Midan Al-Opera, next to Midan Al-Ataba, is one of the entry points to Cairo’s once-legendary downtown avenue of music and entertainment Mohamed Ali Street.
Near the grey concrete Garage Al-Opera, which stands on the site once occupied by the exquisite architectural gem of the khedive Ismail’s Cairo Opera House, Marwan Fawzi, a professor of musicology at Helwan University, struggles to make himself heard above the blaring horns of cars trying to avoid crashing into one another as they take one of the many entries to the Al-Azhar tunnel or the Al-Azhar flyover, join a queue to enter the multi-storey garage, or make a half circle back into town.
“This garage is part of the crime that befell this place after the old Opera House burnt down. The place has been left over the decades to fall into devastating dilapidation. It has lost its past associations with beauty and art, and now it is just old buildings, noise, pollution and chaos,” Fawzi said.
It was in autumn 1971 that the Cairo Opera House, built in the late 19th century, was burnt to ashes. In the subsequent decades, its site was turned into a parking space, and then a flyover and a tunnel were built to facilitate traffic from downtown to the east of the capital.
Fawzi crosses the road by the entry to the tunnel and flyover in the direction of Al-Gomhouriya Street, stopping briefly at the now-closed Cinema Opera. He has thoroughly studied the soundscapes of Cairo and argues that this spot is representative of the vocal profile of a large part of the heart of the capital and even some of its now-declining suburbs.
With the exception of the occasional call for prayer that comes from the 18th-century Al-Kekhiya Mosque on the other side of Al-Gomhouriya Street, or the sounds of songs heralding the beginning of Ramadan coming from one shop or another, there is just noise all over, including the noise of car horns and street vendors calling out the names of their products.
“Some of the vendors now have audio recordings that they put on replay, making them sound robotic,” Fawzi said, as he took a left to walk on the narrow pavement between the historic Cairo Post Office Museum and the adjacent Al-Azhar flyover.
The pavement has been taken over by vendors of inexpensive mobile phone accessories and a wide range of other items including fruit, sleepwear, and stationery. Given the season, there is a large diversity of Ramadan lanterns, a range of dried fruit and nuts, and the occasional sound of the famous Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb song Ramadan Gana (Here Comes Ramadan).
Then it is Mohamed Ali Street. This was designed during the reign of the khedive Ismail to carry the name of the founder of the then ruling family in Egypt. It is a street that leads, after a little under 3km, to the Cairo Citadel.
A walk from one end of the street to the other was once along the “music alley” of Cairo. But it is so no longer. There are only a few stores that sell musical instruments, and there are even fewer places where bands that play music for local weddings and parties can be located.
Tamer, the manager of a tableware store at the beginning of the street, said that his family has been running this business for close to a quarter of a century after having taken over the store from a previous business selling clarinets.
In the late 1950s, the Egyptian singer Abdel-Halim Hafez starred in the famous film Sharei Al-Hobb (Love Street) as a passionate clarinet player who found his way to fame and fortune from Mohamed Ali Street, eventually performing at the Opera House.
“People don’t come here often now to find musical instruments. They come for diverse products including the disposable tableware that has become very popular as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” Tamer said.
Disposable tableware has always been popular in Ramadan, but it is a lot more so this year. Unlike last year, the authorities have not imposed an evening curfew for Ramadan this year. This has allowed Iftar and Sohour gatherings “with many people preferring disposable tableware,” Tamer said.
Paper plates and cups with typical red-and-blue Ramadan designs are also selling well with restaurants and cafés that are allowed to operate under no restrictions this Ramadan.
Tamer was speaking against the backdrop of a Gulf, or Khaliji-style, Quranic recitation that could be heard in several stores selling mobile accessories.
These recitations, which have dominated over the past three to four decades, can be heard along with the sounds of recent trends in popular music that come from other stores or from the windows of trucks cutting through the street to move around items of furniture, the new main trade.
“It would have been quite untypical to hear the Quranic recitations of leading Egyptian reciters like Mohamed Refaat or Mustafa Ismail,” Fawzi argued. These, he added, are not the sounds of today, except in some secluded spaces and perhaps on the radio. Khaliji reciters are otherwise taking over, he added.
At the age of 27, Mohamed, a sales clerk at one of the mobile accessory stores, is not even familiar with the names of Refaat and Ismail. He is not even sure that he knows the name of famous reciter Sayed Al-Naqshabandi. Nor does he particularly care to add Abdel-Halim Hafez to the playlist he has playing in the store throughout the day.
“If it is not Ramadan, it is the songs of Amr Diab and Mohamed Fouad. But for Ramadan it is different, and it is the Quran throughout the day. After Iftar it is the Quran first and then back to the songs we listen to,” Mohamed said.
According to Fawzi, the sound of pop music always features in the soundscapes of busy Cairo streets. Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ismail, and Al-Naqshabandi are not the sounds of today, though they may appeal to the middle-aged. “But some songs have persisted. The classics can still be heard on the streets, even if people will not necessarily recognise the singers or composers,” he said.
