The combination of settling into our Cairo home and beginning a new academic year is more than enough to keep me busy. I haven’t, during the first month here, gotten out as much as I would have liked, but I have resolved to be a bit more active in this regard. I saw a perfect opportunity when I read in the newspaper about a concert tribute in memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the great Palestinian poet who passed away last month. (You can read his obituary in Al-Ahram Weekly here.) The concert was being held at the Sawy Culture Wheel, an arts center in Zamalek, a downtown neighborhood situated on an island in the Nile. I was able to get a couple of friends together to attend and it was lovely.
The theater is a great spot, strangely buried underneath a bridge. The entrance almost looks like a subway station, but the space itself is peaceful. There is a small outdoor garden, a café, and a couple of theaters—Wisdom Hall, where we were, seats about 500 people. It was a bit more than half-full for the free event, which featured Ahmed Ali El Haggar (below) singing arrangements of Darwish’s poems with piano accompaniment. In between songs, there were dramatic readings of Darwish’s poems.
Now, I am a fan of Darwish’s poems, and have included some in my courses. I first encountered him in an anthology of Arabic poetry that I purchased in 1996 during my first trip to Egypt. (The book, When the Words Burn, is published AUC Press.) However as I don’t read or understand Arabic (though I have registered for classes), I did not comprehend what Haggar was singing or the others were saying and reading. Obviously a lot is lost to me, but I did like it. There is something to be said for the experience of me, a literature professor, listening to works of literature in a language that I don’t speak. I don’t want to fetishize it or minimize what gets lost, but I was able to focus on the aesthetics of the language and performance, and to hear the sounds of Darwish’s poetry in the language in which he wrote them. In literature, folks so often look for the story. Since this story was lost on me (at least until I returned home to reread some Darwish), my attentions were forced elsewhere. Of course I most look forward to being able to understand not only the sounds, but also the words being sung and recited. But for now, it was still a nice evening for me, and a deserved tribute to a great poet.