Restorative Ramadan evenings

Aida Nassar
8 Min Read

Restored Beit Al-Harawi has helped restore Cairo’s cultural scene

Even before entering the house, the oud music greeted us. Inside the courtyard a group of young musicians, led by Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma, were rehearsing for an upcoming performance. It seemed the perfect soundtrack to a tour of Beit Al-Harawi house.

Since its restoration in 1993, Beit Al-Harawi has also helped restore the city’s cultural scene hosting concerts, plays and dance performances in its open-air courtyard. And Ramadan is one of its most active periods.

Kicking off the series of events this Ramadan is a concert by pop singer Mohamed Tharwat. He is better known for his strong voice than on-stage antics, and his songs are rooted in a more classical style. His career is marked by lyrics written by leading Egyptian poets like Mursi Gamil Aziz, Abdel Rahman El-Abnoudi, and Baligh Hamdi.

Yehia Khalil, dubbed the founder of the Egyptian jazz scene, will be performing his signature oriental jazz. Known for his percussion solos, he’s accompanied by a stellar group of musicians, notably his tabla players. Fathy Salama, along with his troupe Sharkiat, will also be making an appearance at Beit Al-Hawari, another fusion of jazz and oriental music. Both performances promise to draw large crowds.

The line up also includes a performance by Mohsen Farouk and the Asatizat Al-Tarab troupe, Songs from the South by Beshir, and spiritual music by Tamer Nour.

“I’m very impressed with how they’re [the Ministry of Culture] opening up not only to people who can pay but the community. So if you took in, last Ramadan any of these cultural opportunities, you’d be sitting with a carpenter or taxi driver. So you really part of the people that live in that area, describes Lesley Lababidi, author of Cairo: The Family Guide, in an earlier interview with The Daily Star Egypt.

In past years, these Ramadan evening performances have been very popular. Performances usually start at 8:00 p.m., but as the caretaker noted, try to arrive around 7:00 p.m. to try to snag a seat in the courtyard. On busy evenings, the chairs spill over into the paved garden outside the house. (Which may not be too bad since you’ll be able to hear the music and possibly enjoy a cup of tea or a shisha at the nearby coffee shop.)

The music coupled with the magical atmosphere of the house are the ingredients for an enjoyable evening.

For more information and a full schedule of events (in Arabic) check out, Performances usually start at 8:00 p.m., but due to popular demand try to arrive around 7:00 p.m. to find a seat inside the courtyard.

HEAD: A brief look at “This blessed house Beit Al-Hawari has drawn many visitors since its restoration, offering a rare insight into the lives of Egyptians in the early 20th Century. Built in 1731 – though the structure includes a large reception room that dates back to the 16th century – the house is named for its last owner, Al-Hawari, who left his home in the 1920s. An inscription in the reception room at the south side of the courtyard begins: “This blessed house was built by Youssef Al-Sayarfi in 1144 AH (1731).

As we enter the house we find restoration artists hard at work, painstakingly repainting decorative wooden cupboards in the spacious ground floor reception room. This was but a small indication of how much work must have gone into restoring the elaborate decorations on the wood-paneled ceilings and wall cornices. The woodwork is inscribed with verses from the Quran as well as verses of Sufi poetry. The decoration is characteristic, both architecturally and stylistically, of the turn of the 17th century and indicates that this is the early part of the house.

There are many fascinating scraps of history about the house that reveal a little about its inhabitants. For instance, the mandara, the spacious reception area on the ground floor that was used to entertain male guests, is split into three sections: two iwans (halls) on either side of a fountain. Fountains were an integral part of Islamic buildings as the water was thought to cool the surrounding air. More intriguing perhaps is that spying was considered to be common practice at the time, and the running water created noise that would prevent spies from overhearing others’ conversations.

The second floor consists mainly of private rooms, and also has a large qa’a (large hall) where the women could sit behind the mashrabiya and discreetly monitor the activity in the courtyard below.

The caretaker explained that in the winter, the men would take over the room as it was warmer than the reception rooms below, and showed us a small niche with a mashrabiya door where a female singer would sit able to entertain them men unseen. The women, in turn, would relocate to the upper floor where a smaller mashrabiya window would hide them from uninvited glances.

The caretaker also pointed out a wall cupboard that doubled as a hidden doorway, though he was unable to tell us where it led.

Beit Al-Harawi remains one of the few Islamic homes that remain in good shape, mostly due to the efforts of the French conservation committee, which restored it several times between 1920 and 1950. In 1985 it was chosen as one of the six buildings in Cairo to be restored, meeting the criteria of being a building of architectural, archeological and historical value.

The rooms may be bare, requiring a certain amount of imagination to picture a family living within its walls. But walking through, it’s not difficult to envision the women peeking from behind the mashrabiya, calling to a child playing in the courtyard; or servants pouring water from the olla (water jug) placed in the marble niche to keep cool.

The once lively home stands in a vibrant part of the city, and today welcomes visitors with the same hospitality its former owners must have.

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