Every Wednesday in Port Said, a large group of older men gather with a few women, children, microphones, drums, and cheap amplifiers to sing. There are fifteen in the proper band, El Tanbura, and another ten who sit in the front row, know every song, and occasionally join onstage, bringing the total number to twenty-five. Others clap, dance, and mouth along the lyrics to the old port songs they’ve been repeating for twenty-three years.
To get to the cafe, we took the metro to the bus station in Cairo, hopped on the last bus as it waited for traffic to part at an intersection, arrived in Port Said and rode a microbus to a ferry, which took us across the canal to the east bank, Port Fouad, where a taxi took us another mile or so, past ghostly Soviet-style apartment blocks and abandoned beach gazebos. We arrived at El Negma to find balloons at different stages of deflation and some wan birthday decorations, in a large room formed by a tin roof and temporary canvas walls with plastic windows, equal parts state fair and VA bar, though without the cheap beer.
Zakaria, who I met on the outskirts of the protests in November, performs with El Tanbura in Cairo often and has brought this band and other folkloric acts to Europe and the U.S. It is only in Port Said, however, that he is truly in his element. He buys the drinks for the other singers, and it was he who two decades ago cajoled them to bring back the old resistance odes they used to croon as kids in the 1960’s.
When Zakaria arrives, just late enough to waltz into a full room but early enough to beat the musicians to the stage, he projects the quiet confidence of a mafia boss. He works the room gracefully. He has a cold, so nobody expects him to stay too long and enter into a discussion, which only adds to his floating, permeating authority.
The café has tacked up a poster for the band, with about eight of the men staring at the camera with a smile or a tough-guy scowl (because after all, they’re supposed to be dockworkers). In the picture, Zakaria folds his arms in a tired, grey sweater, and looks at you with a performed, but entirely convincing James Dean expression.
The audience filed into the plastic yellow chairs, sitting at tables with plastic cloths. The one behind us featured Disney princesses. Two bleary-eyed waiters served tea, coffee, and a royally embellished sahleb, the white, creamy pudding-like drink, in textured blue ice-cream dishes with a flower of apple slices ringing the warm substance.
One thing I’ve learned about globalization since coming to Egypt is that the fact of foreigners and foreign goods being everywhere makes the fantasy of an experience without them as tantalizing as it is unlikely. A cluster of attractive French twenty-something’s appeared. We did not ignore each other’s presence, as tends to awkwardly happen between foreigners on the metro in Cairo, but neither did we greet with the warm recognition of fellow non-Egyptians. Smile and nod, unable to converse in a shared language but also somehow bonded.
I looked back at Zakaria, the high priest, as he crossed his legs and began to clap along to lead the group, which didn’t much need leading as it took off like the rickety motors you see spitting smoke all over Egypt. When the band, half the size, performs in Cairo, there are a few drummers, players of the traditional simsimiya and Tanbura, both harp-like contraptions strummed on the lap, an ebullient player of a triangle, and several singers. The concerts feel like a recital of folklore, and are very enjoyable, though the invitations to audience members to dance up on the stage with the band is slightly forced. “Although Cairo is great,” Ali, a drummer and singer, told me after the show, “We feel like guests there. There are tickets. Here it’s free and we’re with our friends and our people.”
“I mean,” he continued, pausing dramatically, “the people in Cairo are our people too. We’re all Egyptians. But it’s different here.”
The Arabic word for ‘Republic’ is very close to the word for ‘audience’ and just as the music began, the second row of Egyptians, perhaps sons and daughters of the older fans in the front, pulled out their cameras and cell phones in the citizen-journalist fashion that has become such a motif this year. After every song, a big wave of shouts and applause rose from both band and audience. The singers and the audience, really all the same sohbageya (meaning, according to Zakaria, the sort of uber-fans of this music) alternately projected insouciance and boyish joy, letting cigarettes hang lazily from their lips before leaping up to join the dance. One middle-aged fellow in a denim jacket got so excited that he nearly knocked over a table trying to join as the song double-timed into a frenetic haze of leaping and crowding around a single gritty microphone in a way that reminded me of the punk bands I used to go see in small, sweaty record stores ten years ago, or another culture’s parallel: an Irish pub sing-a-long (without the booze).
Each member of El Tanbura has a song where he is the leader and solo vocalist. I imagined each one singing his song, every week, for twenty-three years, which is how long I’ve been around, and I suddenly felt very naïve. The songs, which I’ll write sometime about more at length here, are largely political and hark back to the resistance culture of Port Said in 1956, 1967, and other wars in which the people of Port Said were celebrated as the guerilla front line against attacks from, at varying times, France, England, and Israel. One song, called ‘Moorhouse,’ recounts the story of a young British officer kidnapped by the Port Saidians in 1956, when England tried to take back control of the Suez Canal. “Why did you come Moorhouse, all the way from London to make aggression,” the lyrics go, “I am an Egyptian, free and an Arab. Who told you to enter my country? Why did you come here Moorhouse?”
In the 1980’s, the story goes, Zakaria remembered these old songs and found that many of the old men of Port Said had lost interest in the music during the 1970’s, when Egypt opened up to privatization and “glass bottles of coca-cola were suddenly everywhere you looked,” one women who grew up then recently told me. Today, the nostalgia is palpable. One song recounted the “Limby,” a famous effigy of British colonial leader Edmund Allenby who violently crushed peasant uprisings in 1919. “Hey foreigners!” the singer, a shorter man with a cheery, rounded face and bright eyes, shouted as he pulled pretty French girls from the crowd to join him onstage. The song, of course, was about how foreigners should get the hell out of Egypt, but here it was repurposed as an invitation to dance.
Members of the group wrote several of the songs more recently, as a response to the January 25th revolution. In the middle of a romantic ode to 1956, suddenly they would burst in heavily-echoed bliss into chants, straight 2011 vintage, of “Bread! Freedom! Social Justice!”
The party lasted until around midnight. After the crowd had mostly trickled out, I met the sort of elder sage of the group. I asked him what he did before music. “I’ve been doing music for a long time,” he told me. “I’m 85,” and he drew the numbers in dust on the table, the eight in Arabic and the five in Latin characters. “But before,” I stumbled, “when you were young?” “Oh! I worked for the Suez Canal Company for fifty years.”
Ali, a younger member of the group who wears a baseball cap and reminds me of a camp counselor, mentioned that the band has organized a school for their children to learn these songs. “My six year-old son plays the simsimiya,” he told me proudly. I looked over to Zakaria, who smiled and nodded. “We have to keep this going, every Wednesday, for many years to come.”
And the video: