This sounds idiotic, but I was really hoping to leave the Middle East without new friends, and without a desire to learn more about yet another region/culture/language. ‘Make new friends, and keep the old’ sounds great, but it has its limits and I reached those a while back. But it is hard not to fall for the Middle East, for Arab culture, for the rich complexity of Arabic.
It has to do with music, a constant rhythm and melody behind everything: language, politics, identity, the way people walk and talk.
Pictured above is Palestinian blogger and musician Sa’ed Karzoun (Jillian will soon translate his posts into English.) I sat down next to him at our final group dinner in Beirut and he began to wax poetic about the importance of music in Arab culture. I asked him about his favorite songs and musicians. The list was interminable. “Just listen to it, man,” he said. “They will kill you. You will die.”
He was right. An Arab musician opens his mouth and out pours his soul. It is the kind of music that sounds cheap and ethnic when its played in some American cafe or bar. But there you are in a small restaurant in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut with a three piece acoustic band and it is the kind of music that brings tears to your eyes.
They start slowly with haunting instrumental music or a cappella singing that sounds almost like moaning. But then, inevitably, they hit a folk song that every Arab – from Marrakesh to Muscat – knows by heart.
And that is the point I am trying to make: they know all of these songs by heart. Dozens and dozens of folk songs that are both anthems and protectors of Arab culture. It is, I must admit, an awkward feeling to be the outsider in any group that knows the lyrics to every song. Songs you’ve never even heard before.
When I was living in Mexico in 2003 – 2004 there were essentially two television channels – TV Azteca and Televisa. This meant that 1) you were forced to watch crappy TV every night and 2) you could inevitably take part in conversations with everyone else in your office about said crappy TV shows the next morning.
Amazing music or crappy TV … common culture forms around shared media.
There has been an entertaining debate on All Songs Considered between Carrie Brownstein and Stephen Thompson about the role of American Idol on American music and culture. Brownstein says that American Idol is the anti-art, corporate monolith against which independent musicians and artists react to create real art, the “machine against which artists rage.” Stephen Thompson – a fan of American Idol – says that it is the hearth of our country during an era of media “shrapnelization.” We each have our own personalized, unique playlists drumming in our earbuds, but American Idol is the one scrap left of shared national culture.
My friends and I agree: this spring will be one of many live concerts in LA. I hope to fill the temporary shoes of Cindylu’s much-coveted concert buddy position. Alex and I already have our eyes on the St. Vincent (cutest indie rocker ever!) and The Album Leaf shows in February.
It’ll be good to sing along to some songs that I, that we, know well.