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Jerusalem, Fairuz, and the Moon

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 31.03.2007:

The Radio and the Discourse of Love in Modern Arabic Song

By Dr. Ali and Aida Qleibo

I have always lived my life according to the dictates of the moment. My feelings, my thoughts about my feelings, and my feelings about my thoughts constitute an intricate net in whose context both cause and effect dissolve into each other. In the process, my actions assume a heightened sense of significance and urgency: psychic conditions that are indispensable to justify my being. This is not by way of justifying my actions: I am not impulsive, but rather an artist. I have come to realize that my priorities have their own logic. My life, as I look back at it, is a melodious love song composed of the twentieth-century discourse of Arabic love songs. My generation felt extremely fortunate. We lived with the divas of love. They sang exclusively for us; we were their privileged audience. We were the mirror in relation to whom they perfected their image of themselves. In Cairo or Beirut, wherever they resided was immaterial. That was the time of the Arab dream of unity, of Jamal Abed el-Nasser, and of the radio. Arabic music was in the street, in the house, and around every corner; and it shaped our sense of identity.

The discourse of the Arabic love song in the twentieth century has conditioned our personality. ‘Al wijdan el araby’, our psycho-emotional cultural character, has been constitutively constituted by music. In fact, we are our music: Um Kulthum, Najat el Saghirah, Abed el Wahab, Farid El Atrash, Fayzeh Ahmad, Abed El Halim Hafez, Wardeh, and Fairuz. The grand divas provided through their music the royal road to the world. Parallel to the Arab intellectual of ‘Asr el Nahdah’, the Arabic renaissance – the Golden Age of twentieth-century Arabic culture – musicians strove to liberate themselves from the rigid traditional forms of expression rooted in Turkish and Persian music and were seeking new creative venues. This is the great age of modern literature: writers and intellectuals such as Tawfiq el Hakim, Taha Husein, Zaki Naguib Mahmoud, Naguib Mahfuz, etc. … The musicians in their own right experimented and struggled to update and revitalize the identity of Arabic song and to diversify their styles of expression by interjecting elements of harmony and various instruments from the Western orchestra into their compositions. In effect, they tuned us to Western classical music. By extension, they objectified concretely our cultural position at a point of axis of Western and nascent Arab modernism. This was precisely the objective of the Liberal Arab age into which I was born.

The great musicians lived and created in Cairo. The radio dissolved the distance. The first Thursday of every month, Um Kulthum gathered the whole Arab world around the radio as her Cairo concert was broadcast live. Musicians and lyricists vied for her recognition; Um Kulthum custom-tailored her own music and chose the lyrics that deified her for us. In her career, which ran over six decades, she reinvented Arabic music. She reigned supreme, eclipsing the other great divas of the period, Najat, Wardeh, and Fayzeh, whose style of music did not deviate from the discourse that she had established. Only the Rahbanis and Fairuz succeeded in creating a new genre by adopting a creative synthesis of the French chanson and classical lieder into the discourse of the inimitable Lebanese diva, Fairuz. Whereas the Egyptian discourse favoured the baroque virtuoso bel canto style, Fairuz had her own separate venture. We lived vicariously watching the grand drama unfold; the greatest musicians and the greatest poets were challenged to bring the best out of them.

These were mythological moments.

The myth became reality. The pope came to visit Jerusalem in 1965. Fairuz joined the crowds and sang during the procession along the Way of the Cross; henceforth she sang of our streets, of our waiting, and of our sadness.

Fairuz’s lyrics and the mood she evoked mirrored life in Jerusalem. Our ‘huzon’, our melancholic feelings of loneliness, of desolation, and of resilient faith were expressed in her songs. A solitary person … the moon throwing its silvery rays into cavernous arched houses … the cool shadow under the covered passageways and under the almond tree where dreams of love lurked … the rain … and the endless waiting, summer and winter, for the companion whose presence would lift the heavy cloud of loneliness … these were the images that gave form to our sense of huzon, lonely melancholy.

Years later, as a visiting professor in Tokyo, I gave a seminar, ‘The Discourse of Love in Modern Arabic Song’. We listened to the lyrics of the songs and traced the development of each Diva’s discourse of love. Moment by moment, the spectrum of love and its tribulations found its expression in their works. Each proffered her or his own perspective on love, and each word and melody left a deep imprint on our psyche.

Half a million years ago, before the discovery of fire, before the first stone tool was forged, Man, Homo habilis, must have lifted his eyes up to the sky, looked around, and in the silence of the universe heard the music within him. That primordial melody still haunts us. European, Indian, Japanese, and Inca, classical or folkloric, music is the royal road to intercultural communication. Geographic and historical accident has chosen that we be born Arab or Chinese; music dissolves these cultural barriers. In music we are a single humanity.

Would we love, endure life, be ourselves without music?

Music runs in my family. Father had a great voice. Born late into the nineteenth century, his world view and value system were different. ‘Hamidy’, he called himself, after Sultan Abed el Hamid. ‘Hamidy values’ stressed modesty, discretion, and treasured privacy: he would never sing in public. Only in family gatherings and, having begun with reading a selection of verses from the Koran, he would sing to the accompaniment of the ‘oud or alternately to the piano.

Two cousins are well-known singers, albeit each according to his sense of mission. One, el Sheik Yaser is a cantor; he is one of the leading Koran sheikhs in the Aqsa Mosque and on the radio for the past forty years. His voice and skill are admired in the Arab world at large. Even in Cairo, once my family name is heard, people would inquire about our relationship. He is famous and is assumed to be very wealthy since Koran cantors achieve high status in Egypt. Once I asked him why he did not sing secular music. ‘I have dedicated my gift to God’s glory’, he answered. Our cousin Ahmad, much younger, is equally recognized as a pop singer.

An artist myself, I have always envied musicians.

Nothing can surpass the magic evoked by the reverberations of a live piano in one’s own living room.

Now father’s ‘oud lies silent on top of a closet; his upright black Steinway stands still against the wall in the salon.

The Qleibo passion for music has passed down to Aida, my daughter. I quote my ten-year-old daughter verbatim: ‘Music is that mysterious feeling underlying life. Music is not just a word, it is the meaning of love, of suffering, and of all shades of feelings. Music cannot be compared to anything. Its power, its magic, and its beauty can bring you to places that you have never dreamed of – beyond your imagination. Music can be anywhere, and anytime; in the future, in the past, and in the present. It can be in the rain, in the sun, and in the happiness or pain of love. In music there are no lies: it says what it feels and means what it says. Music is now and here, then and there; it will never leave us.

Music has made us this promise. Some music has feelings: power, courage, and fear. It can be about a swan (Swan Lake), it can hurt, and it can bring happiness into everyone’s heart.’

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at Aida Qleibo is a student at AISJ (Anglican International School Jerusalem)


This Week in Palestine

April 2007

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