Sunday 31 December 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Meetings with Mozart, Ney, Oud, Percussion and Qanun

Classical music from the West has always inspired many singers/musicians in the East. Here is Omar Kamal, a Palestinian singer, known popularly as the Arab Sinatra, singing Fairouz’s cover of Mozart’s Symphony 40. Have a listen:

Fairouz, as everybody knows, is from Lebanon, one of the most revered singers across the Arab world. Lebanon has contributed a large number of talented musicians, something about the topography?…or maybe the water?…anyways, here is a young, superbly talented violinist from there with Made in Lebanon. Divanessa, was born in Canada and educated in Lebanon, click on her name to find out more.

Since we are on the subject of music, just thought I’d mention here that the solmisation in Arabic, which is called Durrat Mufassalat (meaning ‘separate pearls’) goes daal, ra, meem, fa, saad, laam, ta, these are letters of the Arabic alphabet associated with the seven notes. There is apparently no documentary evidence that the current form of Western solmisation, which happened during the medieval times, is in any way based on the Arabic one. So I am not saying a word further about Arabic influence, ha! We deal only in hard proofs.

Music is such a primal thing, I mean, I’ll bet that there was someone breaking into song long before we had alphabets or even before man was really Man, you know? The great apes can sing, and they do, as signals to other members of their group. In India the primordial sound is thought to be is ‘Om’ a syllable that is sung. All our poetry, which was religious to begin with and predated other literature, was chanted. Man probably hummed before he learned to speak, who knows? he was probably tuneful before he was articulate. Or perhaps I should say Woman.

I can totally imagine Neanderthal and Australopithecus mums crooning to the babies to make them sleep, can’t you? while the dads used frantic but silent gestures ('don’t just stand there! throw me that spear for heavens sakes, man! this springbok’s getting away!') at the hunts to avoid noise. Can this be the underpinnings why women are verbal and men are visual? Anyhoo. I digress.

But this be the thing - did you know, from the Far East to Europe, the entire old world in other words, uses the same number of notes as the basis of music? We name just seven basic notes, though there are many cultures which use half-notes or quarter-notes in between two. In Indian music there are the komal and tivra and shuddha to denote the in-betweens, but the names of the notes add up to the same number, with the name for the first and the last note repeated.  Daal-ra-meem-fa-saad-laam-ta. Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti.   I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions. Sa-re-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni. The more I dig into things, the more gobsmacked I get really. 

Incidentally, the traditional Arabic ensemble did not include the violin, it’s an import from Europe, but has been made a part of the Arab orchestras from the 19th century onwards. The stringed instrument that is traditionally included in the Arab ensemble is the oud, which can be traced back to Persia some 3500 years ago, a short-necked, fret-less six/seven stringed instrument. Similar instruments have been found on ancient Egyptian paintings/frescoes from the Pharaonic era. The Arab armies brought it back to Arabia either from Egypt or from Persia in the 7th century and made it uniquely their own. The Moors then took it to Spain where it was known as the lute (al-ud), and from there it branched off and evolved into the modern day six-stringed, fretted guitar.

The oud is the main accompaniment to a traditional Arab song, it is also played solo. Listen to an eminent Iraqi Kurdish oud player Naseer Shamma in this clip below

And to these Palestinian oud players, brothers Joubran:

The other instruments that form the Arab ‘takht’ (ensemble) are the Ney – an end-blown flute and the percussion, which is usually the goblet drum - Darbouka, also called Doumbek.  Another prominent string instrument in the Arab ensemble is the trapezoidal zither - Qanun, that's often also played solo. Listen to this Qanun piece by a famous instrumentalist:

The qanun is also the ancestor of the Indian santoor, incidentally.

The Alex Trilogy

Just my quick review of this book -

This is Alexandria from the perspective of real, feet-on-the-ground for generations, Egyptian working-class residents, as far away from the expat-bubble rarefied-prism POV as one can possibly get. Set during WWII, the author has used quotations from other authors/poets - al Niffari, Rumi, Cavafy and Durrell among them, as chapter banners to anchor each chapter, and the reader, in place. Of personal interest also were the glimpses of Indian soldiers fighting the war in Egypt seen from a non-Indian POV. 

