Collective Memory and the Search for Authenticity

By Sami Asmar

Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria
By Jonathan Shannon
Wesleyan University Press, 2006

We are all music critics, and when we Arabs listen to new songs, an inevitable reaction is, “This is not ‘authentic’ Arab music.” The cultural fixation on the concept of authenticity in Arab music, using Syria as the representative example, was the academic pursuit of ethnomusicologist Jonathan Shannon, who recently published his book “Among the Jasmine Trees: Music and Modernity in Contemporary Syria.” During his field research, Shannon’s Syrian friends advised him not to seek authentic music in nightclubs, but in real Damascene houses and gardens instead, where the jasmine trees provide the appropriate background.

This book is not about music, however, as much as how the arts frame debate concerning Arab culture, and how the traditional culture’s admitted decline and numerous crises, in return, shape the arts. With the political weakness of the Arabs, the Syrians derive a sense of strength from their cultural heritage (turath) in their uneasy attempt to transition from a traditional way of life to a modern one. The nostalgia of past glory, Shannon argues, play a role in defining modern subjectivities in Syria today. But are the “authentic” old ways always considered good while the modern is viewed as inauthentic or bad?  And is there room left for modern art?  Shannon finds that the issue is not so simple.

Reports indicate that the respected Syrian poet Adonis is unhappy about the lack of Arab ingenuity, spurred by this obsession with remembering the Arab past, while placidly accepting a Western-dominated present.

Despite the frequent negative reaction to “inauthentic,” or non-traditional, art, the irony of Shannon’s fascinating study is the conclusion that modern music is far more widely consumed in the Arab world, and that classical Arab music (tarab), despite being associated with classical Arabic language and the legendary composers of the last century, has more limited popular appeal. United Nations’ statistics reveal that half of the Arab population is under the age of 15, and more than half the population as a whole, is illiterate. This lack of education must play an important role in musical preferences. Profit-minded producers know the consumer trends and fill endless hours of satellite television time with popular music. In fact, ignoring age, literacy or business, some intellectuals call for a ban on tarab music, blaming it for promoting a romantic and revisionist nostalgia that results in inactivity, ultimately leading to backwardness (takhaluf).

Shannon argues that the aesthetics of sentiment and emotion, as opposed to pure rationality (as in Greek philosophy, for example), is the basis for creating an alternative modernity in Syria. But is Syria unique among Arab nations in seeking authenticity in music? “Among the Jasmine Trees” puts this in the context of competition with Egypt and to some extent Lebanon. Shannon observes that unlike Egyptians and Lebanese, Syrian intellectuals often received their higher education in Eastern Europe and therefore viewed the West through that filter. Indeed, politics and the relationship between authority and ideology receive a fair share of analysis in the book.

When it comes to comparison with Egypt, many have heard the urban legend of Aleppo, the traditional music center of Syria, putting the late, great Egyptian singer and composer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab to a test. Syrian musicians love to tell the story of how Abd al-Wahhab desired to gain acceptance by thesammi’a (appreciative audience) of Aleppo and arranged to perform two nights in a row. To his surprise, only a handful of people showed up the first night, leaving the large hall otherwise empty. Embarrassed and confused, Abd al-Wahhab decided to perform regardless. The next night, the hall was filled to capacity with even more people standing outside. After he performed and received very high praise, he asked the hall manager for an explanation. He was told that the people of Aleppo do not come to listen to just anybody; they send scouts to evaluate the artist first, who then report to the rest of the community.

The author describes his own conversations and interactions with Syrians from all walks of life, experiences gathered in the process of researching musical aesthetics. The intellectuals try to be of assistance, flattered by his interest and impressed by his efforts, while others approached him with skepticism, responding “Shu iktashaft?” (“And what was your big discovery?”) after Shannon explained his thesis. These documented experiences ultimately make Jonathan Shannon’s “Among the Jasmine Trees” not only an informative book but a literary treasure. The flowing narrative, spiced with Arab philosophy, poetry, and no less significantly, a sense of humor, make it a must-read for Arabs and those interested in their rich culture.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, no. 56 (Summer 2006)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid