a baking summer sun, arriving at Mahmoud Al Tuhami's place at sunset.  We headed back at sunrise, so this was another endurance run, but one well worth the effort.  After a sumptuous meal of Egyptian food--okra, stewed beef, rice, pita, and the savory "green soup" favored by locals, molokhayya--we went in search of the venerable Yasin.  When we arrived outside his place, the power went off, so we began interviewing Mahmoud by flashlight, sipping tea out on the warm, dusty street.  When Yasin arrived, Mahmoud demurred, saying, "I am nothing in the presence of my father."  Yasin was also modest, and a little playful and mystic in his replies, which came peppered with quotes from the Koran.  The conversation was stimulating, and though it was brief, Mahmoud told us afterwards that it was one of the longer interviews he had seen his father give.  He attributed that to the intelligence of our questions, though I suspect undeserved flattery.  Yasin and Mahmoud posed for photographs with a group of other Sufi sages.  Then it was time to head to the mulid. 

Yasin in black, Mahmoud third from right with hand on boy's shoulder
This pre-Ramadan mulid at Abou Teeg celebrated the saint Al-Sultan Al-Farghal, who wrote and lived some 300 years ago.  He was not a war hero, or a political leader, simply a religious scholar, learned, wise and popular.  The notion of celebrating such men is a key feature of Sufism, which Michael Frishkopf tells us was the dominant form of Islam in Egypt from the 15th to the 19th centuries.  Sufism begins with core Islamic belief, but extends to poetic, musical and movement practices designed to bring people into a direct commune with God.  The colonial era resulted in a certain stigmatization of Sufism, which was associated with passivity.  Later, the coming of conservative Wahabi (Salafi) Islam from Saudi Arabia resulted in further marginalization.  Sufi shrines were not destroyed en masse in Egypt, as they were in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, but practices such as mulids did move to the periphery of mainstream society.   Today, mulids remain common occurrences, including a few large ones in Cairo.  But surprisingly, many Caireans we have met have never attended one.  Some consider them havens for pickpockets and thieves, and as such, potentially dangerous. 

On that point, I have to say that we never felt in the least danger at Abou Teeg.  In fact, we were received with near universal friendliness.  "Welcome in Egypt" and "I love you," were the most frequent greetings.  This goes to a larger point about the widespread misperception that post-revolution Egypt is dangerous and a no-go zone for tourists.  It is not.  The place is open and welcoming, and in all the many places we have seen, safe.  In fact, with the crowds down, there could hardly be a better time to visit!  More on that in a future post.

Abou Teeg mosque viewed from musicians' platform
But returning to the mulid, after a second meal in Abou Teeg, shared with Mahmoud Al Tuhami's musicians, we made our way into the swarming human kaleidoscope of the mulid crowd, and up to the musicians' platform, which would provide us with a spectacular view of the action.  Most of the attendees were male, of all ages, but there were women present, either with families, but a few on their own, trancing out along with the the other celebrants.

Helping hands at the musicians' platform
As delightful as the hospitality, the food, the conversation and the colorful ambiance of the mulid had been, all that paled next to the actual music we came to hear.  A munchid performs in a unique way.  He uses texts by famous Sufi poets.  He decidedly does NOT use the Koran like the famed Koranic reciters whose work is ubiquitous in Egypt.  Musical accompaniment and body movement would be entirely inappropriate in connection with the word of God.  But even in the realm of religious poetry, there are sensitivities.  Munchids shy from calling what they do "singing," though to an outside ear it is that, in spades.  The accompanying musicians play quasi-arranged music, some of it taken from great works by icons like Umm Kulthum and Abdel Halim Hafez, but the munchid improvises his melodies.  He picks poems as he goes, essentially creating the performance on the spot.  He uses the Arabic scale system--maqam, or plural maqamat--so considerable musical knowledge is involved.  But this is as much spontaneous religious observance as art, and this soon became apparent when Mahmoud approached the bevy of microphones at center stage and began to hold forth.

Mahmoud Al Tuhami
It is impossible to overstate how moving this performance was.  Mahmoud's voice is spectacularly clear and strong, and even to non-Muslims like Sean and me, it created a sense of peacefulness and trance instantly.  He performed without stopping for over three hours, the musicians moving seemlessly through different moods, tempos and rhythyms.  Someone explained later that at a mulid, munchids do not stop because they don't want the crowd to break trance and rush the stage.  Whether or not that's the reason, this crowd was certainly in trance.  A group of men in front of the stage were particularly demonstrative, swaying, rocking and twirling, holding heads back or arms aloft in gestures of ecstasy.  Others stood by still and silent, some taking video or photographs with their phones.  They never clapped or cheered, but their delight in the music was unmistakable throughout.

Mulid celebrants at Abou Teeg

The sound system
A word on the sound itself.  A series of power amplifiers broadcast the music through speakers situated all around the public square.  There was strong delay effed on the voice, giving it an otherworldly vibe and a certain rock 'n roll intensity.  The four percussionists created trenchant grooves, and the two melody instruments (violin and kawala flute) played through octave pedals, adding a lower octave to much of what they played and making the overall sound that much more huge.  The clear, soaring quality of Mamoud Al-Tuhami's voice, paired with the undulating grooves and massive, enveloping sound was enough for me.  But our intern, Mariam Bazeed, found more.  A student of maqam singing, and now a resident of New York, Mariam had never attended a mulid during the years she lived in Egypt.  At Abou Teeg, she was astounded by the unexpected artistry of Mahmoud's performance, both in his nuanced manipulation of musical modes, and also the richness of the poetry itself.  Suffice it to say that all of us were just knocked out by this music, and the three hours we spent on that platform will remain a dreamlike memory forever.  We met the musicians afterwards for tea, and more warm tidings.  Once again, they could not have been more gracious and humble.  We returned to our van at sunrise, exhausted and sweaty, but somehow cleansed.  It is hard to imagine that anything we find during the rest of this trip will top this.  But we shall see...










blog comments powered by Disqus