This is not a light page-turner, it's a huge, sweeping story of friendship, of overcoming religious differences, of hardships, of working class people, of war in faraway places upending lives in ways small and great. Above all, it is the story and the history of Alexandria from eyes and nose close to the ground. It needs some work and concentration to get at the novel, and I make a habit of often getting distracted by futile thoughts of what's lost in translation when reading translated Arabic, can so do without it! It's a densely packed, teeming, aromatic and rich-complex read - if you are interested in a POV that contrasts Durrell's and the more aloof Eurocentric version, go for it.

The book was longlisted for the IPAF award, I'm not sure these longlists or shortlists should be the reason for choice, a reader's criteria can be vastly different from the juries', but anyhoo. Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, a multiple awardee, has gone on to write two more books set in Alexandria forming his Alexandria trilogy. (Echoes of the Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz?!) Birds of Amber and Clouds over Alexandria followed NSiA. Read an interview of the author here.

So...that's the last post for the year. It's been a tumultuous one...2017 has been a tough cookie! Though I am grateful that I have a cookie, chewy or otherwise!  But glad to make a fresh start :) 

Thank you all who stopped by here and made my online life a respite and a refuge from the not-so-nice bits of my offline one. Wishing all of you a very happy and fun and fulfilling 2018 -


Sunday 10 December 2017

Storms and Uniforms : Write... Edit... Publish... December 2017

Hello WEP-ers,

It's the final month and the final prompt, 'the end is the beginning' at Write...Edit...Publish, hosted by Denise and Yolanda. I'm posting an abbreviated version of a long story, and posting super-early as I'll be travelling over the holidays - I'm not sure if there will be a WiFi available.

Shankar is a school drop-out who's left the village, drifted to the city and into petty crime. He has been picked up by the police on occasion which has led to an aversion for uniforms and bureaucracy. He escapes a police raid and goes back to the village to avoid the lock-up, but ends up in a different cell anyways. 

Btw, a Daffadar is a rank in the Indian Army, equivalent to Sergeant. 

Sunday 26 November 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Jordanian celebrations of a Khedival Love

Listen to the Jordanian opera singer Zeina Barhoum below:

Just after I wrote in a previous post here that most Arab women tend towards altos, I discovered a whole slew of singers who are not, naturally! what else should happen when anyone reads and believes such silly generalisations :)

‘I’m out of here! Off to Europe!’

Sunday 19 November 2017

The Hallucination of Room

I’ve breathed in your dust through my eyes
smelt the waves lapping at your shore
I’ve heard the silent towers rise
felt skin part as they stabbed the skies
reflection of cranes on glass doors.

Who knows who has the right to call
your mud their bone or blood or home
and what’s that except a set of walls?
one trumpet note and that set falls,
the hallucination of room.

The hallucinations of roofs
and rooms, this nothingness enclosed
and dust breathed in without much proof;
home always, but at a remove,
conflicts, and space juxtaposed.

Monday 13 November 2017

Not so sucky: Remakes Blogfest

Today Ninja Captain Alex J Cavanaugh and Heather M Gardener are co-hosting the funnest blogfest on Remakes, irresistible! and I'm taking a break from poetry and jumping in.

The raison d'etre and rules  -

Remakes – most of them suck. Now and then, one comes along that is as good as, if not better, than the original. And after all of the bad ones we’ve endured, we want to know about some good ones.

On November 13, 2017, blog about your favorite remake: movie (or television show into movie and vice versa), song, or book – or all three! Post a YouTube video and links where we can find these treasures. Tell us why THIS remake doesn’t suck!

Sign up here or here. Post on November 13 and visit others on the list. Time to unearth those good remakes! 

Sunday 5 November 2017

Q & A

What colour's your poem? she asked.
I said,
mostly blues and greens, some yellow, some red.
Like twilight - maybe a shade of lilac –
some of it fluorescent, some grey and drab
and some parts dissolved small town mud track,
silvered power cuts with a few dabs
of starshine.  Lost fishhooks on dry riverbeds,
waving heat haze and groundnut pyramids.
Some lines white, some unavoidably black.

