Egyptian artist Intesar Abdel-Fattah: 'It's all about listening'

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 30 Nov 2016

The renowned artist Intesar Abdel-Fattah talks to Ahram Online about artistic initiatives to preserve Egyptian culture

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Intesar Abdel-Fattah is a visionary Egyptian artist and musical creator and director who dreams big.  From establishing a music school for religious chanting, to opening a uniquely effective culture museum, with many internationally acclaimed performances in between, Abdel-Fattah impact on reviving Egyptian folk culture and emphasizing the individuality of the Egyptian character is quite remarkable. 

The secret to his success, he says, is "the art of listening."

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"I perceive historic buildings as living creatures with lots of secrets to tell," Abdel-Fattah said of his passion for ancient buildings. He has an eye for making a place itself part of a performance, something visible in his plays.

In Makhadet El-Khol (the Khol Pillow) — one of his early pieces — he transformed Al-Ghad theatre into a world of women. “I began with a two-year workshop, followed by six month rehearsals; we were the first Egyptian performance to be awarded top prize in the experimental theatre festival in cairo, in the late eighties/early nineties," he remembered.

The performance was staged in 16 countries, and in each country Abdel-Fattah would adjust and add to the performance, treating it as a being that could change and constantly develop. "In India, we integrated some Indian musicians, to create a dialogue between the women of Egypt and India," he told Ahram Online. “I am interested in cultural dialogues in general," he added. The same performance was awarded the first and best Egyptian Performance at the Garash festival in Tunisia.

Al-Daraboka, or "joyous"  is a milestone in Abdel-Fattah’s work with music and sound. “It’s all about the inner voice that shapes the movement in a performance.” The performance follows an Egyptian Daraboka (a folk drum commonly used in village celebrations) player caught between the drum beats of East and West, whose story foreshadows the current status of Egyptian culture and threats to dilute it.

The Samaa Inshad music school & other initiatives

Throughout the years Abdel-Fattah has headed several state run artistic venues, including Al-Talia Theatre and the National Center for theatre music and folk arts. In 2006, he was appointed head of Al-Ghory Dome, under the umbrella of the Ministry of Culture.

“I studied the place carefully in the beginning and discovered that the khanqaa hall upstairs is a place where Sufis of the Mamluk and Fatimid eras used to come and chant. Abdel-Fattah said he was inspired to return Sufi chanting to its origins by reviving the enchanting art of Inshad.

Abdel-Fattah created the Samaa Inshad School—a religious music school named for the Sufi-derived word for listening. He believes the concept of Samaa goes beyond Sufism; it is simply the art of listening to one's inner voice for guidance.

"Many people enrolled in Samaa, but Siham [Abdel-Fattah's wife and manager of Al-Ghoury Dome] and I went to Delta villages in search of more voices, We went to Qalubeia, where the governor Adly Hussien was very helpful in facilitating our search, and I found gems.”

Abdel-Fattah doesn't believe that luck led him to such qualified students; he insists that Egyptian villages conceal treasures, such as renowned thinker Taha Hussien or the star of the Orient, Om Kalthoum.

To hold on to such voices—our roots and identity—Abdel-Fattah created in 2013 the National Museum for the Egyptian Character, located in Zamalek. The museum aims to recreate different eras in Egyptian history, by allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the music, art, and events of the time.

“You see I was raised by a writer, my father Abdel-Fattah Ghabn, who had a huge cultural archive and used to document [Egyptian] icons. That’s why I created the Samaa school for Sufi chanting," the artist said, as phase one of a project to highlight the uniqueness of the Egyptian personality. Phase two involved the addition of Coptic chants to the school's curriculum, for which Abdel-Fattah says he received the approval of Egypt's Coptic Pope Shenouda III.

"With the enrollment of several Indonesian students from Al-Azhar university, we created the Salam International Troupe, which toured in Europe and was applauded at the Vatican. Since then we've created the International Samaa Festival for Sufi and Spiritual Music, which has hosted artists from 40 countries and is now in its 10th year," he concluded.

Abdel-Fattah’s dream of promoting peace and cultural dialogue has taken him higher, to one of Egypt’s most sacred sites: Saint Catherine.

2016 marks the second gathering of the Religious Forum, a spiritual retreat curated by Abdel-Fattah in Wadi El-Raha (valley of tranquility), nestled between several religiously significant mountains in the Sinai mountain range. Overseen by the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Tourism, the forum—which concludes with a Sufi concert—has been well received and enjoyed high attendance.

As for future plans, Abdel-Fattah says he is working on a national cultural project that would help us “listen” to the history of Al-Moez Street—a gem of medieval architecture located in Islamic Cairo district. The project aims to revive the social history of the street in a variety of folk art forms.  

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