Much is often made of the vitality of Cairo s street life, its grimy, insistent, animation and its business of 24-hour people, cars, donkeys and drama. A never-ending presence has not, however, lent Cairo s population ownership over the capital s streets which – like every other aspect of Egyptian public life – remain under the strict control of security bodies afflicted with a mania for heavy-handed micromanagement.
No wonder I was nonplussed when I heard that singer-songwriter Shady Ahmed had decided to busk in Cairo s streets. The decision was made in the same week that an author faces a trial for writing a comic book in which, amongst other things, the events of May 25, 2005 are described. On that day – now known as Black Wednesday – female journalists and protestors were sexually assaulted in Downtown Cairo as police looked on, unperturbed.
Shady and his guitar hit the streets three times, first in Zamalek’s 26th of July Street. Shady had explained to me that his street singing was to promote his upcoming gig at El-Sawy Cultural Wheel. Rather than simply send out invitations on Facebook, he decided to “take his music directly to the people.
After affixing a handwritten sign to the wall behind him, Shady began his serenade of commuters, delivery men and school children in the Zamalek spot. Within three minutes of opening his mouth, a confused plain-clothed police officer had appeared, questioning Shady about who he is, where he lives, and what exactly he was doing.
A second appearance by the law came moments later when an officious policeman appeared and demanded that Shady stop singing because “people have complained about the disturbance. The fact that this exchange was barely audible above the roar of 26th July Street s traffic cast doubt on the truth of the claim. Shady was allowed to remain after explaining to the policeman that he s advertising a gig and is “like a human form of the poster hanging up in Diwan (the bookshop outside which Shady was playing).
A group of bystanders also leapt to our hero s defense; one man in a suit informing the policeman in a vigorous manner that singing in the street is absolutely not forbidden, while a traffic cop proclaimed, “leave him alone. This is about personal freedom, like Ban-Ki Moon.
Shady was mostly resolutely ignored by the people at the bus stop in front of which he was performing his mix of covers and original material.
The majority of passersby cast a furtive glance. The exceptions to this were a bloke carrying a bag of bread who stopped for a spot of improvisation, delicately picking the right notes out of the air with his thumb and forefinger, and a middle-aged man who became suddenly animated by a Coldplay song.
Shady acknowledges that the limited reaction might be in part due to the fact that he sings in English – “I mean if they understood what I was talking about, maybe they would have stayed longer to listen to the music. One wonders though whether the police response would be different if he sang in Arabic, and if a crowd gathered.
Encouraged by his experiences during the three times he has sang in the streets so far, Shady says that he plans to do it again, including another Zamalek performance two hours before his Sawy gig tomorrow.
“I ll defiantly do it again, the response I got has been overwhelming, and I have plans to bring a couple of musicians with me the next time around. Accomplished percussion players, and other guitarists have already offered to join me.
Shady Ahmed is performing tomorrow, 8:30 pm, at Al Sawy Cultural Wheel’s River Hall. Tel: (02) 2736 8881.