Egypt’s ‘Stick Game’ UNESCO-listed

This week brought great news regarding Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, namely the inscription of Tahteeb (Stick Game) on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tahteeb is regarded by the UNESCO as performing art and as a social practice / festive event (two out of the five domains of Intangible Cultural Heritage). Tahteeb, which involves a non-violent stick fight that seems more of a dance, traces its roots to Ancient Egypt. It acquired this ‘festive’ character much later in Upper Egypt, where it remains to be practiced during important social events, usually accompanied by traditional popular music. Local communities take pride in this tradition which showcases not only their skill and swift movement, but also embodies the values of fraternity and respect.

Tahteeb is the second element of Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage to be recognized by the UNESCO (the first was al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic back in 2008). To my Egyptian mind, I can think of tens of other unique elements of heritage that could easily find their way into the list: khiyamiyya (craft), tanoura (performing art), traditional Muslim and Coptic mouleds (festive events), the Nubian language (oral tradition), to the end of the long list.

During their meeting in Addis Ababa, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted 15 other new elements from different countries. This includes the Beer Culture in Belgium, the Rumba in Cuba, the Valencia Fallas Festivity in Spain, the çini-making in Turkey, etc. Check it out here.

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وكالة عطية – ملحمة خيري شلبي

أصبحت مفتونا بالأصبحة في فناء الوكالة أتفرج عليها من ضجعتي فوق المصطبة في حجرتي. أصبحت فاتنة، تغير ألوانها في بطء جميل ساحر، من الاردوازي إلى الطباشيري إلى الوردي إلى الذهبي، عابقة بروائح طازجة. وفي مرحلة الاردوازية من هذا الصباح كنت مندمجا في قراءة ديوان بيرم التونسي تستلبني حواريه المصرية العتيقة بناسها ولبطها ووحلها ونسوانها الشبقات السليطات

انتهيت لتوي من قراءة عمل ملحمي مبدع للأديب الراحل خيري شلبي، وهو وكالة عطية، حيث تتحول الوكالة إلى مسرحاً أشبه بصندوق الدنيا، تتشابك فيه الأحداث والشخوص في بناء مرصوص من الحبكات الدرامية التي تنقلنا إلى عالم متكامل من المهمشين والأشقياء، فنغوص في تفاصيل حياتهم واحدا تلو الآخر، نتلصص على مآسيهم ونتعرف على أساليبهم في التحايل على مصاعب الحياة. تتعاقب الفصول وتتسارع، تتكشف جوانب مدهشة من شخصيات أبطال الرواية، فنراهم في أوقات الشدة قد تحولوا إلى نبلاء لا تنقصهم الشهامة ولا يتنكرون للجميل.

يرسم خيري شلبي عالماً من الواقعية السحرية، يختلط فيه النصابون والدجالون بالإخوان المسلمين، وتجار المخدرات بالأفندية، ويبرع في تشريح وتعرية واقع اجتماعي فريد من خلال قصص أبطال الرواية في مدينة دمنهور وما جاورها. تتركنا الرواية بمجموعة ضخمة من المشاهد الصادمة والتي يصعب نسيانها: سيدة من النَور تجبر القرد الذي يصاحبها على اتيانها، رجل يطوي المسافات بالمشيئة، مداح في الموالد يبحث عن حبيبته الضائعة، مشاهد انتهاك البسطاء من قبل الجهاز الأمني في عهد عبد الناصر، وغيرها الكثير. أترككم مع فقرة قصيرة:

إنك تلمح في قاع عينيها البعيد ظلال عهر عريق لعله راجع إلى أمنا حواء حريفة الإغواء. غير أنك لن تستجيب لنداء هذه الظلال على الأقل لأول وهلة. إلا أن الخطر لا بد محدق بك إذا مكثت معها طويلاً وألفتها وألفتك

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رائعة يوسف القعيد: الحرب في بر مصر

منذ أن جئنا إلى الدنيا والعمدة ابن عمدة، ومن نسل عمدة، أما نحن فقد خلقنا لكي ننكفئ على الفأس العمر كله، ونموت والقدم مغروس في الطين والظهر قد تقوس من كثرة الانحناء. العمر كله انحناء

هي قصة قديمة قدم الدهر في مصر: قصة عن غياب العدالة الاجتماعية وانحياز الدولة للنخبة. قصة عن معاناة المهمشين تحت وطأة الفقر والقهر وتخلي الجميع عنهم

