Gone are the days when anyone could talk about an “Arab Spring” and be taken seriously. The series of destabilisations (some uprisings, some invasions, some civil wars) have simply involved too much bloodshed to be considered a flourishing spring. The deterioration of Iraq and Syria, two central Arab states, cannot be referred to as an “Arab Awakening” either. The implication that the people of these nations, long ravaged by decades of war and bad governance, were asleep the whole time and have only now awakened is insulting. As a composer, I know that Iraq and Syria have been “awake” for millennia as the crucible of Arab (and indeed human) civilisation. It was in Baghdad that Al Kindi wrote the first serious treatises on musical composition that the world had seen since the Dark Ages engulfed Europe and the West. And it was Aleppo that gave Greater Syria and the greater Arab World one of the most vibrant traditions of classical music that humanity has ever witnessed. The Arab Troubles have wreaked heartbreaking destruction on Aleppo and Baghdad and considerable destabilisation on Cairo. Traditionally, these cities, together with Damascus and Beirut, have been the centres of Arab culture. It is worth exploring how the Troubles have affected the music and the arts of the Arab world in general and, for personal reasons, Aleppo in particular.
As a boy, I studied the sacred and profane music that flowered in Aleppo during the ninth, tenth and 11th centuries. The musical styles combined over the ages as Aleppo became a central trading point at the end of the Silk Road. Its musical heritage drew on strands of Sufi poetry, Christian chant, the maqam-based music originating in pre-Islamic Arabia and influences of mainstream Islamic philosophy and literature. So it was particularly meaningful for me when, over a decade ago, in 2004 I was able to make a trip to Aleppo on one of my visits to Syria and experience the city’s fabled musical salons first-hand. By the 20th century, Aleppian musicians had developed a tradition of musical improvisation that would rival anything that came out of New York City’s Harlem at the height of the Jazz Age. I was exhilarated by what I heard and remembered reading about how the great Umm Kulthoum would travel studiously from Cairo to Aleppo just to try out her newest songs on the Aleppian audiences who famously had the reputation of being the most fussy and exacting in the Arab world. Yes, even fussier than the Cairenes and, if one can believe it, the Damascenes! In Aleppo, music famously mixed with poetry in a seamless fashion that could only come as a result of thousands of years of marriage. And like in any good marriage, the music and poetry each heightened the other in their best moments. Little did I know at the time how deeply these experiences would shape the way I would meld words into my music over the next ten years of my life as a composer.
We have all seen the images of mangled buildings and decimated streets from Aleppo, but we must always remember that the human beings that produced Aleppo’s storied music have not been spared the effects of Syria’s horrific war. The Zikr (musical parlour) that I attended was hosted by a musician by the name of Shaikh Habboush. So it was with a sharp pang of sadness that I read a 2012 article in the Guardian titled ‘Syria’s future lies in ruins’, in which, the author quoted the leader of one of Aleppo’s leading musical ensembles as saying of Habboush: “He has disappeared and may well be dead. His [teke] received a direct hit from a bomb and the top floor was destroyed ... Most of our musicians are homeless and our principal whirling dervish now has shrapnel riddling his legs.”
But all cannot be said to be lost as far as the traditional cultural capitals of the Arab world are concerned. Cairo with its famous theatre and film industry is quickly recovering and rebuilding its steam. Even war-torn Damascus still seems to be holding onto its historically important film circuit. This is coupled with a refocusing of cultural forces to the prosperous Arab Gulf nations as countries like the UAE and Oman invest heavily and passionately in a cultural infrastructure. These initiatives have resulted in major film and music festivals attracting artists from across the Arab world and laying the foundations for the important task of developing and nurturing local talent.
It must be said that Arab artists are also thriving in countries outside the region with unique and new Arab artistic voices emerging across the globe. In the United States alone, Arab figures like Etel Adnan and Naomi Shihab Nye represent some of the most decorated figures on the American cultural scene while writers and playwrights such as Heather Raffo, Faisal Al Juburi and Najla Saeed are at the forefront of a new wave of young Arab-Americans taking the stage and page by storm.
This is all to say that hope cannot be killed nor can it be considered lost. A new generation of Arab artists continue to push the envelope further with the same vision that developed the intricate musical landscape of Aleppo for over a millennium. They do so in prosperous Arab states and in a thriving diaspora. As for Aleppo itself, its destruction is painful and cuts at the heart of the human spirit. Its great buildings are gone as are many of its greatest people. It’s easy to lose faith in a cultural future when faced with a historical juncture like this.
But music is made up of the energy of sound and the ideas of the human mind. Those things cannot be killed as easily as human flesh or destroyed as easily as buildings. Even the combined terror of Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) barbarism and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs cannot obliterate the ancient culture embodied in the Syrian spirit. When we wonder about the future survival of Iraq too, let’s not forget that Iraq has known hundreds of invaders over thousands of years. And it is still there.
The only thing that I have come to find more astonishing than the human propensity for destruction is the immeasurable capacity that humanity has to rebuild; the limitless potential to recreate ourselves anew in the face of what seems to be utter ruin. It is particularly in these dark phases that we look to our culture, our arts, the stories of our elders and the songs of our bards with the hope that they can inspire us with the courage to continue on our journey and, eventually, rebuild something even stronger than what we had cherished in the past. We have seen it time and again from Lisbon to Tokyo and Beirut to Berlin. We have picked up the pieces, no matter how small, and rebuilt.
This is the special greatness of art: It embodies the spirit of our immediate storytelling identity, but also the uniquely human ability to look beyond the ephemeral present and cast our souls into something that is timeless and eternal. I see this spirit in our artists flourishing across the world from Abu Dhabi to New York. And I believe that we will see our artists flourish in Aleppo once again. Our thoughts looking forward must be focused on the generation tasked with the unenviable mission of rebuilding that great city and its musical magic anew. Godspeed to them.
Mohammed Fairouz is an Arab American composer whose work is currently one of the most frequently performed, commissioned, and recorded. He is based in New York.