Wednesday, March 23, 2005

sweet nomad girl

(CD cover, photograph by Veronica Doubleday)

Saudi Gazette
22 March 2005

The Other Side of Afghanistan
by Susannah Tarbush

Afghanistan has for decades been associated in the West mainly with images of endless upheaval and bloodshed. But a CD newly released in Britain, on the Metier World label, shows that Afghanistan is also a country of some of the most romantic and tender folk music to be found anywhere.

This is reflected in the title of the CDs: “Sweet Nomad Girl”. The cover photograph depicts a smiling young girl holding a lamb in an encampment of nomad women.

One verse of the song goes: “Shirin, sweet nomad girl/By the sequinned shawl she wears/She’s the beauty of the mountains/May God protect her.”

The song is performed by one of Afghanistan’s best-known singers, Abdul Wahab Madadi, who was born in Herat in the west of the country and worked for over 30 years at Radio Afghanistan.

Madadi left the country in 1992 and now lives in Germany. After the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in 2001, his patriotic song “Watan” was the first piece of music to be broadcast on Radio Afghanistan after five years of musical silence.

As well as being a performer, Madadi is a scholar who has studied and collected music. While at Radio Afghanistan, where he eventually became head of music of radio and television, he collected many Herati folk songs for the station.

Madadi first heard “Sweet Nomad Girl” when it was sung by Zainab Herawi when he was collecting traditional material in the 1970s. She had learnt it in the village where her mother was born.

Another song from the Herat area is “Tangerine Dress” which Madadi was the first person to record on radio and which he sang for the Shah on an official visit to Tehran in 1962.

The poetry of the song is by Herati poet Abdul Hossein Taufiq. The girl in the tangerine-coloured dress has offended the poet, and his cheeks are yellow with love-sickness (tangerines are yellowish in Afghanistan). “Tangerine dress, tangerine cheeks/I left the town of Morghab because of the tangerine girl’s cruelty.”

The CD was recorded in England last August. Five tracks were recorded at a music festival in the village of Semley, Wiltshire, when Madadi performed with Professor of Ethnomusicology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, John Baily and his wife Veronica Doubleday, who sings and plays the daireh frame drum. The other seven tracks were recorded at the church of St Mary in the West Sussex village of Barcombe.

As well as being a delightful assembly of folk songs, the CD is a record of the way in which the traditional Herati long-necked lute the dutar has evolved. The name means “two strings” and traditionally the dutar was played mainly by rural amateur musicians. The first innovation was the development of a three-stringed form, and then in the 1960s a much larger 14-stringed instrument appeared with sympathetic strings that vibrate and amplify the sound. This 14-string version is typical of professional urban musicians.

On the CD Baily plays each of these three types of dutar, and also demonstrates the different effect when the two-stringed version has nylon strings and when it has steel strings.

The tracks include “White Tents” a nomad song about a bride at a wedding, the love song “Rose without thorns”, the famous love song “Siahmu wa Jalali” and the well-known instrumental dance “Shishkebab” which comes from Turkey. When the music stops at different points in the piece, the solo dancer freezes in a stylish pose.

red anemone

Saudi Gazette
22 March 2005

New Angle to Popular Lebanese History
by Susannah Tarbush

The backdrop to “Red Anemone”, the latest novel by the Lebanese lawyer turned fiction writer Nabil Saleh, is the poignant legend of Venus and Adonis.

The prologue of the novel is set in Byblos in summer of 95 BC following the death of Adonis. It depicts the funeral ritual of Aphrodite’s priestesses who have been mourning Adonis for six days and on the seventh process up to the cascading source at Afka in the mountains.

The novel takes its title from the red anemones that are supposed to have sprung from the drops of blood that fell when Adonis, who died in the arms of Aphrodite, was gored by a wild boar while hunting in the gorges of Afka.

The action of the novel takes place in 1935 and is centred around Byblos and the village of Afka. At a convent school in Byblos best friends Zahra and Leila have been cast in a play French nun Amelie is writing, based on the Venus (Aphrodite) and Adonis story.

The Mother Superior is dubious about the play, giving Sister Amelie the go-ahead to stage it only on condition that she excises the word “love” from it.

Zahra, an impulsive blonde, is cast as Venus and steady brunette Leila is to play Adonis. The two schoolgirls are preoccupied with romantic fantasy and speculation over their marriage prospects.

Meanwhile, up in Afka, a young man, Badr, is assailed by disturbing visions of mourners in the valley. The impossibly handsome Badr is an outsider both in the village and within his family, disliked by his father and his two brothers.

His old uncle Tanios is the gardener at the convent, and when he retires Badr comes to take his place. Mother Superior worries that his good looks will cause mayhem among the convent girls. Her presentiment proves well founded when mischievous Zahra embarks on a reckless liaison with the village youth, despite her arranged betrothal to the rich and rotund Michel.

“Red Anemone”, published in Lebanon by Tamyras, gives an unusual angle on Lebanese history. It is the latest of a series in which Saleh explores different phases of Lebanon’s past. He is also the author of a number of law tomes, including “The General Principles of Saudi Arabian and Omani Company Laws.”

Saleh’s first foray into fiction was “The Qadi and the Fortune Teller”, the diary of a judge in Ottoman Beirut in 1843. This was followed by “Outremer”, which is set in the 13th century and tells of conflicts among local communities and between Oriental and Western Christians.

For “Open House”, Saleh moved to the Second World war period when Lebanon was full of intrigue and espionage. A theme common to “Open House” and “Red Anemone” is the interaction in the first half of the 20th century between the French and the Lebanese.

In “Red Anemone” the French-Lebanese relationship is highlighted through the convent, with its French nuns and local pupils, and through the friendship between Leila’s father Dr Fouad Chahine, a sceptic and scientist, and the French doctor Lebrun who believes in the occult. Badr consults Chahine about his visions, and when Chahine can find no medical explanation for them he asks Lebrun for his views.

“Red Anemone” is told with Saleh’s characteristic combination of historical knowledge and story-telling talent. As well as being an enjoyable tale, the novel brings to light some fascinating aspects of Lebanese history.