x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Muslim Brotherhood choir enters the spotlight

Mona Abouissa meets the Muslim Brotherhood choir whose sound has moved from the underground to the limelight.

Diaa Al Din, the group's soloist, writes down lyrics.
Diaa Al Din, the group's soloist, writes down lyrics.

"Let the angels mark your ballot papers! ... And the angels did," screams Ahmed Al Mohamedy, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party parliamentary group, as he addresses a packed square in Alexandria, Egypt.

As he says this, a woman faints beside me and Sobhy Saleh, another Brotherhood candidate in last year's elections, bellows into a microphone: "God is great and praise be to him, one of us is in parliament!" he implores.

In the midst of this chaos - the political candidates, the crowd, the occasional scuffles that break out - stands the Muslim Brotherhood's choir, singing at the top of their voices, battling against bad acoustics and a boisterous audience.

"We were once a condemned choir," remembers Mohamed Said, who was a teenage soloist in the first Muslim Brotherhood choir in 1989. "Back then it was different. What, sing? How? About what?"

Later, post-performance, we are sat in a dusty wedding tent in Alexandria, close to where the rally has just taken place. Outside its four canvas walls, the country has voted and tomorrow the choir will perform at the public celebration to mark the Freedom and Justice Party's strong performance in the parliamentary elections.

Growing up under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood and in the shadow of Hosni Mubarak's emergency law, the choir performed almost in spite of politics.

They were regularly arrested and interrogated about what they were doing and why they were doing it. The intimidation and the questions didn't stop there: whenever and wherever the choir rolled into town, neighbourhoods were shut down, audiences were searched and their concerts were routinely filmed.

Against all this, they learned to survive and, since Mubarak was deposed last year, the choir has been catapulted from the underground to somewhere closer to the limelight.

We leave the tent and Said starts to show me his old Alexandria haunts.

"You know this is the very coffee shop where we used to have our secret meetings during Mubarak's regime? In this place in 2005 the police ambushed and arrested [my colleagues] and they spent six months in jail," he says, before revealing he was more lucky than his friends, "but I left before this ambush."

Another member of the choir, Islam Talaat, a 23-year-old law student, maintains that if it hadn't been for the Brotherhood, he would probably not be a singer at all. "I'm thankful to them," he says. "They taught me music."

With that, Talaat begins to unleash a long vocal stream, ignoring the attentions of a group of coffee drinkers sat at a nearby table. "That is the rhythm of sadness," he tells me. "I enjoy trilling and living within the lyrics."

Diaa Al Din, the choir's soloist, says that "when I sing to people I must be sure that this will raise me before God." If Talaat hopes his turn in the choir will carry him towards a professional singing career, Al Din has less lofty ambitions. Raised by Salafi parents, he says he found a home with the Muslim Brotherhood nine years ago.

Al Din says that Egypt suffered from being too liberal under Mubarak and suggests the previous regime supported tacky, vulgar pop music.

"Since the revolution there is hope that we, the choir and the Muslim Brotherhood in general, will appear in a cultured way."

Perhaps this explains why Tamer Al Saed, a distinguished masters student in Alexandria University's music department, now coaches the Brotherhood choir. For his part, Al Saed says that he is "not afraid of new experiences, I jump at them; I wanted to know for myself how the Brothers think."

He says the group rarely performs political songs to avoid being branded as propagandists.

While they continue to polish their technique, the choir live off the deals that Said secures - symbolic payments from supporters here, irregular concerts there. For now that means their performances are largely restricted to political rallies, although they hope the Cairo Opera House will press forward with a potentially lucrative concert deal.

Ahmed Al Samman, who plays bass guitar for the choir, says that his friends joke that he is part of some Brotherhood disco scene.

"The worst thing about playing in the Brothers' choir is facing people's opinion," he says. "They still don't understand it. They don't accept it. Music completes religion. It urges us to be better, to care about each other and to make us more humane."

Having battled adversity and arrest, it might be easy to write the choir off as a mistake. To have survived this long might just be an "achievement on its own", according to Ahmed. And maybe, as well as making music, the choir might have made a little piece of history, too.

Mona Abouissa is a documentary journalist covering the middle east and is based in Egypt.