A 2018 photograph of a Nahat Oud by Tdrivas (CC)
Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

Introduction

“How are you going to become a composer?” My uncle said angrily, “No Lebanese person has done it. Why you?”[1]

I was sitting in the baranda of my teta’s (grandmother’s) home in the Lebanese mountains. I finished my junior year of high school and made the unalterable decision to study composition in college. It was nighttime. The family gathered to chat while my teta cut peaches for us from Jido’s (grandfather’s) farm.

Being the first generation to study in the U.S. in my immediate family, I had the rare privilege of deciding what I wanted to study.

In our culture, I had the responsibility to craft a future where I can continue accumulating wealth (and therefore stability and opportunity) for future generations of my family. In that regard, pursuing the arts was akin to refusing this responsibility. This decision caused my uncle to become tense.

“Then I’ll be the first,” I responded.

My family and I didn’t know any composers of Lebanese or Druze descent. We were all in uncharted territory.

“Hrmph,” my uncle scoffed. He reclined into his seat with eyes that clearly said “you’re making a mistake.”

An aerial view of Lebanon (photo by Nebal Maysaud)

As an aspiring composer, I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew that there were thousands of people like me, and that my success as a composer is not guaranteed, no matter how good I was. But I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. I had a radical something that needed to be expressed, and music was the only way I could express it.

My parents got married in Lebanon in 1994 and moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 when my mom was pregnant with me. She was 19. My father would get up to work at 3:00 a.m., and wouldn’t come home until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mom spent equally long days between work and caring for three children.

My parents couldn’t afford to give me lessons, or take time off work to see me perform, and were skeptical, if not hostile, toward my decision to enter a field they knew nothing about. Other musicians my age had the resources and support they needed to succeed while I had to navigate my artistic passion alone. This discrepancy between myself and my journey, and other upper class composers only grew with age.

I also had very few friends in high school, and frankly a lot of it was a blur due to my PTSD. But I distinctly remember my music being there when I had no one to confide in. Music became my life, and I had no choice but to create.

If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist.

Despite everything working against me, I decided that I must pursue music as a professional. And I hold that same spirit today. As the first one in my family to major in the arts, I have a lot of eyes on me. If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist. But if I succeed, that success will provide hope and comfort to other aspiring artists in the family.

Despite all of these setbacks, I was (naively) comforted by the fact that there was a hole in the new music community. My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music.

As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.

How to Colonize a Culture

A culture can be defined through a people’s land, language, beliefs, food, or art. Colonization works by limiting access to these cultural markers while also rebranding them so that the colonizing force steals the culture of those they colonize and claims it as their own.

Colonization works by limiting access to cultural markers while also rebranding them.

In action, colonization works by invading or destroying land, criminalizing the native language, making it as difficult as possible to practice the colonized religion, and restricting access to ingredients needed for the colonized people to cook their own food while rebranding their recipes as the colonizers’ own.

But in this article, I want to focus on how white culture colonizes the Middle East through art, specifically music.

Composers Use Orientalism to Further Colonize Non-Western Cultures

Europe is not the only place with a classical music tradition. Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.

Yet much of the Western world pretends that they were the only ones to compose music beyond entertainment, and use other classical traditions not as a source of inspiration to grow together, but as a resource for stealing techniques and growing their own genre at the expense of other cultures.

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud's composition A Psalm of David which references the style of Western appropriations of Middle Eastern music with the instruction

An excerpt from Nebal Maysaud’s composition A Psalm of David

Stealing Middle Eastern Stories

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation. Yet white composers have been writing about and critiquing stories from the Middle East for centuries.

Western composers always had a fascination with the exotic East. A place of magic and wonder, where strange people with strange customs create fascinating stories for audiences to gaze upon.

This narrative of an “other” whose purpose is to entertain the eyes of Westerners is very much in practice today. I see plenty of composers, some prominent, praised for writing music that references the Middle East.

And the music they compose makes no reference to Middle Eastern classical music. Because such a reference would concede that the Middle East has a classical tradition. Instead, they use a few cartoonish references to an exotic Arabian land of their own creation.

Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation.

One example is the use of augmented seconds to represent the exotic. Or using the oboe to mimic a snake charmer or other Middle Eastern instruments. (What instruments they mimic, I don’t know. The oboe sounds nothing like any Middle Eastern or North African instrument that I know of.)

Or perhaps they compose a simple melody with an old style drum beat. Or try to mimic the Baladi by composing a flashy piece that has no substance or meaning, and is instead supposed to create the effect of an underdeveloped people dancing and performing a ritual.

Written down, these examples are obvious racist caricatures, but I still see them used today in pieces where composers are lauded for their activism.

And the stories they produced are not just exotic fun, but reinforce white supremacist beliefs about non-white people.

A meme which reads:

Presenting the Middle East as “Barbaric”

White supremacists believe that the white race is the most advanced. Which means that non-white people are inherently less intelligent, less emotionally mature, and less civilized. In other words, white supremacists look at non-white people as a step in between them and barbarians.

In order for this ideology to stick, white supremacists need evidence. They don’t have truth, but they do have power, and they use their power to manipulate non-white cultures to make them appear as though they are more barbaric than white people.

The most common way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the Middle East’s track record with LGBT+ and women’s rights. After colonization, the Western powers supported conservative despots to increase instability in the region to prevent the area from becoming communist. The far right regimes they supported enacted some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.

I recognize that Middle Eastern politics is very complicated territory. And I can’t accurately state what happened in the Middle East within a paragraph. But the West’s attempt to impose itself on the region as an act of modern colonization is well documented and researched.

