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The Orchestra An-Nour wal Amal is by no means the only group of blind musicians in the world. Indeed, there have been so many blind performers throughout history--from Homer, the epic singer, to Blind Lemon Jefferson, the bluesman--that music and blindness are often associated in popular imagination. In a number of areas of the world, including Ukraine and Japan, certain kinds of religious song were traditionally reserved for guilds or brotherhoods of blind performers. In Egypt itself, the chanting of the Qur'an was once practically the only way for a blind boy to earn a living, and today, Qasr al-Nour, the Cairo center for blind boys, has its own musical ensemble. It may be that the blind have been steered toward music because it is an activity that they can perform, but many people--including a number of musicians at An-Nour wal Amal--are convinced that an increased sensitivity to sound is a kind of compensation for the loss of sight.

"That's just a myth," insists the Maestro, who has been involved in music education for thirty years. "If the blind had a special musical gift," he continues, "we wouldn't need to test our students. But in my experience, the blind are just like the sighted. The only difference, really, is that the blind have more problems, because in a normal orchestra depends absolutely on sight. The musicians have to have one eye on the conductor and the other on the score. There are blind musicians--excellent musicians--all over the world; but they are soloists. Nobody before us ever thought of bringing them together in an orchestra."

When the Abu el-Aid uses the word "orchestra," he means, specifically, an ensemble that plays what musicologists call Western European art music (or "classical music" if you're shopping at Tower Records). In Abu el-Aid's view, the ensemble at the blind boys' center does not qualify as an orchestra, because the group plays Arab music exclusively. The melodies and rhythms of Arab music can be extremely subtle and complex, but the organization of the ensemble is relatively straightforward: all the instruments play essentially the same melody, and an accompanying drumbeat provides an audible point of reference. It is far more difficult, the Maestro maintains, to coordinate the chords and simultaneous melodies of Western harmony and counterpoint.

The Western art music tradition has long been a part of the Cairo cultural scene. In the early 19th century, Muhammad Ali, who ruled from 1804 to 1848, instituted Western-style military marching bands as part of an effort to modernize his army. A successor, Khedive Ismail, built the Cairo Opera, which opened with Verdi's Rigoletto in 1868, and a year later gave the premiere of A•da, which had been commissioned to commemorate the opening of the Suez Canal. In this century, King Faruq is said to have been an avid pianist and great patron of both European and Arab music. Since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1954, the governments of Gamal Abdel Nasser and later, Anwar Sadat and Husni Mubarak, have also encouraged Western art music, through the founding of the Cairo Conservatoire and continued support of an opera company and a National Orchestra.


Elements of Western music--especially the use of large orchestras with massed violins--have influenced the style of Egyptian popular music since the beginning of this century. Nevertheless, European art music as such remains a rarity in Cairo. According to Abu el-Aid, "Most of the listening public here doesn't know what classical music is. Brahms and Chopin don't have many listeners in Egypt." Egyptians do, however, like "clear, sweet melodies," and the Maestro indulges their taste (and his own) by planning mixed programs with selections of traditional Egyptian music, Western-style music by Egyptian composers, and, above all, European music from the late Romantic period.

The emphasis on the Western art tradition protects the orchestra from the criticism of conservative Muslims, some of whom maintain that music encourages licentious behavior, such as drinking, dancing, and adultery. With the exception of a few Coptic Christians, the women of An-Nour wal Amal profess to be devout Muslims, and they were concerned enough about this question to seek the advice of a religious scholar. As Iman Fawzi, a bassist in the orchestra, explained, "Some people say that music is haram--forbidden--but the sheikh told us that we should consult our heart and our feelings. He said that as long as the music doesn't make you dance or behave immodestly, it's all right." By these standards, the orchestra's music was judged to be morally pure, which is curious in a way, since much of their repertory was originally designed to inspire (or at least emulate) passion through dance: Strauss waltzes, excerpts from Carmen, Khachaturian's Sabre Dance, Falla's Fire Dance, and Saint-Saens' Bacchanale.

Overall, the repertory reflects the Maestro's desire to develop a repertory that will be accessible and educational to Egyptian and foreign audiences alike. Within a few years of its formation, the Orchestra Al-Nour wal Amal had progressed enough to give public performances in Egypt, at the Opera House, the American University, and on television. The quality of the orchestra improved dramatically, however, when Abu el-Aid took over as conductor and music director in 1984. In 1988, at the instigation of the Egyptian ambassador to Vienna, the orchestra made its first trip abroad to Austria. This was followed by another tour of Austria the following year, and later by trips to Germany, England, Sweden, Spain, Morocco, Jordan, the Gulf States, Thailand and Japan.

