Monday, 29 January 2018

Malfuf wa Malik : Silence, Sounds, Shapes, Ramadan Stories and Traditions

I’m still in the mood for oud. Here’s Ahmad Alshaiba from Yemen with an oud cover of The Sound of Silence, one of my all time favourite songs -

and also of Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You. The absence of lyrics is a serious improvement imo, the music's okay, but thumbs down for the chauvinistic words.  The polar opposite of favourite, not a fan  - no idea why it won the Grammy yesterday...but then I'm not the demographic that Ed is singing for. Though I'm glad to see the choice is creating its own firestorm of protest.

Anyways, take a listen while I tell you about...


Ramadan is the lunar month, the ninth in the Islamic calendar, when practising Muslims are obliged to forego the gratification of all physical appetites from sunrise to sunset. In Bahrain, halfway through the month, on the full moon night, there’s a celebration called Girga’oon. It’s a commemoration of Hassan ibn Ali’s birthday, who is the eldest grandson of the Prophet. Revered by both the major sects for being an Imam (Shia) and Caliph (Sunni). Neighbourhood children come singing songs and are given sweets and small sums of money as gifts from the houses around. Haven’t encountered it anywhere else I’ve lived.

And in Egypt they have the tradition of the Ramadan fanous, which is a decorative lantern symbolising the month of Ramadan. Like the Christmas tree means Christmas. Neither have anything to do intrinsically with religion, but have come to be irrevocably associated with a religious celebration/observance.

A bunch of these lamps are lit all through public and private spaces, and the whole city looks very festive and colourful. Families put them up at the front door or balcony, tiny ones in niches on the wall, large ones as the centrepiece on the Iftar (the meal after sunset, breaking of the fast) table. The lanterns come on every nightfall for the thirty nights of Ramadan, uniquely lighting up the month. I saw them that first Ramadan I spent in Egypt, now I notice them everywhere in the Gulf too.

Ramadan fanous in Ma'adi, Cairo. 

The origin of the Ramadan fanous is attributed variously - to a story dating to 968, when Muiz li Din Allah, the Fatimid Caliph entered the city of Cairo on the 15th of Ramadan, and the residents greeted him with lamps. Another source puts it at Salahuddin’s conquest in the 12th century, still others to a Fatimid Caliph who came between 10th and 12th centuries between these two leaders. However that may be, there’s no doubt the lamps go back centuries. They are still handmade and sold in the Cairene districts of Attaba and Sayeda Zainab, made lovingly from metal and coloured glass and decorated with calligraphy and Islamic motifs.  Nowadays cheaper mass-manufactured imports from China are a threat to these hand-crafted beauties. 

Ramadan fawaneis on sale at a shop in Khan el Khalil.

Ahdaf Soueif 

I’ve mentioned Ahdaf Souief before, probably several times. She’s an Egyptian short story writer, a novelist, essayist, columnist and a political commentator. She has been educated, and worked in London and Cairo, and has written columns both for the Guardian, UK and Al-Ahram, Egypt. The Map of Love is her second novel, an epic love story set in in 20th century Egypt against the Nationalist Movement to free Egypt from the British. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker 1999.

I read it after I landed in Egypt, Soueif was the second Egyptian writer I read, (the first being Naguib Mahfouz of course, whose Cairo trilogy I’d read before I went to live in Cairo.) Unlike Mahfouz, whose work I can access only in translation, Soueif writes in English, the connect is more direct, more tactile. I am not distracted-anxious about whether I'm missing out on the nuances, what's lost in translation. She has an interesting voice, subtle, soft, skilful, romantic at times yet clear-sighted, a very Arab perspective underpinning her Western patina. She kind of borderlessly glides between her British and Egyptian selves, her English retaining the cadence of her native Arabic, which I happen to love. I’ve read several of her books, both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve liked them all, some of her short stories are superb. She captures both the angst and the headiness of the third-culture experience brilliantly.

