Winter 2007 | ArteZine

Constructing Musical Authenticity: History, Cultural Memory, Emotion – al-Matla’



With my research proposal in one hand and oud in the other, I felt that I was prepared for fieldwork in Syria. What I was not prepared for was a common response to my stated research interests in Arab music: Is there even such a thing as “Arab music”? While many Syrians expressed surprise at my choice of Syria as a research site—American researchers are few and far between there—some also expressed doubts about my intentions to study “Arab music.” Is the music Arab, or is it Turkish, Persian, or Byzantine, or is it a mixture of all of these? What is “Arab” about Arab music? Because many of the genres commonly performed in the “classical” repertoire have their roots in pan-Ottoman and Persian musical practices, calling them “Arab” is problematic, and many of my interlocutors, musicians and otherwise, pointed this out to me.


Moreover, some Aleppines (mostly non-musicians) asked me what I even meant by “music.” Emphasizing the latter term, they often asked me if there is such a thing as Arab music—that is, music distinct from song. As mentioned in the previous chapter, referring to the melodic and rhythmic practices of the Arabs as “music” (musiqa) is not unproblematic since prior to the modern period musiqa referred to theories of music and not to an autonomous realm of instrumental practices. Because of the privilege of the voice in Arab aesthetics, Arabs have tended to refer to their melodic and rhythmic practices as ghina’ (song) or inshad (chant).

What many Syrians considered to be “Arab music,” “Syrian music,” and even “music” itself depended a lot on their educational, religious, and artistic backgrounds. Some intellectuals argued that Arab music is the inheritor of the music of the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent, and therefore “authentic.” Others argued that it is essentially Turkish music, and therefore “inauthentic.” Still others claimed different roots, different histories. Aside from causing a certain amount of epistemological self-doubt, these sorts of dialogues opened windows onto discourses about identity that found expression in discussions of music and musical origins. For my Syrian interlocutors, the “Arabness” of their music had as much if not more to do with conceptions of cultural authenticity, origins, and identity than with more “objective” musical factors such as tonality, genre, and style.

This essay examines the construction of concepts of artistic authenticity through an analysis of the spatial and temporal dimensions of discourses on music and painting in Syria. I first show how notions of time and space serve to orient contemporary discourses about musical and artistic authenticity in contemporary Syria. I then turn to discourses on “inauthentity” in Syria that reveal different somewhat visions of authentic culture. The concept of nostalgia emerges as inadequate for understanding the dynamics of a society in change. Indeed, the intimate dance of the authentic and the inauthentic in Syria reveals not only the fault lines in contemporary understandings of self and society, but the contours of emerging modern subjectivites for which the past, consumed and appreciated for its emotional and affective dimensions, promotes a way forward into modernity.


Temporal and spatial orientations of authenticity in contemporary Syrian art


Many Aleppine artists and intellectuals support their claims to cultural authenticity by appealing to particular constructions of the origins of the music. Indeed, some make the linguistic link between origin (asl) and authenticity (asala), for the words derive from the same roots; claiming an asl is tantamount to asserting asala. Authenticity itself implies a fixed origin in time and space. In their various discourses about art and authenticity, Syrian artists, critics, and consumers articulate concepts of origin or asl with respect to two orientational centers, one temporal and the other spatial. With respect to temporality, those having an interest in promoting their visions of authentic culture tend to locate authenticity temporally in “the past” (al-madi), or, to be more accurate, in constructions of different pasts—for example, the pre-Islamic era, the early Islamic era, the Ottoman Period, and the early modern period. In general, as Sylvia Naef (1996) notes in her study of modernity in Arab fine arts, Arab intellectuals and artists have tended to locate authenticity in the pre-colonial past. But in a country like Syria that has been colonized and re-colonized for millennia, the “pre-colonial” past might mean the time prior to the French Mandate (1922-1944), the Ottoman Period (1516-1918), and even, for some Christians, prior to the Muslim “occupation” of Syria (beginning in 636). Identifying the pre-colonial with the pre-modern does not suffice, since conceptions of modernity and even the precise dating of the advent of the modern period in the Arab world are debatable. The “authentic past” is hence a shifting and sliding frame that depends as much on one’s personal interests as on any specific “objective” history. Therefore, diverse eras have come to represent authenticity in Syria.

In addition to the association of authenticity with the past and certain sentiments and emotions related to the past (however conceived), Syrian artists tend to identify authentic culture with specific places. For some, the ultimate site of authenticity is the old city, as in the old neighborhoods of Damascus and Aleppo, whereas for others it is the countryside. More often Syrian artists associate authentic culture with a combination of specific places, the people inhabiting those spaces in specific times, and—importantly—the sentiments and emotions associated with these people, places, and times. The temporal, spatial, and social-cultural nexus that defines authenticity thus constitutes an important dimension of the aesthetics of authenticity in late twentieth-century Syrian art worlds.


