Ancient Pharaonic harp strums along to new tune

1 / 5
Iman Haddo (C), a 20-year-old musician, plays a semsemia fan during a music session at the Canal 20 cultural museum in the northeastern city of Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, on May 29, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
2 / 5
Egyptian craftsman Mohamed Ghaly adds the finishing touches on a semsemia fan that he made at the Canal 20 cultural museum in the northeastern city of Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, on May 29, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
3 / 5
Iman Haddo (C), a 20-year-old musician, plays a semsemia fan during a music session at the Canal 20 cultural museum in the northeastern city of Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, on May 29, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
4 / 5
Iman Haddo (R), a 20-year-old musician, plays a semsemia fan during a music session at the Canal 20 cultural museum in the northeastern city of Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, on May 29, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
5 / 5
Iman Haddo (C), a 20-year-old musician, plays a semsemia fan during a music session at the Canal 20 cultural museum in the northeastern city of Port Said at the northern terminus of the Suez Canal, on May 29, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)
Updated 12 July 2019

Ancient Pharaonic harp strums along to new tune

  • The semsemia is normally played in a dhamma (gathering) with a tabla (an Arabic drum) and a riq (tambourine) accompanying as the musicians sing
  • In the last century, the triangular lyre-lookalike with a round bottom has become associated with the coastal towns dotted around the Suez Canal

PORT SAID: When Mohamed Ghaly’s workshop was reduced to rubble in February, he could never imagine that a new cultural center dedicated to an instrument with Pharaonic roots would thrive just months later.
The semsemia, similar to a harp and made of beechwood with steel strings, is believed to have ancient Egyptian roots. It appears on ornate engravings on tombs.
Ghaly, a carpenter by trade, is one of the last craftsmen in Egypt keeping the cultural heritage of the instrument alive.
“It’s an enchanting instrument that summons you in a way, and I answered its call,” he told AFP.
In the last century, the triangular lyre-lookalike with a round bottom has become associated with the coastal towns dotted around the Suez Canal, especially Port Said.
It was brought over by Nubian workers who dug the Suez Canal through the Sinai Peninsula. This year marks 150 years since the canal was officially inaugurated.
The semsemia is normally played in a dhamma (gathering) with a tabla (an Arabic drum) and a riq (tambourine) accompanying as the musicians sing.
Ghaly, 52, convened a final dhamma flanked by bulldozers as his workshop in the city’s famous fish markets was demolished to make way for a new shopping mall.
Mostly men of all ages played and sang through the night dancing on the rubble.
He had implored the authorities to save his workshop, where musicians jammed and he had chipped away at making semsemias for over a decade, but to no avail.
Weeks later, however, Ghaly secured a new venue for El Toratheyah — a folk arts association he founded in 2005 dedicated to the instrument.
Canal 20, his new incarnation, is a cultural museum standing just a stone’s throw away from Port Said’s majestic harbor.
Its mission is to teach the woodshop craft and pass on the semsemia’s musical heritage to a new generation.
Firefighter Ibrahim Awad, 35, a semsemia fan from an early age, was there on the emotional night when Ghaly had to close up shop.
“What I love is there isn’t a band with a leader but a palpable spirit you can feel...it’s really interactive,” he told AFP.
When British, French and Israeli troops launched an attack in 1956 after then president Gamal Abdel Nasser had nationalized the canal, Egyptians wrote nationalistic songs inspired by their defense of the canal.
The semsemia became a musical weapon of national resistance.
Port Said, a cosmopolitan trading hub on the Mediterranean that once boasted sizeable communities of French, Greeks, Jews and Italians, was destroyed during the Suez crisis.
In 1967 when Israel occupied the Sinai, Ghaly’s family was among thousands of residents displaced to other parts of Egypt.
But he never forgot his Port Saidi roots.
“I used to hear it on the radio and that made me fall in love with it. Here I was a Port Saidi away from my home — so that left a mark on me,” he said.
He started tinkering around with making his own semsemias in the 1980s.
After a musician asked Ghaly to make him one, he enjoyed the challenge of putting his carpentry skills to good use and has professionally been crafting them since 2003.
“When I am crafting it, I’m either in a really good mood or a bad one. When I’m really upset, I actually make the best semsemias. I live through the craft,” he said.
Iman Haddo, 20, is part of the young crowd that gathers at Canal 20, where Ghaly displays old photographs of semsemia legends.
She instantly fell in love with the semsemia when she was a teenager after attending a local concert with her father.
“I heard the semsemia for the first time about seven years ago. It was very strange for me, I’d never seen it before and you never see it around really,” she said.
“I also questioned why it was only boys playing and asked where are the girls,” Haddo said.
Semsemia players are mostly older men.
Strumming the semsemia’s strings came naturally to her, and a year ago, Haddo started the Arab world’s first all-female semsemia choir called Amwag (waves).
“In our local folk culture, girls would dance and perform to the tune of the semsemia but they weren’t ever expected to play so I thought why not start a girls’ band,” she said.
They practice three times a week at Canal 20 and have been invited to play at music festivals.
“We want to show music lovers that the semsemia isn’t just for men, that women can play it well and be successful at it,” she said.
“We also want to save our heritage.”


Have you heard the one about the Muslims making a splash on the UK comedy scene?

Updated 25 min 4 sec ago

Have you heard the one about the Muslims making a splash on the UK comedy scene?