Here is an excerpt from one of her columns:

1923: Stepping down from the train in Cairo Central Station, Hoda Hanim Sha’rawi lifts her hand to the side of her face, undoes a golden clasp, and her fine white crepe de chine yashmak flutters to the ground. At that moment, the Turkish-style veil ceased to be de rigueur for Egyptian women of the upper class. Sha’arawi was handsome, wealthy, widowed and securely aristocratic, with powerful political connections through both her father and her husband. She had been in Rome on behalf of the Egyptian Women’s Union, a trip that was one more chapter in Egypt’s modernisation project. The gesture, at its final moment, resolved a debate that had occupied Egyptian society for almost thirty years.

Click here to read the rest of it.

And it's time again for the WEP! Come join and/or share!


  1. The lanterns are beautiful. I bet that's a sight to see with so many lit.

    1. Yes, quite charming! Cairo looks resplendent during Ramadan.

  2. The Sounds of Silence, always a favorite. Thanks for sharing. I didn't watch the awards show, they've gotten too petty and too political for me. Although, I do love the movement that the women are supporting. It is about time!
    Thanks for sharing Ramadan. And that excerpt was wonderful.

    1. Finished the rest of Ahdaf Souief's column. Interesting discussion. When I was younger I thought the veil was mysterious, sexy (the movies made it so). As an adult I see it as constrictive, a form of control, even abuse. Then I watched the Project Runway show last year and the designer who should have won the entire thing designed for the more modest woman, the modern Egyptian woman. Her clothes while still modest, were truly lovely. Maybe her designs will help bridge the gap between worlds.
      Thanks for sharing.

    2. I didn't watch it either - read it in the papers in the morning and was quite shocked. Weird choice.

      Women are always being reduced to body parts or shapes or what they choose to cover or not. It's basically a non-issue, a distraction to keep people from tackling the real issues. Which thankfully has now taken a different turn and maybe will lead to greater justice and equality. Fingers crossed.

  3. I'm incredibly out of touch with today's music, so I wasn't at all familiar with Ed Sheeran’s "Shape of You." I Googled the lyrics, and personally, I'd describe the song's main character more as "shallow" than "chauvinistic," but that's a distinction which still doesn't deserve anyone's approval.

    It's always confusing as to whether a song or poem truly reflects the attitudes of the singer or poet, or if the "speaker" is only a character. To list just one example, Elton John once recorded a song called "Texan Love Song," which definitely did not reflect his personal views, nor that of the lyricist, Bernie Taupin.

    1. Yup, shallow too :)

      I am not for one minute bringing Ed Sheeran's attitudes into it - I know very little about him. The lyrics however reduce the woman to 'the shape' of her body. Not a particularly sensitive or enlightened thing to do in view of what's been happening in the entertainment industry, apart from being quite dismissive of women generally. Particularly weird choice when there were other, very powerful nominees with songs addressing that very problem of disrespect that women face day in and day out. Talk about clueless!!

    2. I wasn't trying to suggest that you were making any personal statements about Ed Sheeran. As a writer and poet yourself, you know perfectly well that writers & poets don't always speak in their own voice.

      I know nothing about Ed Sheeran at all, but I'm hoping he's sarcastically commenting on the man in the song. Still, as you mentioned, there were more appropriate choices for the award.

    3. There I'm with you! Considering that the 'I' in 99% of what I write isn't me at all...

      Ed Sheeran wrote those lyrics himself, at least he is part of the team that did I think, he stars in the video himself too. He isn't necessarily representing his personal views, but the view represented isn't one that endears itself. The music arrangement, as I said, is quite catchy, but the rest - well, tasteless and ill-timed. But...he's really young, so one must make allowances for that. It's the selectors I'm surprised at, why?? Beyond disappointed that this kind of superficiality has been awarded.

      I am absolutely confident that I know even less about current music than you, but this track has been on my SM feeds (one more reason to eschew SM??) and also on the radio, no avoiding it.

      I know a bit more about Sir Elton John than about Sheeran :)

    4. Me, too! I "knew" Elton long before he was knighted. Actually, most of my heavy-duty trivia knowledge pre-dates the last ten years or so.

  4. Sound of Silence is always a stunner.
    I'm good with writers who reflect multiple languages. Just have to get in the rhythm. I enjoy the flavor

    1. Ya, me too - love writers who write in a different language than their native tongues - it brings such a richness of idioms and expressions. A different perspective altogether.

      However, I have also read translations that are tedious and painful - of books which are critically acclaimed in their own settings - so you feel that you're missing out because of a poor translation job.