A Sense of Identity Photo: Em Iova

A Sense of Identity

October 27, 202015-17 minutes read

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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In the modern world, the common line of acceptance and understanding of human nature aims to search for a more objective perspective that would create a rather empirical representation of humankind.

There is a certain ability in the modern-day person to question the truths and realities to be found inside and outside the world. A great commitment such as the understanding of human nature from a better, more profound and unbiased perspective can only be possible when one asks the right questions and always pushes forward their certainties in order to become more flexible; like a muscle that can be worked out in order to get more strength from it.
I like it that way, when you don't even know what your direction is. I want to make music, to express myself, to master the instrument, to master some European techniques, such as polyphony, harmony and others.

Introduction

Oud. Photo: Mirela Crăciun
Oud. Photo: Mirela Crăciun
The expansion of the Internet during the last two decades has improved the interaction between different cultures, and created new standpoints that would generate a considerably more complex idea of the world we live in, and why we, humans, are taking certain decisions in certain moments, taking account of our history. The rather ready access to knowledge as well as different educational opportunities, has created a context to changeable behaviors and mentalities embodied in prejudices, fears (or shall I’d rather call them mental tortures?).

The fascinating, yet dreadful universe of power, a primordial and enormous sentiment that has guided humans in their journeys, ever since their appearances on this planet, a feeling which still governs societies and commands specific schemes of behaviors, values, mentalities, cultural approaches, social structures, and so forth.

Human subjectivity implies that any human being struggles to find an own identity, one that depends on one’s specific set of values, rules, beliefs, urging for a correct and honest representation of an individual within the confines of the outside world. In most of our time, we, as individuals, act in society as actors wearing certain masks which have been scrupulously built throughout our existence.

The overwhelming amount of studies on human nature can only reveal that there isn’t a single, absolute truth and that every story has different sides, facets and meanings, depending on who’s the storyteller; be it philosophers, scholars, writers, musicians, politicians, oppressors, oppressed, architects of our own consciousness and identity; you name it, we have it.

A Syrian musician in Romania

With all these fleeting thoughts running through my mind, I was rushing on a warm summer night through the alleys of Cișmigiu Park in Bucharest to meet Mohamad Zatari, one of the very few Syrian musicians living in Romania that I know about.

I heard of Zatari some years before meeting him in person, particularly from Quieter Than Silence, a project he developed with the Iranian musician Mehdi Aminian. We had met a few weeks before he played at this year’s Outernational Virtual Festival alongside Romanian/Indian percussionist Avadhut Kasinadhuni and Iranian Tar player Sara Nezamoleslami.

Zatari is a composer and oud player from Aleppo, Syria. His artistic effort is devoted to deconstructing stereotypes, blending various musical genres, and as he puts it, “to constantly look for new musical ways of inspiration”. He has been taught traditional and regional music by Tareq Al-Sayed Yehya, and he is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in classical composition at the National University of Music Bucharest. Many of his compositions were used for short films, different visuals, as well as educational materials. He also performed in many countries such as Syria, Romania, Hungary, Germany and Austria.

He combines classical and contemporary music in a remarkable way, choosing from different types: traditional Levantine, Iraqi, Turkish and Egyptian music, in addition to Occidental music. Zatari is very keen on developing his own style constantly, meeting musicians from different backgrounds and combining different elements from West Asia & North Africa. He moved to Bucharest over seven years ago.

“I arrived in Romania through an invitation from a Romanian friend”, Mohamad tells me, while we sip from some cold beverages. Nearby our table, the infamous Cișmigiu peacocks are shouting, using all sorts of strange and loud noises. Maybe they are disputing their own condition, their own identity.

“What I miss in Bucharest is the mixture of flavors and smells that I used to encounter in the markets (souks) of Aleppo or which you can find in the markets in Istanbul as well. The smell of halva, spices, soap etc. Before coming here, I had lived in Saudi Arabia for almost 5 years. I came to Romania to study music at the Conservatory of Bucharest. I wanted to study and make music where I was in the Middle-East, but I didn't feel safe and secure in the country where I was living. Apart from war, revolution, the Arab Spring, you don't feel safe there, you are besieged either by collective social principles that you have to abide by, or by bloody authorities that control your life permanently.”

He adds that his parents weren't supportive of his music making, but this had no impact on Mohamad’s unwavering choice; by the age of 14, he already decided that this was what he wanted to do – music. “My mother was very conservative and religious, she considered music to be a sin. My father was a simple worker (painter) coming from a proletarian family. He wanted me to be successful and to be able to cater to my own household in the future.”

When he was around 13 years old, Mohamad began to question his religious faith and came to be influenced by the communist theory. He used to listen to revolutionist music in his bedroom, which had a poster of Karl Marx on one of its walls.

