The Choir of AllahOn January 9, 2012 by Mona Abouissa
I follow a controversial choir into a parliamentary race where angels themselves are at work.
Published in Le Monde Diplomatique & The National (UAE), 2012
“Let the angels mark your ballot papers!” the parliamentary candidate flaunts the mockery of the police in the 2005 elections. “And the angels did.” The crowd of thousands hang on the Muslim Brotherhood politician’s every word at a packed square in Alexandria. Al-Mohamedy Ahmed passes the microphone to another popular candidate of the Freedom and Justice party, Sobhy Saleh. He often ignited their rallies with his sense of humor, but not today, “we told them not to play with fire, he who plays with fire burns, so the earth shattered beneath them and now they are in jail.” It’s a victory they waited 80 years for. A woman faints behind me, she just won a ticket to Umrah [pilgrimage]. A boy urges me to write his name on a raffle ticket, there are electric-hoovers, juice-makers, irons and more underneath the stage to win. He doesn’t. A girl on the other side, trembling, asks me to write a message to Sobhy asking him for work . He is popular. A man starts to shout into a loudspeaker, “God is great and praise be to Him, one of us is in parliament!” From small to big, young to old, the crowd chants back.
In the middle of it all; candidates and their rhetorical speeches, the gender-separated crowd filming on mobile phones, occasional fights, martyrs’ posters, praise to God under florescent lights – amid this parade of faith and politics is the Muslim Brothers’ choir. The candidates wave holding hands, the audience sing along. “Oh the white moon rose over us, from the valley of Wada, and we owe it to show gratefulness, where the call is to Allah.” From post-revolutionary patriotism to the oldest Islamic songs, young men sing at the top of their vocal cords against bad acoustics on the brink of a historic moment. They are superstars of the rally.
“We were a condemned choir,” it was 1989 and Mohamed Said was a teenage soloist in the first Muslim Brotherhood choir. “ Back then it was different, nobody knew what Islamic art is. What, sing? How? About what?” Popular opinion amongst the Brotherhood was that music was prohibited. Young men faced a dilemma, “we have talents and we are Muslim Brothers, what do we do?” They searched the long line of scholars debating the issue of music, and they found halal music. A popular Sheikh, Abbas Al-Sisi, helped them and brought in well-known composer Mahmoud Khamis. Mahmoud was encouraged by Hassan El-Banaa himself, the Brotherhood’s founder, to attend music school. Across the Red Sea, in Syria and Jordan, their Brothers already started Islamic singing, this young choir followed in their footsteps. It was a careful gradual process, “bit by bit, first there was no music, later we added drums, and then flutes and synthesizer,” Mohamed recalls, now the manager of the fourth and most famous incarnation of the choir formed after the revolution, “the Coast of Alexandria”.
We are in a lonely dusty wedding tent on the Nile canal that slices through a populous area of Alexandria, where the Freedom and Justice party’s rallies took place. The choristers in their twenties sing a song 1400 years old, the same one people first sung welcoming the prophet Mohammed when he migrated to Medina. The boys seem to enjoy the more up-beat numbers over the slower ones. Outside, the country voted. The party won a majority in parliamentary elections, and tomorrow the boys will perform at the public celebration. A man comes in with tea, the boys stop singing and start joking around. Tamer Al-Said, the maestro, frowns at them.
From controversy as old as the religion itself, to the tight embrace of a paranoid regime, the previous choirs incarnations had battles of their own. Growing under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood in the shadow of Mubarak’s emergency law, the choirs performed against politics. The young choristers were arrested at home in front of their parents like criminals or terrorists. They were interrogated about what exactly they do, why they do it, who sponsors them, and do they grow beards. The roads to their concerts were patrolled, areas shut down, audiences searched, concerts filmed. The choristers traveled separately undercover while their instruments made their own way on a train to the venues. It was raw belief that kept them going, that they put across the message. They learned to survive. “If you are afraid then you should not be a member of the Brotherhood,” Mohamed says, “thank God for the revolution!”
When Sobhy Saleh, now a member of parliament, was arrested again on the 28th of January, he did not pack the usual bag. “I knew it will be different from now on,” he said in a pre-election interview with Mohamed on an Islamic TV program. He was soon released. The former president Hosni Mubarak was arrested. The choir went from underground to a stage where the battle of ideologies puts them between liberals and Islamists. Mohamed says it is not the Brotherhood’s sensitivities that are an obstacle as much as society’s, “we do not fight art.”
Being a Muslim Brother was a life choice that made someone’s dreams possible, but for others it was compromise. With the parliamentary elections behind them, Mohamed Said reminisces as he shows me their old haunts in Alexandria, “You know this is the very coffee-shop we used to have our secret meetings in during Mubarak’s regime?” I look at a man behind him who stares at us. “In this coffee-shop in 2005 the police ambushed and arrested the Brothers, they spent six months in jail,” Mohamed says, “but I left before this ambush.” I comment to this irony, “God must like you, Mohamed,” and we laugh. Beside working with the choir, Mohamed Said also runs a media business mostly under the Brotherhood’s wing and has a baby on the way. “I always wanted to be a TV presenter,” he shares with me. Mohamed, 38, was a Muslim Brother from an early age – a choice that cost him his dream. He was sacked from state television for his relationship with the Brotherhood. The independent channels owned either by liberals or members of Mubarak’s regime both fear Islamists, he knows his chances are slim there. Mohamed asks me to watch his reportage and studio interviews with the party’s candidates, he obviously put effort into them. He will keep trying to break into the mainstream, just like with the choir.
