“More disturbance than wind, and no killer, but it is still a form of hurricane. The street crowds provide an air of thrill, gripping Cairo by the lapels. The big streets and boulevards hum and throb with activity. Shopping bags burst with goods, lights blaze, street cars lie embedded in jams which do eventually unwind as the city heaves on into early dawn when, as if by magic, all is suddenly silenced. The megalopolis breathes again. No one really knows Cairo – it’s too big. But it splinters into small pieces like mosaics, little villages on an endless map.”
With those words, David Blake, Al Ahram Weekly’s late music critic, opens his review of a classical concert during Ramadan, back in 1999. As he delves into the details of the evening at the Cairo Opera House Small Hall, Blake hints at the richness of the cultural scene during the holy month, pointing to the festive spirit that spreads across the city and in which its people luxuriate.
In 1999, however, Ramadan coincided with January, a month that is much more gentle in its temperatures than the killer heat of June, which torments the fasting populace. This is one of the reasons why the “air of thrill” will be particularly welcome coming from the cultural scene, which tends to offer refreshing evenings, a much needed opportunity and a relief from the day-long fast culminating in a traditional Iftar.
But aside from high temperatures, this year Ramadan coincides with the weeks during which many cultural institutions routinely end their seasons and embark on summer activities.
Blake’s exploration of musical offerings had been exactly in the middle of the opera’s season, at the peak of the classical music calendar, with ballets and operas held not only at the opera but also at other locations all across the city, alongside Ramadan evenings. This year however, having completed their annual programming, many venues will now shift to content and programming dedicated specifically to Ramadan.
Welcoming summer with Ramadan
With the last concert of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra scheduled for 27 June, the Cairo Opera House will have reached end of its season and focus fully on the holy month.
The 25 Ramadan evenings will combine Arabic music and inshad based on spiritual poetry with musicians catering to listeners from different generations, with different musical preferences.
The opera promises concerts by Omar Khairat, Ali Al-Haggar and harpist Manal Mohie Eldin, alongside independent musicians such as Fathy Salama, Dina El Wedidi and the Basata Band. The Ramadan programming also includes a concert by the Alexandria Opera Chamber Orchestra and a concert by students of the Talents Development Centre.
With a lot of concerts scheduled to take place all across the Opera’s halls – including the ppen-air Theatre – the Ramadan evenings will be but the beginning of the opera’s long summer months. They will be followed by the Citadel Festival for Music and Singing in Cairo and the Summer Festival at the Citadel of Qait Bay in Alexandria, scheduled to begin right after Eid.
Meanwhile in the Islamic Cairo
Within the Ministry of Culture, however, the Cultural Development Fund is probably the most vibrant institution in Ramadan, offering a wide range of activities. The Fund’s venues include numerous captivating houses and palaces, all soaked in rich cultural history, many of which are scattered across the breathtaking Islamic Cairo.
No setting fits Ramadan evenings better than the 14th-century Amir Taz Palace or the equally old Qasr Bashtak (Palace of Bashtak), the 16th century Al-Ghoury complex or Beit El Seheimy, the 18th century house which remarkable mashrabeyas overlooking the street. Such places bring back the centuries-long history to our ears and eyes in ways particularly suited to Ramadan.
No locations can create as fascinating a link between Ramadan traditions and their centuries-old sources, filling our senses to overflowing. The numerous historical palaces and houses operating under the Cultural Development Fund will serve as wonderful refuges to all those looking for a cultural and spiritual finale to the long day.
This year, in its very long Ramadan programming, the Cultural Development Fund includes a lot of music performances incorporating concerts for oud and Arabic music events within the many fascinating theatre and poetry evenings.
Independent venues will not lag behind with their Ramadan offerings, nonetheless. Located in the heart of old Cairo, the Darb 1718 Contemporary Art and Culture Centre is already preparing for Mawaweel, the annual two-week festival held during the holy month. The evenings will continue past midnight featuring Eslam El-Sha’ary, Al Mawlaweya Al Masreya, Tanoura along with popular bands such as Massar Egbari, Salalem and Hawidro, among others.
There is no need to elaborate on locations such as Makan – Egyptian Center for Culture and Arts or the Doum Cultural Foundation, on the other hand. Together with several other such establishments, they too will no doubt top their regular activities with special programmes tailored to the month of fasting.
One event, however, went through a significant change, and that is Hayy Festival, the annual Ramadan event that used to be organised by the Culture Resource (Al Mawred Al Thaqafy). From the festival’s launch in 2005 up until it closed nine years later, Hayy was taking place at El Genaina Theatre located in the heart of Al Azhar Park.
Throughout the years, people of all walks of life -- students, followers of the independent music stream, even whole families with children who frequented the park in the evenings -- attended performances by many remarkable artists from the region: Rim Banna (Palestine), Macadi Nahhas and Lara Elayyan (Jordan), Yasmine Hamdan and Oumeima El Khalil (Lebanon), Hansa El-Besharia (Algeria), Aziza Braheim (Morocco) and others.
Now that the Culture Resource froze all its activities in Egypt, El Genaina Company, the theatre's new management, launched the festival in a new location, at the Greek Campus, part of the American University grounds in Downtown Cairo.
Though this year, the festival offers several interesting musicians from the local and regional scene – Youssra El Hawary (Egypt), Oumeima El Khalil (Lebanon), Mina Terez (Palestine), Rawdha' Abdallah (Tunisia), duo Maryam Saleh (Egypt) and Zeid Hamdan (Lebanon), among others – the new location is definitely catering to a different audience.
We are yet to see how this transformation of what used to be Al Mawred's shiny star will place itself in the local scene.
But as we enumerate the locations, raising our eyebrows over the increased dynamism of some and weeping over those that closed their doors, creating long lists of artists who will infuse Cairo with cultural events in the next four weeks, we must remember that the month of Ramadan is much more than just well presented inventories and weather forecasts observed with a meticulous eye picking the tiniest fraction of temperature change.
For many, Ramadan constitutes a shift in priorities and expectations within the day; the four weeks become that “disturbance [stronger than] wind and no killer, shopping bags [that] burst with goods [and the] lights blaze...” as Blake summed it all up.
Ramadan is about the city entering a unique dynamic, a megalopolis where the cultural scene is shifting, spontaneously adapting to the late hot evenings...
It is about the music, poetry readings, spiritual chants that fill the spaces and the minds of listeners, carrying them past yet another evening, soothing them through the next day’s fast with the happy experiences of the previous night.
Check Egypt's arts and culture recommended events of the week: 21-28 June
This article was originally published in Al Ahram Weekly