The Orchestra is the most visible project of An-Nour wal Amal Association, but it is only one part of the organization. The Association was founded in 1954 by Istiqlal Radi, the daughter of a wealthy landowner. Mme. Radi's previous work with the Red Crescent, the Egyptian equivalent of the Red Cross, had made her aware of the problems of the blind in Egyptian society. Even today, according to Nafisa Khafagy, the director of social work at Al-Nour wal Amal, "a blind girl, especially in the countryside, has nothing to do but sit in the house, sit in the house, until she reaches a point where she is retarded--not mentally retarded, but socially retarded, culturally backward. She's afraid to work. She's afraid to speak." By the early 1950s, there was already a government-supported training center for blind boys, and Mme. Radi wanted to create similar opportunities for girls. Until her death in 1977, Istiqlal Radi devoted her energy, her influence and her fortune to creating an environment where blind girls could develop to their highest potential.

Over the years, An-Nour wal Amal has grown into a kind of conglomerate. Eighty girls and women live at the Association's dormitory in Heliopolis, a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in Cairo, and dozens of others commute to the center to study and work. About half the group are in a school, accredited by the Egyptian Ministry of Education, with classes running from primary grades through the secondary school baccalaureate. The others, enrolled in a rehabilitation program under the auspices of the Ministry of Social Affairs, manufacture carpets, basketry, socks, knitwear, and plastic bottles in the Association's workshops. The sale of these products helps support the activities of the center and gives each worker a small salary (sometimes a major source of income for their families). Al Nour wal Amal has been so successful that it has spawned other centers in Tanta, Port Said, and Mansoura, but only the Cairo center has an orchestra. Now, in fact, there are two orchestras with about thirty-five musicians each, the senior ensemble (including some women who have been with the group since the beginning), and a training group of younger girls from the primary school.

Al Nour wal Amal accepts candidates with partial sight, as long as their corrected vision is no better than 20/400. Most of the girls can make out shadow and light, form and color. The center tries to prepare all the girls for life outside the Association by offering training in physical education, cooking and home economics. For the workers in rehabilitation, marriage is the most reliable way out, and should a young woman get engaged, the center will help her put together a trousseau, and even lend her a wedding dress. The staff and volunteers will also help the couple find an apartment and telephone connection--major issues in a city of fifteen million. For those who remain in the dormitory, the Association will engage a lawyer, if necessary, to protect their interests in disputes over inheritance.

Living in a dormitory can be hard on a little girl, but it is often the only choice. For example, Ma'ali Salaheddin, 10, has a blind brother and three sighted sisters, and when she goes home on weekends and vacations, her apartment gets crowded indeed. The family lives in a small flat, with a refrigerator in the bedroom, a washing machine in the entrance hall, and a tiny salon crammed with a complete suite of locally-crafted Louis Quinze furniture--red velvet and thick gilt paint on roughly carved frames. Ma'ali's parents clearly love their daughter--her mother often visits her at the center, and her father proudly displays a newspaper photo of Maali and the children's orchestra--but they believe that she is better off at school. For one thing, their apartment is more than a hour by taxi from Al Nour wal Amal, making a daily commute impossible. Furthermore, after all the expenses for the children's (unsuccessful) eye operations, the family cannot afford to buy toys for the kids, much less pay the equivalent of $100 for a violin for Ma'ali. Although Ma'ali and her brother are resourceful at devising games to play with the handful of toys in the house, the facilities are much better at the blind centers. Besides, says their father, they spend much of their time at home on the telephone, talking to their classmates. The children miss their parents and siblings when they are in the dormitory, but they claim that they are happy when it is time to go back to school.

Music and academics together seem to provide the best chance for success in the world outside the Association. The younger musicians usually rank at the top of their class in school, earning high scores by national standards. Many go on to the university or the Conservatoire, and at least one has earned a doctorate in History. After graduation, a number of the women have found work in teaching, government administration, or private business, thanks in part to a law (stemming from the October War of 1973) requiring that handicapped people make up at least five per cent of the workforce in any organization with more than one hundred fifty employees. Rather than looking for charity, however; the women simply want the chance to demonstrate that they can do work that is usually reserved for a sighted person. "When we play," says Iman Fawzi, the bassist, "we prove ourselves as Egyptians, as blind people, and as women. We show the world what we can do."

