Children sprint after a ball, making their way through droves of people. Hundreds of voices are ringing in the street. The shopkeepers invite us into their shops, praising their copper vases and ornamented lamps, seducing us with precious stones, silver and gold jewellery, offering scents and spices, asking us to take a look at the colourful textiles.
A cloud of smoke covers one corner of the street and as we approach, the smell of water pipes points to dozens of men discussing daily matters. We keep walking, however, leaving behind both men and women, chitchat, laughter and quarrelling.
Somehow enjoying the walk, we soon become immune to all the sounds, since they have all turned into a single combined fabric; they take one colour, a pale one, a colour that fuses all shades and lights.
And it is during this moment of detachment that the stones begin to talk. This is when we start hearing the voices of the buildings, luring us with their centuries-old stories of treasures that once belonged to the dynasties enumerated by historians: Tulunid, Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mameluke and Ottoman.
It is when we discover the eternal wealth, right in front of our eyes, at Al-Muizz li-Deen Illah Street, in Islamic Cairo. A millennium’s worth of history and architecture is soaked in captivating tales. If we were to hear one every night, a thousand and one would be nowhere near enough to exhaust them.
But then, suddenly, in the midst of those stories, one touching voice reaches our ears. A sensuously lyrical solo violin comes through a small street, right behind the 12th-century Fatimid Al-Akmar Mosque. And as we approach whose voice should we recognise but that of Scheherazade, the famed queen and storyteller.
Yasser Ghoneim (L), Khaled Saleh (R), part of Awtar Quartet (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
It is 21 June, one of the first evenings in the month of Ramadan. There is a small cultural centre called "Alrab3' (pronounced "Alrabaa", with the '3' marking the Arabic letter ain, the word is an intimate term for "neighbourhood").
And Alrabaa is hosting the Awtar Quartet, an ensemble established in 2012 and consisting of the Egyptian musicians Yasser Ghoneim (first violin), Khaled Saleh (second violin), Essam Abdel-Hamid (viola) and Mohamed Abdel-Fattah (cello).
They open with excerpts from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s famed Scheherazade, a symphonic poem arranged for the strings, before moving onto new arrangements of classical Arabic songs and music by Abdel-Wahab, Farid El-Atrash, the Rahbani Brothers, Ammar El-Sherei and Omar Khairat.
In the latter segment the Quartet was joined by singer Amira Reda and Mohamed Arif on the tabla.
The Alrabaa cultural centre has had a short yet already vibrant history.
Starting in 2006, the Friends of Environment and Development Association (FEDA), an NGO established in the early 1990s, started managing the severely damaged late Ottoman building known as Wekalet El-Kharoub.
The restoration of the site was completed in January 2008 and in March 2014 “together with a group of friends, we decided to launch a cultural centre here,” Eman Sobhy, the director of the centre, recounts.
Essam Abdel-Hamid (L), Mohamed Abdel-Fattah (R), part of Awtar Quartet (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
The centre hosts a variety of cultural events focusing on independent musicians, storytelling, Tanoura and Sufi performances as well as workshops which revolve mainly around music. It was the third performance by the Awtar Quartet at Alrabaa.
“I had been following the Quartet since their foundation, attending their concerts at the Opera, at the Russian Cultural Centre and elsewhere. I liked the music, so it was natural that we should approach them about performing at our centre,” Sobhy explains.
Historically, Wekalet El-Kharoub served as a centre for merchants to store and sell their goods. The building has a spacious open-air area surrounded by arcades and a row of balconies on the first floor overlooking the central court.
This area caters to “bigger performances”, welcoming a larger audience, while a small, closed room to the side can accommodate up to 120 listeners.
“We planned to hold the first concert by the Awtar Quartet in the smaller room, yet the crowd that arrived prompted us to move to the big court,” Sobhy says, recalling her great surprise when such a large audience showed up for the first concert given by the ensemble at Alrabaa.
Alrabaa relies mainly on social media to advertise its events, operating with limited resources on a budget that comes from ticketing and the small cafeteria inside.
Awtar Quartet joined by singer Amira Reda and Mohamed Araf on the tabla. Concert at Alrab3 on 21 June (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
“It’s been only one year and three months but we have managed to sustain ourselves without any external support. This can be considered a great success! Maybe in the future we will consider finding a sponsor for a specific concert rather than the centre,” Sobhy explains, adding that she also plans to expand to another location with Alrabaa II.
Seated mostly on the ground inside the main court, enjoying the fresh breeze and encircled by the historical walls, the listeners could enjoy the stories of Scheherazade as told by the Awtar Quartet.
This imaginative journey of Rimsky-Korsakov’s kept the listeners mesmerised by both evening and location. It was a unique aesthetic experience when history, culture and music became one, when we allowed ourselves to enjoy the purity and artistic sincerity of the moment.
Though, naturally, the second half of the evening – which included Arabic instrumental music and songs – must have been closer to the hearts of many of those gathered at Alrabaa, for some reason Scheherazade fused perfectly with the space, the time and the collective mind.
Singer Amira Reda joins Awtar Quartet in the concert at Alrab3 Cultural Centre on 21 June (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
At the cosy setting, dozens of younger audience members and a few children were seated on the ground, all in total silence, all enjoying the evening. In this sense, the activities held by the Awtar Quartet are a cultural phenomenon, now embedded in this fascinating location.
Dressed casually, yet keeping their musical professionalism alert, the Awtar Quartet might have found the golden formula for reaching the widest variety of listeners with their music.
This is how, paralleled by the efforts of Alrabaa, the musicians manage to generate an interest and then keep the audience keen on coming back for more. In one of their previous concerts at the same location, the Awtar Quartet intertwined Arabic music with tangos and Western classical compositions, and according to Sobhy, this concert attracted an impressive number of listeners and was received with much enthusiasm.
This time, creating an interesting amalgam between Western composition, Scheherazade and Arabic music, once again the Awtar Quartet made a big impact on the minds of their audience, many of which will definitely be returning for upcoming events.
Leaving the Fatimid scenery, Rimsky-Korsakov’s captivating violin kept resonating in my ears; for some time I could still recall the many stories wrapped in the architecture and those told by Scheherazade at Alrabaa.
As I kept walking, the sounds of the busy city started invading those of Islamic Cairo, which died out slowly in the noise of urban pollution. Yet, in this city which can be so challenging to the ears, the evening infused our lives with sufficiently inspiring material to muse over for weeks to come.
Audience sits at the balconies of Alrab3 Cultural Centre. Awtar Quartet concert on 21 June (Photo: Ati Metwaly)
This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly