Opera North Blog

Reem Kelani: Notes from Tahrir Square

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“When I took the plane with my colleague from the BBC, Megan Jones, I didn’t know what awaited me on landing in Cairo. Saturday 18th November 2011 was, it seems, a momentous day in the present phase of the revolution. The taxi driver who picked us up said that things had flared up in Tahrir Square earlier that day, and that there were casualties and hundreds injured. I knew not whether to be sad for Egypt or happy at the serendipity of witnessing once again the Egyptian revolution in progress.

Megan and I had been planning this trip for months, with a view to a documentary for Radio 4 on music of the Egyptian revolution. The morning after our arrival, we walked to Suleiman Gohar Market, round the corner from our hotel. On our way, we were assailed by revolutionary chants of a different order, from members of the Syrian opposition demonstrating outside the Syrian embassy.

I was distracted by the Syrian chants, since they used mainly old Levantine folk songs and replaced the original lyrics with sassy and biting anti-Assad slogans. We found ourselves recording the Syrian protestors as we were rushing to catch the street sellers in Gohar Market. The great Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 – 1923) used to pursue street sellers across Cairo in order to learn their chants, and from them came many of his songs and anthems, for the manual workers, labourers and society’s downtrodden.

Hearing the chants of the Syrian protesters gave that morning a sense of the here and now, intertwined in age-old authenticity. Priceless, I kept thinking to myself, as we recorded the honey-seller, the date-seller, the rag-and-bone man, the street cleaner and last but certainly not least, the fishmonger calling about his produce and feeding left-overs to the feline residents of Gohar Market.

By Friday 25th November, clashes with the security forces had ceased, temporarily at least, and Tahrir Square reverberated to the unified sound of a people calling for an end to military rule. Two people stood out: the first, a singer of Nubian or Saidi (Upper Egyptian) descent, known by the name ‘Bakkar’. His sense of rhythm, rhyme and humour is legendary. He was carried from shoulder to shoulder, as he sang the same song for hours on end. Same melody and structure maybe, but he improvised brilliantly on each verse at the request of everyone around. Each time he delivered a punch line, a roar of laughter and approval rocked that part of the square.

The second person of note, to me at least, was two-year old Turki, known by his family and friends as ‘TaTa’. He sang along with Bakkar and cheered every time a group of demonstrators passed him. His wee fingers were snapping with the rhythm as well as doing ‘V’ signs of approval. TaTa’s father, a bearded religious man, told me that Tahrir Square was becoming his son’s second home. I had met the father in exactly the same place back in February. TaTa followed me round the encampment for several hours, whilst chanting with the masses: “the people demand that the field marshal steps down”! Maybe TaTa didn’t fully understand what had to be done, but he had a sense that something had to change.

 Fireworks exploded around us, adding to an almost festive mood.  Each new cracker brought an ever louder roar across the vast square: “The people demand that the field marshal steps down!”

And TaTa, mesmerized by the magic of the fireworks, sang along, once again.”

Reem Kelani

Cairo, November 2011

Twilight: Reem Kelani - Sprinting Gazelle will be at the Howard Assembly Room on Friday 23rd March at 5.45pm.

Reem Kelani visited Cairo ahead of presenting ‘Songs for Tahrir’ on BBC Radio 4, which can be listened to again here. She also wrote this blog for the BBC Radio 4 website. 

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