An Opera in Three Scenes
based on Tawfiq El-Hakim’s Song of Death
Photo from the World Premiere Production of Sumeida’s Song by Jill Steinberg
“Sumeida’s Song is an intensely dramatic 60-minute four-character opera with a searing score that deftly draws from Arabic and Western contemporary musical sources. It tells of a son who returns to his peasant village in Upper Egypt in the early 20th century, having been educated at a university in Cairo. Awaiting him is his stern mother, who for 17 years has nurtured a hatred for the man she believes murdered her husband and is bent on having her son avenge her father’s death.
“… Mr. Fairouz’s multilayered music catches the complexities and crosscurrents of this family and the grim realities of their lives… There are hints of various Western contemporary idioms in his musical language: American neo-Romanticism; stretches of near-atonality that evoke Berg; astringent washes of sounds that seem inspired by Ligeti, who was one of Mr. Fairouz’s teachers. Yet the Arabic elements of his style—microtonal modes, spiraling dance rhythms, plaintive melodic writing—give fresh, distictive jolts to the Western elements… It would be rewarding to hear Sumeida’s Song with its full orchestration in a larger space. But this gripping chamber version shows the dramatic potential of black-box opera.”
—Anthony Tommasini, New York Times
NPR’s Deceptive Cadence
Lean but Seen: The Joy of Smaller Opera
Article: The Generation of Sumeida’s Song
A peasant house in a peasant village
in Upper Egypt
Asakir and Mabrouka, two Upper-Egyptian peasant women, are sitting in silence and listening for a train’s whistle. Once they hear the whistle sounded, Asakir anxiously questions whether her son Alwan is on the arriving train. Her sister, Mabrouka, reassures her that Alwan will be arriving as per a letter that the assistant schoolmaster of the village read over to them.
Asakir tells Mabrouka that she hopes that the identiy of her son has not been revealed to the rest of the village-people. Mabrouka assures her sister that the village has been led to believe that Alwan drowned in the water-well when he was a child of two years. Citing village rumours, Asakir expresses her doubts that the Tahawis, a family with whom the Azizi family of Asakir and Mabrouka have an ancient blood-feud, really believe that Alwan is dead.
Asakir proclaims to Mabrouka that soon the whole village will learn that her son, the son of her murdered husband, is still alive and that the murderer of his father and the rest of the Tahawis should fear his vengeance. Asakir desperately awaits her son’s return to restore the honor of the Azizis after a wait of seventeen years. She reveals that she had instructed her nephew, Mabrouka’s son Sumeida who has been sent to fetch Alwan from the station, to sing as a sign that his cousin has come.
Mabrouka remembers how so long ago she smuggled her nephew Alwan away from the village to Cairo and left him with a relative of Asakir’s who Asakir instructs to raise the boy as a butcher “so that he may use a knife well.” Alwan, however runs away from the butcher shop to join the ranks of students at the great Azhar University and attains the rank of Sheikh.
When the next whistle is heard announcing the departure of the train from the station, Asakir and Mabrouka rejoice that Alwan must have come and that he will surely avenge his father’s death and restore the family honor. Their joy gives way to doubt and eventually desolation when they do not hear Sumeida’s singing. Slightly delayed, however, Sumeida’s song is heard emerging from the distance and heralding the long-awaited arrival of Alwan. Asakir celebrates with the statement: “from now, oh, Suweilam Tahawi, your hours are numbered!”
The same house
Asakir and Mabrouka are waiting by the entrance in anticipation of Alwan’s arrival and soon Sumeida enters announcing his cousin. Alwan enters and is embraced by his mother. He then greets his aunt Mabrouka who tells him that “our hope lies in you” and leaves with her son Sumeida.
Asakir, now alone with her son, quickly dispenses with pleasantries and tells Alwan to “wait while I bring you something you have never seen before.” She goes off and returns with a saddlebag that she has kept for seventeen years. She explains to her son that this is the saddlebag in which his father’s body was brought to her carried upon his donkey. She describes finding her husband’s head in a pocket while in the other she discovered the rest of his body cut into pieces. Finally, she presents her son with the knife of the murder saying that she has kept it with the blood on it so that it has rusted.
