The midday sun beat down relentlessly when we arrived at the soccer stadium of the University of Alexandria on Monday. A small tent near the bleachers provided the only shade. I squatted there to keep on eye on our equipment as the sound team we hired set up four speaker towers and a stage for the drum set. Their focus was admirable amidst the activity surrounding them: small kids ran around the bleachers, a track team of girls and boys circled the huge soccer field, young men in soccer uniforms trained for upcoming matches, a few tennis games occupied the court adjacent to the soccer stadium, and way on the other side of the field, children splashed about in an enormous public swimming pool. Between the tennis court and the bleachers, a catering team begun to fire up a large barbecue for the hamburgers and kofte that the American Councils for International Education would offer to those who came to the complex for their American Independence Day celebration, an event into which they had kindly incorporated our concert with less than 48 hours’ notice.
By the time our sound team finished erecting 2 speaker towers in the bleachers and 2 on the track running around the field, as well as a stage, drumset, monitors, amplifiers, microphones, stands, and a jungle of cables snaking their way around the track, the sun had shifted so that the bleachers provided a measure of shade over that section of the track we would use as our stage. Coaches working with pint-sized track teams kindly kept their little charges at bay, getting them to walk in an orderly fashion around our equipment or going around it before resuming their run. Amr Abd El-Mottelib, our indefatigable coordinator from Bridge who has become a great friend over the past week, found a spare soccer goal and set it up on the field behind the drum set in order to protect our equipment from stray balls. A former soccer player himself, he would keep a close watch on the field throughout our concert and keep stray soccer balls away from the equipment.
Our contact at the American Councils for International Education, a genial American who speaks fluent Arabic, told us that the match was between Egyptians and Americans. Therefore, I thought I would know when the game started by sensing a more tense, rowdy, or enthusiastic atmosphere among the large crowd (mostly Egyptian students and their families, with a few American students) that started assembling even before the planned 4 p.m. kick-off.
To my surprise, it wasn’t until 4:45 p.m. that someone told me that the match had started only a little bit late. Looking more closely at the field, I realized that a game was indeed ongoing, but mercifully, the atmosphere in the stands had remained so relaxed and casual. When the game finished, the crowd got in line for their barbecue, and Bridge volunteers passed out programs. By this time, several people invited by Bridge for our concert only had turned up. I was touched that our lead singer had invited his mother, a friendly and matronly woman clad in black and wearing a simple hijab.
It wasn’t long after we started that I realized everything had worked out for the best. Had we played at the Alexandria Opera House as originally planned, we would have performed only for those people who typically go to concerts. As it was, kids who had come to play at the sporting complex stopped by and stayed; afterwards, a little girl came up to Kayleigh, our violist, and me, just to give us a high five. Older women wearing hijabs, perhaps the mothers of some of the students playing soccer, had come for the match, but stayed for most of the concert.
Allowing our audience to choose the order of the pieces as though they were ordering food items from a restaurant menu proved to be an inspired stroke. They clearly loved calling out numbers, and it was no surprise that they “ordered” two popular Egyptian melodies, “Shed El Hezem” and “Fonoun,” near the beginning. Our versions proved to be a true fusion, with flute, violin, and viola playing the original and sentimental introduction to Fonoun before electric guitars entered to underpin an oud solo, after which the percussion got the groove going for our singer. We ended the arrangement with a super-charged rock-and-roll version of a single quick phrase from the introduction.
The somewhat random order resulted in intriguing juxtapositions: a German rock song might be followed by a tango etude for flute by the Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla. We closed the concert by announcing that we were now “full” and would offer the audience a dessert: our version of the Turkish traditional Lounga Nihavend, kicked up a notch with a rocking drum set beat, solos consisting of improvised duets pairing up each American musician with an Egyptian counterpart (violin/oud, flute/sax, viola/voice, and guitars) and a wild accelerando to finish it off.
After we finished, we needed real food, so we headed off to Dahab for fettir, an incredibly delicious Egyptian dish similar to a stuffed pizza without sauce.
On Tuesday, we left Alexandria at 7 a.m. so that Kayleigh and Allie would have time to see the pyramids. Instead of going to the pyramids, I sat at a cafe in Giza and sipped Turkish coffee, chatting with a few Egyptian musicians who also preferred to avoid the sun and the commercialism. I asked one about the effect of the revolution on music. He said that some of his friends have left already. “Islamists here speak out against art and culture only indirectly.”
I asked another of my musical colleagues if restrictions had been put in place against musicians. “Not yet,” was his ominous response. But he’s not entirely pessimistic. He believes that artists and writers will stand with musicians if they are threatened, and that the commercial importance of Egypt’s music industry throughout the Arab world will inoculate it against being dismantled. He showed me his card as a member of Egypt’s Musical Professional Syndicate, and I was pleased to learn that Egypt has a well-organized musicians union.
After Kayleigh and Allie returned, we went to the bus to finish the drive to Cairo. A friend showed us a scar on his arm: he was beaten during the revolution and fell into the path of a car rushing to escape from the smoke and tear gas. He had a piece of skin from his leg grafted onto his arm.
Darb 1718 is a collection of beautiful, old-fashioned buildings in Old Cairo, all of which have been re-purposed as ateliers for sculptors, potters, tile painters, and more. In the art gallery, I saw an arresting and intense exhibit called “Enough” about sexual harassment. Memorable pieces featured slogans and reminded the viewer that Egypt’s revolution was led be women as well as men. The most unforgettable piece was four photographs of a partially naked woman’s body clothed in a burning paper dress.
