Today is the birthday of the late Salah Jaheen, writer, poet and cartoonist, whose wit, sense of humor and philosophy continue to inspire to this day.
Jaheen, 1930-1986, wrote poetry and plays primarily in colloquial or vernacular Arabic, rather than the standard form. His work dealt with many themes, from the political to the philosophical. Jaheen’s famous operetta of puppet theatre, ‘El-Leila El-Kebira’ (The Grand Night), is known for bringing to life the myriad details of a moulid (carnivalesque religious festival to mark the birthday of a saint or head of a religious order). Jaheen’s work is considered by many to be as relevant and pertinent today as when it was composed.
The clown, the Sufi chanting, the folk customs, the folk circus, the festival games, the peddlers... in all its details, El-Leila El-Kabira (the last night of a moulid) brought to stage the lights, the colours of the moulids of al-Sayyeda Zeinab and Hussein, forever canonising the habits and customs of Egyptians a generation or so ago.
You feel yourself walking among the crowds, jostled by pedestrians, bedazzled by circus performers, confused and solicited at every turn. All of this is the work of talented poet Salah Jaheen, whose lyrics were put to memorable song by the inimitable composer Sayyed Makkawi. The resulting operetta, produced for the Marionette Theatre, is now a cultural icon, a landmark in the history of Egyptian folk art.
In al-Leila al-Kabira, one of the earliest forms of village art, the puppet show, is brought to live on a grander scale. The moulid, (carnivals of faith) in which puppet shows are usually held, becomes the star of the show. It's like you're at the mouled, watching life unfolding all around you.
On stage, a parade of colourful characters burst into song and dance: a village mayor, a man with a big moustache, a man with a brand new suit, a dancer, a coffee boy, all vie for your attention, as if they cannot wait for their turn. And just when you think that things are going to slow down, the boiled chickpea merchants take it up a notch, drowning the voice of other peddlers struggling to sell hats and whistles.
All of a sudden, a circus show comes in, complete with strongman and lion. Then the religious chanting begins
Having introduced the mundane energy of the moulid, Jaheen summons to stage the hadra, (a night of sufi chants usually affiliated with moulids)
While the Sufis twirl and sing their rhythmic one-word mantras, the peddlers come back. Then the two voices mix, the mundane and the spiritual. We hear a blend of "allaaah, allaah" with the cries of sellers offering Turkish delights, nuts, and falafel to passersby.
The voices rise in a delightful crescendo as the scene goes to street games and men vie to see who can push the tara, a power-testing metal contraption, farthest.
Families have brought their children for circumcision, and the singers mark the occasion thus:
O mother of the circumcised boy
Sprinkle salt seven times
At the mausoleum of the blessed one
Sprinkle and light seven candle.
At which point, a girl is lost and a crier is going around alerting the crowds to help locate her:
O honourable folks of good birth
A girl has gone missing
She's tall like so
An anklet on her left foot
The coffeehouse has hired a singer for this special night, and we just have a chance to hear him greet his audience:
O night of wonderful happenings
You good folks here look like blossoming flowers
Then a passerby joins in, speaking of his beloved:
O your lips look like strawberries
And I am hopelessly in love
An explosion of folkloric references, detailing the art and habits of common Egyptians is packed so tight, and yet so delightfully by Jaheen in this memorable work, directed by Salah al-Saqqa with marionette designs by Nagi Shaker
It's hard to think of the moulid without thinking of Al-Leila Al-Kebira and its haunting imagery. It is reassuring that we have this piece of art in our possession. For at a time when some people want to ban moulids, this operetta, with its splendid artistry, offers not fulsome joy, but a much-needed glimpse into a beautiful past.