My own avenue into the world of Egyptian performers began in the clamorous urban heart of Cairo, through my association with an old established family of popular musicians and circus performers who lived on Muhammad ‘Ali Street. Through their indulgence I was able to acquire a degree of cultural competency and musical understanding necessary to the rest of my work in Egypt.
It was Monday evening, and Maha and I had been at the mosque of the Muslim saint Fatima Nebawiyya, to whom Maha is devoted. Maha, the unmarried daughter of my primary teacher and benefactor in Cairo, Hajj Ahmad, was my best friend in Cairo. The mosque is in the ancient winding neighborhood of Darb al-Ahmar, where many of Maha’s extended family still live among the minute local saints’ shrines with their brightly painted doors and the medieval madrasas (religious schools) of massive stone. On Mondays the Sufis hold religious song-and-dance gatherings in the ancient walled commons across from the mosque. These gatherings formed a louder male counterpart to the intense fervor of women whispering supplications to their saint inside the mosque.
The long black abayyas and head scarves that most women wore to the mosque still constitute the normal daytime street attire for women from the popular classes. These cover smocked housedresses that looked something like long nightgowns, complete with fake satin ribbons, little ruffles, and appliquéd characters. To Maha there seemed to be only two recognizable styles of public attire for women: the dour, veiled, and pious daytime look and the flashy, sequined, suggestive look that she metamorphosed into every evening.
Back at the family’s flat, after dinner and the evening prayer, Maha began her nightly application of thick and many-hued makeup. She sat in the living room with a broken mirror in one hand and a big plastic shopping bag of makeup paraphernalia by the other, alternately concentrating on her makeup and on the blaring television soap opera. In this episode the evil Western-appearing daughter-in-law was again lying to her honorable husband as she plotted to swindle her dying father-in-law. The orchestra minibus was to pick up Maha, her sister, and her older brother early this evening, as they were performing at a wedding party (this only happened about once a month), so she had to hurry. Maha and her sister had been singing backup vocals for about half a year in the orchestra where their brother ‘Abdellah had long played tenor sax for Jehan, a well-established belly dancer. Most often they performed at the midrange nightclubs in new suburban developments of eastern Cairo. Neither sister would have considered taking the job had not their brother or some other male member of the family also worked there. Maha was happy to be working. At twenty-eight, still unmarried and with few prospects open to her, she was now helping to support herself and her aged parents whose sons had their own families to support.
I sat with Maha’s father, Hajj Ahmad, who dictated musical compositions to me. Blind since the age of twelve, Hajj Ahmad could imagine complete arrangements in his head. Apparently I could not, because when I wrote down the notes of these melodies, I thought they sounded completely unlikely. Hajj Ahmad would become highly animated when he composed. He had taught all of his eleven children and several grandchildren the ropes of Egyptian popular music, and now he was teaching me. At seventy-five he was mostly retired, but people still came to him for advice and hopeful talent occasionally appeared at his door asking for appraisal, sponsorship, and blessings. He maintained a vast array of prominent connections, although many were now dying. Community members considered him to be an exceptionally good and kind man. Blindness had not diminished his full life, and he was perhaps the happiest person in his large family.
In the newly painted apartment below, we could hear Hajj Ahmad’s son-in-law Hosam giving a lesson on a failing electric piano to Samir, an optometrist with musical aspirations. At 10:00 P.M. Hosam would go to brofa—practice—with yet another belly dancer’s orchestra that was currently playing in a five-star hotel. Hosam met his wife, Amira, playing violin in the Balloon Theater, the government-sponsored venue where Amira sang in the chorus (along with most of her eight sisters at various times). Hosam has a university accounting degree, in addition to his musical training. His family opposed his marriage into a family of performers, but after almost ten years Hosam got his way and married the woman of his choice. Amira, now on maternity leave from the theater, collected her leave pay the first Monday of every month, which, after inflation and union dues, was small change. In this sense, she was in the same position as the thousands of other Cairenes employed by the government.