What colour is your poetry? 
I replied,
some quite see-through, like rainfall on the wide
lit savannahs, on which the long grass feeds
and grows its shadow, neat corn-rowed mornings,
windows missing louvres of glass. Low-speed
smiles, bright swimsuits flashing in the hot springs
in deep forest. The negative space between
points of bison horns, the dragon fly sheen
of streams. And some as opaque as safekeeping.

Sunday 29 October 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Hanine and Helw the Lion Tamer, and Idris' angle

Here is Hanine el Alam, a violinist, composer and performance artiste from Lebanon - take a listen to her brand of fusion in this track called  'Arabia' - and click on her name to find out more.

Another megarambler

This is kind of a complicated non-story in a non-story in a non-story post, the usual megarambler only the rambling quotient even more ramped up. Bear with me, please.

I suppose it all started with the film.  A short film called The Chair Carrier won a prize in some festival in USA late 2010 and appeared on my feed somewhere. I watched the film and liked it (and shared it as part of my A-Z 2017 series Arabiana. Watch it here) In the credits was the name of Dr Yusuf Idris, the writer of the original short story from which the film was adapted. I filed the name away in my mind for future reference.

This was a few months before the Spring was sprung. The film went on to win a slew of prizes across the world. Later, after the President fell, it naturally cropped up regularly all through 2011 alongside words like prescient and prophetic. I might mention here that the original story was written long before the film was made.

The Lion Tamer

As I’ve said earlier, 2011 expanded my cultural horizons in myriad ways - and one of them was Galal Amin. Here's another excerpt from an essay of his –

The opening of the National Circus...was part of a wider scheme which included, among other things, theatre, ballet, folk art, and classical and Arab music institutes, and it succeeded in unearthing new talent and in attracting wide audiences, until the events of 1967 put an end to it.

Soon after the military attack against Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the National Circus suffered a recession, as did many other aspects of life in Egypt. This derived as much from the depression and hopelessness felt by many Egyptians in the wake of the army’s rout…

In this general dispiriting climate, a tragic accident befell the most important personality of the circus and the most prominent member of the Helw family. A lion named Sultan fatally mauled the trainer Muhammad Helw as he stood in the ring before the audience. This was on the night of October 12, 1972, and it so happened, that the gifted Egyptian author Yusuf Idris was in the audience that night. In the tremendous shock of the event, Idris saw something fearsome in the human side of the tragedy, symbolising not only the state of the circus at the time, but also the political and social life of Egypt in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. He recorded his impressions in a famous essay…published in the newspaper Al Ahram a few days later. The essay had widespread reverberations of its own, because it echoed exactly what many people were feeling at the time. He concluded that the lion’s attack on the trainer was an allegory for the state of Egyptians of that time – fearful, defeated, their high ideals lost, and their dreams of heroism and glory destroyed.

 ~ Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

Oh déjà vu 

The retelling of the circus tragedy totally blew me away - déjà vu a thousand shades deep! 

Flashback to mid-seventies, to my schoolgirl self growing up in Maiduguri, in Northern Nigeria. I read a Bengali short story in one of the annual issues of a children’s magazine, these were fat, hardbound books with a wide collection of children literature written specifically for the annuals – general fiction, sci-fi, whodunits, poetry, cartoons and what have you, published every year in Sept/Oct to coincide with the autumn festivals of Dussehra/Durgapuja, and lovingly sent to me from India through snailmail, which I would receive the following spring and duly gobble up. 

Anyway, to get back to the point – I read a short story in one of these jobs about a lion tamer who devised more and more daring acts to attract audiences, upping the ante till the audiences sat with their collective hearts in their mouth. The final climax of his act was putting his head into the lion's jaws and then his release upon command. And you can guess what’s coming, can’t you? - one evening the lion clamped his jaws down and didn’t release the trainer, the story ended there with this awful cliff hanger, with the trainer’s torso suspended from the lion’s fangs, thrashing around in agony. Quite horrifying enough to read, can't imagine what it must be like to watch.

For some reason, I instantly got it into my head that this story was connected to the events at the Egyptian National Circus, quite firmly convinced. Sadly, though I tried all sorts of ways to confirm the link, I just couldn’t, both the author and the title of the Bengali story have passed completely out of memory, total blank.   So the cast iron conviction turned out to be the usual modification of memory to suit the present and clear biases. Sigh...

