Behlar Passage Nights: Festival of the people in Cairo

Ossama Lotfy Fateem , Wednesday 21 Feb 2018

Between 9 and 14 February, the Behlar Passage Nights festival brought dance and joy to Downtown Cairo

Behlar Passage Nights festival
Behlar Passage Nights festival (Photo: Ossama Fateem)

Music in the streets is an old tradition in Cairo. For a long time it was a regular activity, and average Egyptians had access to these performances. One of the last such events took place between 9 and 14 February when director Intesar Abdel-Fattah revived and organised the Behlar Passage Nights festival.

As its name indicates, the festival took place at the Behlar Passage. Though originally scheduled to span over four evenings, from 9 to 13 February, its success and popular demand prompted the organisers to extend it by one day, to 14 February.

The festival slogan was “Together we bring joy, dance and optimism” and that is exactly what happened. Happiness and smiles were all over; the audience was diverse and all responded to arts that they might have never heard before with a kind of spiritual joy.

Art is life for people and this small festival proved it.

Festival organising is not new to Abdel-Fattah. He is already managing two highly popular annual events: the International Festival for Drums and Traditional Arts taking place at the historic Salah Eldin (Saladin) Citadel and extending to other locations across the city, and the International Samaa Festival for Sufi and Spiritual Music, also showcasing performances across a variety of venues.

In this context, the Behlar Passage Nights festival is Abdel-Fattah’s newest activity, this time bringing music to one of the rare pedestrian only streets in Downtown Cairo.

The festival was the product of cooperation between Cairo governorate, Masr El-Kheir organisation and Hewar Foundation for Peoples and Cultures.

The main purpose of the festival was to bring joy through culture and music to the people: simple and clear and the result was amazing.

Behlar Passage Nights festival
Behlar Passage Nights festival (Photo: Ossama Fateem)

A variety of musical bands presented their arts in the festival. The mix and match was up to the director and he was able to bring them together without losing their particular musical identity in a harmony that rarely occurs. 

The festval featured Nubian Drums band, The Malaysian recitation band, Samaa band for Sufi music, The Brass musical band, Hassab Allah popular band, The Recitation Coptic Hymns band and the Acapella Christian band. The fusion between the various types of music, performing traditional music and then performing non-traditional songs, was a surprise to the audience.

When the religious recitation band came on stage and started traditional themes of praising the Prophet Mohammed, thanking God for his blessings, the audience fell in love with the themes. The bands sang together and emotions ran high in a clear message of loving life, country and music all together. The musical blend made a new kind of rhythm that was both accepted and enjoyed by the audience.

Each evening, the music lasted about an hour and a half, bringing traditional performers and fun sketches to the gathered passersby. The Hassab Allah performance was a continuation of two famous characters from the movie Love Street 
— Hassab Allah the 16th and his wife Terter.

In that movie, Zinat Sedki was the landlord where the poor band lived. The house was in the famous Mohamed Aly Street, where normally poor musicians live. The lady landlord was lenient because she loved the band’s leader who made fun of her and refused her love, until he recognised her kind heart and her sacrifice to support his band. This all occurs in a memorable comic frame.

Hassab Allah the 17th and Terter’s descendant face the same struggle of her wanting to trap him into marrying her, acted in front of the audience. The actors ended up bringing the audience into the stage in a fusing dance that lasted for more than 20 minutes of memorable joy.

Behlar Passage Nights festival
Behlar Passage Nights festival (Photo: Ossama Fateem)

That night, Monday, 12 February, was rainy and cold but none of the artists or the audience thought of leaving. The whole night was festive and showed that when striving for joy, music is the way to do it.

“None of us will forget that night,” said an old gentleman from the audience who danced a traditional dance with a stick.

The audience came early to reserve seats, but many stood up the whole time. The number of people was twice the number of seats, and yet everyone stayed, insisting on enjoying the magic. Whoever wanted to interact among the audience did; parallel dancing circles were instantly created among the audience by the young, old and children.

Patriotic songs performed with Egyptian flags on the last night of the festival spurred a nationalistic spirit. The idea was that of Cairo governor, Atef Abdel Hamied, and the artists responded with love.

The remarkable performances were a result of long rehearsals and commitment led by dynamo director Abdel-Fattah. On the second night of the festival, a band of street performers came to the director and asked him to perform their musical sketch imitating, the famous Fayrooz in “Maana Reyal”, taken from the famous movie “Yasmine”.

They were given leave to do so and the response was beautiful from both audience and artists. Small groups of youth sang and danced with the band. They came in costume, ready to perform and the director felt the art in the young girls and their trainer. “Maana Reyal”, or “We have a quarter”, expresses the joy of a young girl who found a quarter and sang with her guardian — played by the great Anwar Wagdi in the movie — who happens to be a trumpet player.

The song was funny when the young girl sings about all the things that she will buy with the quarter, and yet ends up losing it in a manhole. A quarter was a fortune back in 1950 and the sketch is a classic piece reflecting laughter and longing in Arab culture.

Behlar Passage Nights festival
Behlar Passage Nights festival (Photo: Ossama Fateem)

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