Lebanese Moslem Artists:
Mohammed Jamal, Ahmed Qaboor and Ziad Doueiri

by Wafaa' Al-Natheema
Beirut, Lebanon

This essay is dedicated to all the non-Christians of Lebanon, to the Lebanese Druze who have been mocked for pronouncing the letter "qaaf" correctly and for speaking proper Arabic, to the Moslem guy who had to change his name from Mohammed to Michael to be trusted by Lebanese women as a skilled hair dresser, and to those who recite beautifully the Athaan (or call to prayer) in Lebanon and have been mocked, misunderstood or stereotyped by some Christians. This article's main goals are to shed light on the Christian monopoly over the arts in Lebanon, to acknowledge the forgotten Moslem artists and to challenge the notion that the Arab/Islamic worlds discriminate against Christians and Jews.

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Hairy chests displaying crosses was the most vivid and lasting image I left Lebanon with when I visited in 1973. It was the first time I had traveled outside of Iraq as a teenager and an aware person (at the age of 4, I went to Turkey via train). In that summer, I traveled with my mother first to Bulgaria and then to Lebanon. Bulgaria was heavenly. Lebanon, well, it is a long story. From Bulgaria, a country with wonderful people and folklore, to a country that exists in the heart of a rich heritage and great folklore (the Arab World), yet has very little of either to offer. Men, young, middle aged and even a few old ones had their shirts open, exposing their chests, crosses, nipples and a couple of times even their navels while flirting with whatever women they could lay their eyes on, including married women (with children). This happened in Bhamdoon and Beirut, two major tourist cities in Lebanon. At the age of thirteen, I was very confused in Lebanon. "Is this an Arab country?" I used to ask myself. I had been with Christians in Iraq, but they didn't behave or dressed this way!

Another strange thing that happened to me in Lebanon was vomiting. Every time I was in a car driving from Bhamdoon to Beirut, I vomited. I had no idea why. It was so embarrassing to vomit twice in a friend's car, never mind the other times that I had to leave the car to do so. But, whenever I was in a car driving from Beirut back to Bhamdoon, I did not vomit!

People in the streets were anything but humble, the epitome of commercialism and western imitation, not to mention often vulgar. "Why am I here? I wished we had spent all the vacation time in Bulgaria," I kept saying to myself. In Beirut, the woman owner of an inn we stayed at ate raw red meat and liver for breakfast! "This is not a vacation, I am in a nightmare land," I said to myself. This is not the vacation I had dreamed of. I liked the green land and clean streets of Bulgaria. Beirut seemed made of concrete, it was a messy, crowded, polluted, hot and humid city with the craziest drivers. The sounds of horns, cars braking or driving crazily were the symphonies that accompanied the images of hairy chests. If Lebanon was the "Paris of the Arab World," then Paris is not for me.

In this wave of discomfort, vomiting and disappointment, something wonderful happened. I saw the most handsome face of Lebanon, that of Mohammed Jamal. At a restaurant and after a lengthy, cheap and annoying program making fun of politicians (typical Lebanese style), he came out to sing; it was as if albadru (the full moon) shone from behind the curtains. His voice was so warm. He had a beautiful tenor voice with an occasional bass. Besides his wonderful voice, his attractive appearance, and the well performed beautiful songs, he was wearing some of the most artistic and handsome clothes ever worn by a male singer. Mohammed came out with a black suit, light green shirt with a green handkerchief placed in his suit's pocket and a subha or masbaha (rosary) in his hand that matched his green eyes. The subha and Jamal's singing were so far the only icons I witnessed that had a connection with the Islamic/Eastern culture apart from Arabic writing. I left that performance with a smile and a hope that I might finally enjoy myself in Lebanon. I saw another performance by Joseph Azar; but I didn't like his voice, singing, looks or attire.

Something else positive came out of this trip. I visited Brommana, the only place I liked on that entire excursion, which had a beautiful natural setting, was clean and less humid. At Brommana, we saw a great show by Sabah (a Christian), one of Lebanon's leading female singers with a powerful voice and one of the longest performing breaths in the Arab and non-Arab Middle East (and perhaps the world), another wonderful icon of folklore in this strange, non-folkloric country.

It annoyed me, however, to see that Mohammed Jamal performed in a restaurant and not on a stage like Sabah. I don't recall seeing him on stage except once on Iraqi TV in 1969/70 when he sang a duet with Taroob (his Turkish/Lebanese ex-wife). He was not well known and respected in Lebanon. He was highly admired in Syria and the Gulf States (including Iraq). The Lebanese media, intentionally or unintentionally, put an end to his career when in the middle of 1970s they repeatedly played his two worst songs, Umm Hamada and Allawi. Thereafter and until the end of 1970s, he adopted Syria as his home. Most Muslim Lebanese artists find an art refuge in Syria and in some of the Gulf States. I saw Mohammed Jamal perform again live in Syria in 1975.

