BY PURABI DAS
This is an excerpt from Purabi Das’ novel Let Me Not Forget. Copyright is held by the author.
TRUE TO HIS WORD, Gabir had been waiting for them in the hotel lobby when they came down. Exchanging greetings, he immediately hustled them into a waiting taxi thereby proving to Shoma and Frank that he was indeed an almost abnormally efficient guide.
“Doesn’t he ever rest?” asked Shoma, looking at the back of his head almost willing it open up to display what was going on in it. Frank had settled in his corner preparing to take a snooze. Too excited to close her eyes for even a second and determined not to miss anything, she gazed out of the window at the city in its night-time mystery. It was a city of minarets and domes and it seemed, from every mosque, the muezzins were calling the faithful to prayer. She was suddenly reminded of the old fakir who used to walk through their neighbourhood back home, singing his praises to Allah. This was his way to wake the Muslim households during the 40 days of Ramzaan so they could break their fast before sunrise. The hauntingly beautiful voice reciting verses from the Koran had seemed to Shoma, who was at that time no more than a mere child, the most perfect thing she had ever heard.
The car was traveling back the way they had gone that morning. This was central Cairo. She remembered some of the buildings and couldn’t get over the number of high-rises lining the eastern edge of the Nile. In the distance, lights glimmered from houseboats on the river. When she looked at the people of Cairo or Misr as some Egyptians still called their city, it wasn’t hard for her to see the natural mix in the population given its cultural heritage — the Pharaohs, together with the Greeks, Babylonians and Romans have left their imprints here.
They reached the Islamic section of the souk minutes before the maghrib prayer from the Azhar park. Earlier she had expressed a desire to witness a performance of the Zar music and Gabir had responded enthusiastically even promising to take them to a Sufi Dancing performance as an added bonus.
Shoma’s dreams were coming true.
They left the taxi at the edge of the souk and walked the rest of the way to their destination. It seemed to Shoma that the crowds had increased from the morning. However, when in the morning the locals could be seen and recognized, at this time it was mainly tourists. She heard French, Spanish, English and German spoken around her. She hugged her husband’s arm as a surge of happiness swept over her. Frank gave her a questioning look in an effort to gauge her mood, then, caressed her cheek brushing it with his fingertips. Thus, clothed in the dark of the night, they could stroll hand in hand without reserve that would have looked out of place at daytime in this somewhat conservative Islamic city.
Gabir glanced back to make sure they were following him then stopped in front of a small structure that turned out to be an arts studio. Shoma’s research on the Zar ritual had revealed this is the only musical tradition in Egypt in which women hold the most important roles. It is said in the Islamic tradition this is not considered sacred and is even looked at as un-Islamic. The music itself, without being an actual performance, is a medium through which the women can experience freedom and release from anxieties and tensions without being restricted by the social norms of their conservative upper Egyptian culture. This tradition of music is centuries old having arrived from the borderland between southern or Upper Egypt and Sudan. Shoma’s research also revealed that it is now a fading art with perhaps only about 25 in all Egypt who know this music.
The studio was packed when they arrived and they were glad of their guide’s ability to weave his way through the crowd with his two charges in tow to capture a spot in the front. Shoma was thankful for this – her five foot stature would not have afforded her a view, otherwise. They settled on the small chairs provided for the audience, drinking in the atmosphere. A group of women were already playing on traditional drums on the stage, swaying to the beat, their earrings flashing in the soft lights of the studio. The trance like music gripped the audience and some swayed along with the dancers. As she gazed in rapture at the dancers, the insistent and varied rhythms of the drums coupled with the energetic movements of the participants set her swaying in her seat. She was experiencing an intense rhythmic interaction that later when she reminisced, she understood why the women in ancient times actually did this ritual like dance. It was cathartic.
At the end of the show, Gabir collected his charges. Shoma could tell that her usually reticent husband had been impressed as his voice rose animatedly discussing the show with the guide.
Gabir smiled as he listened to Frank then turned to Shoma and asked, “What about you? Did you like it?”
She was still in the throes of the intense spiritual awakening the music of Zar had invoked in her, so it took her a while to answer Gabir’s question. How could she explain to this stranger the emotions that were churning in her heart that she herself could not understand? Never in a million years could she have dreamed that she would receive the help that she had craved and that which eluded her in her fervent prayers, in the music of an almost forgotten era. Somehow, her life, with all the mistakes she had made over the years, was starting to feel lighter as though the real purpose was unraveling. She had started to live!
With a start, she realized Gabir was looking at her quizzically and she quickly answered his question, “My research on the Zar music had not prepared me for this,” she gestured towards the studio, now a faint shadow in the distance. The guide seemed disappointed but she would not elaborate. There was nothing more to say. It was too sacred a feeling within her heart and she wasn’t prepared to share.
They had now reached that part of the Khane el-Khalil souk that housed the Al-Ghouri Mausoleum, in a narrow alley between Al Ahzar and Al Ghouri mosques. The mausoleum itself was built by that greatest and last of the Mamuluke rulers, Qunsowah el Ghouri, who died in the war against the Ottomans in 1516 but his body was never found. So, he could not be buried in which was intended to be his last resting place.
Entering the Mosque-Madrassa through a beautiful archway, Frank and Shoma gasped at the sheer beauty of the courtyard that had opened up before them. Serenity prevailed. It was 8:30pm. It being a Wednesday they would get a chance to see the dazzling show based on the sacred turning of the Sufi mystics and, it was free.
This is where Qonsuah al Ghoury used to host foreign merchants. It is said each merchant was given five rooms, one above the other. The order was somewhat like this – the entire ground floor was taken up by the showroom with the first floor being the office; the living room was situated on the third floor, the servants were housed on the fourth floor and the last was reserved for his wife and children.
