Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—With his old-fashioned oud, timeworn face and tired fingers, the 74-year-old musician Zakariya Ahmed wanders among the tables at coffeehouses in the historic Al-Husayn district in Cairo hoping to find an audience for his singing. Despite some disappointments, he has retained an affectionate smile that shows what remained of his teeth. His voice echoes in the coffeehouse as he sings El-Ward Gamil, Gamil el-Ward (“Roses are Beautiful”) by his namesake, the late, great Zakariya Ahmed.
He says: “I’m Zakariya Ahmed, this is my real name. I’ve been working here for 30 years ever since I resigned from my old job as the chief of the Mobility Department at the Cable and Wireless Authority back in 1980. My salary was 80 Egyptian pounds, and it was necessary for me to search for another source of income. I studied music at the National Institute for Arabic Music in Abdin district, Cairo.
“At the beginning, for me, singing was a mere hobby, but I had to cultivate my talent by studying, before I moved to the Husayn district to work as a singer and oud player for foreign and Arab tourists who visited the coffeehouses. Since then, I became a professional singer and started to have my own audiences who always demanded to hear me and asked for me in particular by calling me by my nickname ‘the Ghost’, a name I also share with the prominent late melodist.”
In Al-Husayn’s coffeehouses, the smell of shisha mingles in the air with Arabic and foreign conversation, together with the sound of musical instruments playing famous Arab and Egyptian melodies, with the accompanying singing.
Sipping some mint tea, Zakariya says: “I performed in concerts and was invited to sing at the private parties of Arab leaders who chose me in particular. These parties were organized at major hotels that overlook Cairo’s Nile, whereas other parties were organized abroad. The good thing about these parties was I was able to make a lot of money out of them. Unfortunately, the parties stopped as a result of the Egyptian revolution [in 2011], and so the number of visitors declined, and with it our main source of income. Before the revolution, I used to make over 600 pounds per day, but now I make only 100 pounds because of the lack of tourists.”
The unrest that has gripped Egypt since 2011 has had an impact on many sectors of the economy, but perhaps on the tourism industry most of all. According to official statistics and state officials, the number of tourists has declined considerably, causing unemployment rates to soar dramatically.
Asked about his daily routine in the Husayn district, Zakariya says: “I come here every day at around 7pm and stay until early in the morning. If the situation is fine, I may sing for three or four consecutive sections, otherwise I perform only one section if the situation is not OK. Sometimes, it happens that I fail to find a single customer to listen to me.”
Recalling past memories, Zakariya says: “Numerous famous singers such as the late singer Talal Maddah and Abdullah Al-Rowayshed, whom I loved so much, came here and listened to and admired my performance.
“Arab tourists always ask me to sing their songs as well as the songs of Mohamed Abdo, Abdel-Halim Hafiz and Fairouz, who all belonged to the time of Beautiful Art. However, it is amazing that the demand for old songs is not limited to the elderly people alone, as youths also ask me to perform songs by Abdel-Halim Hafiz and Sayed Mekkawi.”
Al-Husayn is considered one of Cairo’s most renowned historic districts, and contains numerous archaeological sites and treasures of medieval Islamic architecture: the famous Moez Li Din-Illah Street, which is lined with architectural gems from the Mamluke period; the iconic Al-Husayn Mosque whose mausoleum is said to house the head of the Prophet Muhammad’s legendary grandson, Husayn; the Khan Al-Khalili medieval market; and the Al-Azhar Mosque.
“I consider the Al-Husayn district as my second home in which I spend all my day, except my sleep hours,” says Zakariya. “It is also the place where I started to sing some 30 years ago. Here you can find anything related to art and artists, whether writers, novelists, poets, melodists or singers. Some of them come here in search of inspiration among the district’s walls, whereas others come for work, to the extent that you may feel like sitting in a cultural session par excellence.”
Craning to hear someone who whispers to him about a customer who wants to hear his songs, Zakariya smiles and departs, carrying his oud to sing for his first customer before the night comes to an end. He asks God that this will not be his last customer for the night.