The curtains closed and the theater lights dimmed, save for the candles on our tables. Amidst the audience chatter and the clatter of plates and glasses, a sudden silence overwhelmed us. The twirling dervish made his entrance.
Appearing almost comical in his long white robe, he instilled an involuntary bracket on our faces: we smiled as we sunk deeper into our seats, enthusiastic, entertained. In a moment of blessing and initiation, he started to burn incense, and strained as he twirled his body. The noises he uttered synchronised completely with the movement of his body, and were incomprehensible. The dervish (also known as the dervesh, Turkish for the Arabic word darwish) is a Sufi who spins in dance as an act and performance of worship.
The violinist closed his eyes: singing in complete darkness, sans music at first. The moment, which we were initiated into, seemed to totally take him away.
In Hishik Bishik, the show I was attending at Beirut’s Metro al-Medina theatre, the dance first started out as farcical before it turned into a centred, focused prayer; a tribute to a distant past. The dervish in such dances assumes a role that is at the same time serious and comical — each act is accompanied by amusing gestures, either to bless the performers themselves, or to interrupt or enhance the dance. During one part of the Beirut performance, the dervish guarded his mistress, who was the owner and established singer of a bar. Dressed in lush clothing with a pink feather scarf, heels and a tight, sparkling dress, she sought attention while the dervish strived to make real her every wish, executing it with zeal.
Then, with the curtains still closed, a man in military attire entered, a violin in hand and a powerful, nostalgic voice within. He entered seated in a wheelchair — on stage it became a time machine, with rich symbolic references to Egypt’s historical times. Each time the man rolled onto stage, the audience was transported in an instance to the era of Egyptian pop music glamor. The opening repertoire took us as far back as to Sayed Darwish, with his song Cocaine. The satirical composition was intoxicated with the reality of cocaine consumption, at the same time retaining the essence inherent in old tarab. In this sense, the tarab, like the show’s opening act, became meditations on a by-gone age; one that has passed but at the same time lives on.
On stage, the violinist closed his eyes: singing in complete darkness, sans music at first. The moment, which we were initiated into, seemed to totally take him away. At once, it all seemed to make sense. Sights and sounds were clasped within the wraps of the present. Some of us in the audience caught ourselves closing our eyes, non-voluntarily.
When the opening act came to a close, the curtains opened onto a full stage. The light still lingered, like an afterthought: a witty, teasing masterpiece of chiaroscuro. The interplay of light and darkness, a recurrent theme in the show, subtly shifted our focus of attention.
Ten performers and four musical acts, each with their own sense of magic and promises, and with specific kinds of smiles and applauses, make up the Hishik Bishik show. Initially intended to be playing for eight nights only, the show has been going strong for one year and three months now. Each act has a different storyline with intricate details, which serve to exacerbate the magical essence of Egyptian music. The popular and the tarab blend beautifully with each other, and within the selected plethora of cabaret music from the first half of the past century. Names like Shadia, Leila Nazmi, Sayed Darwish, Zakariya Ahmad, Ahmad Fawzi, and Sayyed Makkawi all take us back to those golden times of Egyptian folklore.
Songs like Al ‘Ataba Ghazaz and Mashrabshi Lchai bode well on the ambiance created by the performers. The former, which literally means “The step is made up of glass,” depicts the reality of a couple getting married at that time. Their economic situation is frail, like a house built on a foundation of glass, but the song has a festive tone. The latter, Mashrabshi Lchai, is an indirect challenge of society. The singer confirms haughtily that her favourite drink is a soda, not the regular Egyptian tea. In choosing that drink, she appears elitist, superior to her own community. These songs, and the other tarab medleys, served to transport us to another dimension, where the classical and the popular blurred into one. At that point, we danced – silently, metaphorically and actually. The past will never be confined to a wheelchair.
Hishik Bishik is an ongoing performance at Beirut’s Metro al-Medina.