x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A little bit of Hollywood comes to Cairo

Ever since arriving in Cairo three years ago, I had heard the name Omar Khayrat. Egyptians revere him. His face - in thoughtful, wistful poses Photoshopped on to romantic backgrounds - has been plastered on posters all over the city advertising his concerts.

Dressed in breezy beige trousers and a jacket with a light blue shirt and no tie, Omar Khayrat graciously accepted warm applause from the audience before sitting down at the piano. Surrounding him was his orchestra - a team of about 15 people playing a mixture of western and oriental instruments. There was a man on percussion, another on an electric guitar, another on an oud. A huge golden harp - an ancient Egyptian instrument - stood to the left of the piano.

The moment Khayrat touched the keys, the audience responded. Some closed their eyes and let the music sweep over them, others clapped with joy, and had it not been for the venue - the Egyptian Opera House - they would have got up and started dancing. Ever since arriving in Cairo three years ago, I had heard the name Omar Khayrat. Egyptians revere him. His face - in thoughtful, wistful poses Photoshopped on to romantic backgrounds - has been plastered on posters all over the city advertising his concerts. When I worked at Al Ahram Weekly, the state-owned English newspaper, he was always being mentioned in the culture section, and one of my colleagues told me of how when she met him at an event she couldn't even open her mouth to say hello, she was in such awe.

This time, he was playing at the opera the day before Ramadan, so I decided it was a good time finally to sneak in a concert. In his 60s, Khayrat has a kind face and longish white hair that sits at the nape of his neck. His work is influenced by European and Arabic classical music, which was obvious from the make-up of his orchestra. The combination of the qanun and the drums was entrancing. The audience lapped it up. The packed outdoor venue was filled with swaying people, couples touching heads during the more romantic pieces, and wild clapping and whistling after the fast-paced pieces.

As this was the first time I had heard him perform, I wondered why his music was so familiar. Why was I able to almost guess what the next chord was going to be? I leaned over to my friend and asked: "Where have I heard this before?" "Al Bakheel wa Ana (The Miser and I)," she replied. "The soap opera?" I asked. She nodded her head. That's why I was recognising these pieces. Khayrat is known as a top-notch composer in Egypt, and after his work was used in a film, he was commissioned to compose more for cinema and TV. He has written for the ballet and Egyptian theatre as well.

There was something a little bizarre about going to a concert where the music consisted mainly of theme songs to films and famous Egyptian soap operas. It wasn't a typical classical music event; the pieces all had an element of Hollywood. While being taken back to the much-loved films he had composed for and that I had watched curled up with my mother on the couch while growing up, I had a thought. I wondered what it would be like to transport Khayrat and his orchestra - just as is - into one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Cairo, a neighbourhood where education wasn't a priority, where people lived hand to mouth and didn't have the kind of access upper-class Egyptians had to the Opera House and Khayrat's music, live. People who, even though dirt poor, probably still owned a satellite dish or had access to a TV, and must know the same movies and soaps the rest of the people in this fancy hall loved.

I wondered what it would do to the audience in that neighbourhood to take a break from the toil and depression of the country's income disparity and watch the table drummers swing their heads with the music their hands were making, and to see the harpist's graceful arms fly from the strings after striking the tunes. I wondered if they would dance and clap like some in this audience. What they would think of seeing the music they knew so well come to life in front of them?

I also wondered if Khayrat would be up for a challenge like that, and whether he had done it before - leaving the beautiful comforts of the Opera House and entering the black holes of the city, turning on the lights with the keys of his piano. Hadeel al Shalchi is a writer for the Associated Press, based in Cairo