The Oud Plays for Peace

It’s become dangerous to play the oud in Baghdad, the New York Times reports today. Religious extremists of all stripes apparently agree that secular music is unacceptable. No matter that the oud has been part of Islamic life for centuries. Fundamentalism (in all faiths) is a modern creation claiming to be old – a sort of Piltdown Man of the spirit.

One flaw in the article: Reading it, one could think that the oud is purely an Iraqi instrument, threatened by extinction – when in fact the voluptuous pear-shaped lute reigns from Morocco to Iran as the queen of music. The beauty of the oud may be the one thing that Greeks, Armenians and Turks agree on.

The article also cites a legend that the oud was invented by a descendant of Cain named Lamak. The basis of that legend is obviously the verse in Genesis 4, referring to Yuval, son of Lemekh, as the "father of all who hold the harp and pipe." One way to understand the story is that Yuval created a salve for the tear in the human soul that Cain left. I’m sure there’s a scholar out there willing to write a doctorate on whether the legend linking Lemekh to the oud is more Jewish or more Muslim,  but he’d be bluffing. The threads in such legends are spun together too tightly to unravel.  One might as well  try to determine whether Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti , the brothers who ruled Baghdad’s music scened before their departure for Israel in 1951, were Jewish or Arab artists.

If the oud is endangered in Baghdad, it thrives in Jerusalem, where the annual Oud Festival grows longer, more popular and more estatically sold out every year. Here’s part of a riff I wrote about the Festival last year:

It all fit together for me one night when I sat in a Jerusalem hall listening to Ilana Eliya’s smoky voice weave together the intricate tonal arabesques of "Inta Omri"-"You Are My Life"-a love song from the repertoire of the late, magnificent Egyptian diva Umm Kalthum…

The hall was packed. In the row in front of me, a trim silver-haired man was passing a slim flask of araq to his friends, the anise scent adding one more flourish to the melody. Down in front, some women had given way to the irresistible urge to dance. In the ensemble behind the singer, the silver finger picks of the qanun player flashed above the countless strings of his instrument. If you had questioned me at the moment, I would have confessed to levitating without a license.

…That fit together with another shard of memory: The poet Haim Gouri had told me how, in 1955, he had brought Nathan Alterman, the unofficial Israeli poet laureate of his day, to the barbed-wire borderline running through Jerusalem. "From here to Shanghai is Asia," Alterman had said, "and from here to the beach in Tel Aviv is Israel." Israel was not in Asia. Psychologically, it lay on the imaginary border between Hungary and Luxembourg…

I looked around the concert hall. Judging by looks and by lips forming the lyrics, some of the crowd might remember the Baghdad or Alexandria of their youth. Others… were Arabs from East Jerusalem. And some must have had names ending in "-stein" or "-witz" and, like me, were willingly under the spell of music they had never heard in childhood. This was not just a matter of mental attics opened, heirlooms taken out for viewing within the family. The Oud Festival… has no political manifesto, and properly so: We’d all come for the music. All the same, the festival is part of a tectonic shift, a necessary relocation of Israel.

 The oud is not an endangered species. If it is disappearing in Baghdad, we learn that Baghdad is dying. If the oud is alive in Jerusalem, then deep beneath the surface, like water flowing through rocks, like a melody flashing through memory, something alive and hopeful is still flowing in this divided city.