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by Philip D. Schuyler
Photographs by Lori Grinker

Early on a summer afternoon, the central hallway of An-Nour wal Amal Association, in Cairo, Egypt, is quiet and empty. Shafts of sunlight, thickened slightly by dust, filter in from open doors on either side, leaving most of the corridor awash in dark shadows, a refuge from the blistering heat outside. It's Saturday, and almost time for a rehearsal of the Association's Orchestra. One by one, the musicians, women between the ages of sixteen and forty, drift in from school or from outside jobs. Most of them wear a headscarf or "veil," which has become the sign of conservative Islam. For all its modesty, however, their clothing reflects considerable care in the cut of the long dresses, the matching of colors, and the drape of the scarf. Despite the dimness, many of the women wear sunglasses.

When they reach the end of the hallway, the women stop to greet Sherifa Fathi, who has taken her place at a small desk outside the rehearsal room. Among her duties at Al Nour wal Amal, Sherifa, 34, is the music librarian, charged with keeping the scores in order, and with copying out the parts for each new piece. During the summer, she works eight or more hours a day, taking dictation from the conductor, or copying music at her desk. As she reads, she runs her left hand across the page from left to right, but as she writes, her right hand moves in the opposite direction. She is writing in Braille, and like all Braille writers she works in reverse, raising the pattern of dots by pushing the thick paper from behind with a small stylus. An-Nour wal Amal ("Light and Hope") is a center for the blind.

In the rehearsal room, five fans (including one on top of the piano) mute the sounds of conversation and tuning, but fail to dissipate the heat of the Cairo afternoon. At four o'clock exactly, Ahmed Abu el-Aid, the conductor and music director, enters the room. Abu el-Aid, a sighted man in his early sixties, is known to all as the Maestro, and with his trim build and silver hair, he certainly looks the part. When the musicians are ready, Abu el-Aid announces the program for the day, beginning with a new piece, Dvora‡k's Slovonic Dance in G minor. There is no point in leading the orchestra by waving his hands and a baton, so the Maestro keeps time loudly by slapping his lectern with the handle of a flyswatter. Then, once the orchestra is well underway, he leaves the desk and walks through the orchestra, quietly coaching one section on their next entrance, or gently correcting the position of a cellist's wrist and elbow.

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