Al-Ahram Weekly Online   31 July - 6 August 2003
Issue No. 649
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Abdallah Said:

From refugee camp to Cairo: an Eritrean journey

Giving voice to the voiceless

Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
Abdallah Said

"It is hard to keep hold of your identity once you become a refugee, away from the land of your birth," Abdallah Said explains in a hoarse voice.

"Singing about your homeland, for your people, in the language your people understand and relate to, is one way to sustain a sense of belonging," he murmurs in heavily accented Sudanese Arabic.

Abdallah is a child of the refugee camps, a son of post-independence Eritrea. Still, words like "armed struggle" and "refugee" have been common currency in his household all his life. His earliest recollections were of the national liberation struggle.

"I was too young to participate in the armed struggle, but I understand what war is about. I know the devastation and heartache it creates."

The memory seems to deepen his voice.

Bard -- not priests and sheikhs -- were traditionally the moral trustees of their communities, and Abdallah aspires to be a modern minstrel.

Cairene audiences' first introduction to this particular Eritrean sensation took place at El-Sawy Cultural Centre, Zamalek, at an African week of cultural events and festivities. Abdallah Said bound on to the stage on Wednesday, 23 July, the distinctive sounds of his people's music preceding him.

A diminutive man with enormous stage presence, he sways quietly to the sounds of Eritrean rhythms that fill the air. He taps his right foot, bows his head, then lifts his arm, holding the microphone high above his head. His chest heaves. Suddenly, with a quick burst of speed, he grabs the mike to his mouth and lets out a deafening, disconsolate cry. The crowd cheers.

Abdallah possesses that ineffable thing, star quality. His enthusiasm is infectious: men, women, jump on the stage and do impromptu dances. Every dancer dances in the fashion of his or her people. One or two veiled women, donning the Islamic hijab, braved the dance floor. Some dancers throw money at his feet while others place bank notes on his forehead as a mark of appreciation.

Abdallah obviously hits a chord with listeners.

"I love to please my audience," he says later. He knows that his songs can be uplifting, comforting or thought-stirring, and very often all three.

"The Eritrean liberation struggle was sparked and sustained by song," Abdallah says, insisting that Eritrea's freedom fighters were inspired by the patriotism ignited by revolutionary songs.

"Music, song and dance played a critical role in the Eritrean liberation struggle."

Abdallah is an intriguing combination of vulnerability and the valour one associates with those born to lead. He sings for refugees. He is a member of Cairo's community of refugees, legal and illegal, people who desperately need income and are afraid to speak up. His is a voice used for the voiceless.

It might be difficult for those who have not seen Abdallah perform to appreciate the determination inside this wiry, soft-spoken and unassuming man.

Abdallah was born in Keren. When he was six he moved with his family to an Eritrean refugee camp in Sudan, the first of many such camps. Indeed, he has spent more years of his life in Sudan than in his native Eritrea. His whole experience of life is coloured by his early experiences as an Eritrean refugee in Sudan.

Abdallah grimaces at the daily scrutiny refugees suffer. To grow up in a refugee camp is one of the most challenging starts in life imaginable. Yet there is nothing sad or morose about Abdallah. He has always prided himself on his perseverance.

Keren, some 50kms north of the Eritrean capital Asmara, is a melting pot. All the major ethnic groups of Eritrea are present in Keren, where they intermarry and intermingle. It is a charming, provincial market town nestled in the hilly country north of Asmara. Its inhabitants speak several of the languages of Eritrea -- Saho, Tigre, Tingrinya and Arabic being the most widely used languages in Keren.

Abdallah identifies with his listeners. His audiences are invariably fellow refugees.

"I understand them and they understand me."

Minutes later, just before the interlude when the dancers break for refreshments, he stops himself just short of another song.

Whatever distinctions marked Eritreans inside their country became blurred in the refugee camps of Sudan. A new Eritrean identity was born -- they were first and foremost refugees and freedom fighters. The irony was that the land they fled to was not so different from the land they left behind, neither in terms of landscape and culture nor, indeed, in terms of ethnic composition. Still, in Sudan they stood apart. It was a political decision as much as a survival strategy.

