The Life of an Artist of Mohamed Ali Street
by Amina Goodyear
posted June 28, 2009
It was January 1983 and I was fulfilling my dance dreams. I was in Cairo on a dance tour led by dance teacher Morocco of New York. The dream of my life comes true. Cairo and two weeks of non-stop belly dance shows!
Two members of my dance group, The Aswan Dancers, Telma and Eleanor, had signed up for Morocco’s dance tour, had shamed me into going also. I had always wanted to go to Egypt but was always too chicken to go alone. So, what better way to see Egypt for the first time than to see it with close friends under the guidance of the renowned Morocco who was a veteran traveler to the Middle East.
At the time, Telma and I were working at the Bagdad Cabaret in San Francisco’s North Beach. One of the musicians, drummer Reda Darwish, a recent arrival from Egypt worked with us. We told him of our upcoming trip to Egypt. Telma and I spoke English and Reda spoke Arabic.
Together we spoke Arablish sign language with Reda’s English improving daily, and my Arabic (I was studying conversational Egyptian) not improving at such a great pace.
Telma bought beige safari outfits, beige combat boots, pith helmets and canteens for the desert and I packed “couture” Moroccan inspired pants and tops, knee-high black boots and black berets to cover myself and we were set for our trek to Egypt and the Sahara. Reda was concerned about his ailing mother in Cairo, so with a promise to look her up and give her his regards, we met Morocco in New York and flew off to the desert and the land of belly dancers.
The second day we were in Cairo I called Reda’s mom’s home and asked “Om Reda mawgouda min fedlek? Ana Amina min Amreeka” (Reda’s mom here please? I’m Amina from America), I prayed to get an English speaker. Instead I got a man speaking broken English saying “Amina, it’s Reda. My mom is very sick, so I needed to come to Cairo to be with her.”
And so we made plans to meet up and Reda became part of our dance tour. As much as he was able, he accompanied the tour when we went to the clubs to see the dancers and it was great to hear first-hand accounts of the dancers and the musicians as he knew and had worked with many of them. During the day his time was more limited to spending with his mom and his family but he had elected himself to be our (Eleanor, Telma and my) personal guide and made time for us.
Since I was also a drum and riq student in San Francisco, I asked Reda to take me to a store to shop for instruments. He took me to Music Center, a drum store on Mohamed Ali Street. He said that this was the best street and best place to buy drums and riqs. At this time, there were no metal drums with plastic heads; only clay drums and wooden riqs with animal skin.
The best drums and riqs, however, were inlaid with mother of pearl and had fish skin heads. The best store selling these instruments was Music Center. It was owned by Mohamed Sarsa who had the fish skin monopoly and the best instruments of this kind.
From the first day I met this family I felt at home and experienced all the warmth and Egyptian hospitality I had always heard of. They spoke no English and I spoke laughable Arabic. Mohamed Sarsa had recently passed away and had left his shop to his wife Farida and to her children. Sharif “Sarsa” who worked at the store (but later left to buy an “Qahwa” on Feisal Street in Giza) took me in and knowing my interest in Egyptian culture took me to mulids and street weddings. Farida’s three children were Khaled (at the time a drummer in Nadia Hamdi’s band), Hind, a young girl of about 6 or 7 who was able to translate my child-like Arabic to her mom in real Arabic, and her younger brother Faruk, the little boy who could play the drum better than most of the drummers I knew in the States. Despite the fact that Morocco’s tour left us no time to sleep because it was so jam-packed with dance and cultural activities morning, day, evening, I still managed to find a few hours here and there to walk over to Mohamed Ali Street to hang out at the shop.
This tiny shop, about 6’ by 10’, was set back about 15’to 20’ from the street. They had no phone and no need of a phone since the kiosk-with-phone on Mohamed Ali Street was kitty-corner to their shop and also in front of the Qahwa (café where musicians hang-out waiting for someone to hire them). It was “the phone” for the all neighboring shops and musicians.
The Sarsa family only had to take one step outside their door to indicate they wanted tea or coffee or “bebsi” and immediately the waiter would walk it over with a round aluminum tray with drinks. Sometimes, it seemed, they didn’t even bother to request anything – as if by magic, a waiter would just appear with the correct beverages.
