Buena Vista in Cairo

A visit to the Egyptian capital for a film festival affords an opportunity to hear a neighborhood string band that makes happy all who listen.

CAIRO - The group has been meeting once a week for over 20 years. It includes a fisherman, an idle philosopher, popular singers and amateur musicians who appear for free before the residents of their wretched city, Port Said. Their troupe is called El Tanbura and they specialize in playing the simsimiyya, an Egyptian stringed instrument that looks like an old harp with five strings. When they go on stage they wear whatever providence provided them with that day: imitations of Gucci and Levi's, a red tarboosh, an elegant suit, a Nike baseball cap. They are funny, they jump, they've got rhythm under their skin, they are Cairo's Buena Vista Social Club. They come to make the poor and humble somewhat happy, but no one has yet made a film about them.

I heard of them for the first time a year ago when photographer Nir Kafri and I were sent by Haaretz Magazine to write about the towns along the Suez Canal 40 years after the War of Attrition. The canal is a wound that has barely healed in our collective consciousness, but what do we know about the injuries of the people on the other side, about the cities that Israel bombed time and again, about the civilians whose homes were pulverized and who were uprooted, moved out and dispersed around Egypt time and again?

El Tanbura

One of those displaced people heads this band and the story of his uprooting begins in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when his city, Port Said, was bombed for the first time. He returned there, but was to be sacrificed again to the god of war. When he heard that we were from Israel his face fell, because he felt he might be hurting us with his sad tale. Later, though, during the show, he did not forgo his routine number, which he and his band had composed on the 50th anniversary of the 1956 war and which became an anthem of sorts, the song about the waters of "our canal" that no one will again take away from us - sort of their equivalent of our slogan that "Masada shall never fall again."

A small advertisement in the Al-Ahram newspaper said they would appear on Thursday at 9 P.M. in a small hall in the Abdin neighborhood's Balaqsa Alley. It is a prefabricated structure, a box more than a hall, whose lobby is the alley itself, where people go about their regular lives. Most of the residents were at one time migrants from Nubia, villagers who were uprooted and moved to Cairo after the inauguraton of the Aswan Dam, and the band is an integral part of their day-to-day scenery. When there is a family celebration on the street, the band volunteers to perform for the guests. But even when the show is more organized, and takes place inside the hall, with its doors closed to block noise from outside, the band's music booms like a sound box to the entire neighborhood. Kindheartedness is the second name of the El Tanbura people and they give of themselves to all. Sometimes they play, sometimes they put down their instruments and join in the dancing of a jerky debka step - an act of total spontaneity that is probably the outcome of lots of experience.

And the audience? Can one avoid clapping to the beat, moving and laughing? Egyptians and foreigners - everybody gets the beat. One man who sat behind us, and who knew all the words to the songs and sang them along with the troupe, got up at one point and joined a crazy spin dance on the stage.

There was another woman in the audience, who came with a young black man and sat on the sidelines. We had already planned to meet again the following day in order to exchange impressions of the evening. We had met her by chance, in the old Cosmos Cinema hall on Imad el-Din Street, to which she, like us, had come to see an Iraqi-Kurdish movie called "The Quarter of Scarecrows," and who, at the end of the screening leaned over and asked whether we liked the movie.

"The Quarter of Scarecrows," by the Kurdish-Iraqi director Hassan Ali Mahmoud, is an allegorical film about a flock of crows that descends on an agricultural field belonging to a rich and mean landowner in the middle of an area strewn with mines. The birds eat the newly planted seeds, but it is impossible to shoo them away. The landowner recruits the residents of the village, who are at his mercy, to place scarecrows in the field, but they don't do the job, so then he recruits the children to serve as live scarecrows, to walk back and forth making noises, until they are bone weary. Some of the children step on mines and are killed, until finally there is a quiet uprising, which brings this sad movie to its end.

More than the film, we liked the woman, whom we ran into twice, one day after another, in the huge but also intimate Cairo. Her name is Renate Dopatka. She is from Hamburg, and she was in Cairo for the same reason I was - to attend the international film festival. She had been a teacher at a Hamburg school until one day when she decided to change her life and went to help the tortured people in Darfur. She spent a decade in that province of Sudan, helping and teaching, and bridging between the needy and the aid organizations. She talked, excitedly, about the high level of culture in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, and shared with us the pain that grips her when she returns to Germany and sees the spreading hostility toward "Islam." She thinks that Muslim culture in fact has a lot to teach her people about adherence to family values, the endless devotion to children, values that have been lost in Germany.

We sat and talked about all this in the Umm Kulthum Cafe in the Saray el-Ezbekia, which in bygone days was filled with places where Cairo's bohemia used to meet but today retains only an atmosphere of nostalgia. Huge gilded busts and wall paintings of the revered singer adorn the cafe. It was Renate's birthday, and our short visit with her to the cafe, over a cup of Turkish coffee and tea with milk, constituted her birthday party. She did not need more than that.