Mahmoud, Hajj Ahmad’s youngest son, was visiting Hosam. He still had several hours before performing that night with the pop singer Muhammad Fu’ad, whose new cassette had been number one on Cairo’s pop charts the previous season. Mahmoud was the only one of his generation in the family to have gone to the conservatory. He dropped out before finishing and for many years performed with a circus band in sub-Saharan Africa and in the Gulf states. He seemed ill at ease around much of his family.
The community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street is a part of Cairo’s old performance district. The street saw its heyday in the beginning of the century with the hasabolla brass bands and flourished through the 1970s as the performance-networking center. The community has been famous for its well-known women performers since the nineteenth century and has been distinctive as a community where women have often been primary breadwinners. As home to families of musicians, dancers, actors, singers, and circus performers, it was a neighborhood that gained quasi-bohemian associations with its intersection of working-class identification and popular arts, along with stories of licentious living, prostitution, and drugs. By the 1970s most of the neighborhood theaters and performance venues had closed. Newer nightclubs were flourishing across the Nile on the touristic Pyramids Road, playing increasingly to Gulf and Saudi Arab tourists. Many younger performers and their families subsequently moved to the Pyramids Road area, including some of Hajj Ahmad’s family.
The community of Muhammad ‘Ali Street identifies with the height of the nationalist period through historical, economic, and urban cultural links. The forty-odd years surrounding the 1952 revolution (from the 1930s to the early 1970s) was also the golden era of Egyptian song. Music and well-loved singers of the time such as Umm Kulthum, ‘Abd al-Halim Hafiz, Ahmad Fawzi, and Layla Murad played a central role in the development of a national consciousness, unity, and pride. Furthermore, for performers, historically marginalized and morally compromised by their craft, the modern nation became their foundational and forgiving narrative. The secular liberalism advocated by the governments of this era accommodated the performance arts and reimagined this community as a colorful, nostalgic site in the mapping of national culture.
In the apartment next door to Hosam and Amira, members of the national circus troupe were gathering at the home of Zuba, the trapeze artist, and her husband, Magid, a cousin of Amira and Maha. I was warned not to interact too much with them by Maha’s mother, who felt that circus families were improper because of what girls and women wore and did in the course of their acts, not to mention other allegations.
Down the way, Maha’s nephews waited on a balcony, watching for their uncle Sabr’s minivan. Sabr was an impresario—leader of a neofolkloric drum and bugle corps, one of many that in recent years have become “traditional” entertainment for the first half hour of virtually all wedding party festivities. The nephews were occasional members of the troupe. On Thursdays, dressed in bright green and gold satiny outfits, the troupe might perform at seven or eight weddings, zipping from one performance to another in the minivan with their drums piled on top.
From the balcony, one of the boys yelled that the orchestra bus had arrived down below. Maha was slowly clacking down the stairs in high-heeled clogs, hair whipped up, burning with bright makeup, and dressed in hot pink with a showy black blazer whose sequins were coming unsewn. At the bottom of the stairs, she giggled nervously over her nightly discomfort at being seen by people who had known her to veil and those who did not know her at all, which was potentially worse. There were many overlapping communities on the street below, and in this era of growing moral conservatism, not everyone would recognize a difference between a vocalist from a pious family whose craft required exotic dress and a prostitute from the same neighborhood. Indeed, some might even intentionally refuse to recognize the difference. Being a pious woman meant that Maha should not know or reply to people on the street who were not directly associated with her family. This left her silently vulnerable to men’s comments if she were so unlucky as to make the dash to the bus at the wrong moment.
Maha had begun veiling four years before, partly as a token of her piety, but also because the man to whom she was engaged at that time wanted her veiled so that other men would not think she was available. Generally once a woman commits to wearing a veil, whether for religious reasons or under social pressure, the decision is not considered reversible. In a time when many women performers in the community who could were quitting their work and putting on the veil, this job had forced Maha to make the unusual decision to take off the veil. There was no place for a veiled woman on stage.