“Revolution-based music in the Middle East is based on popular culture. Its lyrics and musical forms are accessible and understandable by everyone, having, of course, the sense of revolt. It gets influenced by the socio-political situation as well as musical trends and influences. What is revolutionary now as a music genre is totally different from what it was 20 years ago. For example, Sheikh Imam, an Egyptian traditional singer, formed a duo with the poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. They used to tour around the Arab world holding an oud and a percussion, mostly a Riq. These guys were always imprisoned because of their songs. In contrast, it's going more nowadays into alternative rock, trap, even electronic instrumental music and so on. I think this change in what is viewed as revolutionary is ascribed also to the availability and the prevalence of Internet and media. Furthermore, voices denouncing racism, discrimination and advocating equality should have played certain roles in changing perspectives. Moreover, the political context is different now. Supported by the Soviet Union, socialism was dominant in countries like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine. However, these influences still have their residues in the area. Anyway, being an artist in a patriarchal society, you are kind of censored by both the society and the authorities. Authorities would either get you imprisoned or ban your works if you criticize them (Military Intelligence Directorate, the president etc). On the other hand, people would protest against a kissing scene in a movie, or for criticizing a religious concept.”

Folk music of Syria is for the most part based on the oud (a stringed instrument considered to be the ancestor of the European lute), as well as the Ney and hand-held percussion instruments, such as the Darbouka, Daf or Riq. Other typical instruments are the Qanun and the Arabic violin.

“I listened to oudists (oud performers) at the age of 14; I had a brother from whom I took this while listening to rebellious music. At the same time my brother was in the army for the mandatory service. There he had a friend, a musician, and he secretly bought an oud. Even if I was telling him I wanted to play the oud, he didn't tell me he already had this instrument. I was preparing for the capacity test at the time, and my parents kept telling me that I had to learn to be prepared for the exam. Eventually my brother gave me his oud and I started learning on my own. I was at a fine arts school where I met professional musicians and since then I started meeting with them every day, this being the way I learned to play the oud. It's an older way of learning, where a mentor teaches you music, philosophy and morals; that's how I learned to play, with the help of my friends and colleagues.”

Speaking of contemporary music of Syria, the well-known case of Omar Souleyman inevitably occurs in the conversation. The famous Syrian wedding music singer conquered the Western world within the past decade with his contagious contemporary dabke music, releasing his only cassettes for years. In fact, dabke is a large tradition in Syria, being refered to as a native Levantine folk dance. The etymology of 'dabke' is quite uncertain, but it is thought to be derived from the Levantine Arabic word dabaka (Arabic: دبكة‎) meaning "stamping of the feet" or "to make a noise". The dabkeh jumps may have originated in ancient Canaanite fertility rituals related to agriculture, chasing off evil spirits and protecting young plants. There are numerous kinds of songs that are sung during and specifically for dabke, by both men and women respectively, depending on the occasion, song, and audience. Some of the most popular of these songs, such as Dal Ouna (دلعونا), Al Jafra (الجفرا), Al Dahiyya (الدحية) and Zareef il-Tool (ظريف الطول), are actually entire genres in themselves, meaning that lyrics can vary depending on each performance, but the basic rhythm of the music remains consistent and recognizable.

“I'm listening to Omar Souleyman and I'm not ashamed at all”, Zatari says, smiling candidly. “Usually you are stamped that you do not listen to classical music, or European, Arabic, Indian. But I like it! In his own way, Omar Souleyman is a character with his moustache, but I don't think he's taken seriously by the artistic community. It's more of a product.”

I remember about an interview I did with Sir Richard Bishop back in 2015, and at some point Souleyman appeared in the conversation. “I don’t know how Omar Souleyman got to where he got. The first couple of tours in Europe and US, through Sublime Frequencies - at that time, he was just new. People liked the look of him, maybe more than his music; the sunglasses, the attitude, the moustache. And then, when another label -kind of - kidnapped him, this other label and the people behind it just had a lot more money. They had a machine, big industry. And Omar falls into money. He likes money, just like we all do. In Syria, you could see these wedding videos on YouTube with him, when he does the weddings and people throw tones of money. I guess the money goes to him, I don’t know. But I think he does quite well now. And he’ll just keep doing that, until nobody gives him any money anymore, I think.”
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Em Iova
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Em Iova

A Syrian story

As a musician, Syria may not be the ideal place to live in, but you get high chances to meet a mentor. “We don't have a Conservatory in Aleppo, you have to go to Damascus to study at the Conservatory. There is this conflict between Aleppo and Damascus on the academic side; which went to modern music, which goes to the Russians, orchestra, chamber music. The oriental music section (oud, qanun, ney) has scores with advanced techniques, and in Aleppo they are more focused on classical Arabic and Ottoman music. If you want to refer to a more frivolous musician, you refer to a musician from the Conservatory.”

