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Islamic Cairo, Cairo, Egypt.
Peace Message: Singing for Unity
Rarely do we attend a spiritual performance that leaves the audience with an overwhelming sense of national pride as seen in Intisar Abdel Fattah’s Peace Message. Performed regularly at the Ghouri Complex in Islamic Cairo, the show leaves you in a state of trance with its perfect fusion of Egyptian patriotism and religious recitation.
Peace Message is an ensemble of four troupes; Samaa, a Sufi recitation group, a Coptic hymnal choir, an Indonesian recitation group as well as an a-cappella church choir. Using only kanoun, daf and drums, the simplicity of the underlying music allows the singers’ smooth voices to echo through the small dome, sending messages of unity beyond religious and racial difference into the audience’s soul.
The songs performed by Peace Message have a strong emphasis on God and his praise. Having the crowd seated no more than a metre away from the performers, who are settled a step lower than the first row, ensures that a connection between audience and performer is maintained. Also adding to the intimacy of the performance is the presence of the conductor amidst the audience.
As the show proceeds, the troupes’ harmonious melody takes the crowd through escalating levels of divine spiritual experience. The fusion of the various styles of religious recitation and hymns leaves listeners swaying subconsciously to the rhythm.
This is by no means an opera-type performance– it’s all about breaking down differential boundaries, which is also evident in the reference to humanity as opposed to religion or gender. Adding to the uniqueness of the performance is the crowd, which includes a diverse mix of ages, ethnicities and religious backgrounds. There seem to be a few frequent visitors who know the performers personally.
Near the end of the show, the group sings national songs and members of the audience are encouraged to sing along. This lends a sense of unity to spectators, who are left with a feeling community with their neighbours regardless of class, gender, religious affiliation or sexual orientation, which is arguably the main aim of the performance.
Peace Message is essentially a representation of a utopian Egypt in many ways, sending the message that humanity surpasses all differences. The show is performed every second and last Sunday of the month at the Ghouri Complex. Entry to the performance is free and the venue functions on a first-come-first-served basis.
Egypt’s past is not a one-trick pony. As part of what continues to be a long, diverse history, the Coptic period is often lost amidst tales of tomb curses and animal-headed gods. It may have been a brief era in the grand scheme of things, but the art produced in said period has been collected from eight different museums across Egypt including the Coptic Museum, the Museum of Islamic Art, as well as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, and assimilated into an exhibition called Coptic Art Revealed.
The choice of the Mamluk Palace of Amir Taz in the khalifa area is an uncharacteristically subtle statement of presenting Egypt’s history and art in spite of any narrow-mindedness that may exist even now; and it is welcome, but more so because of the aesthetics of the palace itself. Despite having been damaged extensively in the 1992 earthquake, a reported 16-million-LE renovation has transformed the palace into a first-class venue.
The gallery itself starts you in a baptism of fire. Images of the Virgin Mary and the Holy Family are displayed within a circular stage surrounded by glittering pearl-white twine draped from the ceiling. The way that even a gentle breeze parts the draping gives this section a magical quality not afforded to any other element of the exhibition. You won’t even mind parting them yourself, like opening a curtain to reveal a treasure.
From then on in, visitors will need to rely less on their perception of how pretty things look, and more on their comprehension of the items' historical significance. The exhibition tries to tell a tale of Egypt's history, and it does it well. Visitors should not be disappointed by the prospect of seeing a piece of linen, a comb, or a jar; every piece is uniquely and intricately made, and just as uniquely and intricately put into a bit-sized context.Don’t think of this as another exhibition at another gallery, but as a small travelling museum. The two hundred or so pieces are combined in a well-thought-out way, which allows visitors to absorb the narratives of a time that historians found difficult to pin down to exact dates, a time that holds deep resonance and relevance to the history of Egypt. Exhibitions like Coptic Art Revealed are as meaningful now to Egyptian art as any nouvelle vague of local art in Cairo.