Saturday, 19 May 2012

Cultures: An Egyptian dervish named Hanni Amin

Hanni Amin spins his magic

(This piece was in print in 2005)

A WHIRLING dervish doesn't often dance for an audience of three. Yet, there we stand amidst the lush greenery at Hotel Atria on a sunny Friday morning, taking in the spectacular spins, swirls and moves of Hanni Amin, a traditional Egyptian dervish. Stunned by his dance as communication with the Almighty, we await his real performance at Guru Nanak Bhavan that evening. 

Hanni is central to the five-member Egyptian Al-Tannoura troupe that flew in from Cairo. Guests of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR), their maiden Indian performance was at Bangalore.

Clad in a gold-embroidered black jacket, layered over green pyjamas and a shirt, Hanni begins slowly. His three-tiered, multi-hued skirts catch the eye of the sun as he gains momentum, begins to turn — as his accompanists sing, their cadences matched to the flute and an unusual Egyptian drum. They are clad in long white garments over loose pyjamas, crimson diagonal sashes across their attire.

Hanni balances four coloured tambourine-like pieces in his hands. He juggles them as he changes rhythm. They change formation. He twists and swoops, his arms stretch out as he tosses them away one by one.
And then, Hanni's topmost skirt begins to spin, higher and higher, at a dizzying pace. It floats about his neck, still swirling as he controls its trajectory. It rises to his crown, still a rotating whirligig of colour. We feel dizzy at the spectacle; he doesn't for a moment. Hanni's dance as an instant messaging service is stunning. A multi-pronged Sufi prayer in motion.

We long to speak to Hanni. But he speaks no English, and we have not a word of Arabic. So, we try to bridge the cultural divide through Mahmud Eissa Ahmed Ali, the Al-Tannoura delegation head.

En route to New Delhi for the Third International Sufi Festival from March 10 to 15, they are looking forward to interacting through dance song and qawwali with artistes from Morocco, Iran, Sudan and Bangladesh, besides India. But Ali is disappointed that we could not access the full glory of their 52-member, 1988-launched, government-sponsored troupe.

"You know, the darawish (or dervish) in Egypt, in Sufi culture, is the core. Like the sun, he spins in the centre. At least 15 other dervishes dance around him in a clockwise direction like the planets, like the pilgrims at the Kaaba," explains Ali, in halting English. "And yes, Sufism draws from the beliefs of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi."

Thrice weekly, the Al-Tannoura troupe performs at Cairo's citadel of Salauddin, a spectacular sight for the local population. "The dervish is expressing the music, the words, his feelings, while communicating with Allah," stresses Ali. "He feels heavy, heavy, heavy as he dances. His outstretched arms are trying to connect the ground and the sky. He is always ready to fly... "

What does the dervish signify? "Whether he dances in solitary splendour in the desert or in the village square, his is an act of total communication and devotion. He is part of all Egyptian public celebrations, like the birthday of the Prophet," says Ali. "As he whirls, he chants Allah, Allah, Allah... "

Was his costume always so spectacular? "Not quite," Ali confesses. "Traditionally, the dervish was dressed only in pure white for zekr or the prayer dance. But this is more for the performance. By the way, the inscriptions across the red sashes of his musicians read `Only one God' in front. And `Mohammed is the Prophet' on the reverse."

Can the dervish withstand the onslaught of modernity on Egyptian society? "Of course," insists Ali. "We have 11 boys, each about seven years old, who are training to be dervishes at our institute. But that does not mean they can skip school... "

As the Al-Tannoura troupe, which has been to Japan and China, Singapore and Australia, sets its trajectory towards the US, Canada and Venezuela in the future, Ali puts the dervish in perspective, "Hanni's father and grandfather were dervishes. His son is one, too. It's a tradition that will never die out."

 (The Hindu Metroplus 2005)

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