My friend Farouk Sarsa is an Egyptian drummer who comes from a long lineage of Mohamed Ali Street artists and artisans, who I have known and kept in touch with since the early 80’s. He was living in France for the last few years, but was not able to make it as an Egyptian percussionist there. Since returning to Cairo, he and his daughter have been staying with a friend while he tries to start over and get the money needed to get an apartment. This situation has become untenable, and Farouk reached out to me to ask if I could help him financially with the remaining amount needed to move, as times are terrible for the working musicians of Cairo. Once he can get back on his feet then he can continue to rebuild his career as best he can, and at least be able to start giving private lessons again if he has his own space.
The economic outlook in Egypt is dim, and tourism has never regained its pre-revolution (2011) levels, and this has affected working musicians especially hard. Everything in Egypt from goods to services has become much more expensive due to inflation and the value of the Egyptian pound against the dollar, and that means people are cutting back on live musicians at weddings, night clubs are dark or permanently closed, and Nile boats are not moving. Tourists are not coming to buy drums from Egyptian artisans or take lessons as they used to. This has left a whole stratum of the working musicians of Cairo in dire straits, and they are leaving the arts because they can no longer make even a bare living. The story of Farouk and his life and changes of fortune as an artist is also an example in microcosm of what has happened to the musicians and dancers of Mohamed Ali Street, as times and society have changed.
I was introduced to the Sarsa family by Reda Darwish, on my first trip to Mohamed Ali Street in the 80’s. At this time the neighborhood had already begun its transition from a street of artists to a street of furniture stores. I was looking for a fish skin tambourine, and he took me to a shop called Music Center owned by the Sarsa family that sold various Arabic percussion instruments. The owner, Mohamed Sarsa, was an artisan who knew the art of creating fish skin tablas but had passed away, leaving his music shop to be run by his widow Farida and his sons.
Farida was my age, and despite the language barrier, we became close friends. She had relatives who were well known dancers, including Naemet Mokhtar, and friends who were awalim who had also retired and opened shops in the neighborhood. Mohamed’s sons, Khaled and Farouk, became drummers and continued the craft of clay drum making, and at that time their shop had the monopoly on fish skins. I became close with the whole family, and over the years Susu and I stayed in touch with them and always visited their little shop when in Egypt. Over the decades I heard many stories and had many experiences that are now part of the rapidly receding history of Mohamed Ali street artists.
About 15 years ago Farida died. Khaled became a touring drummer with Ihab Toufiq and other stars, and Farouk made a valiant attempt to keep the shop open by selling drums, teaching drumming and making clay fish skin drums, as gradually the furniture makers closed in and displaced most of the family owned musical instrument shops. But after years of contention he was forced to sell the shop by his sister and brother who wanted their share of the money. Since that time, Farouk has struggled to continue to make a hand to mouth living as a drummer, the only trade he knows. Without a storefront and place to find him, it was difficult to continue giving lessons or selling. There also was not really a market for fish skin or clay drums anymore, as gradually plastic and metal have become the preferred materials for drums. Farouk was married to a French belly dancer, and he and his wife moved to try and find a better life there. Unfortunately, they divorced and Farouk returned to Cairo, unable to make it in France. Since then he has been fighting to get back on his feet in a dismal economic and social climate in Egypt.
I believe this history of this one family typifies the story of the loss of Mohamed Ali Street's entertainment community as they have been displaced by changing times and values. As they disappear, they take with them their skills, traditions, and a window onto this nearly vanished world. Farida was a dear friend and her son Farouk is like a son to me. If I could help him to get an apartment and back on his feet so that he can continue the musical tradition of his family, it would mean the world to me. I am asking you all to contribute if you can, even if it is a small amount of 5 or 10 dollars, towards my goal. At the end of this campaign I have a trusted friend who will deliver the money to Cairo and into his hands. Please contact me if you have any questions.
- Duraid Musleh
- Jeanette Cool
Organizer and beneficiary
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