The world often appears unmoved by the suffering of refugees, insensitive to their special needs. Abdallah hopes, in a small way, to bring the plight of refugees to people's attention.

For many Egyptians neighbouring Eritrea is terra incognita. Yet Eritrea is a mere 400kms down the Red Sea coast from Marsa Alam. Culturally, too, there are numerous affinities. Slightly more than 50 per cent of the Eritrean population is Muslim, and a large percentage of the remainder Monophysite Orthodox Christians like the Copts of Egypt. Linguistically, too, Arabic is widely spoken and understood in Eritrea. The language is especially prevalent among the predominantly Muslim ethnic groups who inhabit the coastal and lowland areas of the country and Arabic is one of Eritrea's official languages.

Tigrinya, another of Eritrea's official languages and the mother tongue of some 50 per cent of the Eritrean population, is a Semitic language closely related to Arabic. Even more closely associated to Arabic is Tigre, the lingua franca of many of the country's Muslims.

Abdallah came to Egypt two years ago to study music, attracted by the linguistic and cultural affinities between Eritrea and Egypt.

"I had hoped to capitalise on these ties," Abdallah says in his best marketing voice. "I feel at home in Egypt."

In Egypt Abdallah works closely with the Cairo-based Eritrean Students and Youth Union: "Back in the Eritrean refugee camps it was the Eritrean Student and Youth Union in Sudan that sponsored and facilitated many of the cultural activities, sometimes in conjunction with the UN."

Eritrean diplomatic missions abroad also provide some backing to budding Eritrean artists though much of the hard work is left to the student and youth organisations.

Abdallah's musical debut was in the village of Al-Mofadha, Sudan. On 1 September 1989, on the anniversary of Eritrean Revolution Day, he sang on stage at his school. He was only 13, and he sang a nationalistic song in the Tigre language. It was received with enthusiasm. Scurrying off the stage he was awarded a standing ovation. There were other teenagers who performed that day but none of the other kids elicited a similar response.

Eritrean music is an ingenious blend of a variety of traditions, ancient and modern, Arab and African, and it is in its very hybridity that authenticity is found.

Abdallah speaks fondly of his native music, of traditional Eritrean instruments such as the krar, a five-stringed lyre, played with both fingers and plectum. Today the electronic keyboard has become an indispensable accompaniment of the contemporary Eritrean musical repertoire.

The contemporary Eritrean musical scene remains vibrant in the face of desperate poverty. Life is hard in a country where average annual per capita income is less than $400. But in comparison with some other developing countries wealth is relatively evenly distributed. There are few signs of the gross income differentials so flagrant in some other African countries. Musicians eke out a precarious existence in impoverished Eritrea, but the largesse of wealthy Eritreans overseas, in the oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, North America, Europe and Australia partly sustains them and ensures the survival of their music, while some of the most commercially successful Eritrean musicians work in exile.

There have been many African American and diaspora African influences on Eritrean music. There are large, vigorous and culturally dynamic communities of Eritreans in the United States and Europe. Reggae, soul and hip-hop have had an especially strong impact on contemporary Eritrean music, alongside earlier African American traditions of jazz and blues.

Women vocalists like Almaz Teferi and Seble Solomon who recently-released her first CD, Kalehubet, have traditionally featured less prominently on the Eritrean music scene than male vocalists such as Fitsum Yohannes, Fitsum Alem, Medhane Habtu, Layne Tadesse, Dawit Efrem and Michael Goithom. But, Abdallah points out, women singers who sang revolutionary songs during the armed liberation struggle were held in high esteem.

"Women singers like Fatema Ibrahim, Khadija Ali and Khadija Adamai doubled as freedom fighters. Their songs boosted the morale of the freedom fighters."

An ethnic Saho, Abdallah nevertheless enjoys singing in Tigre.

"Many people in Eritrea speak and understand the Tigre language. So I enjoy singing in Tigre, even though it is not my native tongue. I want to reach out to people, to the largest number of people."

Abdallah hopes to make the most of his sojourn in Egypt. He has come to love Cairo. His two-year old daughter Hagar was born in Egypt, and she accompanies him to all his performances. He believes that he has much to learn from the Eritrean community in Egypt, and from their host nation.

