Sunday, 24 September 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Graffiti, Gems and Holidaymaking

Listen here to Ghalia Benali collaborating with Belgian, Iraqi, Moroccan and Indian musicians to produce a uniquely Arab-Indian-International blend of music that’s beyond mind blowing. The album is called Al Palna (Palna is a Hindi word meaning ‘Cradle’) and she is singing a track titled Hayyamatni.  (you can listen to Ghalia and Dina al Wedidi singing the same track but without the Indian instruments live in Cairo in 2013 here)

Ghalia Benali is a Tunisian singer, songwriter, dancer, design artist and performer, born in Brussels in the late sixties. She grew up in Zarzis in southern Tunisia, and returned to Brussels to study graphic design after completing high school. She embarked on her musical career in the nineties and soon climbed to fame abroad. She has this hypnotic voice, nuanced, deep and passionate. I remember reading somewhere that a soprano is not the natural range of most Arab female singers, they tend towards the alto. I haven't been able to discover why that should be so, but I am happy that it is, if it is. Just a personal preference, nothing to do with the quality of their, or anyone else's, music.

Ghalia is a self taught musician, influenced by not just the Middle Eastern greats, but the cross currents of world music that ebbed and flowed all around her in her formative years. Her mother listened to Indian and Arab music, her father favoured Western classical, she herself was exposed to Middle Eastern folk traditions and other musical ones rooted deep in the cultural fabric of her native land. As a result both the East and the West and the Middle meet in her art.

Holidays. A certain, sudden spring. And the making of both.

The Arab Spring came to Egypt in January 2011, on a day that my child returned from a school trip to Luxor. A handful of parents, just those of that particular year group, went to pick the children up at nightfall and waited and waited in the dimly lit school grounds. An empty school devoid of the happy bustle of learning and light is one of the most forlorn places to be. We rattled around, tired, impatient, bored and fed up already. The teachers texted almost continuously and conscientiously about the snarls and the protests blocking the main highways. I was probably not at my patient best.

They finally came in at around ten, three hours late. We thought nothing of it at the time, Cairo traffic has a formidable reputation in the congested department. And the airport was 50 km away from us. Then things took a scary-beautiful turn a few days later. The anger escalated, the protests continued, we were evacuated, the President fell. And returning, I saw graffiti for the first time in Cairo streets. The Revolution ultimately failed, but not before it created a lava explosion of art – visual, audio, written, performed. Watching a revolution unfold is a concentrated life lesson, whether you are a part of it or just a bystander. Two personal milestones happened unobtrusively during that time, my child spent his first night away from his mum, he and I both grew up a little, and my book of Bengali shorts was published during the Kolkata Book Fair in January 2011.

That whole year was a concentrated learning opportunity in ways more than one. Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary was being celebrated and the Indian Embassy in Cairo organised a yearlong fiesta of his works, documentaries, poetry readings, seminars analysing his life and times. I went along for as many of them as I could, obviously. One particular literary event stands out – a seminar on the poetry of ‘Tagore and Shawky’ – not only did I get to know about the correspondence between the Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawky and Tagore, I heard living, established Arab poets recite from Tagore’s works, their own works, past Arab greats, a veritable bonanza of poetry. All that year my newsfeed had translated snippets from Gitanjali posted by Egyptian friends; an Egyptian who had lived in Bangladesh stood up and declaimed a Tagore verse, impromptu, at one of the events, complete with the Bengali accent; someone sent me cuttings of past articles in Cairo newspapers on Tagore - ordinary people, not poets and intellectuals superkeen on the arts or anything. I had no idea the following Tagore had among Egyptians and I was blown away.

That year was the first time I heard of Prof Galal Amin too. He was the main speaker in one of these events.

Galal Amin is a well known economist, and has taught at both Ain Shams University and the American University in Cairo. He has also been visiting faculty at US universities. He is a serious social commentator but his essays are threaded through with a dry wit, quite delightful, while being informative and intimate.

Socially speaking, summer holidaying in Egypt has been characterized, like many other aspects of social life, by a striking dualism reflecting an obvious contrast in the way of life of the upper and lower classes. No wonder that Egyptians have coined several words based on the noun for summer season, sayf. Thus, where an English- or Frenchman would speak of "taking his holiday," the Egyptian speaks of tasyif, "summer holidaymaking," which means specifically, spending the summer at the seaside. Egyptians even have a special noun for people who spend the summer this way: mustafin or musayifin, as well as a word for the summer breeze, meaning, literally, the "breeze that comes from the direction of the sea," bahari, whose praises are continually being sung. Egyptians attribute to it the power of restoring the soul and of healing the sick, they may even entrust it with carrying messages to and from a beloved person.