Maha was thankful that she was only singing backup vocals and could sit behind the orchestra at nightclub engagements. For not only did lead singers and dancers have to parade in front of drinking, foreign Arab audiences, but they often had to play up to nightclub management to keep their jobs. Maha and her sister, contracted directly by Jehan, the belly dancer, had only to sing their vocals and hope to get home in time for fagr, the dawn prayer.
Two coinciding problems now face this community. The first is economic. With the legitimizing of performance through secularized nationalism, performers began to emerge from outside the craft and popular classes in the last generation. The Arabic Music Institute on Pyramids Road, nationalized after the revolution, promoted professionalism and created competition for jobs, which have come to override the old family and neighborhood networks. At the same time, audience tastes have changed. The community’s primary historical market, performing for weddings and other ritual family celebrations, has diminished as live entertainment at local weddings has been replaced for the most part by cameo-appearance folkloric fanfare groups such as Sabr’s, followed by a night of high-tech sound systems blaring recorded music. This has eliminated a large market for conventional musicians, as have weddings that now feature singers or recordings of religious songs as entertainment. Furthermore, in the pop music scene, new music from outside Cairo, including Western pop, Nubian, and Bedouin music, has become influential. The musicians on Muhammad ‘Ali Street say they do not like this music and suggest that the newcomers are inauthentic, whereas they, the old recognized performance families who helped create national popular culture, are the true heirs of Egyptian popular music. But their grasp on the market continues to slip.
The second problem is moral. It appears that elements of a long-standing debate over the status of music in Islam have come back to haunt this community. The economic depression resulting from market shifts and professionalization has coincided with the growing moral conservatism of the last twenty to twenty-five years in Egypt. The loss of their primary local market over the last ten years has had dramatic effects on the community’s self-image. The community members cannot escape their historical notoriety or their affiliation with secular liberalism, which is now under attack. Thus many have come to feel uneasy about the work remaining to them in nightclubs. With the economic decline and increasing moral conservatism, fewer Egyptians now frequent nightclubs. The audiences are made up mostly of Gulf and Saudi Arab tourists, whom performers generally do not like. These Gulf and Saudi Arabs often come to Cairo for the cosmopolitan life and entertainment it provides. Both my musician friends and nonperformer acquaintances in Cairo depicted these Arabs as rich, debauched men who try to lure young Egyptian women with their wealth. Nightclubs are one of the few public sites where such allegations concerning Arab men’s pursuits gain substance.
While these performers’ old markets at weddings were famous for a kind of ribald, communally sanctified (and almost camp) gender play between men and women, the sense of shared community and fun does not exist at nightclubs. The gender “play” between performers and their Arab audiences has a serious, sultry, unsmiling aspect that seems to have more to do with seduction than art. Musicians feel that this cosmopolitan image of Cairo, which is responding to Arab audience predilections, is increasingly anachronistic in this time of increasing moral conservatism. While they feel bound to this work by economic need, they also feel compromised. As Mahmoud said once when he was working in a belly dancer’s orchestra, “It is bad work, but I do not have a choice. If people wanted to listen to good music, real music, then we could all play as we liked. But they do not care about art now. They just want to see what women can do on stage.”
Just as the Gulf comes to Cairo in search of a good time, so some Saudis and Gulf Arabs have sought to bring the good times back home. There is a quickly growing market for Cairene musicians, singers, and dancers in the Gulf, and many have responded to the local economic decline by contracting work there. Their work is part of the massive labor migration over the last two decades to the Gulf and Saudi Arabia. The primarily male Egyptian laborers work under denigrated conditions of reduced rights and liberties in Saudi and Gulf societies. For migrant performers the situation is worse, as there is no historical precedent for a liberal cosmopolitan nightlife in the Gulf. The brunt of the stigma falls on women performers, who are often equated with prostitutes there.