With this authoritarian direction of the state, Syria, in a way, supports music. “It is a dictatorship, but not an Islamic one, although the constitution is adapted to Islam. Letting your beard grow in Syria as a religious act is a risk, meaning the Security will start monitoring you, writing reports; to be a Muslim practitioner there is not well received by the state. As with music, it does not have to be related to Muslim practice, not to be against the state.”

Bashar al-Assad has been president since 2000 and was preceded by his father Hafez al-Assad, who was in office from 1971 to 2000. His election saw the birth of the Damascus Spring and hopes of reform, but by autumn 2001, the authorities had suppressed the movement, imprisoning some of its leading intellectuals. Throughout his rule, Syria and the ruling Ba'ath Party have been condemned and criticized for various human rights abuses, including frequent executions of citizens and political prisoners, and massive censorship. Since March 2011, Syria has been entrapped in an armed conflict, with a number of countries in the region and beyond involved militarily. As a result, a number of self-proclaimed political entities have emerged on Syrian territory. Syria was ranked last on the Global Peace Index from 2016 to 2018, making it the most violent country in the world due to the war. The conflict has killed more than 570,000 people, caused 7.6 million internally displaced people (July 2015 UNHCR estimate) and over 5 million refugees (July 2017 registered by UNHCR), making population assessment difficult in recent years.

“Almost every Syrian has a story – either personal or about an acquaintance – who had a negative experience”, Mohamad says. “The last time I was in Syria was in March 2011, and soon after, the protests started, in Syria and in the Arab world. Everyone was shocked. People taking the streets in Syria… I mean, if you go out on the streets, the army will shoot you. We had this experience in the 1980s, in a different context.”

The ongoing Syrian Civil War was inspired by the Arab Spring revolutions. It began in 2011 as a chain of peaceful protests, followed by a shutdown by the Syrian Army. In July 2011, Army defectors declared the formation of the Free Syrian Army and began forming fighting units. To escape the violence, millions of Syrian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries. “I have some distant relatives who were drowned in the sea; they also had a child,” Mohamad recalls.

“We, who only saw in the media what is happening to the people who go out, had a kind of hope. At first, they did not demand the overthrow of the regime. The message was pointed out to the leader, as being the traitor who killed his people, or something like that. The situation escalated like a snowball, with more and more people coming out for the funerals of those shot. What we do know for sure is that for the first six months, ordinary people took the streets of Aleppo unarmed. At one point the UN came to the University Square in Aleppo; the police and the security guards did not take anyone and the square was full, it was a protest like the one in Victoriei Square in Bucharest a few years ago. There are channels like Al Jazeera, which is pro-Muslim Brotherhood and was pro-arms and did not cover that protest at all.”

“Then you tell yourself that this is the maximum of horror that can happen, but another day comes and proves you that it can be even worse. There is this deep disappointment, at least between 2011 - 2013 especially, when they used chemical weapons. And probably the height of the disappointment was the silence of the great powers. The Syrians knew that we would not succeed.”

Lately, certain analysts began to raise concerns that Assad might be on the verge of losing power; but that any such collapse in the regime might cause conditions to worsen, as the result might be mass chaos, rather than an improvement in political or economic conditions.

Zatari says he’ll never return to Syria until the regime doesn’t collapse. But he would go back if the situation would improve. “I would like to go and stay for a while to make concerts, to do something there. There are many questions, not only related to music and identity. For example, I give my daughter to listen to music from that area. Now I play her Ibrahim Maalouf, he has a song that she really likes. I speak to her in Arabic, but she answers me in Romanian.”

As a post-communist country with a past history of dictatorship, oppression and totalitarianism, Romania shares certain similarities with Syria. “In a way it feels like we grew up together; even at the level of area and population we are very close”, Mohamad says. “I don't know exactly what is happening, but it seems that Romanians feel much safer if they go West; and I can't blame them, they come from some difficult times, communism for example. I had a very vague idea about Romania when I first came here. I knew about Balkan music, I knew some things about Ceaușescu. Orthodoxy in a way is very similar to the Muslim religion, if we consider the level of propaganda and the level of practice. The music used in the Orthodox Church is similar to the music in Turkey; the city Aleppo of where I come from is strongly influenced by Turkey. It was a kind of voivodeship, one of the most important cities in the Ottoman Empire. If you go to Turkey and listen to Muslim religious music, you will feel like you are in an Orthodox church. This surprised me here, with my arrival in Romania. The first time I arrived in Brăila and then in Bucharest. At one point I listened to a service or a liturgy, which made me think of home. I noticed that for Romanians church music is not considered music, it is just a religious practice; but actually, you can listen to it like any other musical performance.”
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Andra Iftimia
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Andra Iftimia

Orientalism

In recent years, and especially in 2020, there is a lot of new talk about racism, about colonialism, white privilege, about the damages left unpaid made by the great powers in the oppressed states. “In Romania, racism is manifested mainly against the Roma communities”, Mohamad says. When he first noticed the phenomenon, it was not directed to him, but he saw “how they were talked about”. Nevertheless, it happened to him too, as a Syrian person living in Romania, to be associated with terrorists. “I was once asked jokingly where I’ve hidden the bombs, after hearing that I’m Syrian.”

