Music On My Mind – Part 1

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Direkt från Jemen by yemenity2010 on 13/12/2010

– It sounds like Arabic music.

A Yemeni student commenting on ”Viva la Vida” performed by the somewhat famous British band Coldplay, which appears to be completely unknown in this country. Anyway, most of the students in the group who listened to it, seemed to like the song which basically is a catchy pop tune with sweeping string arrangements and and an obvious melancholy atmosphere.

Music has often been described as a force that can break barriers and open doors. Sounds like a cliché, but sometimes these contain a lot of truth. During my regular courses with creative exercises, I’ve tried to make some experiments in the classroom, to find out kind of music they like – and not so much, respectively. The idea is simple; once or twice in each lesson, I let them listen to a song and write down their personal thoughts, associations, opinions and possible imagery that arises from the tune. I sometimes combine that with homeworks, where they write about musical themes, not least to find out what can they tell me about the musical landscape of the Middle East. It’s been educational, at least for me, and I hope, sometimes even for the groups I’m teaching and interacting with.

Many young people here listen to music on their cellphones or portable mp3 players. The CD market seems to be mainly ‘piratized’ (which also goes for the distribution of films, by the way). What they call quiet music is often preferred. Although that seems like a paradox when there’s a wedding in the neighbourhood and the party music is anything but quiet, subtle and discreet… Preferrably also played with the volume turned up to eleven (if you’ve seen the spoof ”This Is Spinal Tap” from 1984 you know what I’m referring to). Generally people here – the mostly young people I get in touch with in this city – don’t like it too messy or complex, although music with an effective crosspollination between eastern and western harmonies seem to work pretty well.

In the process I’ve learnt something about famous musicians and artists from this part of the world such as Om Kalthoum, Amr Diab and the legendary Palestinian singstress Fairouz who apparently never smiles in public, out of principle and some lifelong sorrow due to her people’s suffering (at least according to the story I’ve been told here). So called western music is reaching into this hemisphere as well. Celine Dion is overall very well-known and popular (for some reason I am trying to figure out, since I might be one of the few people on earth who find her voice and appearance more annoying than uplifting). Bands like Backstreet Boys, Westlife and some hip hop acts are also frequently mentioned when the topic comes up.

Several times I have heard the comment that they like to understand the message of the music to appreciate it; hence if it’s in Arabic or English it makes it easier. But that’s not always the case. Songs from Latin America with lyrics in Spanish or Portuguese and a somewhat melancholy disposition often get positive responses. And the same goes for entries from my own Nordic home country. Sometimes I’ve chosen instrumental music from films like ”Chariots of Fire” or ”The Mission”; on other occasions progressive rock, pop songs, cross-over in different shapes, Armenian dance tunes, Brazilian soft slightly samba-inspired songs or Indian wedding anthems with powerful vocal performances… The responses are not always predictable – which I appreciate from my perspective.

Examples of comments from the students:

– The song started with a nice quiet music that touched the core of our hearts (about the ballad ”Lay it Down” by Jaci Velasquez).

– The music makes me relax and I dream of another world (about a Christmas tune sung by Carola, a female singer well-known in Scandinavia but not so much in the rest of the world).

– I liked the music. I listened to it before when I saw TV they put the music when they showed some tourist scenery (Vangelis ”Chariots of Fire”).

Transcendence is an interesting word that no one can really explain but almost every creative individual seem to strive for. Then the eternal question for the recipients of music, paintings and other works of art is – how much of your response is emotional and what can sincerely be described as analytical, conscious decisions? Some students have tried to convince me that their opinions are based solely on how much thay understand of the lyrics, and what concrete things they can learn from them. They claim that it’s all logical and not emotional, but the majority seem to react also in a spontaneous, intuitive way like most of us do, whether we are aware of it or not. Yes, music in itself can be a controversial thing in this region, because of traditions and some scholars’ views based on a strict interpretation of religious doctrine, but those opinions rarely come across in the groups I meet. It happens, at least the assessment that music with too many instruments and too loud voices can be deemed not pure enough, but not very often.

So why does all this matter? Because I believe that music really can function as a uniting force, a builder of bridges that shows the similarities that exist between people, the ability to react spontaneously and intuitively. Then of course, we should never stop thinking, not ‘checking our brains at the door’ as the saying goes, but as experienced by someone grown up in a church environment where we sometimes deny that we are trying to ‘create an atmosphere’ I would claim that it’s perfectly alright to search for ways to influence other people emotionally and to make space for other values than just cold calculating logic – if, and that’s an important if, we are honest about it and admit that we are doing just that.

Music is also, I emphasize that again, a means to make people from different backgrounds come together and share experiences as well as a part of their respective cultural baggage. Sometimes we disagree about what really constitutes good art, but there is always room for surprises. And those are generally a healthy experience. People who never get or don’t allow themselves to be really surprised are probably either comatose, emotionally handicapped or downright dangerous to be around…

Ashufaqom, insha’allah.


Taiz 2010 – The Story So Far

Posted in Blog Entry in English, Direkt från Jemen, Tema: Kultur by yemenity2010 on 11/03/2010

Special Report for potential Non-Swedish Readers

Approximately ten weeks ago I left the Swedish winter (unusually cold then, and still is, I’ve been told) for the Middle East. The Turkish Airlines flight from Gothenburg via Istanbul landed in (or rather, outside) the Yemeni capital Sana’a in the predawn hours, 31th of December 2009. I spent a few hours on a bench in the airport, waiting for a connecting flight with a national airline and finally arrived in the city of Taiz in the early afternoon. Already that was kind of a memorable experience, since I was treated to a New Year’s celebration with the Swedish colleagues here and also some other foreign workers in the city (there are quite a few of those, actually). Dinner took place on a roof, followed by a moviescreening (also up there) of a thriller about terrorism and dangerous infiltration (”Traitor” starring Don Cheadle, if you’re interested in the details). Watching it surrounded by the nightly sounds of the city, including chants from different mosques made for a special atmosphere. An early sequence in the film actually takes place in Yemen.

