Music, Pepper, and The True Spice of Life


For me, it all began to sink in with the lack of a spice. As a fan of Mediterranean cuisine, and Middle Eastern food in general, I was searching a local specialty market for Aleppo pepper to complete the ingredients for a recipe. When I asked the proprietor for help, a nice gentleman originally from Lebanon, I was met with one of those hard stares that laid my Western cluelessness bare.

“You’ve heard what’s happening in Syria, no?” he asked.

The question was practically rhetorical. I needn’t answer and he pressed no further. We both knew that Aleppo is in Syria, in one of the bitterest zones of the ongoing civil war. I merely nodded and checked out with the exotic spices whose import was not yet affected by death and destruction.

“The only thing that I have come to find more astonishing than the human propensity for destruction is the immeasurable capacity that humanity has to rebuild; the limitless potential to recreate ourselves anew in the face of what seems to be utter ruin. It is particularly in these dark phases that we look to our culture, our arts, the stories of our elders and the songs of our bards with the hope that they can inspire us with the courage to continue on our journey and, eventually, rebuild something even stronger than what we had cherished in the past. We have seen it time and again from Lisbon to Tokyo and Beirut to Berlin. We have picked up the pieces, no matter how small, and rebuilt.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The price of war is not something that musicians and other artists generally are allowed time to deal with until the aftermath occurs. Only afterwards come the poignant remembrances and long odes to what was lost. We are very good at remembering and producing art that helps put life in perspective, even the most horrific events. Art helps us continue.

The reality in an ongoing war zone is quite different; namely that the artists, musicians, dancers and writers are not unlike any other segment of the population when it comes to day-to-day survival. Once valued for their contributions, perhaps even idolized, a war-torn country offers few immunities. There’s little time to compose a masterpiece when you are starving and running from bullets.

There is also a deeper cultural and historical cost to war as well. Many in the west are unaware of the rich tradition of art, poetry, dance and music that existed in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East. The cities of Aleppo and Damascus were once heralded as cultural magnets. So were Baghdad, Beirut, and Cairo. Musicians, poets, visual artists and dancers would travel great distances to soak up the culture, learn traditions rooted in ancient times, and perhaps meet one of their artistic idols.

“But music is made up of the energy of sound and the ideas of the human mind. Those things cannot be killed as easily as human flesh or destroyed as easily as buildings. Even the combined terror of Daesh’s (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) barbarism and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s barrel bombs cannot obliterate the ancient culture embodied in the Syrian spirit.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

The very fact that the arts are a threat speaks of their importance and resilience. The ARTS are sometimes seen as a dangerous thing to those in power, especially to those who lack tolerance and humanity. The deep message, emotional power, and transcendent experience are strangely antithetical to fundamentalists and dictators. Things like music bring people together in a common purpose and brotherhood. This is why the arts are a threat to despots. This is why they try to control them. This is why they decide to destroy them.

Arab-American composer Mohammed Fairouz has written a very fine essay regarding the loss of music in Aleppo, published earlier this week in Gulf News. I am pleased to recommend this link for our further understanding and compassion:

The immensity of the Syrian crisis is finally being covered in the media, although perhaps not with the urgency the situation deserves. But there appears to be a sliver of hope now for many thousands of people, a chance to continue life without daily strife. A chance to remember the ancient culture and its importance on all our lives with, refugee and host alike.

“This is the special greatness of art: It embodies the spirit of our immediate storytelling identity, but also the uniquely human ability to look beyond the ephemeral present and cast our souls into something that is timeless and eternal.” ~ Mohammed Fairouz

Copyright 2015, Robert Baldwin, Before the Downbeat

Picture image:


3 thoughts on “Music, Pepper, and The True Spice of Life

  1. “The price of war is not something that musicians and other artists generally are allowed time to deal with until the aftermath. Only afterwards come the poignant remembrances and long odes to what was lost.” And music is often given the role of memory keeper. (There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs Of Dover or Ohio – CSNY. Great insight.

  2. Reblogged this on Before the Downbeat and commented:

    I find the situation in Aleppo to be most distressing. Sadly, it is not new. Here is an essay I wrote, centered on Aleppo, some 15 months ago about both the loss and the resilience of the arts in times of war. Humbly submitted from my home in relative safety.

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