Spirituality was not a familiar word for Valentina Primo, who embarked on a journey into Rou7 Festival’s second edition in Aswan, where Sufi chanters, Nubian percussionists, and eager yogis filled the event with an energetic vibe.
It is inescapably contagious; nothing like the quiet, slow-paced idea that word ‘spiritual’ had evoked when I first heard about Rou7 Festival.
I’m lying on the sand, the sun falling behind us, my feet facing a precipice that drops into the most striking façade of the Nile. Ahmed Osman, the yoga instructor standing at the edge of that precipice, gives every pose an emotional function. “Open your hearts,” he repeats several times. We are immersed in a meditative moment, but the humming sound of chants begins to tickle our ears from below the gigantic dune where we are.
I walk down the dune as the yoga session ends, to see what the humming is about. There is a circle of Sufi singers chanting, moving their bodies back and forth, encircled by people dancing around them. I don’t realise it, but I am moving as well and I begin to clap my hands. I look around, a little embarrassed – I must look like a lunatic dancing alone in front of a singing band. But everyone around is somehow in deep connection to this music that rises from their voices, swaying their bodies from one side to the other.
"We do things with joy, and we believe in it,” says Nour Eddin Elnagah, a Sufi singer and founder of the band Hamra, as he explains how Sufi chants pull their lyrics from the words of Allah. “We love what we say because it rises from within our hearts. And this energy reaches people. In Egypt, the simple people come to the Hadra [a Sufi ritual]; they get close to God and enter such a physical and spiritual state that all this vibration happens,” he says illustrating the vibration produced by his throat.
Founded in the summer of 2015, Hadra is a band formed by 14 Sufi singers hailing from different cities, from Luxor to Cairo. “Last Ramadan, I was playing in a Rock band and decided that I wanted to sing Sufi music, so I brought some people together who wanted to do the same,” Elnagah says. The band is known for their Hadras across different regions of Egypt, which people join by forming a fervent circle around the singers. “All Sufi groups in the world have their own philosophy of Hadra. The common thing between us Egyptians is that we stand really close to one another in a chain, because it helps engage others,” he explains.
As Elnagah illustrates the inception of Sufi music, I can hear a group of young singers chanting in the background, while in the opposite tent a Nubian artisan plays his tar. Created with sheep skin, the drum is intricately decorated with henna flowers and letters, where it reads “Faddalusu” (“etfaddalu” in Arabic), meaning 'welcome' or 'be my guest' in Nubian. “This place has a special energy, and you can feel this energy in its people; in their cheerfulness,” Elnagah says. Yesterday, as a scorching heat pushed organisers to take the festival onto the waters of the Nile, a convoy of five feluccas filled with music as Nubian Sufi singers joined Elnagah’s group in a flurry of clapping and dancing as we headed for a swim at Barber Island.
It was then that I understood the spirit of Rou7. For four days, we saw Nubian artisans meditating to gong healing, yogis playing Nubian drums, and Sufi singers teaming up with Nubians to jam across feluccas, as we made our way through the water under the boiling sunshine. Their yoga mats, leather drums, and flutes intertwined to magnetise a community of people, young and old, who took to the peak of one of Egypt’s most tantalising places to relax. But this was not a community; nor can it be defined as a group. Rou7 was a hub of diversity in itself, where both hardcore campers, Rock artists, and meditating masters would feel at ease.
Against the backdrop of the Nile River’s stunning façade, dotted by islands and colourful boats in contrast with the yellow dunes above, Osman prepares for his sunrise yoga session. “Sufism and yoga actually go hand in hand; yoga means the union between the physical, spiritual, and emotional bodies; and Sufism is the same, the union free from complications and rules,” he says.
“Nubians also communicate with nature's forces,” he adds. “They inherited this from ancient Egyptians; they chant for nature and for the Nile,” he says, explaining the confluence between the three traditions the festival brought together, reminding me of the words Elnagah said earlier today. “All these activities go towards the same, cleaning the soul from the ego,” the Sufi singer had said. That evening, Osman led a meditation session under the full moonlight, against a crowd gathered around in a circle in front of a bonfire that lit a cold post-sandstorm night.
However, not all participants in this multifaceted festival had flocked to the event to join the yoga and meditation trend. “I don't come here to meditate,” says Ahmed Hayman as he juggles his multiple roles as unstoppable photojournalist and avid musician, jamming at every possible chance. “When you are here, even walking the long way to the tent is meditation!” he jokes. “The best thing about Rou7 is the people. Yesterday there were Nubians meditating with the gong healer; you see everyone coming together,” he points out.
Nearly 300 people came to the festival's second edition, surpassing the massive number of yoga enthusiasts who took to Fayoum earlier in May for the festival’s Volume 1, according to co-founder Mohamed Fadly. The entrepreneur, who also runs Dune Raider, had to face unexpected difficulties as a sandstorm hit Aswan on Sunday, leading him to evacuate the camp to Gharb Suheil below the mountain, where the Nubian night was set up. But it was, perhaps, the festival’s contagious spirit and the collective intention to come together that kept Rou7ians in a radiant state despite the sweeping sandstorm that forced them to leave the camp; a state which defined the spirit of the festival.
You can find out more about Rou7 Festival on their Facebook page here or follow them on Instagram @rou7_festival.
Photography by @Mo4Network #Mo4Productions.
Photography by Valentina Primo.