On Friday night, Egyptians and expats gathered under the glow of orange and blue lights outside Darb 1718 for an evening of music celebrating the diplomatic and cultural relationship between Egypt and Poland. A group of Polish and Egyptian musicians, led by Maria Pomianowska, performed music to accompany Arabic translations of poetry by Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz.
Professor Hanaa Abdel Fattah, the sole translator of Milosz’s work into Arabic, introduced the show, discussing generally how he tried to capture the “spirit” of the original Polish in a way that comported with “Arabic expectations.” Nevertheless, he argued, the “universality” of the poetry’s ideas transcends the language of its expression. “The idea that Egyptians don’t read poetry is a big lie,” he concluded, citing the fact that the first printing of his translations of Milosz had sold out.
Throughout the evening, diplomats were ready to connect the literature and music with political themes. “Milosz’s poems,” announced the Polish ambassador Piotr Puchta, “brought the spirit of freedom and democracy to the Polish people.”
Marcia Styszynski, an official with the Polish embassy in Cairo, told Daily News Egypt that several days before, the musicians had met at the Cairo Jazz Club, which also sponsored the event, and without rehearsal began to improvise spontaneously with one another. Suggesting a political lesson, he told me, “Musicians can cooperate together without any problems.”
The ensemble, comprised of Arabic and Polish folk instruments, wove together the two styles by highlighting their shared traits. In both musical traditions, long, sustained drones figure prominently, whether sitting under the introspective taqasim of Arabic music or the rollicking dances of Polish music.
In the first piece, Arabic verses of Milosz’s poetry rose in rich vocal strides, making way here and there for an extended improvisation by one of the instrumentalists, which included performers on the soprano saxophone, nay, oud, violin, as well as the Polish suka and gadulka, which look like fiddles held on the lap and bowed horizontally.
Bandleader Maria Pomianowska, who plays the suka and is widely known for her work with American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, made eye contact with the other musicians at crucial moments, subtly steering them between plaintive Arabic melodies and quickening, frantic Polish dances. In between some of the pieces, actress Solafa Ghanem read pieces of Milosz’s poetry in Arabic, allowing Abdel Fattah’s translations to stand as music in their own right.
To the untrained ear, Polish folk music sits somewhere between the precision of Russian classical music and the freewheeling excitement of Eastern-European dances. To many Westerners, the complex rhythms of Polish music are represented by the music of classical composer Frederick Chopin. To most, they sound fiendishly difficult.
Egyptian percussionist Khaled Abou Hegazy tightly tailored traditional Arabic rhythms to sit under the angular Polish melodies. Before one piece, Pomianowska joked that Abou Hegazy disliked the one melody because it was too fast to play. They began, repeating the same melody over and over again, each time faster and each time more impressive to the audience. They cheered on the Egyptian musicians, who had clearly pushed their skills to meet the Polish contingent’s tradition.
Towards the end of the concert, the music reached a climax as Pomianowska sang the poetry of Milosz in the original Polish at the very same time her colleague sang in Arabic. They wove the two languages around one another, each making space for the cadence of the other.
“Now, we are very big friends,” Pomianowska told the audience.