New Internationalist

A fierce beauty

Issue 448

An evening in the company of a defiant musician is a tonic for Maria Golia.

My dear friend Roman Bunka, a great guitarist, aoud (lute) player and composer, came to town and we visited one of his mentors and collaborators, Abdu Dagher, in an old Cairo neighbourhood. Originally from Tanta (a Delta town associated with a Sufi saint loved by musicians, dancers, and hashish-smokers) Abdu is neither rich nor particularly famous. But what a musician! A masterful violinist and aoud player, he also makes these instruments for which, although he had no formal training, he has composed works of surpassing passion, precision and intricacy.

Illustration: Sarah John
Illustration: Sarah John

Blunt and ironic, Abdu knows his worth and thinks those who don’t are idiots, especially those in power. Because of his outspoken politics, he has been marginalized by the toadies of the Ministry of Culture and for most of his 50-year career his concerts have been rare. Yet thanks in part to Roman, who arranged performances in Europe, Abdu Dagher’s work has been recorded and he attracts avid students and aficionados from around the world.

Wiry and defiant at 70, with one stray eye, Abdu Dagher dresses in a galabiyya and though not exactly refined, is undeniably charismatic with a cutting wit and penchant for puns. When I ask him about post-revolution Egypt, he says: ‘kofta and shebab’ (‘minced-meat and youth’ instead of kebab). The ousted regime he calls ‘homarcedes’ (homar is donkey in Arabic and Mercedes the despised élite’s favourite car). I mentioned the country’s dire economic straits. ‘But Egypt is rich!’ Abdu maintained. ‘How else could those homar have been robbing us for so long?’

Abdu’s wife died this year after a protracted illness and in April one of his sons, a successful young fashion designer, was murdered in his home. But Abdu looked stronger than ever. When I offered my condolences he said, as is customary, ‘Praise be to god’. His physical and emotional resilience reflects a belief not just in god but in music. He loves to talk about its transformative, healing powers, how it makes plants grow and charms the savage beast. He praises the subtleties of the quarter-tone scale, for the greater range of expression it allows, and claims to be one of the last living purveyors of a hybrid musical tradition born in the cultural co-mingling of the Ottoman Empire.

We sat in a tiny reception room crammed literally with musical chairs; each would be filled, in the course of the evening, by different musicians, here to pay their respects and play a while together, impromptu gatherings of some astounding yet unknown talents. An ancient air conditioner makes the thin walls rattle. Everyone smokes, especially Abdu, despite wracking coughing fits punctuated by discreet spitting on the floor.

Roman starts to play the aoud, an Andalusian theme at first, then a kind of tango, finally settling on one of Abdu’s compositions. Abdu’s grandson Khaled has been sitting with us quietly, an attractive, muscular youth of around 20, with short-cropped hair and beard, wearing jeans and a tight-fitting turquoise T-shirt. He picks up a violin and joins Roman. I am surprised not only to see that he plays, but by how he is the very aural image of his granddad: the same rich, plaintive tone, his head tilted towards his instrument, his eyes half-closed.

Abdu smiles, acknowledging Roman’s graceful technique and his grandson’s inherited talents. When he reaches for his violin a current runs through the room and everyone’s attention is instantly piqued. He wields it tenderly, yet like a weapon, slicing through the complex arrangement, mixing time signatures and keys, moving from one mood to the other, from structured phrase to improvised interval, as if in conversation with himself. There’s no pain, no death, no fear of anything that the fierce beauty of his music cannot assuage. This too is the voice of Egypt, valiant and true, yet seldom heard.

Maria Golia is the author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt.

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