Dervish troupe preserves Sufi tradition in Egypt
When Sufi vocalist Amer el-Tony founded the al- Mawlawiya al-Masriya in 1994, he performed at the few private theatres available. However, the Egyptian dervish group has developed into a full-fledged troupe performing in Egypt and abroad.
Al-Mawlawiya is a symbolic ritual through which dervishes target perfection. Dancers whirl counterclockwise, deserting their egos and desires to communicate and worship God through spinning with the rotations of the planets.
“While whirling and listening to the Sufi songs I always feel as if I am flying,” said an al-Mawlawiya dancer who identified himself as Mahmoud.
He said the aim of the ritual was to turn around oneself, first slowly then more rapidly “until one reaches a state of trance, one that transcends the physical body, to enter a spiritual order.”
The Mawlawis are a Sufi order created in Konya in Turkey in the 13th century by the followers of the Persian poet and theologian Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi. Dancing, chanting of Sufi poems and music are used to get closer to God.
Al-Mawlawiya al-Masriya is derived from the Turkish version but substantially different in looking at the spiritual side of the ceremony and in its more modernist approach to the music, incorporating violin and guitar in addition to the traditional nay and oud.
Tony’s Sufi singing about the love of the Almighty and the Prophet Mohammad is not always coupled with dancing.
“During the performances, I also chant without dancing intervals to let our audience concentrate on the poems and look into the power of the words,” he said.
Tony said he does not chant Rumi’s poems because they were written in Persian and Turkish and would lose their meaning and spirituality if translated into Arabic. Instead, he chants the poems of famous Arab Sufis and writes his own music.
“We are keen not to take songs from anyone, even heritage songs. We also seek to present new tunes so the audience does not get tired,” he said.
The name Mawlawiya is based on the word “Mawlana” (“our master”), the title by which Rumi was addressed. The Mawlawiya was introduced in Egypt in the 16th century after the Ottoman conquest.
“Tony has managed successfully to absorb Rumi’s Mawlawiya and to modernise it without violating its principles,” observed Ibrahim Haggagy, a retired university professor of Islamic history and archaeology.
The troupe’s performances usually emit positive energy and Mawlawiya is state of mind rather than simply entertainment, he added.
Tony described his art as a spiritual experience more than anything else.
“Words release energy. We always attempt to spiritually connect with the audience,” he said. “Sufi poetry is coded, meaning it has a lot of hidden messages but, usually, our audiences manage to decode the messages in the songs.
“It is a spiritual moment rather than a cultural event. Our state of mind takes control of us to the point that while chanting I feel that I’m out of place and time.”
A distinctive feature of al-Mawlawiya al-Masriya’s performances is the improvisation, Tony said, stressing that “the real state of creativity is not achieved unless we occasionally forget the laws of music and break them.”
Typically, clothing worn by Sufi dancers symbolises different elements through shape and colour. White symbolises the shroud and the black the tomb. Al-Mawlawiya dervishes, however, wear outfits representing the seven colours of the rainbow, “which are those of the universe,” Tony explained.
Tony and al-Mawlawiya al-Masriya occasionally sing for the Virgin Mary and Jesus. “We have many Christian fans and viewers who identify themselves as Sufi Christians,” he said.
The Sufi band is popular, with regular fans who make a point not to miss the shows.
“I usually attend Tony’s performances every month. I always leave the theatre feeling that I have been washed of all the negative energy,” said Amr Ibrahim, one of the group’s fans.
Tony said his plans include chanting Sufi songs accompanied by a symphony orchestra.
“We hope to present symphonic Sufi songs soon,” he said. “I first write the music based on the instruments I have been using, then I add a new instrument and I change the music arrangements.”
Tony is credited for protecting Egyptian Malawiya heritage, which is an integral part of Sufi tradition. His troupe has performed in festivals in India, the Netherlands, Germany, France and Spain.
Marwa al-A’sar is a Cairo-based journalist.