Egyptian diva Umm Kulthoum's
fans included the late Egyptian
leader Gamal Abdel Nasser (2nd L)

For Mamdouh, the music that comes out of his creaky radio is one of the few respites from the dense noisy Cairo traffic.

 

Since the beginning of the war on Iraq, the young taxi driver was transfixed by two things on the air.

 

The first, of course, were the news updates on the ravages of the war, to which he listened while muttering about American injustice  and Arab impotence.

 

The other was an old and little-known Umm Kulthoum song called Baghdad - a song that was played throughout the day on local stations.

 

 

 

The more famous songs by the diva, known reverently as Kawkab Al Sharq (Star of the East) or Al Sitt (The Lady) to most Arabs, are already enough to move many to tears on a normal day. But in the current context, this eulogy to the Iraqi capital has particular poignancies.

 

Baghdad is one of the lesser-known songs in Umm Kulthoum's vast repertoire, which includes one-hour epics on themes of love, nationalism and loss.

 

It was originally performed in 1958, two years after Egypt had successfully fought off an attack of the Suez Canal by Israel, Britain and France and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was a powerful symbol of Arab strength and unity.

 

It was also a year when many Iraqi political refugees arrived in Cairo after the coup that overthrew Iraq's Hashemite monarchy - including an ambitious young Baath party activist by the name of Saddam Hussein.

 

Along with her contemporary Nasser, Umm Kulthoum still represents for many Egyptians a golden era when Cairo was a vibrant centre of the Arab world. When Umm Kulthoum broadcast her weekly concerts live on radio, Cairo would come to a standstill as the whole city listened.

 

Umm Kalthoum held
the heart of Egypt
when she sang

 Forty-five years later, listening to Baghdad is a bitter sweet experience, combining nostalgia for that bygone era with despair over the current state of the region. In the words of one prominent columnist, Hassan Nafaa, Egyptians were "gutted with sorrow and pain while watching American missiles destroy Iraq."

 

 

 

They were also bitterly cynical about Arab complicity in the war and the fragmenting of the dream of Arab unity.

 

"The Arab leaders - they say one thing on TV, but then they tell the Americans the opposite," scoffs Mamdouh, the taxi driver.

 

Somewhat surprisingly, few contemporary Egyptian singers have chosen to sing about Iraq. This is in stark contrast to the torrent of songs that were aired last spring during the height of the Palestinian intifada - powerful ballads that expressed popular outrage and glorified the victims of Israeli repression, such as Muhammad Al Durra, the young Palestinian boy whose death was caught by television cameras.

 

One notable exception has been low-brow pop singer Shaaban Abdel Rahim, whose latest hit Al Darb Al Iraq (The Strike on Iraq), released shortly before the war began, has been a runaway success.

 

Abdel Rahim, whose garish persona and raucous voice have made him the bete noire of Egypt's intelligentsia, has made political songs his speciality since he rose to stardom with his hit single I Hate Israel and Love Amr Moussa, which combined a diatribe against the Jewish state with praise of Egypt's straight-talking foreign minister.

 

Since then, he has followed on the same path with a string of hits with ditties such as America America, the People Want Peace and I Hate Terrorism - all sung to more or less the same tune as his original hit.

 

Iraq's poetic tradition

 

These days, though, Cairenes, looking for something other than Abdel Rahim's crass commercialisation of Iraqi-themed culture, are turning to what Iraq does best: poetry.

 

"Poetry...dies in Egypt"

 If Egyptians are known for having the best music and cinema in the Arab world, Iraqis are the undisputed masters of the Arabic verse. Their poetic tradition stretches from the days of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th and 10th centuries to the 1950s, when Baghdad experienced  a literary renaissance that spawned some of the best in modern Arabic poetry.

 

"Poetry is born in Iraq, is appreciated in Syria and dies in Egypt," goes an uncharitable Iraqi saying.

 

Earlier in April, Cairo's cutting-edge Hanager Theatre - usually the rarified stage of experimental plays and Arabic renditions of absurdist classics by the likes of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco - was packed with poetry-lovers for an emotional evening of Iraqi poetry.

 

The works of great Baghdad poets like Abdel Wahab Al Bayati were read out to a rapt audience and exiled Iraqi poet Abdel Rahman Al Abnoudi read out his own ode to the city.

 

Elsewhere, a posh gallery showed an exhibition by Amr Nabil, a photographer for the Associated Press who has worked in Iraq. The show was entitled Baghdad: Before the Bombs Fall. 

 

These events were exceptions, though.

 

Almost immediately after the beginning of the war, the Ministry of Culture announced that many cultural events would be cancelled. Some were foreign acts that did not want to travel in the region during the war.

 

But the vast majority of cancellations came after the implementation of strict security measures in the wake of daily demonstrations in the Egyptian capital.

 

Venues such as Beit Harawi, a restored 18th century mansion in Cairo's medieval district that regularly hosts music, dance and storytelling shows, was closed because of its proximity to Al Azhar mosque, where occasionally violent demonstrations have taken place every Friday since the beginning of the war.

 

Cairo cancelled many cultural
events at the start of war in Iraq

 The government, nervous about a level of street activism unseen in a generation, clamped down on any public activities, political or cultural.

 

Even a peaceful sit-in organised by the Actor's Syndicate in the first week of April was a source of anguish for security forces. The event, which featured some 50 actors, singers and guest-starred exiled Iraqi crooner Kazem Al Saher, was surrounded by over 150 black-clad riot control police.

 

During the sit-in, Al Saher - one of the Arab world's most critically appraised singers - expressed concern for his family in Iraq, from whom he hasn't heard in days.

 

Like many Iraqi artists, he has been unable to return to Saddam Hussein's Iraq for years and often sings of the pain of exile in his songs. That is a trait he shares with the poet Al Bayati, who died in Damascus in 1999 leaving these words behind:

 

On the last day,

I kissed my sheikh’s tomb

And said so long,

And went.

Baghdad is no longer

But a graveyard for the beloved

And a love poem that I lost.