Saturday, July 16, 2011

First night in Egypt... with Mohamed Mounir

Text and photos by Banning Eyre

The taxi driver coming from the Cairo airport was keen to point out the burned shell of a large government building near Tahrir Square.  We were on our way to a hotel on the island of Zamalek, not far from Tahrir, where a huge crowd was gathering for "Final Warning Friday."  Sounds dire, but from what I could tell, the mood there was upbeat and friendly.  The protesters handle their own security.  The police stay away.  But while the young visionaries gathering in the square revel in the thrill of unfolding history, and a new wave of hope, it is clear that not everyone supports their approach.  Just hours after my arrival, I took another taxi to Talaat Harb, a square just adjacent to Tahrir.  This driver made a spitting gesture to show what he thought of the protesters.  He spoke almost no English, but told a story of a child in his family struck by a car in the jumbled traffic.  He held out an envelope with two syringes of blood in them marked AB.  "AB blood!" he exclaimed, somehow suggesting that the disturbances had prevented this child from getting the blood transfusion she needed.  Again the spitting. 

The point of going to Talaat Harb was to meet Lobna Ghareeg, an Egyptian who grew up in Brooklyn and now works with one of the greatest singers and bandleaders of the last 50 years in Egypt, Mohamed Mounir.  Normally, summer sees all sorts of high-profile concerts on the North Coast, the heavily developed resort communities that dominate the Mediterranean shoreline on either side of Alexandria.  But this year, monied promoters have been cautious, keeping their cash in reserve, or out of the country altogether, so the usual spate of splashy concerts has ebbed to almost nothing.  So it was extraordinary luck to find Mounir putting one on himself on our first day in Egypt.  Worth staying up all night for, despite jet-lag.

During the wait for Lobna, two waves of chanting, flag-waving protesters streamed out of Tahrir and briefly filled Talaat Harb before racing on, their voices echoing between the walls of a narrow, urban street.  Nobody paid the protesters much heed.  To the residents of this square, this ruckus felt absolutely routine.

Protestors streaming through Talaat Harb Square
It took over four hours to drive to the Marsilia Beach resort where Mounir's concert would take place.  A flat tire, and some misdirection slowed things further.  And even with Lobna's stellar connections, getting through security proved an ordeal, though nothing compared with what regular customers had to endure.  Mounir had to organize his own security for the event, and given Mounir's massive popularity and the relatively few concerts he has been able to perform in Egypt this year, some 20,000 eager fans mobbed a zone already jammed with summer vacationers.  For them, getting into the outdoor concert space was nothing short of traumatic.

Entrance gate for Mounir concert

We arrived stage-side just before midnight, and the show didn't start until after 1AM.  Mounir had mixed feelings about performing during the ongoing revolution, which he wholeheartedly supports.  Mounir has maintained a complex relationship with Egypt's government over the years.  From the start of his career in the mid-70s, he raised eyebrows by performing in casual attire, singing about secular subjects, including social and political ones that led to the banning of some of his songs.  He also won a large and loyal following for his brilliant voice, excellent songs, penetrating lyrics and overall showmanship--he's had a successful acting career as well during those years.

Twenty albums later, Mounir triggered government censorship last year for a song called "Ezay," a barbed love song essentially saying, "You treat me so terribly.  Why?  And yet, even though you do that, I still love you."  (More on "Ezay" coming when we interview Mounir next week.)  Apparently, Mubarak's people took the song personally.  But when the revolution came, Mounir ignored the ban and created a video for "Ezay" using images from Tahrir.  Mona Chesley, a brave television host at DreamTV, risked her career when she aired this video, even before it hit YouTube. But it became a banner statement not only for Egypt's revolution but others in the Arab world.

Mounir has been highly critical of the privatization of the Mediterranean coast, the difficulty of producing large concerts for the public, and the high ticket prices at such concerts.  In the end, though, he decided to break the no-concert trend, and put this one on himself.  And it was spectacular.  From the crack band, to the fabulous singing, to the on-stage pyrotechnics, these 20,000 fans got what they came for.

Mounir in concert (Eyre 2011)
From the start, Mounir talked about the Egyptian situation head on.  A rough translation of his remarks to an adoring crowd:  "Think about the big picture.  Don't think about the small picture.  We are not Christian or Salafist or any other religion.  We are Egyptians."  This remark strongly allied him with the Tahrir Square folks, who often hold up signs saying:  Don't ask me my religion.  Mounir went on, "Yes, we are Egyptians, and if  you don't like the way we live, the Red Sea is over there.  You can leave any time.  So think about who the people are who do not want us to develop."  





I found the crowd largely friendly, even the giants who guarded the stage with their melon-sized biceps and steely glares. Though I had no official press credentials, their only concern seemed to be that photographers not getting incinerated by the frequent blasts of flame and sparks shooting from various onstage devices.  The only odd note was a fan who asked me where I was from and when he got the answer, said mysteriously, "I am the son of Osama Bin Laden," and sat back down.

When the show ended about 2:30 AM, we made our way--rather indirectly--to Mounir's house, a sweet villa tucked deep within one of these condo communities, with man-made channels of the Mediterranean snaking through green backyards.  Mounir was thrilled that the concert had been a success, and he wanted us to know how hard he had worked to make it happen.  "I am a hero," he said with deserved immodestly.  Mounir held forth on various subjects until dawn, at which point we stepped out for a deeply satisfying barbecue breakfast at sunrise.  Our return to Cairo was delayed by fog, so heavy that the driver pulled over for 30 minutes until it burned off.  Then into another scorching Cairo day.

Mohamed Mounir, Lobna Ghareeb, Banning Eyre
Much more to come, starting tomorrow with a wedding party featuring the lion of sha'abi music, Hakim!


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