~ Whatever Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

As a non-Arab and a Desi, I can tell you I am into waterscapes (I was born on the East bank of a river, not far from the seas) and so I get this - Egyptians are inordinately fond of waterbodies. Most Arabs are, considering much of their lands are arid and inhospitable. So that's no surprise, all humans probably have this affinity for water, given that perish without the sweet version of that commodity. But extolling a particular kind of breeze? and assigning it a postman role for  love notes? So totally charming, so Egyptian! And also - Indian.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Nothing's lost...

Le Morne by Mira Boolell Khushiram

The light falls aslant on the slope where
folded between the silence of stone,
a hundred footfalls of restless men
mill in fear. Not a trace remains
save the spill of that sand coloured tongue,
and a sudden shadow of a cave;
the crisscrossed trails of hurried escape;
a persistent keening of the waves
a lament formed of sea, rock, terrain
an untamed yen in a twinge of air
a squeeze of breath, and a freefall plunge,
just for a flash and then they are gone.
Yet nothing’s lost in the universe -
the yearnings for freedom. Silence.  Words.

Today I'm writing to another watercolour from Mira's Mountains of Mauritius series, featuring a different, dramatic perspective of Le Morne Brabant, thank you Mira! I have written about it before in this on-going artistic collaboration of ours. Read about it here. And about the legends of the escaped slaves, or maroons, on this site.

Sunday, 10 September 2017


I’m torn between two poems, two oceans,
five countries, half a dozen rivers, two
dozen houses, forks in desert roads, motions
in parliament. Between the forks of due
processes. Between me being me, and you
being you. Between emotional quotients.

From wingtip to wingtip, from limb to limb
I’m easy to tear, separate into
segments along my perforated rim;
steel’s superfluous, a flicker will do –
of fabric, winds, porcelain grin, an eye through
a fanlight, a word, a long drawn out whim.

Torn between two stanzas, just now, and thrust
into matryoshka dolls, nested disputes,
between assets and titles, diamonds and dust,
isms and schisms and their hydra-headed fruits
and it’s easy to throw me, blind on the routes
of zigzag lightning between duty and trust.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Remembering Zeinabu


At dawn I woke to a translucent dream,
and Zeinabu was bending over me -
her eyes tender unfolding hibiscus,
her smile the sharp edge of a naked blade.

You recall Zeinabu, don't you? She comes
often, to my bedside, banyan, angst, verse,
she is the rose that goes by many names -
Zenobia sometimes, Janhavi, Jean -

as per the moods of the seasons and stars.
Today she handed me a light console,
smiled her sharpest smile, most mysterious,
whispered, “no walls. Water, everywhere. Still.”

She used to stop by the golden windows -
calabash with endless rafts of butter
in a buttermilk sea - and ask strangely
pointed questions. She was the old, cracked pane

refracting rainbows off her own edges,
shattered raindrops on her limbs and torso
collected into rivulets, into
the fluid breadth of language as they fell.

The roofs were archived in her, the broken
brick arches, the crumbling sphinxes that spoke
with the mouths of kings. Two mourning doves played
with her left shoulder, she gently set them

down on my balcony, “these might bring you
something.” They didn’t stay long, pecked the rattan
of the seat, kissed her hands for the last time,
and took flight, invisible in seconds.

“They can be,” she sighed, “a bit annoying
really, why I can’t fathom.” She came with
dawnlit tombs hidden in her braided hair,
the forks of wide boulevards on her forehead.

She brought baskets of fruits - figs, guavas,
split them open to flesh-pink, offered me
an uneven quarter, and asked after
my mothers, my children, the dusty bloom

on the innards of my wine kegs and cups,
inscribed rice grains, and bullets, flattened by
ricochet, collected at my feet in
poison pools of metal. Where street children

played at hopscotch and tag in the debris -
there was nowhere else to go. “How’s that one?”
She asked after the gun-fingered, ten-armed
members of our furthest clans, our peoples.

India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan are reeling from the worst flooding in South Asia for decades. The losses are staggering. More than 40 million people are affected, and 1400+ people have been killed. Please click on this link here, and/or here if you wish to help.