The Generation of Sumeida’s Song
Poetry is the ultimate form of expression in Arabic literature. In the 1950s, when Tawfiq El-Hakim wrote his early masterpiece, Song of Death, plays in Arabic were uncommon to say the least and the play as an artform was still being pioneered by El-Hakim and some others on the literary scene. It’s a hard picture to conjure up as, since then, Song of Death has become one of the most popular and enduring stories in the Arab world. I first read the play as a kid and filed it in the inner circuits of my mind. Then, as a teenager, I rediscovered it.
By the time I was 18, I had written several song cycles and many art songs that were already becoming popular with singers. I had an inner yearning to write an opera but was waiting for the right moment and then I was startled by the classical straight-forwardness of El-Hakim’s tightly knit narrative. Song of Death contains a powerful, timeless story that also seems like it could’ve been written yesterday and it’s all expressed with the economy of a master craftsman. I then understood the reason for its popularity in the Arab countries and I knew that it would become my first opera, Sumeida’s Song.
The 1950’s were also the stage for the last series of dramatic revolutions that, generating in Cairo, swept through the Arab world. Fermenting political unrest and upheaval fuelled an intensely active (and largely followed) literary scene. It was in this context that Tawfiq El-Hakim created Song of Death, a play that is, after all, about effecting social and political change.
In the 2010’s, as I delivered Sumeida’s Song, a similar vibe was being emanated from Cairo and other corners of the Arab world that would eventually lead to the Arab Spring. The entire first scene of Sumeida’s Song is filled with the anxiety that change is coming to the small village in Upper Egypt where it is clearly not welcome. The two women on stage are filled with trepidation as they await the return of their relative, a 19-year-old boy who spent the last 17 years in Cairo, the big city. They expect him to, upon returning, avenge his father’s death by killing the man who they believe murdered his father but there are all sorts of doubts. It’s revealed that he eventually ran away from the butcher shop where he was delivered by his aunt to be housed as an infant, to join the venerated Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest institutions of higher learning in the world and still a formidable force on Cairo’s political and social scene today.
What if the boy doesn’t know how to use a knife to kill a man? What if he doesn’t come as promised in his letter? What if, having attained the rank of Sheikh, he has just gone 'soft'? If any of these possibilities, explored in the first scene, become realities, the name of the family will eternally be dishonored by the standards of the village.
Sure enough, El-Hakim’s protagonist, Alwan, arrives and is greeted by his mother, cousin and sister. He also reveals, to his mother’s horror, that he has not come to kill but rather to build school houses, bring running water, electricity and literacy to his home-town. As a result, he is disowned by his family, departs and is killed by his cousin, the 'last remaining man' of the family, at the orders of his mother. He pays the price for trying to effect change, a price that was paid by civilians at Tahrir Square in 2011 and on the streets of Damascus in 2012.
The music for Sumeida’s Song came naturally, fuelled by my desire to retell the story. The music broadens with the arrival of Alwan in the second scene, widened to encompass a wider field of vision. The news of his death leaves us desolate at the end of the opera. Tawfiq El-Hakim told a story that had occurred in reality many times before and many times since in the Arab world and the rest of the world. When an individual like Alwan gives voice to his or her ideas, they are representing, in their many forms, a universal human desire to resist injustice, rise above oppression and change our reality for the better.
The title of this article may be understood in several ways as these are clearly resonant issues for many of my generation inheriting our global reality. They are reflected on the world stage and in the works of leading young writers, composers and artists. It is a fitting time for me to deliver this story in Sumeida’s Song through the most universal artform.