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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Ramadan Opera House Mounir Concert

Stepping through the metal detector I instinctively patted my own pockets: keys, wallet, mobile, etc. "Damn, I don't have a pen, do you have a pen?" I asked R, an old dear friend. She asked why and I said in case I felt like writing something during the concert. It didn't sound right so I added that I might want to do that thing where I pretend to review cultural events. She laughed appropriately, with indifference. I am close to losing faith in the value of such frivolous talk as cultural reportage, at least as I do it. I know. It's just that I really don't feel it any more. What, cultural production as a nexus of the social, political, economic etc. forces of the day? So what; if one is so inclined, why not address such issues directly (as opposed to 'by za way')? (And shame on this day 3ammatan.) As historical document? Maybe. I consider microhistory and remember that any and every peep has potential historiographic value. But then how much ay kalam will historians of the future really care to handle? Imagine the mental nausea of reading, for example, page after page of those SMS messages that stream across the bottom of Arab music satellite channels... as a scholar. Then again, novelty being central as it is to contemporary Western academia (surely a bad sign in a big way), there will always be some professor or graduate student ready to discourse on the finest dust from deep in the grooves of the sole of someone's Coochi Shoe. Personally, I've been underwhelmed, seeing profoundly low discursive value in an increasing number of... things. And I don't mean small simple things (c.f. Neruda's Odes), I mean just plain lame and/or stupid things, which is most of what you get if you watch TV or live with people in the city. I should say, I suspect this is just a phase .

So what does one say about a Mounir concert? Should one drift coolly between logistics and sociological talk and reflections on the singer's history, his musicians and lyricists and his place in pop culture? As I mentioned, I'm finding myself simply not caring, but even the most heartfelt report is seeming so formulaic, if still challenging to produce. I concede that, done well, such writing does reward (see Nur El Messiri's memorable review of a Mounir show in 2002), largely because it connects phenomena and contexts in a way that satisfies. Why I am not seeing a bigger picture through the lens of Thursday night's concert remains a mystery to me, but somehow a positive one at that. And if I'm so blase about the whole affair, why am I writing now? I'm writing because the event happened and because I find the indifference with which it left me amusing, and simply because I thought about writing enough to have to do it.

At the entrance gate a tall moustachioed man in a suit shook his walkie talkie before my windshield. I rolled down my window and, with disgust and vulgarity, the man asked where I was going. "Raye7 fein" (where are you going) are simple words, except when they're hurled forth like the base of a palm to the nose, less so when the lower jaw that produced them droops with irreverent lethargy. I said "7aflet Mohammed Mounir" and he said "khosh hena" (go here) and dismissively threw his hand towards the car park by the Hanager theater. I was only coming to meet friends I hadn't seen in a while; I wasn't really interested in seeing Mounir in concert (nor in person, for that matter, despite my deep fondness for some of his music) and this made the man's rudeness that much harder to suffer. Good practice for the spirit, I thought. Maybe I'd done something wrong, maybe I'd ignored him, giggling instead with my female friend unaware of his first attempt at communication. In any case he really upset me and it took a while to regain composure without resorting to violent fantasy; this is Ramadan after all.

We parked and got tickets and walked into the crowd of police officers and Opera House staff checking people's tickets before the metal detectors. The guy who frisked me wore a similar suit to the rude man at the gate but was extremely pleasant, managing to joke continuously without getting on our nerves. His assistant, a young plain-clothed nervous looking guy with straightened hair looked through the pockets of a guy behind me. He opened a box of cigarettes and shook it upside down onto his palm. I was dying to ask what he'd do if he found something, whether he'd report it to the policemen nearby.

The crowd was mostly guys of course, most of them aged 15 to 30, some foreigners, some young women, moslty veiled, lots of couples. Lots of caps, some afro's. Everyone expected the show to start a couple of hours late and it did. Each time a musician appeared on stage to check his instrument with a little riff the crowd went wild. There were at least 2,000 people, but I'm bad at estimating crowd numbers.

People were singing Mounir's songs, as if that was the most appropriate thing to do while waiting at his concert. It sort of made sense but was still incredibly cheesy. They sang in twos and threes with upturned eyebrows and shakey heads. Mounir does that, his music is delicate, easily reducible to cheese. Some would say it's essentially cheesy, but none who've ever really been moved would say such a thing, at least not out loud.

Bango and hashish smoke wafted through the crowd, borne by the cool evening breeze. It was actually somewhat pleasant, the fragrant smoke indicating scattered clumps of heightened emotion. I saw two instances of joints being offered to strangers. Halfway through his first song (3alli Sotak), Mounir gestured disapproval to some audience members near the stage. Moments later the music stopped and he stood frozen in a dramatic pose, with one hand on his hip and the other holding the microphone over his bowed head. This lasted for about thirty seconds and the singer walked slowly across the stage, shook his head a bit then the music resumed. After the song he greeted the audience and wished them a Ramadan Kareem. He then said "Uh... el nas el henak..." pointing to the same group of people before pausing again in a lost-for-words sort of way "...mish betoo3i." (The people over there... they're not my people). The crowed roared, clapping and cheering, and strangers bonded, wondering aloud what the man was on about. He continued, saying "el 7afalat beta3ti... mafihash... keda," (my concerts... they don't have... this stuff). The people around where I was standing arrived at a consensus that he meant joint-smoking. This elicited an implicit 'whatever, man' from those present. His music goes too well with canabbis for him to reasonably expect the youth of Egypt to abstain at his concert. I imagine he said what he did (if that was indeed what he meant) just to clear himself with the authorities and/or the organizers. Either way, people kept on with the smoking and the singer mentioned the matter no more.