Syrian conceptions of the past: Hanin


The modern period is not normally associated with authenticity; indeed, modernity has come to stand for inauthenticity in many discourses of the authentic. As noted earlier, Syrian authors tend to contrast authenticity (asala) with contemporaneity (mu‘asira) and modernity (hadatha). However, recent Syrian television dramas that depicted modern historical events and nationalist sentiments were praised by many Syrian viewers as evoking an “authentic” Arab spirit. What seemed to be important to viewers was the association of particular constructions of the past with particular sentiments. A general association of the old (al-qadim) and the past (al-madi) with authenticity conveyed in these contexts a more basic association of authenticity with particular sentiments such as nationalist commitment, in the example of the television serials, and emotional honesty, in the songs of Umm Kulthum, for example. Therefore, what makes Arab culture authentic is often the association of particular emotional states with particular times and places and their evocation in the arts. Syrian artists and intellectuals relate to the past in diverse ways—some positively evaluate the past as a storehouse of tradition, while others negatively view the past as a realm of backwardness. A number of Syrian artworks in diverse media exhibit a romantic if not nostalgic vision of the past. For example, recent memoirs celebrate and memorialize life in the Old City of Damascus, a site par excellence of authentic culture for many Syrians. A high percentage of commercial artwork represents street scenes from the Old Cities of Damascus and Aleppo, and Syrians and not just tourists purchase these works to hang on the walls of their homes. Works by more “serious” artists also depict such scenes, though often in a more nuanced and aesthetically interesting fashion (for example, the works of the Damascene artist Nasir Shoura from the 1940s and 1950s, and many of Fateh Moudarres’ canvases that treat themes from Syrian folklore and mythology).

In general, it seems that Syrian intellectuals and artists consider cultural practices, events, and personalities that they understand to be in time (that is understood as “history”) to be less authentic than events that they understand to be out of time (that is, “myth,” “legend,” and “the past”). One reason for the primacy granted to detemporalized or mythologized aesthetic experience (“the past”) might relate to the commonly expressed sentiment in Syria that “history” is written by those who are currently in power, whereas myth and legend, being products of the popular imagination, are therefore more sincere (asdaq), even if not “real.” The gap between “reality” and “truth,” at least in the minds of some artists, is an artifact of power. While some intellectuals and artists recognize this and attempt to accentuate the differences between “reality” and “truth” in their works—for example by self-consciously using symbols and scenes from Syrian or Mesopotamian mythology—the state and its apparatuses of truth-production likewise attempt to close the gap by insisting on the truthfulness of “reality” and the reality of “truth.” The cult of former President Hafiz al-Asad illustrates well how the Syrian state has attempted to impose a patina of truthfulness on the mythologies associated with the “eternal leader.” Artists also play with this tension, for example by using simulacra of ancient symbols and alphabetical characters and not “real” symbols and characters in their works.

Artists concerned with authenticity as a personal or artistic vision generally demonstrate a positive relationship to the past and often use the term hanin to describe their feelings regarding past locales and times. Hanin means a type of longing or yearning,and relates linguistically to hanan (affection, love, and tenderness) and hanun (affectionate, tenderhearted, touching); the sound of the nay is often called hanun, for example. Hanin is often translated as “nostalgia,” and indeed in some cases artists and intellectuals express a relation to past times and places in ways that we might describe as nostalgic. For example, one writer expressed a longing for his childhood home in the Old City of Aleppo—the particular smells, sights, and sounds of his former home and neighborhood—while enjoying the comforts of his modern home in a newer quarter; he was certainly expressing a form of nostalgia when he said he felt hanin for his family’s former domicile.

Yet, it is important to contextualize and clarify the meaning of hanin, since nostalgia may not be the best way to describe it. Indeed, nostalgia is often not an appropriate translation of hanin. In many instances, what Arabs express as a longing (hanin) for the past is in fact a gloss of what for them are highly evaluated emotional states and sentiments associated with particular times, locales, social relations, and cultural practices. In English, “nostalgia” may evoke a negative sense of romantic or even naïve attachment to the past, whereas in Arabic hanin and other terms such as ghurba (homesickness, separation, or exile) carry more positive connotations. Therefore, I use “nostalgia” advisedly to mean a romanticized reminiscence of a past lifestyle or place and time, such as reminiscences of a childhood home. In other circumstances hanin evokes highly positive sentiments about the self and society grounded in particular conceptions of time, and space.