أسعدني الحظ بالتعرف على الكاتب الرائع يوسف القعيد منذ سنوات، وذلك حينما قمنا بدعوته لمناقشة رواية له بعنوان قطار الصعيد. عرفته رجلاً متواضعاً، واسع الاطلاع، دمث الخلق. بالأمس، انتهيت من قراءة رائعته “الحرب في بر مصر” والمدرجة في المركز الرابع ضمن قائمة أفضل مائة رواية عربية. تدور أحداث الرواية في عام ثلاثة وسبعين، وتمثل صفعة على وجه نظام سمح باستشراء الفساد، فخسر معركة الداخل، وتفرغ للاحتفال بنصر أكتوبر الذي لم يكن ممكناً بدون سواعد أبناء المهمشين والمطحونين في ريف مصر وصعيده

قبيل الحرب، يقوم عمدة إحدى القرى في ريف مصر بالضغط على أحد الخفراء المتقاعدين من أجل ارسال ابنه بعد تزوير بياناته لأداء الخدمة العسكرية بدلاً من ابن العمدة ومنتحلاً صفة هذا الابن. يضطر ابن الخفير للقبول كي تحصل أسرته على المكافآت التي وعدهم بها العمدة، وكذلك رغبة منه في خدمة الوطن. يستشهد ابن الخفير في الحرب وتتكشف خيوط المؤامرة، ورغم علم الجميع بحقيقة الخدعة التي دبرها العمدة، والذي لم يفي بوعوده لأسرة الخفير، تتدخل جهات عليا لإجهاض التحقيق وإغلاق الملف بحجة عدم إفساد فرحة النصر وعدم زعزعة الاستقرار، وكأن مصر قد علقت في هذا المشهد العفن ولم يغير الزمن أي شيء

المشاهد تتعاقب وتنضح بملامح البؤس في ريف مصر، حيث يروي الفقراء قصص الظلم الواقع على كاهلهم، فهذا يعمل أجيراً ويتقاضى ملاليم قليلة لا تكفي لعلاجه، وذاك لا يستطيع التكفل بمصاريف دراسة ابنه المتفوق، وآخر يشكو من انعدام فرص الترقي أو المعيشة الكريمة. الناس أسرار- كما يقول أبطال الرواية

الرواية مشحونة بلحظات مؤلمة وتأملات لا تفقد وقعها مع مرور الوقت، وذلك لارتباطها بحالة إنسانية تبدو أزلية في مصر، هاكم بعض المقتطفات

كلنا نحب مصر. كل منا يحبها بطريقته الخاصة. ولكن أي مصر هذه التي نحبها؟ مصر الذين يموتون من الجوع أم مصر الذين يموتون من التخمة؟ 

من قال إن الحق له قيمة في مواجهة القوة؟ الحق بمفرده عاجز. بندقية توجه طلقاتها للخلف، إلى صدر الممسك بها. سيف خشبي مكسور. إن كان الله قد اختار صف الأغنياء وقرر أن يكون ربهم وحدهم، فما على الفقراء إلا أن يبحثوا عن رب لهم

ذلك أن عصر الحروب انتهى، وبدأ عصر الكلام. ولأن الكلمات تشتعل من بعضها البعض، فلن يعرف بر مصر سوى الكلمات. الصمت أجدى من كلمات تقال في عصر يعوم فيه الكل في بحار الكلمات

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Bosnia: Sarajevo at the Crossroads of History

The story of Sarajevo unfolds in its historic centre, where Ottoman omnipresence and Austro-Hungarian elegance fuse with an unmistakable Balkan twist. The city is surrounded by hills and mountains from which the Serbs and their allies once poured hell on the helpless civilians. Such is the sadness of geography for a country that has paid a hefty price for its genius loci, always stuck between superpowers and hostile sides.

The historic city centre around Baščaršija (Sarajevo’s Old Bazaar) shows all the ‘usual suspects’ of an Ottoman city, and it should come as no surprise: the city centre is the brainchild of one benevolent and visionary ruler, namely the Ottoman Gazi Husrev Beg, sanjak-beg (district ruler) of Bosnia. Born to a Bosnian father and an Ottoman mother (and grandson of Sultan Bayazid II), his ensemble (architectural complex) includes a mosque, a madrasa, a library, a clock tower, a tašlihan (caravanserai or merchants’ inn), a bezistan (covered market), a hamam (bath), an aqueduct, fountains, to the end of the long list. More than just an ‘Ottoman fossil’, almost all these monuments are still functioning, whether serving their original function or recycled into a relevant use.

