By Kathryn Ketman


The old Egyptian tambourine, called a req, is encrusted inside and out with a geometric design in mother-of-pearl and bits of black and white wood. Some of the chips have worn away to rough ridges on the edge where it was held. The mother-of-pearl gleams dully through a smudge of grime built up over years of use. Five pairs of brass cymbals, hand beaten and slightly irregular in shape, are set into the rim. The resonating head is made of fine translucent fish skin, Nile sturgeon. The weight and balance of this tambourine feels better to me than any other I have found. It almost seems to have stored the knowledge and spirit of its former players.

Arabic rhythms drew me to Cairo. More fun than your basic Western 4/4s and 3/4s, Arabic patterns, or iqa’at, are like extended melodic phrases in rhythm, going on for as long as fifteen beats before repeating. The accent patterns and metric shifts are wonderfully complicated. Learning these ancient rhythms is a mental challenge, but the rewards are more than cerebral. People have lived with them, danced them, poured their emotions through them, for many centuries, and once you get the pattern and settle into the lived-in groove, the rhythms have a deep physical and intuitive rightness.

Through my Arabic percussion teacher in San Francisco, Mary Ellen Donald, I met Cairo University music professor Dr. Boussaina Farid, who generously invited me to visit Egypt and arranged for me to have lessons at her apartment with a young professional musician named Yaser. I had heard some horror stories about how Egyptian men act with foreign women, but Yaser was OK. He was friendly and courteous, and taught in a way that demanded the most I could do, with no trace of condescension.

In Boussaina’s Cairo apartment, furnished with heavy Victorian antiques, Oriental rugs, and a grand piano, lessons with Yaser began. As we lifted our reqs on upturned palms, I thought of an Egyptian tomb painting from 1000 BC, showing a group of women playing the req as they danced, holding the instrument in the same way. With a flash of fire in his eyes, Yaser started up a basic pattern. I matched the pattern and kept it going while he built up a virtuoso improvisation. He rang an amazing variety of sounds from every part of the simple instrument, striking the center of the skin for the deeper “dum” sound, the edge or a cymbal for the “tek,” drumming fingers on the skin and cymbals, damping one cymbal to click the other against it, changing the intensity from feathery delicacy to passionate attack. I was dazzled but thanks to my prior training not overwhelmed. We worked on rhythms with melodious names like Masmoudi, Mahajjar, Sama’i Darij, Murabba. The lessons went well and congenially. Through sharing the music, it was easy to feel comfortable and not so different from each other.

One day after my lesson Yaser invited me to lunch with his family at their home in another part of Cairo. Around the large table sat his wife, his mother, his sister and three small children. Yaser’s wife, exquisitely beautiful, had been a singer before marriage. Now she no longer performed. Lunch was a bowl of savory rice stew with one small boiled bird in the center. What kind of bird it was, I do not know. I picked the meat off the bones, delicately, with knife and fork. Nothing remained in the plate but a tiny huddle of skeleton.

Suddenly Yaser roared at me savagely, “You MUST eat EVERYTHING on your PLATE!” The women and children cowered, hunched over and staring down at their plates, not daring to look at me. Dumbfounded for a moment, I glanced at the forlorn pile of bird bones, then put on what I hoped was an innocent face, and asked, matter-of-factly, “What happens if I don’t?” Taking Yaser’s lead, the whole family burst into hearty laughter. Laughter abounds in Cairo. Egyptian laughter is earthy, intense with life force, in this tough land exploding with vibrant trees and birds near water, sere and deadly everywhere else.

After lunch I was supposed to go with Yaser to the TV station where he would be taping a performance. Unexpectedly, he left without me, saying he would be back soon. I was left in the company of the women and children, none of whom spoke English.

Hours went by and Yaser didn’t return. The afternoon passed slowly. The room was dim, shuttered. The children climbed on me and taught me how to say “nose” and “ears” in Arabic as they squished and pointed at various parts with moist fingers. They handed me little cookies. “Shokran,” I said, “thank you.” The women lazed on the couch, muted, indolent, watching TV, where a man in a suit sat on a chair in a garden, apparently talking about plants. At prayer time there were televised images of pilgrims circling the Kaaba at Mecca. After that, there were lively ads for laundry soap and household fixtures with tunes resembling 50’s rock ‘n’ roll. An American movie came on. Time began to drag. Feeling uneasy, I picked up the phone to call a cab. The phone was dead. I wondered, if I left and went down to the street, would I be safe there, and how hard would it be to find my way back to Boussaina’s? It was then that I caught sight of the Great Pyramids for the first time, through a half-open shutter, across the Nile over the rooftops of Cairo. They were majestic, otherworldly, golden in the late day sun. I promised myself I would go there the next day if I ever got out of the harem.

Yaser finally returned and drove me back to Boussaina’s. We drove in silence. Some dimension of cultural difference had come up between us, even though we had laughed off our mutual offense earlier in the day. He looked tired and preoccupied. The careworn young paterfamilias, I thought, with so many helpless ones depending on him. I didn’t ask why he went to the TV station without me, or whether or not he was really joking with me about eating the bird bones. He didn’t offer an explanation. Sometimes, I thought, when you can’t understand something about a foreign person, it might be better just to let it slide.

At my last lesson before I left Cairo Yaser sold me this tambourine for the equivalent of twenty dollars. It had once belonged to his father, who played with the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Khalsoum. I was amazed, grateful, even honored. Now, when I pick up this req back home in San Francisco, a rhythm I learned from Yaser, the Mahajjar, begins to repeat in my mind: “dum dum dum, tek, dum, tek-tek tek tek, tek tek,” and the fine old instrument spirits me away again to Egypt.


Kathryn Ketman writes articles and database software in San Francisco. She teaches yoga, loves to dance, plays a few instruments, produces radio shows, and has enjoyed cultural infatuations with a growing number of places around the planet.

About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For an archive of these stories go to the Editors’ Choice link on The Flying Carpet; for more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.