Yesterday a friend of a friend of my parents, Flora, offered to take me to Khan el Khalili and then to see some dervish dancing in the cultural center across the road. The idea of going out and having fun really excited me because I’ve barely thought about that since I got here.
She picked me up at 6:30 and we went over in her car. We had to park about two blocks from the start of the Khan so we walked on a busy road past a hospital, cafes and street vendors, a shop selling plastic toys from China and so many, so manypeople. (A weekend evening in Ramadan: lots of shoppers about.)
I’d like to note that in America I never walk on the actual road if I can help it but in Cairo the sidewalk is usually blocked by fallen tree limbs, large random blocks of concrete, piles of garbage or kiosks selling snacks and water. Plus they’re not lit at night, so your best bet is often walking in the middle of the road and hoping for merciful drivers.
We walked around the Khan for a little while then sat in Feshawi’s cafe, drinking tea and sharing a shisha. (Fun facts about shisha: in the Arabic language you don’t smoke shisha. You drink it. Also don’t confuse shisha with hasheesh–one is just tobacco, usually flavored. They say there are different flavors but to me they all taste like apple. Hasheesh is the narcotic version and it’s illegal in Egypt as most everywhere else in the world.)
In Feshawi’s we met a guy living in Zamalek who does some sort of business risk assessment in the Middle East for foreign companies. He didn’t look much older than me, though, so I was surprised. Then a group of giggly muhajjibabes sat down behind Flora and surruptitiously tried to take my photo. I was too shy to offer one of me in return for one of them. Muhajjibabes is a slang term for girls who wear the hijab (headscarf some Muslims believe is required for women to protect and indicate modesty; those who wear it are called muhajjiba “veiled one”) but also sport Gucci bags, sweet ruffly skirts over their long trousers and figure-hugging tops. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, though I can’t say I myself care much to be a fashionista.
We left to meet up with Flora’s friends, members of the academic community including one of Flora’s former professors. We stopped for a fuul and a ta’imeyah sandwich along the way. (Fuul is a mild garbanzo bean paste. Ta’imeyah is Egypt’s word for falafel. I don’t know why.)
It turned out there weren’t any sufi dancers that evening, but singers instead. Before they began they came out and sat on stage through the opening speeches. There were about twenty of them, all dressed in white gallabeyias and…crocheted skullcap/hat thingies. (I’m sure there’s a word for thes but I’ve no idea what it is.) The conductor was dressed in a black gallabeyia with subtle stripes. There weren’t enough chairs, so through the speeches we could see them all shuffling around in their seats, trying to squeeze in and not fall off at the ends.
The speeches were in a mixture of formal Fusha Arabic, (Fusha doesn’t rhyme with bush-a; the s and the h are pronounce seperately: fus-ha) colloquial Egyptian Arabic, and Spanish. I think the singers were from Spain though they sang in Arabic: I gathered the evening was sponsored in part by the Spanish Cultural Minstry or something like that.
When one of the introductory speakers started speaking in Spanish my first thought was, “Oh great, another language I’m supposed to know better than I actually do.” I took five years of Spanish in high school and middle school but I can’t really carry on a conversation. It doesn’t help that when I started studying Arabic I started to get them mixed up in my head and producing some very strange sentences indeed.
I was pleased that even though I have only the vaguest idea of what was being said, I could tell the difference between the Egyptian Arabic and the Fusha. Partly this was the vocabulary clues, but mostly the sound and cadence of the language.
Conversational Egyptian Arabic hops and jumps along, lots of short syllables and a range of emphasis and tones of voice. Fusha, by contrast, is the language of legal documents, formal pronouncements, and classical poetry. The news is also read in Fusha so it can be broadcast throughout the Arab world and I’m told by friends who grew up in the Middle East that children’s cartoons also go out in Fusha. Conversely, movies and TV shows are often filmed with the dialogue in Egyptian Arabic.
Anyway, it’s almost impossible to speak Fusha without sounding like you are reciting something. Trying to have the most banal “Hello, how are you?” kind of conversation not only takes forever because of all the complicated forms of address, but also sounds like a solemn litany. Fusha is not a language for having a laugh in.
But then, that’s not what it’s designed for. Even though I understood only scattered words in the various speeches (”On this blessed night…”) I loved listening to the cadence and the measured syllables, to each fully pronounced case ending, each carefully crafted rhyme.
Case endings are kind of hard to explain. Basically they’re vowel sounds that get put on the ends of words to indicate whether they are being used as a verb, noun, or adjective. I can see my Arabic teachers shaking their heads in discontent at this explanation, but it’s going to have to do for now. Normally case endings don’t get pronounced, but in a formal speech they can make things rhyme and assonate in a way not usually found in colloquial Arabic.
So finally the speeches finished and the guys started to sing. I took some little videos using my camera and I saw others doing the same. I also saw much tapping of feet, nodding of heads, and clapping amongst my fellow audience members.
When I heard the rhythm of the drums strike up against the counterpoint of the voices I too found myself bouncing in my seat. I defy you to go to an event like this or listen to the music and keep yourself entirely still.
Sometimes people ask me what dancing’s all about, or what it feels like. It’s difficult to explain. When the music starts I feel a stirring in my limbs, they want to move. Sometimes people characterize this as erotic and perhaps there is an element of that, but it certainly isn’t the only dimension to it. Sometimes people don’t believe me when I say that, but ultimately it doesn’t matter what they think or say.
When I am dancing, there is the music and there is me, and that’s it. I could be in a crowded room or on the moon; I couldn’t tell you the difference. It’s not about showing anything to anybody else, it’s not about performing in a way that relates to anybody but myself, just about what’s happening in the private world of my mind.
I was glad to be reminded of this when watching the performance last night. It’s been a long time since I’ve danced, and my research has gotten subsumed by the problems I’ve had so far settling in. And in a way, it’s funny for me to feel that it’s a private thing, seeing as I study social dancing and what I just described isn’t a social experience at all. But I didn’t come here to study my own feelings and thoughts.
So we left the Sufi singers and I wound up back at Flora’s house where she insisted on feeding me some delicious spaghetti and homemade meatballs followed by fruit and tea, despite the fact that it was now well past midnight.
Finally after her many great kindnesses Flora insisted on driving me home and wouldn’t let me speak of taking a taxi. I fell asleep wondering if there were a way to upload the videos onto this blog…