I started my day with some cheese-filled burek for breakfast. Walking down the Ferhadija Street (which was conceived around the Ferhad Pasha Mosque), I had a first stop at the Gazi Husrev Beg’s Mosque to admire the beautiful wooden Shadirwan (fountain) and the harmonious interior, before paying a visit to the Madrasa and Haniqah across the street. At the Sarači Street, I could not resist the coffee temptation. A little detour and I found myself at the heart of the Morića Han (Roadside Caravanserai) where I had my first Bosnian coffee (served in a copper-plated pot with a long, decorated neck, called a džezva, with a side cup containing sugar cubes and rahat lokum, better known as Turkish delights). Following the crowds, I ended up entering the busy 16th-century Bezistan, a roofed market lined with shops and workshops selling souvenirs and traditional products (mostly, metalwork, tablecloths and scarves). Back to daylight, I started zigzagging the narrow alleys around the Bezistan, had another coffee, then headed to the Pigeon Square, which seems to be whirling around the emblematic 1891 Sebilj (Public Fountain).

Following this overdose of Ottoman architecture and a hearty ćevapi lunch (a Bosnian variation on kafte and kebab served with traditional bread and chopped onions), it was time for something different, and the Austro-Hungarian splendour was just around the corner. As I crossed the river Miljacka to the other side, I could admire some interesting facades, but the real deal was the group of rather decadent buildings and villas with clear Vienna Secession touch at the nostalgic Petrakina Street. Unfortunately, time has not been so kind to them, but their charm lives on.

The city has many other gems to offer. A Jewish synagogue, a beautiful old orthodox church, and, saving the best for last, the spectacular National Library. Shelled on purpose during the Bosnian War, it was resurrected into its former splendour, having lost over one million books! The pseudo-Moorish façade striped in yellow and red is a visual reference of the city, but once inside, I was swept away by the incredible feat of architecture: arcades, half-domes, glass windows, calligraphy bands…all conceived to perfection. I don’t know how much I spend there, but I finally came back to my senses after walking out reluctantly from this oasis. As I crossed the Latin Bridge, I stopped to read a plaque explaining how a nationalist Serb assassinated the Archduke of Austria nearby, triggering WWI.

Far beyond the Old City, I came across bullet-riddled buildings, abandoned houses and ghastly reminders of the Siege of Sarajevo and the Balkan War: The Children Memorial, the Unitic Towers, the Snipers’ Alley, the Tunnel of Hope, and cemeteries wherever you look. That will be another story, another blogpost. Enjoy the photos and click any of them to enlarge it.

Herzegovnia: From Mostar to Blagaj

The Stari Grad (Historic City) of Mostar is relatively small. Seen from a distance; one quickly comes to understand the significance of the city’s most celebrated icon: The Stari Most (Old Bridge) which, at 25 meters high above the River Neretva, seems to defy gravity, but not time.

The impressive hump-backed bridge connecting both sides of the city is actually less than 20 years old. The original 1566 bridge commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent at the request of the city’s inhabitants and built by mimar Hayruddin was completely destroyed in the 1993 War and had to be reconstructed from scratch.

An icon of Mostar’s identity in every sense of the word, the bridge’s importance surpasses its architectural style and its functional significance: there is so much intangible heritage attached to the bridge in a way that is always present in popular memory and imagination. For centuries, it had inspired songs, paintings, poems, legends, love stories and even traditional sporting skills like high-diving.

Hanging around the bridge and contemplating the mesmerizing views of the river and the cityscape seems to be the national sport here, but as I gazed at the river banks, I realized the bridge was only one part of the story, or better said, the centerpiece of the greater architectural ensemble that appears on the UNESCO World Heritage List: fortifications and towers on bother sides of the bridge, cobblestone walkways, an Ottoman mosque here, another there; I finally decided to climb the highest minaret that dominated the horizon, and it was worth every step up the stairs!

From the top of the pencil-like Ottoman minaret of the 17th century Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, the old city unfolded before me like a dream; the hypnotic gift of Herzegovina to the world. Roaming beyond the Od City, one comes face to face with devastated and abandoned buildings; a sad reminder of the war toll in this peaceful part of the world.

It was lunchtime and, fortunately, I decided to head to the nearby village of Blagaj by the crystal clear karstic spring of the River Buna, so clear that you can actually drink its water. The landscape here is one of ravishing beauty: tender cataracts, green hills, and a dramatic rock wall embracing a serene white building hanging on the water. The building is the Ottoman Tekke (Takiyya) of Blagaj, the equivalent of a monastery hosting Muslim mystics and dervishes.

