Cairo Book Fair: Egypt's Asil Ensemble play first show on home soil since forming in 2003

The performance featured the words of two poets favoured by UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

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Selections of classical Arabic poetry favoured by UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, have been featured in an emotional concert in Cairo.

After 20 years of performing exclusively outside of their homeland, playing shows in more than 20 countries including at the Abu Dhabi Festival and London's Shubbak Festival, Egyptian folk troupe Asil Ensemble performed in Cairo on Thursday for the first show since their formation in 2003.

The concert was held at the Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex, the 16th-century mausoleum, built by one of the last of the Mamluk rulers, Sultan Al-Ashraf Qansuh Al-Ghuri.

Specialising in classical Arabic music, including Qudud Halabiya — a traditional and poetic form of Syrian folk music — the 12-piece group is led by blind oud virtuoso Mustafa Said.

Organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre as part of its programme at the Cairo International Book Fair, which runs until February 6, the concert featured original compositions, paired with the words of 10th-century poet Abu Al Tayeb Al Mutanabbi, born in Iraq, and 19th century Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi. These selections of prose were favoured by Sheikh Zayed, an esteemed poet himself.

A long time coming

The group's glaring absence of a concert in Egypt is generally attributed to the non-commercial nature of their repertoire. It was something Said alluded to during the performance.

“What we do here is trying to bring to life this essential form of Arabic arts and literature,” he says.

“To be here in Egypt with all of you, with thanks to the Arabic Language Centre in Abu Dhabi, fills me with the kind of gratitude I really find hard to describe.”

For those in the audience, the magnitude of the event was overwhelming. Cairo resident Souad Al Sharif said she was in tears throughout the show. “This music and this art form is very important,” she told The National.

“Not everything has to be for a commercial benefit. We have to safeguard the arts and I am glad there are organisations out there that can invest in putting these shows together because of its importance to Arabic culture.

Asil Ensemble cellist Amir Sobhi said the group spent extra time preparing for the concert.

“It is the maestro Mustafa Said who writes all the compositions and we normally come in and rehearse one or two times and we are ready.

“This is because we understand his vision and as a group we have a lot of experience playing together. But for this show, we did more than 10 rehearsals because the music is complex, featuring amazing poetry, as well as the importance of the occasion.”

While grateful that the Abu Dhabi Language Centre provided the group with the rare opportunity to play in Cairo, Sobhi said he was realistic with regard to future opportunities.

“The music that we play is said to be geared towards the elite,” he said.

“I strongly disagree with that because this music is part of our shared Arabic history. The power of the music and the poetry of some of our great writers will touch people if they are given the opportunity to hear it.

“The problem is, right now, the business aspects of the music industry is catered towards other kinds of sounds. However, I am hopeful that this can change in the future.”

A new sound and vision

The Arabic Language Centre's chairman chairman, Ali bin Tamim, said people should expect more events like this as part its future participation in UAE and international literary events.

The centre — which is part of the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi — also arranged a screening of the new Sheikh Zayed documentary The Millstone: Al Ain 'The Eye' is the First to See Dreams by Emirati director Nasser Al Dhaheri on Tuesday.

As part of the launch of a new biography on the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum on Friday, the centre will host a concert by Egyptian soprano Marwa Nagy, also at The Sultan Al-Ghuri Complex.

This shift from purely literary discussions stems from the success of the last Al Ain and Al Dhafra book fairs, which were organised by the centre and featured concerts and film screenings.

“We have found that if we imbue these events with the spirit of a music festival or carnival it will attract a wider range of audiences,” bin Tamim said.

“What we have seen in Al Ain and Al Dhafra and now here in Cairo shows that this is the way forward.

“We will continue in this direction in our future participations in the London and Frankfurt Book fairs later in the year.

“Ultimately, promoting the Arabic language is our central goal. We look forward to showing the world the dynamism of the language and how it can coexist and elevate other mediums, be it film, music or the visual arts.”

The Cairo International Book Fair runs until February 6. More information on the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre's programme at the Cairo International Book Fair is available on the official Instagram account. Tickets to the fair start at 5 Egyptian pounds,

Updated: January 27, 2023, 4:55 PM