After the fall of the communist regime under the dictator Ceaușescu, the aspirations of many Romanians were pointed towards the West, in a fervent attempt to forget (or escape) their gruesome past. Many became fascinated by a set of values to whom they would not necessarily identify with, but which promised a sense of freedom, a sense of new. Little by little, this imperceptible feeling of attraction and admiration for the dominant power of the West made us lose the battle with our own cultural identity. After all, what is an identity?

Romania has always been a melting pot of civilizations, so when I think of my own cultural identity, more questions than answers get to my mind. I grew up in a very small city located North-East of Romania, being educated on the brink of dogmas, prejudices and stereotypes. One of my earliest memories I have from my childhood is the vivid image of a carpet hanging on a wall of my bedroom, depicting a scene from The Abduction from the Seraglio, based on a libretto written by Christoph Friedrich Bretzner and published in 1781. Assisted by his servant Pedrillo, the hero Belmonte – a young Spanish nobleman – attempted to rescue his beloved Konstanze from the seraglio of the Pasha Selim. This story became famous after it came into the attention of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who based his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio) on it.

As far as I know, during the communist and post-communist Romania, this carpet has been omnipresent not only in (almost) any house, but also in the common imaginary. And yes, you can probably still find it hidden in some flea markets around the country. Throughout the years, this particular piece of rug has been grounded in the collective mind of the post-communist Romanians as a symbol of kitsch, reminding us of our dark past. This was one of my first images about Orient, a place of which I knew nothing about at that time, but which my relatives were describing it to me as being “exotic”, “mysterious” and “otherworldly”.

In his highly stimulating book called “Orientalism”, first published in 1978, the author Edward Said – an American professor and founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies – speaks about a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian, and North African societies. In Said's study, the West reduces these societies to the status of undeveloped—thereby constructing a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced in service of imperial power. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior.

One of the main characteristics of Orientalism is a "subtle and persistent Eurocentric prejudice against Arab-Islamic peoples and their culture," which derives from Western images of what is Oriental, for example in terms of cultural representations. These cultural representations usually depict the ‘Orient’ as primitive, irrational, violent, despotic, fanatic, and essentially inferior to the westerner or native informant, and hence, ‘enlightenment’ can only occur when “traditional” and “reactionary” values are replaced by “contemporary” and “progressive” ideas that are either Western or Western-influenced.

The notion of cultural representations as a means for domination and control would remain a central feature of Said's critical approach proposed in Orientalism. Towards the end of his life for instance, Said argued that while representations are essential for the function of human life and societies—as essential as language itself—what must cease are representations that are authoritatively repressive, because they do not provide any real possibilities for those being represented to intervene in this process. The alternative to an exclusionary representational system for Said would be one that is “participatory and collaborative, non-coercive, rather than imposed,” yet he recognized the extreme difficulty involved in bringing about such an alternative.
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Magda Zatari
Mohamad Zatari. Photo: Magda Zatari

Traditional versus contemporary

Many contemporary Arab musicians and institutions – such as the Irtijal festival and its surrounding circle of artists and musicians – use instruments in new ways, reaching for different sound textures and techniques, a process which relies on improvisation and experimentation.

In time, Zatari deepened the concept of music. He started to move a bit away from the classic way of composing, while believing that traditional musicians should also enter the area of contemporary music. He studies classical composition, but he also improvises a lot. “I like it that way, when you don't even know what your direction is. I want to make music, to express myself, to master the instrument, to master some European techniques, such as polyphony, harmony and others. I also got into contemporary music, and that opens a huge door for you, where you feel the need to do more. For example, the friends from whom I learned to play oud feel more restrained in expression when I send them the recent compositions made for the Conservatory exams.”

As a traditional musician, it helps you to write what you want, to document yourself and to transmit. “A cellist in classical music, who is taught to do whatever the composer wants, is not taught to improvise; there are some techniques he/she hasn't seen. A cellist from the Arab world who has been learning classical music, knows how to play traditional music; European string instruments such as cello & violin are kind of integrated in traditional regional music in North Africa & West Asia, with different ornaments and techniques than what is taught at the Conservatories. The fact that I study at the Conservatory helps me to adapt to this vertical hearing and takes me out of my comfort zone. It seems to me that this is the essence of learning; experimentation brings me a lot of fulfilment.”

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*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic and allround music adventurer.

@dragos_rusu_
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