Continuing my adventures with Egyptian bobular song, tonight I witnessed the magnificent Bahaa Sultan hold court in Heliopolis’ Baron Palace.
For those of you not familiar with your Egyptian singers, Bahaa is the one who instructs people to stand when they are talking to him, rather than staring at his midriff region and trying to work out the distance (in miles) between his belt and the area in which normal human anatomy dictates that his waist should be. Appearance wise he is what would be produced if a Gulf tourist was cross-pollinated with an Egyptian taxi driver: lovely flowing Indian hair/moustache combo meets frequent ‘ya waaaad’ references.
It is rumoured that in addition to having high waisted trousers, Bahaa is known on occasion to have got high and wasted to a degree necessitating both an intervention, and extensive media exposure. They also say that Bahaa is remarkably shy, and given the distinct lack of between-songs banter it would seem that this is true. Either that or he does not feel an overwhelming desire to bond with men in suits during corporate dos.
For this was indeed a corporate event, organised by cousin Mildred’s company, to launch the re-branding of a biscuit company. My motive in going – other than staring at Bahaa’s high waisted trousers – was to eat free biscuits. I in fact consumed zero biscuits, and did not see a single biscuit-shaped object in the environs, which quite frankly I find unacceptable. The Bahaa-induced rapture in the audience more than compensated for their absence however.
The audience’s demography was interesting in itself. Mildred had told me that it would largely consist of “biscuit traders from the governorates” which, if it is not already the title of a novel by Thomas Hardy, should be. She presumably forewarned me so that I would not waste the last of my UK-purchased blusher on attempts to find a husband amongst them. Walking into the tent was indeed like being in a giant, very elegant, ahwa [Egypt's version of old man pubs], with acres of bearded biscuit traders as far as the eye could see. Bahaa, the chocolate chip of the proceedings, shone on the stage in the distance. He was in excellent voice and should be awarded an extra gold star for the manner in which he avoided catching his chin on his belt buckle when he sang. He also had no less than three keyboard players behind him, which is classy showmanship and no mistake!
As is customary during Egyptian concerts low level bedlam was the order of the day. Unidentified people wandered on and off stage, biscuit traders exchanged biscuit gossip at full volume and small children scuttled about like crazed beetles. I was standing next to one group of suits who, upon seeing an old acquaintance exclaimed ‘ooooh Eswed!’ before a dark complexioned man came over and they greeted each other exuberantly. It would appear that biscuit traders put all their creativity into biscuits rather than the monikers they give their friends. The way the men greeted each other also delighted me: Eswed kissed his own palm enthusiastically before shaking hands in a manner which made him look like he was spitting, and made me feel like I was amidst cowboys in the wild west.
Meanwhile, on stage, Bahaa was working it, but doing so in a manner which required the minimum amount of effort possible. His voice is excellent live, but his delivery is entirely without passion and it seems almost as if he is speaking his lyrics somehow. The cumulative effect of this is to make him seem like he is a washed up old singer in some dead-end opera. At one point he emitted a ‘laaaaaaaaaih’ [why] which demonstrated impressive breath control technique, but whose emotional levels were akin to, or less than, those of a robavecchia ambulant merchant [rag and bone man unique to Egypt. I think]. This delivery also made for some strange audience interaction moments: fans periodically went on stage for a photo opportunity, during which they would stand beside Bahaa as he continued to sing, their heads together, both performer and fan perfectly still apart from Bahaa’s mouth. The result was Bahaa lamenting his lost love and ‘the hand that used to wipe away his tears’ in the strange newsreader voice as beside him grinned an overweight balding man in a suit. Brokeback Mountain eat your heart out.
The best moment of the night was undoubtedly provided by the small group of suits who had watched Bahaa with Michael Jackson fan-levels of adoration for the duration of his performance, mouthing the words and turning to each other in glee whenever he bestowed a glance in their direction. They gradually worked their way forwards until they were directly by the side of the stage clapping and nudging each other and giggling. Bahaa presented one of them with a flower before preceeding to sing a song about a rose, causing one of his followers to almost expire from glee. He quite literally spun round to a friend, open mouthed, hands on cheeks, in an ohmygawd manner last witnessed when the Fab Four invaded America and I was adamant that somebody would throw underwear on stage.