It was very refreshing seeing the way in which young guys danced and sang along to the music. Their ecstasy seemed directed inwards and really genuine, like they were singing alone in their rooms or in the shower. It struck me as being very different to the way people appear at rave-type events with a similar festive outdoor decadent vibe, but where enjoyment is so often projected outwards, worn like an indicator (which it often is) of what people are on, how much they feel the music, where they've been, all this naturally encouraging a attitude of deliberateness towards experience as such. Generally, 'other people' matters at raves and it's not just that romanticised altruism thing either, not to discredit it; there is a self-conscioussness (at once vain, frail and juvenile) with which many carry themselves. It tends towards gracelessness and is often grating. Mounir, on the other hand already belongs to everyone (he is mainstream and absolutely accessbile) and thus has no currency, so to speak, as an identity accessory (who's ever heard of Mounir fan wannabe's?). Indulgence in a live Mounir performance does not grant access to a socieconomic or cultural group as does indulgence in live house music (or its affiliate drug scene). Instead, it is more the consummation of a previously cultivated affliction, namely, that of having been moved by his music, which, with its mix of jovial catchiness and existential themes, tends to resonate strongly with the majority of free-spirited young Egyptians. There were of course exceptions, namely, shabab who seemed to be forcing their experience, hands clasped, eyes closed, swaying side to side... for 10 second stretches, between which they hit their friends and laughed heartily.

It got really packed where we were standing. A young guy squeezed in front of us, making his way across to the refreshments stand to our right. Trailing behind him was an attractive veiled young woman who excused her way through the crowd with pursed lips. Our eyes met and I smiled back, only to see her face turn, as we say, to a look of pained horror. Still holding her friend's hand and moving forward, she looked behind her and said "hayawan!" (animal!) Someone had grabbed her. She disappeared and I looked to my left and saw the guy who'd done it. A sketchy looking young man with a tall neck, beady eyes and inflamed gums. He had a horizontal scar on his cheek and I spent the rest of the show marvelling at him and his friends, all of whom (possibly by association) exuded similar vileness. I couldn't get over the casualness with which he did what he did and I grappled with the question of appropriate response. What if he'd done that to a girl who was with me. Would I have responded violently (and gotten my ass kicked by his larger and clearly tougher group of friends)? I really didn't know. Either way I was thankful for it not being my problem in a direct way. I'm still haunted and I invite all those who care to do something about sexual harassment to check out the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights'* initiative on the matter. And we pray, initiate discussion and blow whistles. Much as Mounir himself might have done were he still with pre-Shokolata vitality. For, despite his words, it's not stoners but guys who grab girls about whom he should sulk on stage.


* The ECWR's website has been rickety recently and the sexual harassment page isn't loading. If you have questions, stories or ideas please write to ECWR@link.net. Their e-mail checker/responder is efficient, friendly and attractive, so please do mention where you heard about them.

6 Comments:

  • Did that review back in 2002 really memor-your-ble? The best way to create a feeling of history, communite and substance is to reference things as if they are part of the collective memory. Well done.
    Plus I forgot how Aaskari can evoke such trollishness with a word. Rayeh fen my little billy-goat gruff?
    Write to me.
    Safi

    By Anonymous sophia Al-Marri, at Tue Oct 17, 03:18:00 PM GMT+2  

  • safia, galbi. the 2002 review did memor my ble. it filled in important blanks in my own experience of mounir. i'm partial to his earlier stuff; when i listen to it i feel taken (back) to something good in/about early 80's egypt. the review somehow helped colour that picture for me. what do you mean 'reference things as if they're part of the collective memory'? maurice told me you guys hung out in brooklyn. a pleasant thought. him and i, we hung out in bab el louk sunday night. why marri and not marria? i will write to you.

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Tue Oct 17, 03:35:00 PM GMT+2  

  • interesting, meez. you were saying similar shit to me earlier but how about cultural documentation for the mere interest of others in seeing what's in ur head, ur lense, your modes of expression?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wed Oct 18, 12:29:00 AM GMT+2  

  • "[cultural documentation] for the mere interest of others in seeing what's in ur head, ur lense, your modes of expression?"

    not a good reason in my books. i'm not interested in discourse that centers on one's person, as such. that said, insofar as 'what's in my head' points to things outside of me (a moment in the city for example) and not to myself, i think it's cool. also i think if my experiences, for example, as a soldier in the army or a doctor or a family member or convict can be presented as sample of what occurs within a (not necessarily homogenous) larger group then eshta. this is why i like reading ramblefish, for example. it's not because i think his thoughts are so incredibly interesting but because he's good at articulating his experiences as a contemplative and emotionally up and down young egyptian in a big western city (masalan).

    ya3ni, all this is just to clarify, i guess.

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Thu Oct 19, 02:45:00 PM GMT+2  

  • Gayyash ya man, art thou familiar with Gonzo journalism. Tis a style of reporting that disregards form and is blurred or rather influenced by consumption of copius amounts of drugs and alcohol. Check out Hunter S. Thompson...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Oct 23, 03:59:00 AM GMT+2  

  • yeah, i know about it. i generally think form (as in genre and convention... ask my flatmate about about this) is important, in writing at least. i also think disregard for particular forms can be good for revealing other, possibly more relevant levels of meaning. (for example going to report on a sports event and writing instead about how weird the fans are.) as for copious amounts of drugs and alcohol, it seems very few who've combined them with the actual task or process of writing have done well on the long run, as human beings. also i imagine i wouldn't want to type or even be near a pen wana 3amel demagh. except for future reference, of course, if the demagh happens to be of the blissful cosmic unity etc. sort.

    By Blogger Gayyash, at Mon Oct 23, 04:16:00 AM GMT+2  

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