When I would visit, we would either sit inside or outside the shop. It didn’t matter. The shop and the Qahwa and the alley seemed to merge into one “great room” or the living room for all the shopkeepers, musicians and residents of the street.
This was the life on this street. Everyone seemed to be an extended family and everyone seemed to know everyone’s business even before they did. I didn’t even stop to think that any of these stores had doors or kept regular hours. More likely than not, Music Center would be closed in the morning, but for sure, it would be open at midnight or later. It just seemed to be an extension of the Sarsa home which was an apartment above the Qahwa just a few steps away.
On other trips to Egypt I always visited Farida and Music Center. I saw Faruk grow into a polite young teenager who laughed when I would bring him lollipops and give his mother chocolates. Yes, in my eyes, he was still a little boy but now he was taller than me. His mother Farida would sometimes make him accompany me to various places in the neighborhood so I wouldn’t get lost. No matter that I liked wandering around and getting lost.
Faruk’s older brother Khaled, who lived in Giza, seemed to be always working in a club or touring with a singer (last I heard it was Ehab Tewfik), so Faruk stayed close to home and helped run the shop. Since I have such a passion for drums and drumming we would sometimes spend hours hanging out and sometimes just playing. Many times I was just content to sit and watch the street go by.
One trip I convinced Farida to let Faruk formally give me lessons. Since I am a nervous, self-conscious student and the store did not provide much privacy (short of closing the door of the never closed shop), Faruk would hike out to my flat in Garden City to teach me. I realize now that they gave me very special treatment as I had a friend who spent several months studying with him also – but at the shop.
The last time I went to Egypt in 2006, I learned that Farida had passed away and that the family had moved to Feisal Street. But Faruk was still at the store. By this time he had had many jobs working as a drummer, but the store was now his responsibility since his brother was usually on the road.
Faruk and I spent many hours – days and evenings – hanging out at the store playing and talking about music and the person in his life – Maya, a French dancer. This trip I found that he had been “discovered” by the Europeans. Often when I hung out with him, there would be a European drummer taking a lesson in the shop. It seemed that they weren’t as shy as I was when I would make him come to Garden City to teach me.
I haven’t had a chance to visit Egypt or Faruk for a few years now, but have sent friends with chocolate – no more tootsie pops – for Faruk, who is now married to Maya.
Life changes, but goes on.
My friend Debbie Smith has visited Faruk and Maya at the little shop on Mohamed Ali Street. Last year Faruk had to give up the shop because his brother and sister, who had no interest in it pressured him to sell it. Now he and Maya have taken up shop in Mohandiseen and so another tale of Mohamed Ali Street becomes history. But, we hope, not for long as Faruk plans to continue the Sarsa Music Center as a virtual shop with Faruk still selling fish skin drums and giving drum lessons (if you’re in Cairo). Hmmmm, I wonder if he’ll agree to “hike” out to San Francisco to give me another much needed drum lesson!
Faruk Sarsa was born on Mohamed Ali Street in Cairo. He is from an artist’s family. His father, Mohamed Sarsa was a drummer for Om Kalthoum and , and his aunt, Naamet Mohktar, was a famous dancer and actress of the 60’s. He started his drumming career at a very young age and at age 16 he was the youngest musician in Dina’s orchestra. After a few months with Dina he left for 3 years in the army. Once his military service was over he worked at the cabarets on the Pyramids Road and at some hotels for various dancers including Lucy, Dandesh, Hendeya, Hanadi, Kasume and Nour. He worked and recorded a few CDs with numerous singers including Katkut el Amir and Hakim. Faruk now teaches drumming and is sought after by drummers visiting from other countries. Besides playing at Raqia Hassan’s Ahlan wa Sahlan festivals, Faruk works with his wife Maya and they both teach – drum and dance – in their studio in Mohandiseen. Faruk is one of the last craftsmen making traditional terra cotta and fish skin drums.
Faruk’s website- http://www.bellydancesarsa.com
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