I wandered around the peaceful, grassy grounds, buying some beautiful tiles and clay figurines. As the sound engineer was setting up (he arrived late, without a drum set, and with not enough microphone stands), Amr called my attention to two thuggish men who he said had come from the government and would not leave unless we paid them 200 pounds (about $33). Everyone said that we would have to pay or the men would make things difficult for us. I told my friends I did not want to help perpetuate a corrupt system, and they said there was no point trying to resist.
My blood began to boil. I marched into the green room, grabbed my notebook, and borrowed a friend’s Blackberry to call the US Embassy. It was after hours, so I couldn’t reach anyone. I stalked back out into the grassy central area of Darb 1718, clutching the notebook and Blackberry, trying to calm myself down.
I thought it might intimidate them if I wrote down everything they said and asked for identification. No luck. They slowed down to make sure I could write everything, and one showed me his ID: Mr. Ahmad Samy, representing the Musical Professional Syndicate.
Suddenly, I was confused. I had found out about them today; one of my new Egyptian musician friends was a member. Weren’t they the musicians’ union? They explained that the fee was for a pension fund for old musicians. I started to feel bad about my anger. This is a fee I’d be happy to pay.
I drew up a simple receipt for them to sign. That’s when the problems began again. They were not willing to sign. If I wanted receipts, they would be happy to generate official receipts, and even showed me the booklet of blank receipts, but the actual cost of the fee that needed to be paid into the pension fund was 1,000 pounds, not 200.
Realization dawned. Perhaps there was an actual pension fund, but for far less than that fee, the two men would leave and pretend that no concert had taken place. This was a bribe.
I would not pay. I threatened to report this incident to the US Embassy and to CNN, BBC, Al Jazeera, and NBC. They just laughed. I tried to practically shove the paper into their hands. At one point, one of them briefly disappeared. When he returned, he and his companion laughed, took my receipt without signing it, and jokingly handed me a blank piece of paper in exchange. Apparently pleased with themselves, they spoke in Arabic to my friends and took off on their motorcycle.
Without my knowledge, someone else had paid the bribe. Everyone could see I was too stubborn to do so, but they knew that without the bribe, the men could charge the “correct” fee or do any one of a number of things to make life more difficult for the venue or the musicians. I fumed, but there is little I can do beyond reporting it to the Embassy as I promised and also condemning, publicly here on the internet, Mr. Ahmad Samy of the Musical Professional Syndicate of the Arab Republic of Egypt as a corrupt man.
The concert began nearly two hours late because of time wasted due to the bribe and to the lateness of the sound engineer. Since there were not microphone stands, Allie and Kayleigh set up their fully charged iPads to act as music stands. A crowd of hip Egyptians and some Americans gathered, pulling beanbag chairs out of a storage area to set them up in the large, grassy, tear-drop-shaped median in the roundabout in front of the art gallery. I enjoyed playing with a tiny little girl named Natalie who was always smiling. She loved plucking the violin strings and trying to beat me up (fortunately not at the same time). Seeing her lifted my spirits: music had already made a connection I would never forget, in spite of our difficulties.
The various problems besetting the concert reached their comic apogee when I held Allie’s microphone during her performance of Piazzolla’s Tango Etude for solo flute. I was kneeling on the grass when gradually I started feeling like I was being electrocuted. It became very painful to hold the mike, now matter how I balanced it, so I had to drop it, stopping the performance. The sound engineer explained that the grass still had some moisture in it, so by kneeling on the grass while gripping the microphone, I electrocuted myself.
Later I found out that a few audience members left because of the two-hour wait. However, those who stayed loved it. We did a great job and had fun playing with our Egyptian colleagues, and in my final solo in the classic Egyptian number Fonoun, I went totally crazy, my fingers screaming all over the violin and then ending the solo by gradually unwinding the lowest string to see how low it could go (I ended up sounding like a constipated cow). And all the troubles are worth it when I recall the site of two Egyptian guys dancing by their car while we played, or little Natalie’s face as she plucked violin strings for the first time.
We ended our time in Cairo with a visit to Cairo Jazz Club to support our drummer, who is the drummer in the band that was playing there. For anyone who still harbors stereotypes about what it means to live in a Muslim country, Cairo Jazz Club is one of the first places they should visit. In the same city as the revered, millennium old bastion of Islamic scholarship, Al Azhar University: a happening club where girls in skintight outfits that would raise an eyebrow on Fifth Avenue bump and gyrate to live music. Rather than attempt to impress one of the many beauties with my nonexistent dancing skills, I mainly spoke with a stunning young Egyptian woman who was doubtless far more interesting than the women on the dance floor.
She showed me where she was beaten during the revolution. She used to work in tourism, but has been unemployed since the revolution caused tourism to plummet dramatically. Yet, she feels that the number of interesting bands has skyrocketed since the revolution: “People feel free to express themselves.”
Today we arrived in Tunis, Tunisia, to begin our project here. Differences between the two countries were readily apparent, but revolution is just as much on the mind here as there. In both countries, I already sense a difference from my previous visits. In January 2009, in Alexandria, Egypt, I met with young people who told me how ardently they craved freedom. Today, in Tunisia, when I heard a few criticisms of the president, I knew people were not criticizing the absence of freedom, but how that freedom had been used.
The difference is between a false feeling of powerlessness and a well-earned sense of empowerment, between the comforting simplicity of giving or following orders and the terrifying complexity of working together, between a status quo that never changes to one that lurches both forward and backward, often at the same time.
I cannot predict the future; I can only observe the present. In Cultures in Harmony speeches, I frequently speak about how music reminds us of the importance of learning from one another. In the world today, Obama was right when he said, “We must educate our children to be like Egyptian young people.” Now is our time to learn from Egyptians and Tunisians.