In the wake of the Houla Massacre in Syria I sat down to compose a musical lamentation. The movement, May 25th 2012, took its title from the date of the massacre and ended up as the centerpiece of my solo cello suite: a musical portrait of Syria called Al-Sham. At the time, composing the movement served as a way for me to capture my own feelings of grief and disgust at the massacre of 25 men, 34 women and, remarkably, 49 children. What is most striking about the Houla Massacre today is how it pales in comparison to the scale and brutality of the killings that have taken place in the year that followed it. We saw well over a thousand people killed in the recent Ghouta attacks and the United Nations has reported over a hundred thousand deaths in the seemingly endless violent cycle of the Syrian crisis.
My own memories from my travels in Syria stand in stark opposition to the reality on the ground today. I remember the grace and generosity of the Syrian people, the extraordinary hospitality of my many hosts, the beauty of the landscape and architecture and the immense pride in the culture and history of Syria from Damascus to Palmyra. This is why I knew that my cello suite could not just be a series of lamentations.
Al-Sham is an Arabic word with many meanings. On the one hand it refers to the Arabian Levant as a whole but it's also the nickname for Syria as a country and, affectionately, Damascus as a city. It's a testament to Damascus and the wide-raging influence that the city has had on the region and the Arab World for millenia. It harkens back to a time when all the states of the region, Mount Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, Syria and Mandatory Palestine were all part of a Greater Syria. My cello suite needed to celebrate all of this and more.
During my travels in Syria I never felt disconnected from the land or its people. As an Arab first and foremost, the culture of Syria is my culture and the concerns of its people are my concerns. Above and beyond this, I had, while growing up, picked up a distinctively Levantine accent in my spoken Arabic from my mother, a native of Jerusalem. All these things made me fit in.
As a kid, I heard the great Lebanese singer Fairuz sing about the river Barada which runs through Damascus and so I decided to begin my cello suite with my own musical homage to Barada. The opening notes mimic both the rhythm of water and a Morse code distress signal leading straight into the lamentation for the victims of the massacre at Houla. The following movement, Naaman's Song, evokes the Biblical role of Damascus and returns to the motif of water (in this case, Pharphar and Abana in the story of Naaman). The final movement takes the form of a Shora, a distinctly Levantine Arabic round dance. The role of the dance is to reinvigorate the limbs and the spirit.
Al-Sham is a tribute to the people of Syria: a letter of love and solidarity. I am preparing for the premiere of this new cello suite with a deep desire of peace for the Syrian people and with the hope that, in a year from now, we will not have another massacre that eclipses the killings of this year.
Al-Sham is commissioned by VisionIntoArt for Jeffrey Zeigler. It premieres at Bargemusic in New York City on September 20th 2013.