Abdallah contrasts the septatonic scale of Arabic music with the pentatonic scale of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Sudanese and Nubian music. The music of the Horn of Africa shares many features with Arabic music, including several instruments. But there are also differences, many of which can be traced back to the relative absence, in the Horn of Africa, of Persian and Turkish musical influences.

Abdallah's three-man band is pitifully small: Al-Hady plays the krar and Ayman the electronic keyboard. "In my heart of hearts I know we can be big. But we desperately need all the goodwill and backing we can get."

Abdallah has a lot on his mind. Being a penniless refugee impinges on all aspects of life but he is fortunate to have his wife by his side. His friends, fellow refugees and fans lend invaluable support, too.

Abdallah is so full of energy he can barely sit still for a second. He is chewing at the bit to begin his big plans though it is obvious that he is not quite done with the politics of music and the curse of war.

Is his music politically motivated, then?

His songs are always in the languages of Eritrea. He draws inspiration from the memory of the liberation struggle, from the bards of yesteryear. In tale and song they present the Eritrean armed liberation struggle as a stirring epic.

It is a measure of Abdallah's ambition that he was on the move so early in life. For music and the love of his native land he left Sudan -- his second home -- to return to Eritrea. Then he returned to Sudan to study music, and from there came to Egypt.

Has this constant quest for musical expression been a concern to his parents?

"I am sure they were worried, and I am sure they did mind. I am especially sure that my father was concerned. But I was going to go regardless, and I think they understood that."

"My mother was less opposed to my singing career, but my father was very much against it. We, the Muslims of Eritrea, are a very conservative people. Our elders, in particular dismiss entertainers as having morally bankrupt lifestyles. My father was very much against me hanging out with girls, and living what he imagined was a life of debauchery," he chuckles. "That didn't deter me, though. I am determined to continue developing my singing skills. I've always been very stubborn that way."

Abdallah's wife, Noura, is more supportive of his musical pursuits. Noura is a native of the mountain resort of Aila Abrade and an ethnic Bilien. She is a poet and writes many of the lyrics of his songs. They met in Keren after his return from Sudan. Soon after their marriage they moved back to Sudan and thence to Egypt.

After completing his secondary education in New Halfa, Sudan, Abdallah enrolled at the UNESCO-run music academy in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. His childhood idol was Abrar Osman, the legendary Eritrean singer currently exiled in Germany. "Abrar Osman had a tremendous impact on me. I used to imitate his style. People said that my voice resembled his and I was thrilled by the compliment."

At the time Abrar Osman was a fellow Eritrean refugee in Sudan. "I had first heard him sing in the Eritrean refugee camps in Sudan. He sang for and about the Eritreans in the refugee camps. He sang for Eritrean national liberation. I loved his style of singing," Abdallah says. "I've looked up to him since I was a kid. He represented a lot for me in terms of dignity and patriotism."

It is only at the end of our conversation that we broach the sensitive question of Eritrean-Ethiopian relations. The bitter 30-year Eritrean struggle for independence, which ended in 1991 with the Eritreans defeating the Ethiopians and liberating their capital Asmara and the entire Red Sea country left an indelible mark on the Eritrean national psyche.

Would Abdallah perform for an Ethiopian audience?

The answer is an emphatic no.

"Besides, the Ethiopians would not want me to sing for them either," he quickly adds.

The two-year border dispute with Ethiopia that erupted in 1998 and ended under UN auspices on 12 December 2000 left in its wake anger, resentment and mistrust. More than 70,000 people were killed during the border conflict.

Abdallah is acutely aware that Eritrea, a nation of 4.5 million people, is a youthful country. With an annual population growth rate of 3.8 per cent, Eritrea is a land of youngsters. Children and youth make up more than 70 per cent of the country's population.

Abdallah, a young man himself, sings primarily for the young. His songs have to bear some relation to reality and truth, he stresses.

I am not sure what is next for Abdallah Said. He has no long-term plan. Is he capable of moving his singing career into a higher gear? Or has his refugee status become the sin qua non of his existence?

"I am trying to decide what to do," Abdallah says.

He has the loving support of his refugee community, as was made abundantly clear during his performance at El-Sawy Cultural Centre. What is needed is the wider appreciation of the host community at large.

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