Voices from the Arab World…

“You who leaves wherever you go, will tire and return, like many an innocent before you and me.” ~ Dahmane El Harrachi

Listening to Rachid Taha‘s “Ya Rayah”… music I recall from a theater production of Aladdin years ago.  Over the years I have come to appreciate this strange music with its unusual rhythms, odd-sounding instruments, and language that I don’t understand.  At first merely curious, I’ve also developed an appreciation for Arab authors, as well as stories set in that region of the world.   Here are a few favorites — songs and books — and a little about each.

~~~Rachid Taha, originally from Algeria, moved to France in the 1960s, collaborated with others to produce “Voila Voila,” a 1990s era hit in US and UK clubs…known for psychedelic pop-guitar, melancholy tunes, and traditional music exploring what he called the ” culture of exile.”

In Arabian Nights: A Caravan of Moroccan Dreams by Tahir Shah.  The author began this story in his memoir, The Caliph’s House, about his family’s move to Morocco.  Here he takes off on an adventure across the country — from Fez to Marrakech, Casablanca, and the desert, bringing together the great tales from his heritage (A Thousand and One Nights) with his own experiences and the modern-day characters he meets along the way.  The reader gets to experience both the exotic and the everyday aspects of life from this look behind the scenes.  There’s magic and mystery and madness.  A peek…one day in search of a missing friend Shah heads to a shantytown to visit a man named Marwan who might know of this friend’s whereabouts.  On arrival, Shah discovers Marwan helping his wife hang the laundry.  He instantly drops the shirt he’s holding into the mud, embarrassed to be caught doing “women’s work.”  At this, the wife slaps Marwan on the back of his head for being so clumsy.  The author is then treated to the ultimate indulgence — a Coca-Cola.  This book is full of wonderfully crazy tales and cultural images that surprise and please and sometimes shock.

~~~Rasha‘s “Leali” playing in the background… Rasha was born in Sudan (her grandfather was a noted Sudanese composer) and moved to Spain to study music.  She mixes pop music with the traditional melodies and rhythms of the Sudan to create unique and haunting sounds.

I Sweep the Sun off Rooftops by Hanan al-Shaykh.  Like Rasha’s music, al-Shaykh (born in Lebanon, moved to London) mixes the traditional with the modern in this collection of short stories.  The characters are caught between the cultures of East and West, the wonders of childhood and responsibilities of adulthood, the mundane and the magic. In “The Marriage Fair” Almaza works hard throughout the year — weaving baskets, milking the animals, gardening — while dreaming about the two-day marriage fair where she hopes to meet the man who will make her dreams come true.  After much anticipation and preparation, she discovers that her images do not quite mesh with reality.  That’s often the case in these stories.  The author uses the element of surprise — or shock; she isn’t afraid to tackle taboo issues; and the images, feelings, and challenges these women face offer an intimate view into the lives of contemporary Arab women.

Also by Hanan al-Shaykh — Women of Sand and Myrrh: A Novel.  Perhaps the most popular of her works, this is a novel in four parts, each part a first-person narrative told by a woman living in the desert of an unnamed Arab country where women cannot drive nor walk in public unveiled.  Suha, an educated Lebanese woman, follows her husband’s job to the desert and struggles with the lack of independence; Suzanne, an American woman who has also come because of her husband’s work, gains a measure of “independence” by becoming involved with an Arab man; Nur, wealthy and spoiled, knows no other kind of lifestyle; and Tamr inches her way toward independence through her studies and the strangers she meets at an institute for girls.  The lives of these women and their struggles and challenges for identity, make it vividly clear that a life of wealth and luxury is no substitute for one of freedom and independence.

Jamshied Sharifi and Hassan Hakmoun’s “Through the Veil” is for dancing.  Sharifi grew up in Kansas City in an Iranian family.  He studied jazz and classical music and mixed these traditions with the North African gnawa music — the original “trance” music meant to keep the spirits of good and evil happy.

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi.  Once a week for two years Azar Nafisi secretly met with a group of women students to read forbidden Western classics — Jane Austen, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, Nabokov.  An extraordinary memoir that laces the stories from the great novels of history with the everyday stories of a group of young women who thirst for knowledge and freedom while facing tyranny from behind the veil.  In a discussion of Gatsby, the author tells her students: “A good novel is one that shows the complexity of individuals and creates enough space for all these characters to have a voice…the biggest sin is to be blind to others’ problems and pains.”  One might say this statement is also true of a good memoir.  Through Ms. Nafisi all of these students have a voice and the reader is easily pulled into their world.

~~~Sharkiat’s “Nahawand” is another mix of tradition and contemporary music.  Sharkiat is an Egyptian group whose band leader, Fathy Salama, was trained in classical Arab music and came also to be a lover of jazz.  “Nahawand” has the perfect mix of Middle Eastern folklore and Western pop.

Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz.  Mahfouz is the most famous author of Arabic fiction.  In 1988, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.  Although I’ve enjoyed reading many of this author’s works, especially the short novelas — Wedding Song, Akhenaten: Dweller in Truth, The Thief and the Dogs — I found Children of the Alley to be the most fascinating.  Two stories are weaved together, one the multigenerational story of an Egyptian family and a second “hidden” narrative that explores the spiritual history of the world.  One son is cast from his father’s house and another is put to the test; each generation has its prophet; history repeats itself as people never seem to learn from the lessons of the past.  A powerful and rich fable that’s hard to put down.

~~~Khaled’s “Ki Kounti” is a mix of Andalusian, Latin, and Arab with a little reggae tossed in.  One of the most popular Arab singers of the last century, Khaled’s “Aicha” was heard in many versions, styles, and languages around the world in the late 90s.  This song “Ki Kounti” is a duet with Saul Hernandez about not shedding tears for what might have been.  Music, Khaled once said in an interview, has “always been my lucky star.”

Tales from the Expat Harem: Foreign Women in Modern Turkey, edited by Anastasia M. Ashman and Jennifer Eaton Gokmen is an anthology of the experiences of twenty-nine women who have lived in Turkey over the past forty years.  These essays by a myriad of voices bring the reader to city offices, bazaars, bathhouses, and rural villages.  The reader can see modern Turkey through the eyes of women who hail from Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, California, South Carolina…from computer specialists to archaeologists to artists.  These essays are funny, sad, exciting, thought-provoking.  And, if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to travel to this part of the world…you may be ready to dust off your passport after reading this collection.


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