“For some reason, the song reminds me of the early 80s when the war images were a constant on the news. That war really opened our eyes,” said the Facebook update of Ashish, my college friend who had posted a link to a song. The song is a lament for Beirut, written by Nizar Qabbani, a famous poet, and sung by Majida al Roumi , a famous singer, and is a plea for forgiveness to the city they lived in, took for granted and hurt callously…
I loved the contradictions and combinations in that one song and statement. Ashish was born and has spent most of his life in Bahrain. He is a Protestant Christian, though his name and surname give away the fact that his Hindu ancestors were converted by Christian missionaries in some part of Maharashtra, India. Majida is a Christian singer lamenting Beirut, a city that has a mixed population and history of Christians and Muslim, with a song written by a Muslim poet.The lyrics of the song reminded me of a popular song sung by Pankaj Udhas in the eighties that went, चिट्ठी आयी हैं, आयी हैं, चिट्ठी आयी हैं, बड़े दिनों के बाद, ले हम वतनो को साथ, वतन की मिटटी आयी हैं... (Chitthi aayee hain, aayee hain, chitthi aayee hain, badein dino ke baad, le hum vatano ko saath, vatan ki mitti aayee hain…) Whenever Udhas sang it to expats especially in the Gulf, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the audience…
I love and treasure the plurality that makes a man get nostalgic about a song sung by a singer of a different faith, about a foreign city and about someone else’s war. And I so hate the forces that want to take this variety and plurality away from us under the guise of this or that.
I read this post and heard this song last Friday. It was morning and I was sitting in the bedroom with the curtains drawn. When the song ended, I got up, opened the bedroom door and was confronted by unexpected sunlight that had burst into the living room.
After writing this post, I mailed it to Ashish, asking for his permission to write about him in the post. He replied with a, ‘Yes’ and a lot more. And I was tempted to post his reply as well. Here it is, with his permission:
Oh no problem at all. I'm glad the song touched you the way it never fails to stir me. Growing up in Bahrain, the Beirut civil war was a regular feature on the evening news. As a child it meant nothing but as I grew older and became a teenager, the war images became a seed for my eventual social and political consciousness.
The Israeli invasion of Beirut in the early '80's was the one that made me really angry and aware of a world 'outside' where people do not lead normal lives. It just didn't seem fair and the Shabra Shatila massacre masterminded by Ariel Sharon was bewildering.
One of my memories from that time was meeting a Reuters journalist in my church who was stopping in Bahrain en route to Beirut. I asked him, “Why on earth do you want to go to Beirut?” He replied, “That's the most exciting city to be in for journalists”. He then gave me a small talk on what inspires journalists, what journos are looking for and what qualities I need to have to be a good journalist. Inspiring talk given to a schoolboy.
He was transferred to Bahrain years later and when I reminded him of his talk, he shook his head when he heard I joined advertising and public relations.
Going back to that song, it does bring a whole load of memories but most importantly it reminds me of something I should never lose: That fresh revulsion towards senseless violence and the desire to want to do something about it.
I suppose, in the 70s and 80s, when Beirut was burning, the terrorist spectre in India wasn't widespread as it is now. The Khalistan problem was a few years away and the 'news from India' wasn't scary.
By the way, Majida Al Roumi is a Christian* and interestingly, there are many Christians in the Arab world who trace their Christian heritage to the time of Christ. Hence, Arabs view (and I agree with them) Christianity as part of their culture and don't see it as having 'western' origin.
Nizar Qabbani was a very famous and highly popular poet whose death in the late 90s was deeply mourned in the Arab world. Fundamentalists didn't like him because his poems were deeply sensual and he used such imagery to express lots of progressive ideas.
The thing is, the Arab world is culturally, ideologically and philosophically diverse. Much of the world has a stereotypical notion of long bearded, intolerant Wahhabi terrorists. The reality, however, is that the Arabs are much more diverse, and yet such a picture is rarely revealed.
Perhaps it is convenient for some quarters to stereotype this region for their own ends. Any other image will not justify any 'violent' actions they may want to take.
Well, I didn't imagine I'd be talking all this but I guess that's what a great song can do... take us places.
*I had thought and written Muslim first.