Ahmed, a 20-year-old carpenter from the rural edges of Giza, is very familiar with a long list of Ramadan songs, however. He has a hand-held drum from a store on the street that he uses to perform his Ramadan late-night job as a mesaharati — a night caller who wakes people up to have Sohour.
Ahmed often sings some Ramadan songs before calling out the names of residents in the neighbourhoods he tours to get them to wake up for their pre-dawn meal before they start the fast with the call for prayer.
“I think everyone likes the songs. After all, they are the songs that the radio and TV play in Ramadan every year,” he said.
Mahmoud, another young man of 19 who has come to work as a mesaharati, does not know the songs very well. For him, those are not the sounds of Ramadan — at least not in the southwest Cairo popular district where he lives and works.
But Mahmoud said that for his father, also in the tradition of doing the mesaharati job in Ramadan, there were particular “voices” that were Ramadan staples. They included “Sheikh Refaat and Al-Naqshabandi of course,” he said, adding that his father had passed the job but not the affinity to his son.
According to Fawzi, it is not unusual for children to grow to love things and pursue professions that relate to the sounds they grew up with. He and his sister grew up with the voices of the classic opera performances that his father always listened to, out of passion and for the purposes of his PhD. Fawzi then studied music and his sister studied Italian.
Ahmed Abdel-Halim, the owner of Beit Al-Oud (house of the oud) music shop took the business over from his father. His store, around the middle of the street from Midan Al-Opera to Midan Al-Qalaa, is one of the oldest surviving music industry businesses in the area. His father started the business in the early 1950s when the street was still one of music and musicians.
“It was very different, and it looked very different with so many artists and artisans around. Now there is mostly the noise of the mini-trucks that carry around the furniture that is being made or fixed here. This is no longer the street of musical instruments, but rather of big sofas,” he said.
But Abdel-Halim still works with his hands to make the traditional oud stringed instrument, which is rather like a Western lute. He is not passing on his skills to his children, however, but rather to a young assistant who has found refuge in Egypt from South Sudan. When this middle-aged man reaches the point of retirement, his store will likely find a new business, just like many of the other stores in the street.
“It is true that many stores have changed businesses, including those that have shifted to zincography,” Fawzi said. He remembers that one of the stores he used to come to in order to buy strings for his violin has switched. However, the store where he used to buy accordions is still there.
The Naguib Al-Sawwaq Café at the heart of Mohamed Ali Street is still there too, having for over 50 years been a hub for musicians available for weddings or parties in Cairo or around the country where they play traditional songs.
The owner of the place passed away about a decade ago, but his daughter Tahany is still running the business and plays the traditional Ramadan classics to entertain her clients on the eve of the first day of the holy month.
“It is a very different clientele that is here today. My clients today are not the members of the bands who used to come here to have tea while waiting for possible jobs in the past. Today they are mostly men and women who come from all over the city and the country to order furniture or look for second-hand items,” Tahany said.
Ezzat is one of the few surviving trombone players who still frequent the café. He is a member of the legendary Hassaballah Band, which also featured in Sharei Al-Hobb, starring Abdel-Halim Hafez and Sabah. He drinks his tea and looks at the screen of his old blue Nokia mobile phone, waiting for someone to call him for a job.
“It does not happen so often, and when it happens I have to call other players who now have other jobs to cover their living expenses and see if I can assemble a band on the right time for the event,” Ezzat said.
More often than not, this septuagenarian gets orders for events in rural areas. In Cairo, weddings and parties now either want a DJ or the mahraganat music that is in demand for entertainment.
Mahraganat, a style of electro-music performed by a band of singers, is a lot more compatible with the norms of today, whereas fewer people appreciate a band of brass instruments playing tunes from the early decades of the last century.
Many of the traditions that allowed people like Ezzat to work are going out of fashion. “In the 1960s and 1970s, during the month of Ramadan we would have a lot of work because in rural areas, and even some popular areas in Cairo, whenever a rich man would have an Iftar banquet we would have to be there to play a short tune on the arrival of every guest. Now that tradition has gone,” Ezzat lamented.
According to Tahany, the fact that the business of the awalem, or a group of belly dancers, which used to be there for popular weddings until the late 1970s and early 1980s, is also gone has added to the decline of the street.
“The groups used to live around us, and they would go to perform at weddings with the musicians of the bands who were also always hanging around,” she recalled. Ramadan was “certainly the high season for joy”, and it was good business because on the days following the end of the holy month there were always many weddings scheduled. Every time a job was agreed, the voice of jubilant ululation would echo across the Street.
The business of awalem that started in the 19th century is all but fully shut down now. “It is just like in the film Khali Balak min Zouzou [Watch Out for Zouzou]. It eventually became a liability,” Tahany said.
In the early 1970s, the actress Souad Hosni starred in the movie as a university student hiding her and her family’s profession as dancers and musicians to avoid stigma. In the film, she overcomes her inhibitions. But in real life things are different.
“Some university graduates would decline jobs or marriages because the mothers were dancers or the fathers were musicians on Mohamed Ali Street, so people changed professions. Today, there is not a single belly-dancer who lives on this street, even though it once allowed the big names of belly-dancing to find fame,” Ezzat said.
“We are seeing the end of an era,” he concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly