Born in 1934 in the village of Qûs in Upper Egypt, Sheikh Sayyed al-Dowwi learned the sira through contact with his father, Hajji al-Dowwi, whom he accompanied during public and private evening performances. This family, of gypsy origins but totally Arabized, represents the most “popular” version of the epic: the images of Dowwi poetry are derived from the daily life of Upper Egyptian villages, in a rural dialect that leaves little place for classical Arabic. In this manner, they distinguish themselves from the sheikhs and semi-literate poets such as Abu Husayn, who are more tempted to use a language with learned pretensions that sometimes deters the public. When he turned ten, the hajji made him a rababa suitable for his size and Sayyed became one of his father’s musicians. Later on, the old poet let his son sing sections of the epic, giving him an ever-expanding role throughout the years. A devoted epic lover, the father went all the way to Tunisia in order to search for information about his heroes. On the latter’s death, Sayyed became one of the country’s most esteemed poets and completed his training with Gabir Abu Husayn before going off in search of information in Tunisia. Since Abu Husayn’s death, Sayyed al-Dowwi is the last complete poet, mastering the story and the improvisation, playing the rababa and singing. Since the early ’90s, Sayyed al-Dowwi has been contacted by a Cairo-based theatrical company, “the Workshop” (al-Warsha) of Hassan el-Geretly, who is collecting passages of the epic known only to himself and proposing to integrate this popular expression in his shows, along with other disappearing cultures. By continuing the work begun by Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi, these enthusiastic actors are allowing urban Egyptian people to return to their roots and revealing a misunderstood aspect of this art to the whole world. During the performance, Sayyed al-Dowwi is accompanied by two rababa players (Mubarak Muhammad and Hammam Muhammad) and one percussionist (Gamal Mossad).
Translated by Mona Khazindar
Available album: The Hilali epic