Samha el-Kholy, a former director of the Cairo Conservatoire, is delighted with the success of the orchestra. Dr. el-Kholy helped design the music program in the late 1950s, and as an advisor to the orchestra she continues to push the group to maintain high standards. "People are so kind," she says. "They think, 'Oh, these girls are blind, it's very nice that they can play at all.' But this is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Blindness should not be an excuse for mediocrity, but now I'm very sure that we have passed this phase. They have a special sound, they understand what the Abu el-Aid wants them to do, and they play very well together. The crescendi and the diminuendi! And the ritardandos, oh my goodness, they do that so well! Sometimes I have my mouth open. How do they do it?"

Music notation for the blind has been a part of the Braille system since its inception. Louis Braille was himself a blind musician, and when he devised his method in 1829--essentially the one still in use today--he designed it to accomodate music and mathematics as well as words. All the elements of a musical score can be represented in Braille, but the material is organized in a very different way. While standard Western notation offers a visual analog to the sound of the music, Braille notation provides a linear description of the same information. Every detail of the score must, in effect, be spelled out, and a single measure of music may take up to two lines of Braille text. Furthermore, each voice in the music must be written individually, so that the left and right hand parts of a piano piece, for example, will appear as separate paragraphs. The sense of the simultaneity of sounds is lost.

When the orchestra prepares a new composition, each musician learns her part separately. Gradually, through touch and play, she adds successive fragments of the melody to her memory, fixing its shape. Once she has learned her part, Abu el-Aid's real work begins. He takes each section of the orchestra and shows the women how their parts fit together. Then he repeats the process with two sections, then three, until he has put the piece together like a mosaic.

The process is not easy, however, since the musicians may never have heard the piece they are learning, and they cannot consult the full score . In rehearsing the Dvorak piece, for example, the orchestra sometimes sounds as if it has transformed the Czech dance into something by Charles Ives--simple, familiar tunes rendered interesting by staggered (and staggering) meters and the shrill dissonance of instruments just slightly out of tune. Finally, the Maestro stops the music. "Where are you, trumpets?" he asks mildly. The trumpets remain poised at their players' lips while the maestro points out where they missed their cue.

During a break, while the women go off for the afternoon prayer, the Maestro seems a bit disappointed in their performance, but he reminds us that this was only the second rehearsal of the Dvora‡k. "Later on, they'll play something that they have already done in concerts," he promises. "You'll see. It's like a computer: you put in the program, and it runs automatically."

When the musicians return, Abu el-Aid raps sharply on the lectern, with a ruler this time. "Tchaikovsky, girls," he calls out. "Chinese Dance. . . . One, two three, four." The orchestra launches into the music without hesitation, and the maestro puts down the ruler and walks away, like a matador turning his back on a bull. The excerpt from the Nutcracker Suite seems a bit out of place on a hot July afternoon in Cairo (but it is considerably more palatable than the woozy saxophone versions of "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Silver Bells" broadcast every morning throughout our hotel lobby). In any case, true to the Maestro's word, the orchestra plays perfectly, with no direction or cues. The performance is precise, enthusiastic, and, perhaps, "automatic," but it is a great deal warmer and more human than any computer. And with a dozen violin bows moving in perfect synchrony, the orchestra looks as good as it sounds.

Two days later--rehersal afternoon for the junior orchestra--the hallway at Al Nour wal Amal is once more quiet and empty. Suddenly, three young girls come clattering down a stairway arm in arm; in a flash of yellow and purple and green, they rush down the hall and disappear through one of the doors. Shortly after, another girl follows slowly, alone, taking short, gliding steps; with her arms held slightly out from her sides, she seems to float gently in an adagio ballet. Other girls join the first, and soon the squawk of an oboe and the groan of a contrabass begin to echo through the rooms. Out in the hall, a clarinetist stands straight as a pillar with her back to the wall, practicing Mozart. Back in the shadows, a cellist caresses her instrument as she tries to memorize a new piece, running through a couple of measures of music and then pausing to check the score lying under the strings.


Text by Philip D. Schuyler
Photographs by Lori Grinker


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