A night at the symphony in Damascus

Damascus, Syria: A window to a Middle East different than the one envisioned by Condoleezza and co. (Steve Jones)

Salaam a’laykum - peace be upon you. The greeting used by Arabs and Muslims all over the world - and for the people of Lebanon, Palestine and Iraq, a poignant reminder that peace is a precious thing.

Seeing the images of massacre at Qana today I don’t know where to begin - or how to stop crying. I feel I can only convey fragments - perhaps because my heart is breaking. I’m trying hard not to seem melodramatic, because I know how it is there - you read this in the midst of a long, exhausting, busy day and too many of these and it’s too much to bear, it feels so far away.

Even here in Damascus it seems removed - but the emotions are here - the frustration, anger, pain, the unspeakable helplessness, watching more children die. “The children,” you hear, over and over, from taxi drivers to waiters to family and friends - “How can they do this to children?”

I know people everywhere love their children. It is a love that is truly universal. In Arab culture many people, particularly in more traditional settings, are called simply Um Laith, Abu Leila - mother of, father of … a term of respect, homage to the souls they have brought to the world. To watch those souls taken from it is something there are no words for.

But our government has words. Resounding words, authoritative words, presumptuous phrases - like “New Middle East”.

Amazing - amazing the arrogance of a nation illegally and brutally implanted in the Middle East (Israel) and one that isn’t even in the Middle East (America) declaring that they are going to create a “New” region in the most ancient part of the world, and will do so whether the people of that region like it or not - with hands steeped in the blood of their children.

But I’m trying not to focus on anger now, not to dwell on the politics - I want you to be able to listen - I know it gets harder and harder to hear.

So here is a more hopeful vision - a window to a different Middle East that I witnessed and wanted to share. Last night we were invited to a concert at the huge arts complex built by Hafez al Assad, burned in an electrical fire, then rebuilt by his son. It was a concert in solidarity with the people of Palestine and Lebanon, played by the Arab Youth Symphony Orchestra. We thought it would be sweet, if painful, as most youth concerts tend to be. Instead it was amazing. I’ll use the present tense now - I want you to feel like you are there:

Hundreds and hundreds of audience members pack the beautiful, new Damascus Opera House. The building is quite simply breathtaking, part of a complex housing a theater, exhibition rooms, Academy for the Arts, plus a lot of other buildings I would love to rehearse in. It is designed by a British company and built by the Syrians, all in white with gorgeous wooden lattice archways based on the ancient Islamic style. The marble floors are cool, the red carpets rich, the ceilings high, the chandeliers enormous; the effect, impressive.

The audience is quite young for the opera as we in the West are used to it - many under 25, in jeans and t-shirts, some girls in hijab (head scarf), some without, all chattering with the excitement of those who have come to see loved ones perform. Those who are older are parents and friends, and some, like us, are simply moved by the idea - raising money for the victims of a brutal attack on their neighbors, families and friends. All other festivals and events, along with many private weddings and other parties here, have been canceled because of the devastation next door - who can celebrate amidst so much destruction? So this night is special - a chance to see music for the first time in weeks and still show respect and solidarity with their neighbors.

That universal “to your seats” bell sounds and we file in. Mingled perfumes of so many Arab women, on stage and off. Reminders in Arabic, then English, to please please silence your cell phones. The cacophony of rings from Western pop songs to tinny Arab ones, all turning to silence and anticipation, interrupted by the occasional whispered giggle.

The concert begins and I am told that the young people playing come from all over the Arab world - mainly from Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, and more. They are playing mostly Western instruments (although many are derived from Arab ones), and I am once again reminded that here they are exposed to “our” world so much more than we are to theirs. Imagine fifty American children knowing the names of the oud, the nay, the dirbeke, let alone mastering them.

Maysoun, the Syrian Professor of Drama who invited us to the concert, asks if I know the Arab composer, but I cannot remember his name. She then asks if I like Dvorzak, and I have to admit I don’t know him either. She says they are playing Symphony No. 8, which is nice but not her favorite. She prefers No. 9 - The New World. The one he wrote when Columbus discovered America. I tell her I don’t like it already and she smiles, chides me: “There are many good things about America, Leila! It is a democracy; this is very important.” (Here I have to bite my tongue, trying to remember that yes, in many ways we still are.) “And you have many great playwrights - Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Joseph Chaikin, A.R. Gurney …” Now she is mentioning names that even some American actors would not recognize. She rattles off plays she has read and again I must admit I do not know them as well as she. Finally, she says, “America is multicultural and this is such a beautiful thing, so many different people, so important …” Here I have to agree with her and for the first time in weeks I feel a moment of pride in my country.

I think of this pride as I watch the youth on stage, coming together from so many nations to make such beautiful music. I especially love watching the two girls, one in hijab, one in a tank top with long hair. They are the ones on the big drums, and I wish the whole world were watching.

One young man with glasses, tall and lean in that way that only teenagers can be, sits center stage with the lone oud, that most central and lyrical of Arab instruments. At moments the orchestra pauses, listens respectfully as he plays the discordant, mournful melodies of Palestinian Marcel Khalife, the genius soul of a besieged nation. And back to the symphony, also by Khalife - violins, cellos, trumpets and flutes.

There is a different kind of melody in Arabic music - one all its own - sometimes discordant to a Western ear, but always, ultimately, beautiful. And I realize why I am so moved by this symphony. While Dvorzak’s was written exclusively for the instruments of his culture, Khalife’s incorporates both and more - the old and the new - the grand suites for ten violins, and the singular soul of the lone oud - there are melodies, rhythms, pauses, discords. The juxtaposition is the heart of the symphony - there is passion in it, and beauty - and from that, the harmony is born.

All we have to do is listen.

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Leila Buck is a founding member of Mixed Company, a bi-cultural theater collective, and Nibras, with whom she performed Sajjil for the 2002 New York Fringe Festival 2003. Her one-woman show, ISite, has traveled across Europe, Asia and the U.S., most recently featuring in Lebanon’s Daily Star and The New York Times. Leila is a teaching artist dedicated to using drama to educate about the Arab world through performances and workshops across the US and around the world.