Dating back to the Bektasi Order of the 15th century, it eventually hosted followers of the Qadiri, Refai, Khalwati and Naqshabandi Orders (Tariqahs). The ensemble of the Tekke includes a musafirhane (guest room), abdesthane (washroom), hamam (bathroom), courtyard, kitchen, prayer rooms and turbe (tombs). The interior of the Tekke offers a little oasis over the river for the pilgrims of beauty: windows command soothing views of the river, a stairway takes you all the way down to the cold spring water, and the decoration of the rooms is both pleasant and elegant.

A great lunch of fresh trout by the river then back to Mostar to catch the Old City in a different light, that magical light that makes the city unforgettable forever after.

 

 

 

The Bridge on the Drina

“Nothing brings men closer together than a common misfortune happily overcome.”

Few writers are capable of tracing and presenting the turbulent and complex history of the Balkans through the centuries (since the Ottoman rule to the First World War) as masterfully as Bosnia’s Ivo Andrić, Winner of the Noble Prize for Literature and author of ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, his absolute masterpiece.

I was very lucky to read this novel before visiting Bosnia; it helped me understand the unique cultural legacy of that part of the world, always stuck between powerful empires (Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians) and warring sides (Serbs and Croats), always an easy and likely victim for religious zealots and political dogs of war.
The novel traces the lives of the people of Višegrad, whose lives have always revolved around the great Ottoman bridge that bears witness to their joys and sorrows, their pain and passion. One generation after another, the human condition is captured to perfection through a myriad stories and anecdotes; the bridge and the city become a microcosm at the mercy of greater powers and radical changes.

The novel is dotted with fantastic tales and heart-breaking moments. I chose two of them to share with you.
First, the horrendous blood tribute by the Ottomans in Eastern Bosnia:
“On that November day a long convoy of laden horses arrived on the left bank of the river and halted there to spend the night. The aga of the janissaries, with armed escort, was returning to Istanbul after collecting from the villages of eastern Bosnia the appointed number of Christian children for the blood tribute.
It was the sixth year since the last collection of this tribute of blood and so this time the choice has been easy and rich; the necessary number of healthy, bright and good-looking lads between ten and fifteen years old had been found without difficulty, even though many parents had hidden their children in the forests, taught them how to appear half-witted, clothed them in rags and let them get filthy, to avoid the aga’s choice. Some went so far as to maim their own children, cutting off one of their fingers with an axe.
(…) A little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away forever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcized, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries or in some other, higher service of the Empire.”

Second, an imaginary religious explanation of how and why bridges are divine structures:
“My father told me as a child how bridges first came to this world and how the first bridge was built. When Allah the Merciful and Compassionate first created this world, the earth was smooth and even as a finely engraved plate. That displeased the devil who envied man this gift of God. And while the earth was still just as it had come from God’s hands, damp and soft as unbaked clay, the devil stole up and scratched the face of God’s earth with his nails as much and as deeply as he could. Therefore, the story says, deep rivers and ravines were formed which divided one district from another and kept people apart, preventing them from travelling on that earth that God had given them as a garden for their food and their support.
And God felt pity when he saw what the Accursed One had done, but was not able to return to the task which the devil had spoiled with his nails, so God sent his angels to help people and make things easier for them. When the angels say how unfortunate men could not pass those abysses and ravines to finish the work they had to do, but tormented themselves and looking in vain and shouted from one side to the other, the angels spread their wings above those places and men were able to cross. So people learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with one, for every bridge, from a tree trunk crossing a mountain stream to this great bridge of Mehmed Pasha (Sokolovići), has its guardian angel who cares for it and maintains it as long as God has ordained that it should stand.”

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Howe’s Wind-Powered Sculpture

One of the most captivating elements in the Inauguration Ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio was the wind-powered kinetic sculpture designed for the Olympic cauldron by the American artist Anthony Howe. It’s a two-ton sculpture designed to symbolize the sun, and it moves swiftly with the wind. Surprisingly, no one in my circle talks about it.

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In his official website, Anthony Howe states that “kinetic sculpture resides at the intersection of artistic inspiration and mechanical complexity. The making of one of my pieces relies on creative expression, metal fabrication, and a slow design process in equal parts. It aims to alter one’s experience of time and space when witnessed. It also needs to weather winds of 90 mph and still move in a one mile per hour breeze and do so for hundreds of years.”

The one thing I like most about this art is that Nature becomes the paintbrush, rather than the subject. At a time when issues like global warming and climate change have become more pressing than ever, Howe’s works come -literally- as a breeze.

For a compilation of Anthony Howe’s works, you can watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4l5rHNSq9s