Now the upper rooms have been transformed into artists’ ateliers while the former stables are now craft shops.
Although this performance was geared to entertain tourists, it had the semblance of the customary dance performed within the Sema or worship ceremony through which dervishes or Semazens aim to reach the source of all perfection or kemal. This ritual dates back to the twelfth century when the Sufi fraternity or tariqua was first established in which the member followed a prescribed discipline in service to a sheikh or master in order to establish rapport with him. In the traditional dance format, the sheikh stood in the most honoured corner of the dancing place, and the dervishes pass by him three times, each time exchanging greetings, until the circling movement starts.
Once again, they were lucky to have their most capable guide with them by whose efforts they got seats in the front row. The show began with the musical Tahmila, the folkloric music, wherein each musical instrument was played to draw out the possibilties of each performer.
Shoma leaned forward to get a better view as the Sufi Tanoura started. True to the books she had pored over, the main dancer stood center stage representing the sun while the other dancers around him represented the planets in a harmonious blending of the entire solar system. As they whirled around the stage, she wished she could have witnessed the actual spiritual Sema ritual. In her mind’s eye she could visualize the semazen’s camel’s hair hat or sikke representing the tombstone of the ego, his wide white skirt the ego’s shroud. He would remove his black cloak, thereby signifying spiritual rebirth to the truth. The semazen would start the Sema by holding his arms crosswise to represent the number one, thus testifying to God’s unity. As he would start to whirl, his arms would open: his right arm directed to the sky, ready to receive God’s beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, would be turned toward the earth. Thus, the semazen conveys God’s spiritual gift to those who are witnessing the Sema. Revolving from right to left around the heart, the semazen embraces all humanity with love. The human being has been created with love in order to love.
The Tanoura music reached a crescendo. Shoma blinked, trying to focus her attention on the rythmic movements of the dancers. She sighed. This was just a performance for tourists and not the spiritual sufi dancing she had so wanted to observe. She became aware of Gabir smiling at her with a question in his eyes and she smiled back. Somehow, she couldn’t let him guess her disappointment. He was trying so hard to play the perfect host and to let him know her true feelings at the moment, she was sure, would stamp out the flame of exuberance that was so much a part of who he was. So she settled in her seat to enjoy the Artistic Tanoura brought to Egypt by the Fatimids who captured Cairo around 970 CE.
The dancers presented their abilities with their Tanoura, the heavy skirt, using musical phrases and several fast rhythms. First, the musicians performed alone – the band consisted of fiddle, flute, shwm, frame drums, cymbals and doumbek drums. One among them, presumably the singer, chanted and Shoma could feel it in her bones they were of a religious material. He really sounded like the old fakir back home. At this point, a group of dancers entered the stage, which meant the second part of the show had started. One central dancer proceeded to spin almost immediately and Shoma, who had some knowledge of this type of dance entirely due to her fascination about dancing, in general, timed him at 40 minutes of continuous spinning. The final portion of the show was performed by three dancers, who executed many intricate movements, by throwing the skirts in the air, spinning the skirts at various angles and also spinning the skirts while lying down.
Shoma gazed, transfixed. Somehow, between the beginning of the Sufi dance and the Tanoura, her mind had floated away propelled by an intense longing to be one with the universe; a longing for peace that had lain dormant all these years, so elusive that even she had not recognized it. The pain of her baby’s death was now tangible something she had refused to acknowledge for fear of appearing vulnerable. The beautiful music and chants had brought peace at last, and her heart opened without reservation to accept the healing strength from this ancient music. In this trance-like state, she remained as the seats emptied of tourists and a great hush descended upon the room. Gradually, she became aware of the silence surrounding her and she realized with a start, she was the only one still in her seat. Gabir and Frank, deep in conversation had moved towards the opening in the courtyard.
Shoma wiped her face with the scarf wrapped around her neck. She was drenched in sweat although the night was cool. She got up to gather her belongings and followed the men, on rather unsteady feet.
She still felt the effects of this immense transformation that was taking place, overwhelming her. No one had better talk to me now, she frowned afraid she might burst into tears if Frank spoke to her.
The whole experience had put her out of her comfort zone and she wasn’t sure if she liked it that way. As she walked her nose caught the familiar smell of perfume so typical of the streets of Cairo — exotic and sensuous that spoke to the senses and made one want to do all sorts of crazy things. I’ll always remember this moment, Shoma thought to herself, as she hurried towards the retreating figures of Frank and Gabir. They must have realized her absence because they turned, in unison, and seeing her in the distance waved together. Shoma waved back.
“Did you write in your journal?” Gabir wanted to know.
Shoma nodded. Actually, she had hardly written during the show. She couldn’t, not when her mind seemed empty of all feelings but she didn’t want to have to explain it all to this nice young man so she simply said a half-truth and left it at that.
The dancers had evoked feelings in her breast that even she found hard to explain. Why would she be so deeply affected by their music, the dancers, the atmosphere itself? It was like she had been living a second life as she watched. As if her soul had thirsted all along for this kind of beauty, the purely spiritual kind as the dancers whirled round and round the main dancer as he danced in the center of the stage. Strange that she could find fulfillment so far from home — this she found hard to understand. As the dancers picked up a skirt of a different colour their faces trance-like, she knew each skirt with its particular colour denoted a particular discipline the Sufi belonged to. She also knew the skirt by its proper name — tanoura.
She had no idea when or why she had picked up this information but it was all spilling out of her mind as she walked through the cobblestoned streets.