What’s So Wrong with Mohammad Abd al-Wahaab?

Is there such a thing as pure Arab music? Has Arab music been westernized in a way that surpasses the natural intercultural exchange that constantly occurs, and if so, is this a serious problem for the future of Arab culture? These questions continued to arise in discussions this past week at Al-Bustan’s Arab and Arts and Culture course, probably due to the fact that we spend a large part of the day thinking about Arabic music and how it can be incorporated into lesson plans. Among the group there is disagreement over whether “modernizers” like Egyptian composer Mohammad Abd al-Wahaab set Arab music on a path which has lead to the erosion of Arab culture or not. I must concede that I lean towards “not,” believing that the issue is much more complex than the notion that an Arab musical genre has been progressively destroyed by Western culture. That said, I agree with much of the discontent regarding the loss of knowledge of Arabic musical history.
Musician Kinan Abou-afach on cello leads instrumental
ensemble practice with music educators, 

For me, the disagreement hinges on the notion that there is a static thing that is Arabic music. There is an Arabic music style, but it is so multivalent that I have a hard time thinking that fusing it and other styles is automatically problematic. Arab music has now-accepted influences ranging from all parts of Africa, Central Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and even Europe (the violin, for instance). There was likely a time when this intercultural exchange was considered a serious problem. But then, as time passed and the musical genres became better integrated, these fusions became natural and accepted. That is not to say that all fusion music is good, James Brown does not mix well with the singer Hakeem, for instance. I am merely trying to say that fusion is not fundamentally problematic.

At the same time, colonialism has affected hybrid music such that western music did not naturally mix with Arab music because there was not an even socio-political-cultural-playing-field. The cultural power of colonialism here should not be underestimated. Partially as a consequence of the Western cultural hegemony, some traditional Arab musical forms were ignored and not preserved, thereby reducing the richness of Arabic music today. Abd al-Wahaab is perhaps at fault here, inadvertently setting in motion the privileging of Western musical styles over Arabic ones. This is just a fraction of the arguments against the westernization of Arab music; I included it specifically because it was the most common argument that came up in our group.

I really am unable to pick a side, because there are so many factors to take into account here, and each argument is itself very layered. The only conclusion I can come to with any certainty is that the questions which opened this post are much more complicated than they appear initially. I know this is a cop-out at some level, but it also something that we will likely all agree upon.

– Max Dugan

Kenyon College, ’14
Summer Intern at Al-Bustan


Fairuz or Amr Diab?: An Approach to Choosing Arabic Educational Material

After sitting in on the Arabic educators group for the first three days of Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts and Culture Course, I saw the group continue to return to the question: “how do we choose Arabic songs or poems for our classes?” While there was definitely some disagreement, they seemed to arrive at the conclusion that we need to have a clear goal when choosing a song, and that the song should be integrated across other class syllabi. Yes, it is obvious that teacher needs to have an intention when they create a lesson plan. But if you, like me, have ever taken an Arabic class you have probably heard at least few songs whose names, lyrics, and themes you don’t remember. On one hand, that may be the fault of the song itself by not properly keeping our attention, but on the other, if the teacher and the students know what they were supposed to focus on, then everyone would probably maintain their attention better.
Music Director Hanna Khoury teaches Arabic/Music educators
 “Nassam Alayna-l Hawa,” composed by Rahbani Brothers

As for these teacher’s intention, there are nearly endless possibilities, many of which are contradictory. Take this group for instance, some teachers want to emphasize Modern Stand Arabic and traditional Arab music, and others focus on dialects and the current mainstream music. For example, if someone falls into the former group, they should pick a song that contains fusha and has non-electronic instruments. All the intention directive asks is that teachers are conscious and deliberate when they pick a song for their curriculum.

Perhaps more important than all of this is that, if possible, the Arabic teacher coordinates with their fellow teachers to include the song in classes that aren’t their own. Personally, I wish my school had done something like this when I attended. To illustrate what I am talking about, when there is a unit on the Arab world in school, the music class, history class, and English literature class would all work together to educate holistically. History class could speak to the historical context, music might do a crash course on Arabic rhythm, literature could analyze the poetry for its rhyme and meter, while Arabic class would explain the meaning of the words and their correct pronunciation. This sort of structure allows teachers to broaden students’ understanding of a single piece of Arab culture.