After an initial silence. Alwan gravely asks who is responsible for this crime and Asakir answers without hesitation that it is Suweilam Tahawi. When he asks her how she knows, she explains that the whole village knows. Composing himself, Alwan asks his mother if the crime was investigated to which she explains that “We have no enemies but the Tahawis.” Retaining his Azharite calm, he questions her as to how she knows that it was Suweilam Tahawi himself and about the origins of the enmity between the two families. In attempting to answer his questions, she repeatedly resorts to “God knows best.”
Alwan then tells his mother that he has not come to kill but to tell the villagers that he wishes to bring them a better life where they will “live like human beings in houses, where the animals do not sleep with them” and where they have access to education, a better quality of life and clean running water.
Not understanding, Asakir dismisses her son’s “bookish talk” and tells him to prepare himself to avenge his father’s death. Taking heart, Alwan raises his head and tells his mother that he will not kill. After a moment of disbelif, Asakir, concealing her dismay, asks her son what he means by this. More convinced and forceful than before, Alwan states unequivocally “I won’t kill.”
After this, she clashes with her son head-on. Going out of her mind, she convulsively repeats her hoarse and screaming pleas “seventeen years…the blood of your father…seventeen years…” She repeats this as someone possessed while Alwan, concerned for her, tries vainly to reason with her. She disowns her son and orders him out of her house. She curses him and, realizing the futility of his position, Alwan tells her that he will return to the station in order to return to Cairo. He prays for her and asks that her agitated soul be calmed and tells her that he will await her in Cairo where he will “explain my point of view to you in a place of calm far from here.” He leaves his mother disabled with shock and staring blankly into the distance.
Asakir is sitting in her place, motionless. A moment later, Sumeida appears putting his head round the door and pushing it open gently. With determination, Asakir recovers her senses and beckons Sumeida who asks about Alwan. Asakir tells her nephew that Alwan has returned to the station “to flee from taking revenge for his father.” She then engages in a long lament saying that the disgrace is unbearable and will make her life in the village impossible. She predicts that the voices of the village will be raised saying “What a failure of a belly that brought fourth such a child!” and proceeds to strike at her bell with violent blows.
She strikes herself again and again while Sumeida tries to prevent her from harming herself. Asakir then asks Sumeida to bring the knife that she has kept for seventeen years so that she can use it to rip open her belly. Sumeida tells his aunt that she has gone mad. She stares at him and asks “Sumeida-are you a man?” When he asks what she wants from him, she tells him to take the knife and plunge it into the chest of her son Alwan.
Sumeida protests but Asakir explains to him that if he was a man he wouldn’t allow his cousin to dishonor the Azizis and that, if he were to condone his cousin, he would not be able to walk like a man amongst people. The people of the village, she says, will taunt him as “a woman hiding behind a woman.”
Blinded with defensive rage, Sumeida stretches out his hand resolutely and tells his aunt to give him the knife. She is about to give him the knife when she hesitates and says that she must wash off the rust and blood first. Sumeida impatiently demands the knife so as to catch Alwan “before he makes his escape on the evening train.” Asakir gives Sumeida the knife with resolution and invokes that “may his blood wash off his father’s blood that has dried on the blade.” Sumeida tells her that she will her his voice raised in song if Alwan’s killing is brought about and hurries to catch up with his cousin.
Mabrouka enters a moment later carrying a dish of salted fish on her head for Alwan. Asakir tells Mabrouka that Alwan has fled and cowered from avenging his father’s death and so has died. Mabrouka declares this a degradation for the Azizis but Asakir tells her that Alwan will soon be buried in the ground. Not understanding, Mabrouka asks where her son Sumeida has gone and, when Asakir tells her that he has gone “after Alwan to stop him from going,” Mabrouka urges Asakir to give up on hoping that Alwan will stay to answer her “pleas for perdition.”
Asakir anxiously questions Mabrouka as to whether she thinks Alwan has caught the train and then hears the sound of the train whistle as the train leaves the station. Mabrouka becomes more and more frightened and confused while Asakir questions her as to whether she can hear Sumeida singing. Increasingly concerned, Mabrouka tells her sister that she cannot hear any singing and Asakir concludes, in utter despair, that “he hasn’t caught up with him.”
Mabrouka pleads with Asakir to listen to her but Asakir screams that she hears nothing. Mabrouka then hears Sumeida’s singing and turns, terrified by her sister’s state and asks desperately what is happening.
Sumeida’s song is heard, this time heralding the death of Alwan. Asakir pulls herself together lest she collapse; even so a faint suppressed cry, like a rattle in the throat, escapes her lips. After intoning the words: “my son,” she finally collapses.