Cairo Rhapsody

Cairo undergoes a character transformation in the mercurial spring weather, cautiously emerging from its winter cave only to be pummelled by sudden and intense attacks of wind, sand and downpours, during which the collective gasp of its inhabitants – human, animal and struggling mechanical – is virtually audible. The schizophrenic, inclement weather which battered Cairo this week was a particularly appropriate backdrop for Armenian-Egyptian painter Anna Boghiguian’s chaotic images of the city, in her exhibition at the Safar Khan Gallery.

Boghiguian’s bleeding of colours into each other, the depressing drabness of some of these colours and the naivety of the buildings, objects and figures represented combine to create paintings which, while they are messy, chaotic and dark, pulsate with energy and movement – and which therefore pretty much capture the soul of the city.

One composition, ‘Cairo at night,’ is particularly apposite, given the Big Brother nature of recent Constitutional changes. Boghiguian presents a maze of roundabouts and streets swarming with cars which encircle, and threaten to choke, the houses in their midst, all of which is topped off with a menacing thunderous-looking sky. In the bottom right hand corner stands what appears to be a grey giant wearing a toga, his arms raised above his head. Next to him, written in Arabic, is the word ‘Egypt’ and before him stand two miniscule figures, entirely dwarfed by the chaos of their surroundings and the monstrous apparition looming over them. Another particularly touching image shows an old man against a backdrop of his life in the form of symbolic images: the Ka’ba, a football team, “I love you” scrawled in English, a wedding photo…Like Cairo, Boghiguian’s paintings are not immediately aesthetically pleasing but, also like Cairo, interest and beauty lies in the details.

On the other side of Brazil Street Egyptian life is presented in an altogether different form in the Zamalek Gallery, which is, incidentally, the best-smelling art gallery in the world. Alexandrian artist Rabab Nimr’s ink drawings of fishermen, fellaheen and fishes are beautifully rendered, her use of black and white to create shadows making the images seem three-dimensional. The figures themselves are almost cartoon-like, with disproportionately huge hands, identical square faces and richly-textured Don King-style hair. Creatures, fish especially, are a constant theme, as are playing cards and boats. In one especially striking image, seven heads rendered in metallic grey, black and brown are shown against a white backdrop, all inexplicably with birds perched on their heads, something like Mount Rushmore meets Dr Seuss. The recurring themes and colours in these images and the identical and inscrutable expressions of the figures shown, create an exhibition of elegant unity.

From unity to unison at the Sawy Culture Wheel, where on Friday I kept it real with an evening of Arab rap, courtesy of Palestinian duo Jaffa Phonix, and Asfalt, an Egyptian ensemble. Rap music is arguably one of America’s most successful exports after Coca-Cola and wars of liberation, offering one-size-fits-all clothes, attitude and lingo, adaptable to any culture. The black empowerment message associated with it has also been appropriated and adapted to local causes by rap adherents globally, as is the case with Jaffa Phonix, refugees living in Egypt who use their compositions to call for justice for Palestine.

They delivered a startlingly enthusiastic performance, at times jumping so high vertically that I feared they would do themselves a mischief involving their heads and the 26th July bridge. Members of the tiny audience were encouraged ‘not to smoke if they want to be rap stars!’ and ordered to ‘put their hands up!’ (in the Puff Daddy rather than LAPD sense) which they obligingly did, swaying side to side in their ‘Allah’ bling and giant trousers. Jaffa Phonix made way for Asfalt who, I am happy to report, perform in matching t-shirts bearing their name, a la George Michael & co. in Live Aid. Their repertoire consists of a mixture of social commentary (‘Unemployed Generation’, ‘Stay Strong Country’) and teenage boy angst (‘Give Me a Chance’) accompanied by a live band. Their performances was polished and enthusiastic, and generally fun to watch. Periodic guest appearances were also made by a rapper from another band, Arabian Knights, who (once microphone distribution had been sorted) rapped very fast, and very fluidly indeed.

Seeing them all up there gazed upon by the small but committed group of bandana-sporting devotees made me wonder whether a rap scene has already, or is in the process of, emerging in Egypt, and whether in fact rap really works in Arabic: Palestinian Arabic’s mellifluous languidness (“waaahed, ithnaaan, taleteee”) is perhaps just too nice for rap – the aural equivalent of a cuddly grandmother trying to hit you over the head with numchucks.

Originally published in al Ahram Weekly

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3 Responses to Cairo Rhapsody

  1. Forsoothsayer says:

    i can’t believe u thought asfalt was ok…we couldn’t make much of it! and they said “sam3eet el beat!” several times. it was awwwwwful.

  2. hany says:

    Have u ever heard Wagih Aziz? He holds concert at the Sawy wheel sometimes. I would highly recommend him. Serious, yet funny.. sometimes a bit gloomy, still funny and very egyptian. I think he has a concert the 29th at Ahmed Shawki’s museum.

  3. Amnesiac says:

    In an arch act of treachery my friend Sharshar went to see Wagih and neglected to tell me about the concert. He has been recommended by others, so thanks a lot for letting me know about the date.

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