These human rights abuses are now used by the West as evidence of the Middle East’s backwards values. The West is more developed because women appear to have more freedom. By hiding the fact that these regimes were initially supported by the West, they create the unreal case that feminism is a Western value that the Middle East is too barbaric to enforce.

And composers love writing music “for” Middle Eastern women and minorities without their consent, and doing so by highlighting the abuse they receive and the toils of war. The trauma these regimes place on minorities is regularly displayed in a piece of music. The effect is something profound for white people, and triggering for minorities.

Never Ending War

The sound of war is a common theme for white composers to write about. But rarely is it handled with care and research. Rarely do these pieces consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

Rarely do pieces about war consider the effects they have on the victims of war.

I remember going to a concert with my mother, immediately feeling horrified when a piece about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon played and my mom was forced to hear the very same sounds of war she witnessed growing up. White people were amazed by the piece, while my mother and I were on the hinge of panic attacks due to this senseless trigger.

In all of these pieces, the message seems to be questioning why warring factions can’t get their acts together and stop fighting. They generally suggest that these victims need saving and it’s calling on their listeners (who are white since classical music audiences are almost always white) to act as white saviors and stop the violence through their charity. While coming from a meaningful place, this narrative saves no one and actually worsens the effects of white supremacy.

And these stories also act as barriers that keep Middle Eastern composers from telling our own stories. I am expected to continue praising white feminists for their work in writing about the trauma my people face, while stories by actual Middle Eastern women are largely ignored. Here we see Western classical music saving a space for Middle Eastern representation, but maintaining a white monopoly over its presentation.

Conclusion

These pieces may come from a desire to help, but they ultimately reinforce colonization. They reinforce the trope of the white savior. They spread harmful false messages about Middle Eastern values. They don’t reference Middle Eastern music or traditions, but instead incorporate cartoonish signifiers of racist caricatures. Ultimately, they are not Middle Eastern stories, just exotic displays masquerading as authentic work for the Middle East.

I spent my college years learning how to navigate this environment. In a desire to be authentic, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond the Western classical music world. I needed to explore the traditions of my own people’s music so that I can keep the Middle Eastern Classical tradition alive. As you will see in my next article, discovering one’s own culture can be extremely difficult in a colonized world.


NOTE:

1. I apologize for not making this point clear enough: When I was in high school, I didn’t know about the hundreds of Lebanese composers before (and after) me, nor did anyone else in my family. I was not trying to make a claim about being the only Lebanese composer. Instead I wanted to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find a thriving culture of Lebanese composers and musicians, but I had to look for them first.


If you enjoy their work, Nebal also manages a Patreon which features a weekly blog and exclusive content.  Nebal Maysaud is a queer Lebanese composer based in the Washington D.C. Metro Area. Since buying their first notation software in 2009, Nebal (pronounced [niˈbæ:l]) has grown to become an impactful, socially minded composer. Their music is a convergence of faith and identity, using their artwork to advocate for the traditionally silenced. Their music is influenced by different artists of various traditions, including Vaughan Williams, Khalil Gibran, Arvo Pärt, Walt Whitman, Fairuz,... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

7 thoughts on “Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy

  1. Rob J Kennedy

    What an excellent story, and so well told and written. And, so true and accurate. The uneducated and blinkered view of so much of the western world when it comes to “classical” music has been built by their education systems, and radio and concert programmers who believe that western classical music is the only classical music, and the only music worth listening to.

    Trying to shake or educated people out of what has been historically taught to them is impossible though. Most western people refuse to be educated about other music, other people, and other experiences. The proof of this can be clearly seen in the state of the mindset and actions of so many western people. What can we do to change that? I wish I knew.

    Thank you for this great story, I’m looking forward to more from this excellent writer.

    Reply
  2. Joan

    The noble argument that the author of this article pursues is severely jeopardised by the complete lack of specific musical examples that serve of evidence of their claims. Sweeping generalisations about any music should be accompanied by some type of examination of concrete works, otherwise they amount to empty rhetoric. Music analysis, even if somewhat basic, would strengthen their case, which I also believe deserves attention.

    Reply
  3. Herbert Icenogle

    Agree with the comment above: this article really suffers from generalizing too much about Western composers without specific examples. It is commendable to stands up for one’s cultural integrity, but this singular vision can come across as dismissive almost to the point of bullying.

    Also, a serious question: how does a Lebanese composer use saxophone in their compositions? Is that not considered appropriation?

    Reply
  4. Geena Clemence

    Laughing out loud at “No Lebanese person has done it.”

    You do realize there are hundreds of Lebanese composers before you, right? Marcel Khalife, Zad Moultaka, Bushra el Turk, Bechara Khoury, and even ones probably even younger than yourself such as Layale Chaker. Please do not propagate those lies any further and stop denying these musicians’ existence, as you are only perpetuating your colonial narrative.

    Reply
  5. Nebal

    Hi Gena,

    Yes, I know that now! And they have become some great influences in my music and my life. I apologize for not making the point clear enough but at the time I was in high school, I nor anyone else in my family knew about these great composers. I was trying to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it still being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find these great people, but I had to look for them first.

    I hope this clarifies the point. I certainly did not want to leave the impression that I am the first Lebanese composer or anything like that. Far from it.

    Reply
  6. Nebal

    And I want to add one more point about colonial narrative which you mentioned that is important. You actually touched on the idea I was trying to express. That colonial narratives were trying to replace our own histories even within our own families. If you’d like to take this conversation further, feel free to email me: nebal@nebalmaysaud.com

    Reply

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