Egypt’s Eskenderella bring unique take on conflict to Edinburgh
The band that made sense of 2011’s Egyptian uprising in poetry and song visits Edinburgh tomorrow. Emma Hay explains the background to a rare and politically charged event
‘YOU have to see this,” said Edinburgh International Book Festival director Nick Barley, before playing us a video of Amin Haddad and Eskenderella performing the poetry and music that ignited optimism and passion in the thousands of protesters throughout the Egyptian revolution in 2011. We were watching the band that had played in Tahrir Square as bullets were fired and rocks were thrown at crowds. Six short months later, we are awaiting their imminent arrival in Edinburgh.
Eskenderella’s story begins much earlier. They formed in 2005, reviving and reworking the music of Sayyid Darwish, a composer who intertwined ideas of nationalism and social justice, radically changing Arab music at the turn of the 20th century. Since collaborating with Amin Haddad and other Egyptian poets, they have become a political force in their own right, seeking to respond to and articulate the thoughts and feelings of the Egyptian people.
Edinburgh Book Festival proudly endeavours to explore “the world, in words” and this performance will encapsulate a very different world, one we struggle to engage with beyond news reports: Haddad and Eskenderella will perform in Arabic the poetry that reflects the fear, grief and raw determination that overcame Hosni Mubarak’s military government in 2011 and the politics that divide the nation after the ousting of Morsi’s democratically elected government.
How literature can keep up with, anticipate and reflect changing times is a much debated subject. It was after a session of the Edinburgh World Writers’ Conference in Brazzaville, where the future of the novel was discussed, that Barley learned of this collaboration between Eskenderella and Haddad. Poetry, he discovered, is of much greater significance in Egypt than the novel.
Bringing Eskenderella to Charlotte Square Gardens is an ambitious project, from an ambitious literary festival. These musicians rarely perform to western audiences and are a welcome addition to the line-up in a month when the world descends upon Edinburgh.
At their full strength, Eskenderella has 14 members; on Sunday they will play with six. They will perform in a theatre space with an audience that will be seated, listening to the poetry in Arabic and reading the subtitled English translation, using poetry and music to cross cultural barriers and convey the essence of a political situation so fraught it continues to result in lives being lost.
This event is sensitive and vulnerable; Cairo had to be stable enough for Haddad and Eskenderella to leave the country. Logistical obstacles, such as flight curfews, continue to affect planning and preparation for the performance. And still, with each e-mail exchange or hurried phone call, this vulnerability fuels the relevance of the event; the reasons against become the reasons for.
Communication has, as expected, been difficult. Limited internet access means long waits for responses. For us – living in a city that was last year awarded £8m to become a super-connected city by 2015 – the internet is taken for granted; it is no longer a luxury but a utility. The revolution in Egypt is cited by some as a byproduct of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter which have been used for the dissemination of ideas, ideology and perspective as well as rallying protestors.
Global awareness and understanding have been exponentially increased as a result of social media; videos, images, tweets and blogs have exposed the ‘breaking news’ in a visceral, immediate way. Our own research was aided heavily by YouTube videos of Eskenderella’s Narrating the Arab Spring. However, the exposure of performing to audiences in the west can only strengthen bonds between cultures. This is neither a news report nor a polemic, the poetry and music are responsive, it is urgent and topical art.
And with great art comes great responsibility. The poems had not all been translated into English; something that would be necessary to allow the audience to fully engage with the content. Those not already translated from street-Egyptian-Arabic into English by Bahaa Jaheen were done by Professor Marilyn Booth of the Centre for the Advanced Study of the Arab World at the University of Edinburgh.
From a basic loaf of bread to the dream of a new Egypt, Haddad captures the spirit of the Egyptian people with powerful, vivid imagery. He questions what it means to live and to fight, expectation, hopes, ideals and tolerance. This is the poetry of a people very much in a state of transition: they are hungry for change and thirsting for freedom.
This year, Edinburgh International Book Festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary, and many events look back over the social, cultural and economic changes that have shaped our lives in that time. As we contemplate the next 30 years, in an environment of rapidly advancing technology, economic disaster, political upheaval and social injustice we need to ask ourselves how we create the opportunities to make a better world.
The obvious answer – coming from someone who works for a literary festival – would be literature itself. Though I am more inclined to believe that in the case of Amin Haddad and Eskenderella, it is more than the poetry and music alone. The collective singing that was so important to Darwish 100 years ago still resounds in Eskenderella’s music now. In Tahrir Square, it was the shared experience, the massed crowds singing and chanting, that propagated Haddad’s poetry.
There must be something in this festival season that Edinburgh hosts each year. This clashing collaboration of minds, thoughts, cultures and beliefs is what allows us to make sense of our world: from obscure theatre, to commercial concertos and poetry from the Egyptian revolution, we have a wealth of opportunity on our doorstep to learn and to share the very sense of who we are.
And so we are in limbo, waiting for change, freedom, peace, and for confirmation that the flight from Cairo has landed. Six months ago, Nick Barley summed this up concisely: you simply have to see this.
MORE INFO: Amin Haddad and Eskenderella appear at the Book Festival, tomorrow, 8:30pm, www.edbookfest.co.uk.
• Emma Hay is programming co-ordinator for the festival.
Originally published in The Scotsman