It was different for law student Islam Talaat, 23. If it wasn’t for the Muslim Brothers, he would probably not be a singer. As a small boy he attracted their attention when in his thin voice he sung a song in praise of God. Islam started to perform religious or the Brotherhood’s ideological songs on occasions, he didn’t really understand the latter, yet he was happy singing. “I’m thankful to them, they taught me music with an aim.” Now, Islam is an alto soloist in the choir, and plans shooting his own video clip after winning a Brotherhood singling competition. Offstage, when there are no concerts, he teaches Qur’an in people’s homes, Islam has known it by heart since he was eight.
Islam loves to sing about the Prophet, he closes his eyes just like he did while at the rallies, and unleashes a long vocal stream, ignoring an accidental audience by our table. “That is the rhythm of sadness,” he tells me, “I enjoy trilling and live in the lyrics.” Once he sang a Ramadan farewell song to the rest of the Brotherhood and they cried, he says. Islam is a romantic at heart, he even sings to the moon, but he doesn’t sing love songs and to his female “fans” on facebook he replies in a most proper manner.
There is a thin line between good and evil music in Islam, and the choir walks it: no explicit dancing, no love out of wedlock and no inciting of illicit desires. A higher purpose, soloist Diaa Al-Din explains. “When I sing to people I must be sure that this will raise me before God.” While his choir-mate Islam looks for a singing career, Diaa on the other hand looks for a way to propagate his beliefs. Diaa is saturated with Muslim Brotherhood ideals and more often uses “we” than “I” when we talk. Raised by Salafi parents, nine years ago he found a home with the Muslim Brotherhood, “there is a religious connection in the Brotherhood I did not find with the Salafists.” Dia’a likes the idea that there is a person responsible for every new-comer within the organization, it’s systematic, while with the stricter Salafists, it is divided simply into Sheikhs and followers.
Diaa’s family has a different opinion on music and they do not support Diaa‘s choice, except for his older brother. Before he urged them to see him singing, unsuccessfully, now he and his parents have a balance – he sings, they stand aside.
Egypt suffered from being liberal, Diaa utters, the previous regime supported tacky and vulgar pop-music, condemning any Islamic trend for political reasons. “After the revolution there is hope that we, the choir and the Muslim Brothers in general, will appear in a cultured way.” I look around the computer training office he works in and hope Diaa is not offended by my uncovered hair.
“Come on, tell me what is the dominant-ninth?” six girls looked for the answer in a small room barely containing all of them and a synthesizer. Tamer Al-Saed waited patiently. He graduated from this music department at Alexandria University top of the class, and now is finishing his masters degree and raining the faculty of commerce choir on the side. That choir took first place in a competition with other faculties last year, this year the faculty of law choir beat them. He introduced me to his musical and smiling colleagues in other small rooms of the university, some were surprised learning he coaches the Brotherhood choir. His wife also teaches music in the same department. That is other life of 27-year-old Tamer, when he doesn’t work with Coast of Alexandria choir. “I’m not afraid of new experiences, I jump at them, I wanted to know for myself how the Brothers think.” Unlike the other choirs he has worked with, this one balances precariously between a judgmental public and a strict organization. He says they rarely perform Muslim Brothers songs which are a record of their struggles, and believesit is so they are not accused of being propagandists. And they are morally presided over by the Brotherhood, so they carefully introduce rhythmic nuances and lyrical variations, “if we just throw everything at them at once, they will be scared off.”
“A good voice is a gift from God, and now it is up to me to develop it,” the grand project of the maestro is to have forty choristers, Mohamed supports the idea. “Imagine forty choristers singing, what an effect!” Tamer enjoys talking technicalities, “I want to have three and four part harmonies, now we have only two, also it is hard to find good bass voice.” But for now, the choir lives off deals with venues that Mohamed tries his best with, symbolic payments, and irregular concerts. Today it’s the rallies of the Freedom and Justice party, tomorrow they hope the Cairo Opera won’t cancel a concert deal because of the country’s unstable situation.
“Where are you heading like this?” the man suspiciously scanned Ahmed with his bass-guitar on his back at the Muslim Brotherhood’s venue. “To audition for the choir,” he replied. Now same man would pat his shoulder and make way for him to the stage. Months later, Ahmed Al-Samman was photographed with his bass-guitar and singing choristers in the background, and the picture appeared in Shorouk newspaper’s article in November last year. Ahmed felt that the newspaper hinted that the FJP’s rallies, with their choir performances, were “dancing events”. His friends made jokes as if he’s a part of some kind of Brotherhood underground disco scene. “The worse thing playing in the Brothers’ choir is facing people’s opinion, they still don’t understand it, just like that article, they don’t accept it,” he says, “come and see for yourself.”
Ahmed plays piano and oud as well as bass guitar in his other bands. Like anyone else in the choir, the old dilemma tickles Ahmed, “music completes religion, when it urges us to be better, to care about each other, making us more humane.” Ahmed teaches music to children, “I want to prove that teaching children music at an early age will make them better humans when they grow up.” Ahmed is a Latin-Jazz and Dean Martin fan and doesn’t endorse the Brothers’ politics, and unlike his choir-mates Diaa and Islam, he listens to everything. However, he is impressed by the choir, “It’s an achievement on its own how far the Brotherhood has reached.”
Maybe the choir was a mistake, young Mohamed and his friends should never have raised their voices in song. The Brotherhood’s leadership could have ruled against it. Maybe it should not have survived after the arrests and the sleepless nights in police cells. Maybe it should have been lost somewhere amid politics, religion and art along the way. Twenty-two years and four incarnations, and they still sing. As bassist Ahmed sees it, they are making history, in their small way.