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Searching for Ramadan sabils
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 17 - 09 - 2009

Even the city's Greek inhabitants once set up sabils, finds Osama Kamel, during an investigation of the traditional public drinking fountains of Port Said
Port Said is a city that thrives on festivity and yearns for its cosmopolitan past. Destined for fame since the first axe split a rock in Sinai to make room for what would become the Suez Canal, Port Said is still young by Egyptian standards. Work on the Canal started on 25 April 1859, and Port Said was launched on 17 November 1869. During the 150 years that followed, the city never missed an occasion to celebrate, bringing merriment to its inhabitants and excitement to visitors.
Even in the hardest conditions, labouring under the scorching sun, the workers who dug the canal, part of the corvée, or system of forced labour that was common at the time, used to sing lyrics of such beauty that some of them have survived to this day. Many people may have heard the famous lines, "O dearest to my eyes, how I long to be back home" ( Ya aziz eini wana nefsi arawah baladi ), originally sung in Port Said. Singing such songs was a way for the workers on the Canal to express how much they longed for their villages and the families they had left behind.
Port Said's most famous musical instrument, the semsemiya, is a harp-like instrument bearing some resemblance to the Russian balalaika. It is also a development of an older but bulkier eight-stringed instrument called a tanboura, though the five-stringed semsemiya was easier to carry and became popular with artists on the move. It spawned a special type of art known as damma, in which the performer not only improvises a dance, but also improvises a song as he goes along.
Attending a damma performance is akin to attending a Sufi dance, with members of the audience joining in the dancing while singing a few improvised lines. These are nothing fancy -- just the same old songs of love and yearning. But it is the way they are sung and danced to that matters. The dancers, young and old, fit and not so fit, often seem totally lost in their five minutes of fame. Their abandonment encapsulates some latent need for freedom, perhaps a quest to dispose of the heaviness of otherwise well-structured lives.
Because Port Said is a city of joy, it becomes even more animated during the month of Ramadan. One form that this creativity has traditionally taken has been the sabils, or free drinking fountains, which are placed in the streets in Ramadan for the use of passers-by.
Port Said traditionally used to glow with the many colourful lamps that illuminated these sabils. The latter, decorative drinking fountains that became a popular form of Islamic charity during the Middle Ages, are part of a tradition of offering free drinking water to passers-by that has been known in many non-Muslim, as well as Muslim, cities. However, it was in Muslim cities that the tradition was taken to new heights of sophistication.
Sabils were introduced to Egypt in Mamluk times, with statesmen and their wives becoming infatuated with a form of charity that involved artistry and guaranteed public respect and durability. From the 13th to the 19th century, building a public sabil was the expression of status, piety and good taste.
A classical sabil consists of a building of three floors, the first being an underground cistern in which water is stored. The second is the most decorative, usually featuring marble columns and Islamic bas reliefs. The third is usually occupied by a kuttab, or Quranic school, offering free education for the young. Water was originally transported to the sabil daily by camels bearing water-filled kerbas, or sheepskin sacks.
However, in Port Said less elaborate forms of sabil emerged. Some were made of cheaper materials, such as wood and metal, and avoided stone. Some were built like step pyramids, with earthen drinking jars ( kollas ) arranged on the sides. Some, made of metal, were equipped with horizontal rings that held the drinking pots. Some looked like trees, and others spouted water from their tops. All had interesting lighting fixtures. Just as they fashioned a lighter form of tanboura to carry around, the residents of Port Said created a mobile form of sabil and erected it in the streets during Ramadan.
However, today this tradition is dying out, and the joyous, jerry-rigged sabils that will be familiar to many from childhood days spent in Port Said have mostly been replaced by electric drinking fountains, known as koldairs (in a reference to a well-known commercial brand).
The absence of the colourful, handmade drinking fountains of years ago in today's Port Said can be rather disheartening, and visitors to the city today can be forgiven for looking for them, as if searching for survivals of an older, gentler time. Sometimes such visitors can strike lucky. On a recent visit to the city, for example, I hit gold on Gomhuriya Street, the main thoroughfare of the city. Turning a corner, there it was: an old-fashioned metal sabil topped with the traditional fanous, or Ramadan lamp.
The sabil turned out to be the creation of a man named Mohamed Dergham, a 20-something bookseller, who was sitting in his shop a few metres away lost in thought and surrounded by stacks of books. The shop doubled as a miniature gallery, and several art pieces, paintings and photographs, hung on the walls.
Reminiscing with Dergham about the way things used to be, it turned out that he, like me, could recall the hundreds of shapes in which sabils used to come. Some looked like miniature mosques, while others were built to resemble ships. Some had Islamic decoration, and others impersonated Pharaonic temples. Taking a newspaper from a nearby shelf, Dergham pointed to an advertisement for the mechanical water fountains that have taken over the city streets. It suggested that buying one of these was a reliable way of going to heaven. I prefer the old-fashioned way, I said.
There was a time when a sabil owner would spend the entire holy month filling and rearranging the earthenware containers around a home-made sabil, filling jars with water and adding a dash of rosewater for extra effect. Sabil owners used to compete for the most elaborate design, but now people are content to order an electric appliance and call the plumber to set it up. So much for piety, so much for the human touch.
Mohamed Hanafi was sitting with friends near the Elwan Mosque, one of the best-known mosques in Hayy Al-Arab, the Arab Quarter of Port Said. Around them was a collection of earthenware containers filled with water, beautiful jars made in the style of Qena, the southern Egyptian town that used to export the best pottery to the rest of the country.
Hanafi himself hails from Qena, and his family has been in the business of selling earthenware for generations. However, today he is not optimistic about the future of his trade. While pottery is still made in Qena, and its products sold across the country, the size of the trade is dwindling. Before long, kollas, the curvaceous pottery drinking jars, will be a thing of the past, he said.
"This used to be the biggest season for kollas," Hanafi said in a despondent tone. "But not anymore, now that technology has invaded every aspect of city life. First, people replaced kollas with fridges at home, and then the street kollas disappeared as well."
(To be fair, there is an argument about not sharing kollas. It is more hygienic to drink from an electric water fountain than from a shared earthenware jar, particularly now that viruses like "swine flu" are causing havoc everywhere.)
Another resident of Port Said to comment on the changes to the city is Hassan Farid, who worked for the Suez Canal Authority from 1947 onwards, nine years before nationalisation. Before his retirement in 1984, Farid was head of the inventory department, supervising the Authority storehouses. Now in his 90s, Farid may be frail in body, but his memory is flawless, and he still walks for at least two hours a day, choosing a different destination for each day of the week. On Thursdays, he walks back to his old office. While he hasn't worked there for 25 years, he still appreciates the exercise.
Farid's father was hakemdar, or police chief, first of Port Said and later of Cairo. Born into privilege, Farid was able to watch the cosmopolitan society of the 1940s and 1950s at close quarters, and he still remembers the foreigners who used to work with him with fondness, and particularly how his Greek neighbours were as zealous about hanging up Ramadan decorations as any Muslim family. Some Greeks would even erect sabils during the holy month, as if eager not to be outdone by the locals.
The old Port Said, Farid says, was clean, easygoing and gentle. And the Greeks, who made up the majority of foreigners, were completely integrated into city life. Farid's best friend was Greek, and the two exchanged letters for years after the latter left.
"The sabils then were not only for us. They were for everyone, Muslim and Christian, Egyptian and foreign. This town belonged to all of us," Farid said.


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