In a night that mixed zikr (a Sufi ritual in remembrance of God’s grace) circles with madih (chants praising the prophet Mohammed), the Dervishes of Abul Gheit gave their first performance in Al Tanboura Hall at the El Mastaba Centre for Egyptian Folk Music in Abdeen.
Wearing white galabiyas (traditional Egyptian garment) with green tokens and holding the sajat (finger cymbals), the Abul Gheit Dervish troupe captured the essence of Sufi and blended it with the beatof the zar (ritual music used in spiritual healing and exorcism), and zikr circles. This infusion of numerous rhythmic folk rituals goes back to the18th century.
Abul Gheit was an island in the Qalubeia governorate, ruled by Queen Enga Hanem, a tyrant who forced people to work for a pittance. Meanwhile Sheikh Hassan El-Ghitany (Ghitany means ‘affiliated with fields’) known for his piety and charity, used to roam the fields and bring water to the poor peasants working there.
Once while reading the Quran, he came upon the body of a woman who had drowned, whom he buried and guarded her tomb from wild animals. When he was asleep he had a dream that he was a wali (saint or holy person) with great powers.
Despite the queen’s desperate attempts to catch him, God always saved him.
When he died in 1830, his son Atalla became his successor and was popular in the El Mohamadi district, where Sudanese and Ethiopians lived and zar flourished. At one of his zikr nights, Atalla was confronted by Morgan, a fetewa (a thug paid by the inhabitants to protect them).
Atalla’s prayers were answered and Morgan had a change of heart and from that day onwards he became Attala’s assistant.
Around 1945, a new form of zar emerged, one that focused on the therapeutic and psychological effect of zar music. Consequently, zikr and zar music blended together under the name of Abul Gheit.
Inside Al Tanboura hall the audience was a mix of Egyptians and foreigners, who were mesmerised by the folklore ambience.
The performer, dressed in a white galabiya and a multi-coloured tanoura (skirt) starting spinning around, the tanoura gradually moved from his waist up to his neck, which he then held in his hand as he whirled, spinning the tanoura in the opposite direction. Despite the effort, it was more of a performance than a spiritual act.
After the applause the audience was asked to sit in a circle, and be part of the whole spiritual chanting and madih experience.
The Dervishes of Abul Gheit perform every Thursday at the El Mastaba centre for Egyptian Folk Music