« Program: Egypt 1: Cairo Soundscape

Cairo Journal: Koranic Recitation

The sound is ubiquitous in Cairo–in taxis, on radio, emanating from loudspeakers on mosques, and especially during Ramadan, in grocery stores and elevators.  It’s a single voice, male, intoning the words of the Koran with carefully correct pronunciation of classical Arabic–the art known astajweed.  To an outsider, this sounds like singing, and indeed, recitation does make use of the Arabic system of musical modes, or maqamat.  The melodies can be quite expressive.  Yet for the reciter, this is not music.  The melodies–always improvised, never composed–are used to bring out emotional expression, but the focus is on the words, the revelation of the Koran, immutable and foundational.  The Koran was always meant to be spoken aloud.  It came about at time when Arabic poetry was highly advanced, and the text’s poetic perfection is one of its essential features.  What’s more, the Prophet himself made sure the Koran was recited by the most beautiful voices available, that it might move as many people as quickly as possible. 

Koranic recitation exists throughout the Muslim world, but it has special characteristics in Egypt.  The mellifluous marriage of sacred text and musical art blossomed here, so that by the start of the 20th century, the great musicians of the era–notably Umm Kulthum–would have their start as reciters.  Indeed, Umm Kulthum’s father used to dress her as a boy so she could travel and recite publicly without ruffling conservative feathers.  In the 1960s, there began to be cassette recordings of reciters, and some became superstars, like Sheikh Mustafa Ismail (1905-1978), famous friend of both Kulthum and Gamal Abdel Nasser, among other luminaries.  In fact, it is said that Kulthum would sometimes park her car near where Ismail was reciting, her curtains drawn, that she might gain inspiration from him.  This is not surprising when you consider that the repetition of lines–Koranic lines for the reciter, poetic ones for the singer–with greater and greater emotional content delivered through expert improvisation based on the maqam system, is a fundamental source of tarab, the ecstatic sensation listeners can experience when they hear great music or great reciting.

As you might imagine, this closeness to music, along with the notion of reciters becoming superstars based on their ability to generate tarab among listeners, was problematic for some religious people.  Indeed, during the 1980s, after Anwar Sadat created an opening to Saudi Arabia, a flood of Saudi recitation recordings began to arrive in Egyptian cassette stalls as a more austere alternative to the ever more elaborate local variety of recitation.  Meanwhile, the Egyptian recordings continued to spread throughout the Muslim world and to enjoy great popularity.

Mosques in Old Cairo

Today, there are less reciters actually working in mosques, since most mosques rely on recordings.  Aficionados of the art of recitation bemoan this development, and indeed, a general decline in the quality of recitation.  Few are more vocal on that score than Abdel Mustafa Kamel, protege of Mustafa Ismail, and one of the most innovative teachers of this art to be found in Cairo.  We found Kamel thanks to the diligence of our intern Mariam Bazeed, who became fascinated by Kamel’s remarkable videos of lessons posted on YouTube.  (See her earlier blog post on this.)  Even our principle guide, Kristina Nelson (author of the landmark book The Art of Reciting the Qur’an) was intrigued.  Particularly striking was Kamel’s technique of reciting a line with melodic content, and then expecting the student to repeat the line exactly.  This is unusual because the act of repetition edges the practice that much closer to unambiguous music, potentially dangerous territory.  This is apparently no concern whatever to Kamel, and when we met him late one night during Ramadan at his apartment in north Cairo, we discovered that this was but one of his idiosyncrasies.

Abdel Mustafa Kamel and student

We found Kamel teaching two young women, from Canada as it happened.  He sat amid towers of cassette machines–presumably for dubbing–tape decks of yore, other vintage technology, and photographs of the famous, mostly involving Mustafa Ismail.  Kamel’s place was a kind of technological shrine to the art of recitation.  It was also an expression of his delightful character.  Kamel offered us tea, and had us watch as he gave lessons to his guests.  It is expected that students already know the Koran and how to pronounce its words correctly.  The focus here is on the vocal performance.   These students rarely reproduced Kamel’s improvisations perfectly, but he never repeated or corrected them.  He just moved on to the next line, the next improvisation, his mastery transmitted mysteriously through the ongoing process, not through any explicit instruction or guidance.

Eventually, I did my best to conduct an interview, but Kamel is a person so possessed of his ideas and impulses that he pretty much says what he likes, whether or not it relates to the question asked.  He was also a wizzard of technology, summoning a 30-year-old cassette recording one minute, and a vintage video the next, all with easy expertise to emphasize stories he was telling.  We watched a remarkable television clip of Sheikh Mustafa Ismael bringing about wild tarab among an audience of listeners.  At one point, Kamel circulated his smart phone so that we could see a video of a listener actually hitting someone next to him because he was so moved.  This tickled Kamel and was obviously a favorite item to share with visitors and students.

Sheikh Mustafa Ismail on television
Abdel Mustafa Kamel

Finally, we heard the master co-reciting with one of his star students, identified only as Cherif.  Now the two did not engage in repetition but rather tag team recitation, each completing the other’s lines and improvisations with flourishes of his own, remaining intensely focused on one another throughout a good 25 minutes of nonstop recitation.  I include a short video excerpt below.

At the end of this experience, I came away with a much deepened appreciation for the artistry involved in Koranic recitation. I was also deeply moved by Kamel’s animated engagement with his practice and teaching.  He is as alive and present as any man I have ever met, and it was clear that his work is all that is necessary to sustain him.   Kamel emphasized that most of the recitation we hear on recordings blaring from mosques around Cairo these days is inferior.  Very few of today’s reciters rise to his high standard.  We felt extremely luck to spend a late night with such a master, and such a radiant human being.