On the night of 24 July El-Dammah Theatre for Free Arts came to life with a spiritual Sufi night.
The metal teaspoon tinkles as it lightly touches against the inner structure of the miniature cup. The loose tea meticulously ruddies the hot water. Three cardinal teacups now adorn the silvery tray. With the sides of his mouth curved, he walks around the theatre room taking tea orders from members of the audience.
All four walls are in dusky black and a sign carrying the theatre’s name dangles daintily from the ceiling. El Dammah Theatre for Free Arts, formerly Al-Tanbura Hall, is a boxy playhouse in downtown Cairo. Despite its minuscule inner structure, something about the three rows of chairs that sit on the three sides overlooking the area designated for performance renders it an intimate, relaxed space. Four wooden chairs adorn the performance area waiting to be populated. Members of the swelling audience sip their mint-infused tea as they patiently wait for the spiritual night of dhikr (invoking Allah) to begin.
Minutes later, members of the Darawish Abul Gheit band make an entrance into the room. They are all dressed in white jalabiyyas and headbands, with black or green ribbons with the Islamic creed complementing some attires. The title ‘Abul Gheit’ is in reference to Sheikh Hassan Al-Ghitani, a prominent Sufi sheikh recognised for his Sufi dhikr nights, which attracted many ardent dervishes and followers in the early 19th century.
Led by Ahmed Al-Shankahawi, words of prayer, monagah, open each song with the rest of the group joining in chorus. Besides the singing, each member is occupied with an instrument: two are playing the rekk, two are blowing into the nay wind instrument, one is tapping on the tabla, while another member is pattering on a compilation of three drums festooned with flowers. The remaining three members are actively moving to the music as they play the finger cymbals, in Arabic saggat.
“I’m thirsty. Will you quench my thirst oh believers of God” utters the main vocalist, as the nay accompanies the lyrical entry. The prayer continues as the drums and cymbals embellish the melodious production. Songs are compilations of prayer merged with praise, or madh, to the prophet and the Sufi sheikhs as well as an expression of the state of love — hob – that fill the souls of the seekers of God. Strong, quick tapping on the drums marks the finale of each song. It is a harmonious blend of authentic Sufi and zār music with inimitable rhythms and genuine lyrics:
“At the end of night, pray in the sanctuary of the prophet,
Oh you light of my eyes, you prophet of God
Blessings, blessings coming from him the prophet of God”
The denouement of the night was delivered by a young boy who performed the famous Egyptian folk-dance Al-tanoura. Dressed in a mint green overall with an embroidered collar, a matching headband and a flamboyant skirt, the young boy adeptly performed the renowned dance, as members of the band resumed the singing and instrument playing, all to the cheers of the delighted audience.
Joining the Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music in 2011, Darawish Abul Gheit have delivered many performances in a number of cultural venues and public places across Egypt.
The Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music was founded in 2000 by Zakaria Ibrahim, a folk music researcher, musician and activist from Port Said. Eager to save the heritage of Egyptian traditional music, Ibrahim founded the center with the aim of preserving such an authentic body of cultural production.