  • New breed of comedians use their Arab origins to fuel culture-clash comedy routines and smash stereotypes
  • Super Muslim Comedy Tour visited 11 British cities to raise money to help impoverished children in crisis-hit countries

LONDON: Thanks to stars such as Billy Connolly, Eddie Izzard, Ricky Gervais, Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, Britain has long been a hotbed of comedy talent.
Lately, a new crop of Arab Muslim stand-up comedians have taken to the stage across the country, representing the UK’s ethnic diversity and offering a fresh alternative on the comedy scene.
Fatiha El-Ghorri, Omar Hamdi and Esther Manito were among seven Muslim comedians that toured 11 British cities as part of the Super Muslim Comedy Tour. This charity event is organized by Penny Appeal, an international humanitarian organization that works to provide poverty relief in crisis-hit countries worldwide.
In their acts, the three performers challenge the stigmas and stereotypes associated with how the British public views Muslims and Arabs, and vice versa, using their own experiences and backgrounds as inspiration for their humor.
British-Moroccan comedian El-Ghorri, for example, uses comedy to break down the barriers that she has come up against as a Muslim and as a woman.
“I think in the West in general we have a perception of Muslim women as being weak and oppressed, especially with Muslim women that wear the hijab,” she said after a performance at Porchester Hall in Bayswater, London. “It’s difficult for women in general but it’s more difficult for a woman that looks so different, as I do, because people don’t want to take a chance on you.”

British-Moroccan comedian Fatiha El-Ghorri is challenging the stigmas that not only come with being a Muslim, but also a Muslim woman. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

The comedy industry has long had a problem with female comics because promoters worry that audiences will not connect with their material, she said. At most of the events she has performed at she was the only woman on the bill, she added, and wearing a hijab makes it even harder to find a platform.
“So I like to challenge that and the perceptions people have of us as Muslims,” she said. “And also, within the Muslim community you have tribes: you have the Pakistani Muslims, the Arab Muslims, and we have traditions and cultures different to each other.”
Stepping onto the stage to the sound of a song by rapper Jay-Z, 38-year-old El-Ghorri kept the audience in stitches from the beginning to the end of her routine, as she merged eastern and western words and trends to come up with hybrid terms such as “Minder” (Muslim Tinder) and Mipster (Muslim hipster).
Despite the challenges and obstacles she has faced, she has no intention to give up her dream career.
“I’m not going to stop,” she said. “This is what I want to do and I’m gonna be here and I’m gonna do it. If one club won’t take me, another club will.”
The Super Muslim Comedy Tour, which is in its fifth year, kicked off in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Nov. 6 before heading south, stopping off in major cities before concluding in London on Nov. 17. Arab News caught up with the performers in the capital on the penultimate night of the tour.
Welsh-Egyptian comedian Omar Hamdi said one of the interesting things about stand up is that it takes him to places he would normally never go.
“This tour started in Aberdeen, which is like the northeast corner of Scotland — it’s practically Norway,” he said, adding that the “vibe there was different” to what he experienced in Bayswater, for example, a posh area in central London. “Even a distance of a few miles makes such a difference in the energy of the audience and what they’re into,” he explained.
This is the third time the 29-year-old has been part of the Super Muslim tour.

This is the third year Welsh-Egyptian comedian Omar Hamdi has joined Penny Appeal’s Super Muslim Comedy Tour. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

“Every year it’s different but it’s always fun,” he said. “I think because it’s been going a few years it’s become a bit of a brand. People come along more excited about the show, they have more expectations and it just gets bigger and better.
“The interesting thing is that wherever you go, people are there to laugh but they’re also there to support an amazing charity.”
Hamdi has also performed at Dubai Opera and the Royal Albert Hall in London. He is a presenter on the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (Bafta) Award-winning BBC Wales consumer-affairs show “X-Ray,” and has a comedy special, “Omar Hamdi: British Dream,” on Amazon Prime in the UK.
During his routine on the Super Muslim tour, Hamdi, who was born in Cardiff, jokes about how his parents ended up living in Wales, which is not the most obvious destination for Egyptian immigrants.
Esther Manito, meanwhile, was born and raised in Essex, east of London.
“There were absolutely no ethnic minority groups around, let alone Arab ethnic minority groups,” she said. With a Lebanese father and a mother from Newcastle, in the northeast of England, her parents’ cultural differences, in particular their very different ways of speaking, provide a rich source of inspiration for her comedy.
“My style of comedy is very much observational,” said Manito. “It’s about family life, family dynamics and identity, and growing up with dual heritage, so all of that comes into play when I’m doing stand-up. My surroundings have given me so much comedy material.”

The Super Muslim Comedy Tour was held at Porchester Hall in Bayswater, London, after touring 10 other cities across the UK. (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

Kae Kurd, from south London, is the host of the show. The 29 year-old, who hosts a YouTube show called “Kurd Your Enthusiasm,” was six months old when his parents moved to the UK in 1990. They were part of the resistance that fought against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
He said the response from audiences has been very positive throughout the tour, even if it occasionally takes a little time for them to warm up.
“Sometimes, I think people are nervous to laugh because they’ve probably never been to a comedy show before, so they don’t understand that they can laugh out loud,” he said. “But it’s been fun and everybody’s really enjoyed it.”
The proceeds from this year’s tour will help the Forgotten Children campaign, which aims to get young people in places such as Lebanon, Senegal, Pakistan and Bangladesh off the streets and into safer environments.
Sisters Ripa and Nazifa Hannan, from Hackney said it was the first time they attended a Muslim comedy show.
Ripa, 34, particularly liked El-Ghorri set and was able to relate to all her jokes, especially as they are from the same are in London.

British-Moroccan comedian Fatiha El-Ghorri (C) with fans Ripa Hannan (L) and her sister Nazifa (R). (AN Photo/Sarah Glubb)

“You know when women can kind of relate to another woman especially when, we come from Hackney too, so we got every single joke of hers and so it resonates for us,” she said.
Nazifa, 27, said they often attend comedy shows but tend to see acts like Trevor Noah or Russell Howard.
“This is the first Muslim comedy show and it was fantastic, hilarious and the fact they spoke (for a) very good cause,” she added.