By Angie Balata
It’s the second day of Eid and I’m under a tree amid the Fayoum farmlands to interview Abdullah Miniawy, poet and rapper turned Sufi musician, in his native town. At first Miniawy is unsure of what to say, flustered and clearly embarrassed. But initial shyness aside, Miniawy is sarcastically witty in his own quiet way and will easily dance circles around the best of Arabic speakers with his knowledge of the language.
Born in Saudi Arabia, Miniawy, now 20, spent his first 18 years in the Kingdom. “My father was very protective of us, not allowing us a lot of freedom. In Saudi, there were lots of problems with the locals because of their racism against Egyptians. I lived a very secluded life there. I was home schooled and I taught myself mostly everything, except for sciences and math.”
His artistic creativity began in grade 4 with poetry. “I had read a poem about nations by Ahmed Shawki and this made me interested in expressing myself in words. I wrote something of eight lines and I showed it to my father, an Arabic teacher. He refused to believe I wrote it and called me a liar,” Miniawy remembers.
From then on, he began secretly writing poetry, even starting an online blog. But soon, he wanted to do something different with his poetry. It was the Egyptian hip-hop group Arabian Knightz’s 2007 track “Fokak,” one of the first successful mainstream Arabic rap songs, that introduced Miniawy to the use of poetry and music.
“I remember I had heard this track on TV and was like, ‘Wow, these guys are great.’ I shut down my blog and started experimenting with rap,” he says. “So, like anyone starting in rap, I copied. Till today, I still don’t really understand the secret of rap. I recorded this album [an EP of seven tracks] offline and my first track was called ‘Meshwar’ (Journey) … You know that kind of rap where you talk about how cool you are, how you are going to mess up everyone else and dis others? That’s what it was like.”
Miniawy chose rap because it aligned well with the poetic scheme he was creating. His very sheltered upbringing meant he was forced to make friends and connect with other musicians online. With an innate persistence, he created a virtual network of contacts he now calls friends all over the world.
But it was the brilliance of his work that turned him into an online star, with links to most rappers in the Middle East and as far as Canada. In February 2013, his work featured on Khat Thaleth (Third Rail), the collaborative album of politically conscious Arab hip-hoppers including the likes of Narcicyst and Touffar. A few months after returning to Egypt to attend university, he had already contacted and linked with Arabian Knightz and Aly Talibab.
While rap was the start, Miniawy had already been moving into spoken word mixed in Sufi chants. Inspired by Mansur El Hallaj, a ninth-century Persian mystic and Sufi teacher crucified for heresy on the orders of the Abbassid Caliph Al-Muqtadir, Miniawy began his Sufi path both philosophically and musically in 2000. He expertly uses the intonation of chant to balance the complexity of the words he delivers in his music.
Philosophically, “the journey is about these old mystics and where I was going in my own life,” he explains, “The Sufi path is about the path of ‘becoming.’ I’m using it to learn to live beyond my physical existence and to think about the metaphysical and spiritual things.”
It’s been a year since Miniawy first took the local stage as an opening act to a Talibab concert Downtown, but he has gained a steady audience and many musicians have sought him for collaborations. Still, many complain that Miniawy’s words are too complex for the general audience, and the Arabic language itself is not easily understood given the multiple meanings for any single word. Yet Miniawy believes that we need to force ourselves to be challenged and seek understanding. This approach is reflected in his messages, which deal with the existence of the soul and the need to get past our physical selves.
Miniawy tells how a chance encounter inspired his song “Um Jameela” which starts with the lines, “She called to me, I took out some money to hand to her, She said ‘no thanks, child of principle’, I went and sat beside her, and tried to comfort her lonely ways.”
“There was this lady sitting in the street,” he recalls. “She called out something to me, but I didn’t understand what she was saying. So I took out money and she said, ‘Put your money away, I’m not begging. I need you to call this number [for a tok-tok]’.”
Miniawy didn’t have any phone credit, so asked passersby to lend him a phone, but they just laughed at him: “They thought the woman was crazy.” When he finally got a phone and reached the number, it was clear the tok-tok driver wasn’t coming anytime soon. “I sat with her and she started talking to me about mercy and religion. She said people pray, and they buy food, and they buy cars but where is the religion in all of this. I felt like it wasn’t her talking to me, like it was a sign. She didn’t go to school at all [yet] she was talking to me about nihilism, about life and about religion in its true form. She wasn’t talking to me about prayer and fasting, but about the practices like people needing to have mercy and so on.”
Miniawy notes that Um Jameela is just one of many people we pass every day but never take the time to learn their stories. These stories not only affect the music independent musicians make, but also, more importantly, how they want the rest of us to hear it.
From where Miniawy stands now, life is simple: He wants a piece of land to farm his own food and return to the simpler life. And while he is unsure of where he is going, still searching for his own Sufi path and unwilling to leave Fayoum, he remains uncompromising about his music, certain in his belief that music is a message and the path of the ‘seeker’ is an ever-evolving one.