Unlike in Lebanon, I enjoyed myself tremendously in Syria and was so happy to see him perform there again. I bought one of his cassettes in Syria but regret that I bought only one. Strangely and sadly, I couldn't find his recordings in Lebanon during my 1973 visit.

Years passed by and I ended up in the USA. I arrived in January 1980 with some of my audio collection, including Mohammed Jamal's songs. I came to the USA to study civil engineering at Northeastern University not because there were no engineering schools in Iraq, but for other reasons. In my leisure times, the arts in general and music in particular were my number one interest. While at Northeastern, I registered for two piano classes as part of my general electives, but didn't take them seriously and then for two years, I volunteered for the Boston Lyric Opera Company with its office conveniently situated at Northeastern University. As a result, I saw many operas for free. Opera and classical symphonies are part of the music I have loved listening to since early childhood in addition to Indian, Russian and Arabic music.

In the summer of 1993, I taught a six-week course on the Arab world and Islam at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In six weeks, I was able to organize guest lecturers and artists for presentations on politics in Bosnia and the Middle East, and Saudi Arabian music. I also arranged a Palestinian art exhibit and a presentation on the status of the arts in the occupied territories, as well as organizing an Arabic luncheon (featuring cuisine from North Africa, Levantine and Iraq) for the entire school (over 600 students and faculty) and a one-hour Arabic music ensemble performance, again for the entire school. The Palestinian woman whose art work was exhibited gave me an audio cassette of Ahmed Qaboor and the Moslem Orphans of Beirut. I became obsessed by it. I used its songs constantly on radio when I used to co-host a radio show or host my own world music program. The cassette included some of the best traditional music of Lebanon. What interested me about Ahmed's songs was that, for the first time in the history of Lebanese music, one heard about Ramadhan, Eidul Fitr, and other Islamic subjects.

Ahmed Qaboor is a highly gifted composer with a passionate performing style and a warm voice. I had heard his nationalistic songs about Palestine earlier and I liked them. His most famous nationalistic song was Unaadeekom or "I call upon you". The subjects he tackled are same as those of Marcel Khalifa in that they are nationalistic, symbolic, and poetic with a focus on Lebanese and Palestinian causes. Unlike Ahmed Qaboor, Marcel Khalifa (who is a Christian) has gained worldwide fame. Khalifa began to adopt and imitate western tunes and overtures and trended away from traditional and more challenging Arabic music, with the exception of his Oud improvisation, Jadal. Ahmed still maintains a strong foothold in the world of traditional Arabic music. His latest musical project was composing the music of a TV series on Al-Mutanabbi (medieval Iraqi poet) for Syrian television.

Qaboor's work with the Moslem Orphans of Beirut makes him one of the rare Arab singers and composers who uses music to make the disadvantaged benefit practically, not just in words (in songs). By involving the orphans themselves in the singing, they are kept busy, away from the negative reality they are immersed in; they have a routine, a pattern of work, devotion and responsibility, enjoy themselves and make money too. Despite scoring an 'A' in this production with beautiful music, lyrics and the voices of the Moslem Orphans, Qaboor's compositions and lyrics are still unknown. Again, he is more popular in Palestine and Syria than in his home, Lebanon. He has undergone several typical discrimination episodes in Lebanon, but never speaks about them publicly. Had such treatment been given to Christian or Jewish artists by Moslems, they would have been made it public, the whole world would have heard about them and became the industrial west's political agenda of liberation against the so-called injustices and human rights violation committed by Muslims.

I laughed to myself when in 1994 a Christian Maronite owner of a restaurant in Massachusetts made a comment that Christian Arab singers would have had no chance of being famous in the mostly Islamic Arab world had they kept their Christian sounding names. That was his example to prove the Islamic Arab world's discrimination against Christians. I laughed because not only is it untrue, but the opposite is true. Everybody in the Arab world knew that the famous Lebanese singers Fairuz, Wadee' As-Safi, Sabah and Majda Ar-Roumi are Christians despite their Arab-Moslem names. Not to mention that these names are very common among ordinary Christians in the Arab world, not just the celebrities. Of course he completely ignored the fact that the Lebanese media as well as event and tour organizers are almost all Christians who only promote Christian Lebanese artists. This is why nearly all the famous composers and singers in Lebanon are Christians. Had his argument about the Arab world's preference (and therefore Moslems' so-called biases) to seeing artists with Arabic/Islamic sounding names been true, highly gifted singer, Mohammed Jamal; and composer as well as singer and director, Ahmed Qaboor, would have been popular.