Time, space and metaphors of authenticity


In Syrian art worlds, a number of distinct spatial and temporal metaphors inform discourses about authentic and inauthentic culture; indeed, in many ways debates about authenticity can be seen as debates over different metaphorical understandings of culture, time, and space. As a result of these debates, certain conjunctions of time and space come to represent authenticity, while others become badges of inauthenticity. In contemporary Syrian culture and art, two important and powerful metaphors of authenticity are the pre-modern (“old”) city, and the countryside, with their associated life ways. The metaphor of the old city (madina qadima) locates authenticity in the streets and buildings of the pre-modern old cities, especially Aleppo and Damascus, and in the lifestyles of the inhabitants of these urban space-times. In the contemporary Syrian literary, cinematic, and popular imagination, authenticity is symbolized first and foremost by the “Arab home” (bayt ‘arabi), consisting of an arrangement of rooms surrounding a courtyard full of citrus trees, a well, and gardens of fragrant plants; indeed, it is the courtyard and the citrus and jasmine trees that grow in it that most prominently excite memories of the older homes. For others, the mosques, public baths, coffee shops, stone walls, and cobblestone streets of the old city also symbolize authenticity.

Aside from these physical locations, the metaphor of the old city encompasses the lifestyle of the pre-modern urban elite—the merchants and their culture, including the saharat or evening soirées held in expansive Arab homes, as well as the religious scholars (ulama’) and shaykh-s performing their duties in the numerous and ancient mosques and madrasa-s (Islamic schools). Figures from more mundane walks of life are also important symbols of authenticity in the old city metaphor: fruit vendors hawking their produce in the streets, coffee shop denizens smoking nargila-s (water pipes), veiled women with their children, old men on donkeys, and so forth. These scenes of authentic culture and life are readily found in all the major media of Syrian art: painting, literature, television and cinema, and music in its association with the space and time of authentic culture (for example, an evening gathering in an old Arab home). In a way these locales and characters are thought of as “survivals” of pre-modern lifestyles in Syria, especially by members of the urban elite who reside elsewhere and who look upon them with a mixture of nostalgia, hanin, and occasionally loathing.

For some the identification of the old city with authentic Syrian culture is a form of nostalgia—especially for the older merchants who, like my writer friend, reminisce about their former homes in the old city from the comfortable confines of their modern homes—whereas for others it is part of a mission to preserve the Arab cultural and social heritage. The decay of the older neighborhoods and attempts by certain developers to demolish neighborhoods in Damascus and Aleppo and build modern buildings in their place, in conjunction with haphazard attempts to renovate or modernize certain older homes, have led to the establishment of committees for historic preservation with the authority to regulate renovations and new building in these neighborhoods. The positive evaluation of the old city moreover has arisen in the context of the work of international organizations such as UNESCO to label these cities as World Heritage Sites, restricting building and development within them in order to guarantee their “preservation.” No doubt, tourism and the prospect of luring foreigners in search of their own visions (fantasies?) of authenticity has contributed to the commodification of the old cities and the conversion of homes and schools into restaurants, coffee shops, and hotels. Yet the number of local and visiting Arabs and foreign tourists frequenting these establishments suggests that the identification of the pre-modern old city with authentic Arab culture is widespread.

Musically, the old city metonym finds expression in the association of the sounds of the urban environment with the space and time of authentic culture. Early in my research, the Syrian painter Fateh Moudarres (1924-1999) told me that if I wanted to find “authentic” Syrian music that I must go into the old cities, into the courtyards of the old Arab homes, and listen for it “among the jasmine trees.” For him cultural authenticity and musical authenticity resided in the traditional urban landscape, especially in the courtyards of the old homes. These courtyards constituted the primary space-time of Syrian musical authenticity—the sahra or evening musical gathering characteristic of elite and merchant-class culture from at least the eighteenth century to the middle of the twentieth century. As Syria’s urban bourgeoisie moved from their expansive old homes into apartments or villas in the newer neighborhoods, the custom of hosting sahra-sslowly diminished so that today they tend to be rarer than in what many identified as a Golden Age of Syrian Arab music, the 1950s and 60s. As a result, media representations of authenticity often feature musical gatherings set in the courtyards of older homes. Soundtracks to television serials and films often associate the old city with specific sounds, especially of traditional instruments such as the oud (Arabian lute), qanun (zither), and nay (reed flute). In these representation the old city becomes an authentic soundscape as well as landscape, one infused with the melodious sounds of the call to prayer (adhan), the voices of street peddlers, and the sounds of everyday life in the older neighborhoods.



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