I am only a student of Arabic, and as such have not come into contact with the obstacles of teaching something like a Fairuz song. That said, I can speak to the fact that directed readings of poetry and a deeper understanding of a text have always left me with a longer lasting impression of that specific part Arabic culture. Hopefully all you teachers out there might able to incorporate something like this into your classes, be them Arabic, music, history, or literature.

– Max Dugan
Kenyon College, ’14

Summer Intern at Al-Bustan

Collaborative Learning at Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture course

This has been a busy week for a group of educators at the Albert M. Greenfield Intercultural Center at UPenn. From 9:00am until well past dusk, Arabic language and music teachers have joined together to participate in Al-Bustan’s Arab Arts & Culture course. Although I am neither a teacher nor a musician, I, too, have spent the week learning Fairouz lyrics and Arab rhythm in my capacity as researcher/volunteer with Al-Bustan. And what an amazing week it has been!

Al-Bustan’s course is designed to facilitate collaboration and cross-disciplinary approaches to education, both topically and methodologically. Guided by the shared theme of Arab music, the course teaches participants several ways to incorporate Arab music and cultural content into their curricula–and their classrooms. It is also a crash course in Arab music history, with a focus on the Egyptian and Lebanese cultural contexts and the careers of iconic singers Um Kulthum and Fairuz. And who better to teach than Hanna Khoury, Kinan Abou-afach, Hafez Kotain, and Hicham Chami, members of Al-Bustan’s Resident Takht Ensemble? 

Hanna Khoury leads the music teachers and members of the takht ensemble. 

In the mornings, Abou-afach, a professional musician and educator, guides the Arabic language educators in the rhythms of Arabic poetry, which he learned from his father in Syria, himself a poet. Specifically, the teachers are learning to recognizing patterns and meters (al-bahar/buhur) in poetry so that they will be able to compose short songs using poetry in their classes. In the afternoons, Chami, a graduate student of ethnomusicology and Islamic Studies, leads discussions on how to integrate music into Arabic curricula. Discussions have ranged from the challenge of selecting appropriate, or culturally representative, music for different audiences to the usefulness of music as an instrument of language learning. As a culminating exercise, the educators split into groups to design a lesson plan, which they will present on Friday. Finally, the Arabic language teachers work with Khoury on a number of Arabic songs, which they will perform as a choir at the end of the week with the accompaniment of the music teachers and the takht ensemble. Khoury also teaches music educators the theory of Arab music, from the tetrachords and scales to its unique rhythms and maqamat. The teachers, many of whom are multi-instrumentalists, are also learning several pieces of music, which they hope to use with their students. And, finally, Ali Kotain instructs both music and Arabic language teachers in the basics of Arab percussion.

Kinan Abou-afach shows the Arabic teachers the rhythms of Arabic poetry.

Hicham Chami listens as the Arabic teachers design a lesson plan. 

In spite of their separate coursework, there is still much space for collaboration and conversation between the two groups, who start and finish each day together. In the mornings, the educators gather for lectures on Arab culture from scholars such as Marwan Kraidy, Alon Tam, and the instructors Hanna Khoury and Hicham Chami. In the afternoons, the choir and instrumentalists rehearse together before dinner, which provides another opportunity to unwind, network and learn. Students have also connected over Hazami’s homemade breakfasts, lunches on the patio, and catered dinners, not to mention during the evening’s extracurricular activities, which have included a dabke lesson, a film, and more. 

What strikes me as particularly unique and special about this course is just such opportunities: For educators — with different approaches, focuses, even disciplines – to join together and learn practical skills relevant to their classrooms but also to gain critical skills and knowledges from each other. One music teacher in a local school told me that she is here not only to learn about Arabic music but also to help better understand her students, many of whom are Arab immigrants. An Arabic teacher told me that she is here to learn music, which she did not have an opportunity to explore as a youth. For these two women, and hopefully many others, this week provides a unique chance to learn from others with differing, but complementary, skills and objectives. Personally, I am thrilled to have made so many new connections to people from whom to learn and grow. What’s more exciting than spending a week with people with shared interests and differing experiences? I certainly can’t think of much.

The course culminates in a performance this Friday, June 27th at 7pm at the Iron Gate Theatre on UPenn’s campus. We hope you will join us to celebrate the accomplishments of these educators, the hard work and dedication of our great faculty, and the end of what has been an extremely successful and intense week!

– Jane Lief Abell

PhD student in Anthropology, UPenn