Additionally, mostly Islamic Arab countries have made non-Moslems popular and promoted them equally if not more than Moslems in some cases:

* The majority of musicians and composers of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra for two decades were Christians. The only woman composer to receive a piano specially imported for her by the Iraqi government in the early 1980s was a Christian (Armenian).

* Up until 1995, Iraq's only Oud virtuoso to tour Europe (and about to tour the US) was the late Munir Bashir, a Christian. He headed Iraq's music industry for two decades. No musician or singer would perform outside of Iraq without his recommendation.

* Egypt's only artist who had gained worldwide popularity was Omar Sherif, a Christian (originally Lebanese). Egypt's only head of United Nations was a Christian.

* Some Moroccan Jewish singers earned popularity in and outside Morocco such as singers Bu-Tbool (in the 1970s) and Binhas (in the 1990s). Both singers were famous in Morocco, other parts of North Africa and France.. The Muslim Kings of Morocco had and still have Jewish advisors.

* The most famous Jewish (maqam) female singer in Iraq was Salima Murad, the wife of the popular singer Nathem (or Nazem) Al-Ghazaly. She was given the title, "Pasha" to rank her first in maqam singing. No other Muslim woman singer was given such a title.

* For about a century (and due to records and documentation), Jewish singers and composers were equally participating in Iraqi Maqam performing, preserving and composing, the most respected and challenging form of singing in Iraq.

I can go on and on with other examples to illustrate that the Islamic countries, at least in the Arab world, were and are not biased as the Christian or Jewish controlled states of Lebanon, Israel and certainly the industrial west. While Lebanon's system is not as intimidating as the industrial west or Israel, but it certainly has a serious Christian monopoly and discriminates against non-Christians.

In 1998, I had the privilege of visiting Tunisia for a week and attending the Qartaj Film Festival. One of the many wonderful films I saw in that Festival was Ziad Doueiri's "West Beirut". It was so heart warming to see the enthusiasm of Tunisians to the arts in general and to Ziad Doueiri's film in particular. At the Festival, "West Beirut" won the best prize for a long film. The Tunisian media broadcasted and published positive reviews of his film. Ziad is perhaps the only Muslim Lebanese artist who has gained popularity beyond Lebanon, not just in the Arab world, but also in Europe and the USA. His movie was shown in various festivals and movie theaters and won him several prizes. It was the winner of Prix François Chalais at the Cannes Film Festival and the winner of FIPRESCI International Critics Awards at the Toronto International Film Festival in 1998. I saw "West Beirut" in Tunisia and again a year later in Boston. I was so pleased to have been able to interview Ziad live on the Baghdad Cafe radio program (on WZBC) to promote the screening of his film.

During my ten-year radio hosting and producing, my mission has always been to introduce and make popular those unknown and forgotten in the Arab and Islamic worlds and beyond. Playing the songs of Mohammed Jamal and Ahmed Qaboor, as well as interviewing Ziad Doueiri, were among the best examples to accomplish such a mission.

Both Ahmed Qaboor (with the Moslem Orphans of Beirut) and Mohammed Jamal deserve to be heard outside of Lebanon and to tour the rest of the Arab world and beyond. I heard that Mohammed Jamal had retired from singing and is currently living in North America. Unfortunately, I do not know where he lives, and wish to contact him, at least for an interview. I also contacted Ahmed Qaboor in Lebanon and hope to arrange for his appearance with the Moslem Orphans of Beirut in the USA. Qaboor is currently the most promising composer of Lebanon despite the sad fact that even in Lebanon many don't know him.

It is disappointing that Lebanon has produced very few Moslem artists, even sadder is the fact that they get little or no chance of publicity and popularity in and especially outside of Lebanon. Most disappointing of all is that not one Moslem woman artist is among them. The majority in Lebanon are Moslems, but some Christians disagree and the Lebanese government, which must be lead by a Maronite Christian, according to Lebanon's French constitution, has been avoiding taking a census since 1933!

I hope that Lebanon comes to its senses and begin by taking a census if ridding itself from the French constitution is too challenging at the present time!

© Copyright by Wafaa' Al-Natheema, 2002

[Wafaa' Al-Natheema has degrees in civil engineering and political science, a writer, editor and an art critic and researcher. She is the founder of the Institute of Near Eastern & African Studies (INEAS), a tax-exempt organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Wafaa' organized many cultural events including musical concerts. This article was sent via the Internet to INEAS's email list, which has more than 13,000 email addresses worldwide. It had created a stir. INEAS received over 550 email responses from people in five continents. Some of the positive and negative responses were later collected and included in another article and was sent via email to the entire list.]