CAIRO – In its heyday, it was known as the living and romantic heart of Arab music – a Cairo street inspired by the boulevards of Paris, home to musicians, belly dancers and instrument makers.
But Mohammed Ali Street is fading away. It had already been in decline for years as a musical center. Now, the tightening of post-revolutionary Egypt could finish it off, between economic crisis, uncontrolled urban sprawl and the growing influence of Muslim conservatives, its patrons fear.
The street in downtown Cairo, parts of which are lined with French arched arcades, is now dominated by mobile phone and electronics stores, donkey-drawn carts and heavy traffic. The shops making, repairing and selling the musical instruments that once filled the streets are disappearing, along with their display cases of stringed lute-like ouds, qanouns – a kind of dulcimer – and tablas – a drum also made for them. rapid hand clapping. oriental dance tunes or for the languid rhythms of a ballad in love with Umm Kalthoum, the most famous singer of classical Arab music.
“Instrument stores are closing and people are renting them out to cell phone vendors and furniture stores,” said Ezzat el-Fayoumi, a 65-year-old drummer who is one of the few remaining musicians in the city. the street.
“The street is off,” he said, sitting in a cafe that now serves as his office. “When I die, there will be no more music. Nobody learns that.”
The street, named after the founder of modern Egypt, was built in the 1860s as part of a new city center that was to modernize Cairo. Inspired by the French architect Baron Haussmann, the designer of the grand boulevards of Paris, the Egyptian leader of the time, Khedive Ismail, sought to “make Egypt a piece of Europe”. The result was a city center of avenues and squares lined with arches and European architecture, between the Nile and the medieval old town of Cairo, with its Islamic architecture and maze of narrow lanes.
The rue Mohammed Ali was the link between the old and the new Cairo, on the model of the famous rue Rivoli in Paris. Over the next century, it became an entertainment hub, home to the musicians, dancers, and nightlife workers of the Cairo cabaret. El-Fayyoumi remembers that he once lived in the same apartment building as Lucy, one of Egypt’s most famous belly dancers who also went on to become a movie star. The street was also the destination for anyone looking to buy the best oriental musical instruments, from across the region, Europe and the United States.
El-Fayoumi, who is a member of one of Egypt’s oldest and best-known percussion music groups called Hassaballah, has worked in this profession for over 45 years. None of his children wanted to follow in his footsteps.
Now he is feeling the country’s economic hardship. Lack of security and tight budgets have made major events rarer. Parties and events are less and less spaced. Instead of three or four events a week, he said, the band can now wait up to 10 days before getting a gig. His band also had to settle for a lot less money for each gig.
And the newly emboldened Islamists, who frown on music and the perceived “decadence” of nightlife, also suffocate people in his craft. He said a group of zealous young Islamists tried to convince him to quit and be a “good Muslim”. He pushed them away, suggesting that he doesn’t need anyone to teach him religion.
“I’m a regular at the mosque. It’s the only other place I go besides the cafe.”
© Colonist of the time of copyright