Here, we see things through a glass darkly...

This country seldom turns up on the media radar in Sweden, but the last week before I left it seemed to be mentioned in the news each and every day. It might have to do with my increased attention while preparing for the departure, but some specific news bulletins concerning this arabic republic south of Saudi Arabia, certainly helped make it a center of attention for a while. And most of the news had something to do with themes in the above mentioned first film I happened to watch here. The first week I spent here also included some heightened security measures and advices for foreign workers and visitors, following the temporary closing of some embassies in Sana’a. Since then, the situation seems to have stabilized, relatively speaking. All in all, it is complicated and has been for a long time. But this region where I am staying usually has been one of the less conflictive ones in the country.

The place where I am about to spend this year working (according to the plan, at least) is a so-called Training Center, founded by a Swedish NGO (non-governmental organization) some 40 years ago. Right now the focus of the center is education in English, electronics and sewing. All in all there are at present maybe 200 students here, with close to 800 more on a waiting list (predominantly in the English department). Probably things will change somewhat soon with the arrival of a new leadership team, made up of people from different countries; a transition that will take place in June. The briefest possible description of my assignment is to develop ideas for cultural exchange and related activities, a part of the process of expanding the platform for the center. Which, as you already guessed, could mean a lot of different things. So far, I am running a small simple cafeteria in the library we have, mainly to provide the students with some refreshments and such, in-between their classes. A desired side-effect would of course be to create another meeting place and circulation within the newest building on the lot. That’s the Culture Center, inaugurated in november; i. e. shortly before I came here.

Last week we arranged the first art exhibition in the building, displaying works by a young Yemeni artist with a gift for vivid portraits, still life paintings and some abstract motives – mostly in oil. My impression is that it worked out pretty well, even though the art of marketing and communicating as a whole in this culture still is something I’m learning about. In this case we relied heavily on word-of-mouth, personal contacts and networks and also information directed at the students who come here five days of the week. In the near future, I hope we can develop the cultural programming with music, more art, workshops of varying kinds and in the month of May we have planned for a sewing exhibition. To Be Continued…

Taiz is the third biggest city in Yemen, with maybe half a million people living in the area (no one seems to know for sure). It’s crowded, noisy and intense with a lot of traffic and a set of unwritten rules that might differ slightly from what we outsiders are used to. In other words, you have to be alert while walking, driving or getting out of a minibus known as dabab, a standard mode of transportation here. Motorcycles might be coming straight at you, driving in the wrong direction at full speed. People are prone to crossing the street walking, without paying much attention to the cars, buses and motorbikes but hoping for the best – and usually getting away with it. It’s exciting in a way. I think my three years working in Ecuador was sort of a nice preparation, but this is a step further out in the unknown in many ways. Power cuts are common, and like many other institutions and businesses we have our own diesel generator as a complement. Some people also predict severe water shortages in the future, and that the country as a whole might virtually run out of it within ten years.

Yemen is 99 percent muslim, which is obvious. The official prayer hours during the day are impossible to miss, but after a while you get accustomed to the regular calls from the minarets that can be found on several places throughout the city. The culture is also quite strict regarding clothing, at least for women. The majority of them adhere to dress code that requires a long dress called balto, accompanied by a head scarf known as makrama and a veil referred to as lithma (generally all in black). There are exceptions, and some women choose more colourful scarves and leave the lithma out of it. Those principles don’t apply to foreigners the same way, and among the immigrants and NGO-people and such, people make up their own rules – or follow guidelines from their employers.

The landscape around here is hilly and this time of year, also quite dry. It didn’t rain during the first month I was here, but lately it started with some daily showers from above, even though the rainy season is said to start out for real in april. This is still called winter (I think) but we might be closing in on spring, followed later on by a summer season that is said to be very hot and require regular use of air conditioning.

Something distinctive about Yemen is the widespread use of qat (or khat), a species of leaves that are cultivated here and consumed almost exclusively in this country. The tradition has been there for a long time, but exactly how long? Who knows. Some basic facts kan be find on Wikipedia. But I will probably return to the subject more in-depth later on, some time. Many people, at least men, chew the leaves on a daily basis, but there seems to be a growing resistance, especially among doctors, dentists and young people who state that the plant is a ”curse” and creates not only several health problems but also is an obstacle to economic development. Some households spend a significant percentage of their income on qat, which is a concern in itself. Talking to people about it, I realize that there are many dimensions to the topic and many different views. Too many to sum up quickly right now. So, another ”To Be Continued”…

Security issues and numerous problems aside, this is also a place where people in general are very friendly and if they know enough English, they will try to use it to help you out if you’re a foreigner with a very limited grasp of Arabic. I have begun to take some lessons with a private tutor once a week, but getting a grip on the written language is a challenge if you don’t know anything beforehand (like me). It’s easier to memorize common useful phrases, such as salaam-aleikum (common way of greeting), bekam hada (”what does it cost?”) and ashufaq ba’aden (”see you later”). But I am seriously going to make an effort at learning the basics of the Arabic alphabet and reading simple terms at least. The continuing experience here will probably benefit from it.

Yeah, I think we're on the same wave-length...

Recommended sources for more on Yemen as a whole:

BBC News: Middle East, Al-Jazeera English, Yemen Times, Yemen Today

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