The first man to put his head into a lion's mouth was an American animal trainer  - Isaac Van Amburgh, way back in  the 1830's, and he may have been the inspiration for the story, though he did not die of mauling - one of the few lion tamers who died a natural death. Several lion tamers got injured when they put their heads into a wild cat's mouth in the 1800's, read about one here. Circus animals quite regularly maul their trainers, the story may also have been inspired by any number of other such attacks. There have been at least two more similar incidents in the Egyptian Circus itself, Ibrahim el Helw was mauled fatally in 2004 and his wife Faten was attacked in 2015, though she survived. In spite of these maulings and deaths, the Helw family have been steadfastly working as lion trainers since the 19th century.

I tried to trace that famous essay by Dr Idris too, but no luck there either, so I went and got his novel ‘The city of Love and Ashes’ and an anthology of his short fiction. I enjoyed the short stories more than the novel, but then I always have been an absolute sucker for short stories anyway. Right from schooldays till now, I'm blaming that on those annuals.

Sunday 22 October 2017

Is that a lesson plan?

I’d tear this poem into shreds, minute,
into wild blossoms but not pluck even one
let them ripen for you, into fruit,
and then the fall, decay and its lesson.

I’d tear this poem into a rough sea,
and pick a wave of it to make a raft,
tear it into whatever needs to be
for you to steer and learn the sailor’s craft.

And I’d rip it into a darkened sky
where no sun nor moon not even a pole star
shone out to reassure, you’ll find yourself by
guiding yourself alone to what you are.

And when the trip’s done, you’ve reached the shore, then
I’d piece the million pieces back again.

Wednesday 18 October 2017

The Darkest Place : Write... Edit... Publish... October 2017

Okay so I thought I could do a flash - a spooky sort, but nope, it vanished into thin air ghost. Then I started with another which coolly wriggled out of its obligation towards the original prompt. Inveigled itself into a thoroughly non-spooky type - aaaargh! Right, I'm falling back on poetry, much more reliable... 

So here we are - at the annual autumn/spring scarefest at Write...Edit...Publish... hosted by authors Denise and Yolanda. With design inputs from Olga, and prompt inputs by someone who has been hoisted by her own promptard and shall remain nameless.  

We have a prayer in the Hindu scriptures, one of my favourite verses - '(Lead me) from falsehood towards Truth, from darkness towards Light, from death towards Immortality.'

Darkness and Light, Anxiety and Tranquility, Suffering and Bliss. All is in the mind, ultimately. No place darker than a tormented mind.

The Darkest Place

This isn’t a poem you’d want to write.
No morning pills of positivity,
just a convulsed line rushing, falling free
in and out of digital screens and sight,

dripping fluids of unknown origins.
No trickles of moons, rivers, women’s scarves,
not an inch of no man’s land between wars.
A trembling drop in time’s sharp toothed engines.

Nor is it a poem you’d want to read
out loud among strangers, folding paper
art, to hang it like buntings of wafer
thin, lavish rhymes; jewel toned; filigreed.

This - the one you keep in the dark recess,
between the planes of sane and loneliness.

WC - 100+

And it is Diwali tomorrow, the darkest night of the year according to the Indian calendar, when we put up lamps around our homes to make sure that everything's headed in the right direction, as per the verse! :)  A very happy and prosperous Diwali to you and yours if you are celebrating! And lots of sunshine, moonlight, starlight and candlelight to you even if you are not. May your life be illuminated at all times and never get into dark places.


Read the other entries here and join in -

Sunday 15 October 2017

Call me!

Where are you today? I keep trying your phone
there’s the same message playing, it doesn't change -
hope you're not at a concert? within range?
Are you with friends? Are you, by chance, alone?

Are you at this moment by a riverside?
and suddenly a hired van swerves too close,
scatters the commuters - hope you're among those
who see it coming and quickly jump aside.

Are you in a park? or college campus?
where a ruthless finger plays with a trigger.
Are you trapped where no-one can quite figure
if we’re firing guns, or the gun’s shooting us?

Call me dear one, call me back, I can’t bear
this silence, my world’s broken everywhere.

For those who've lost family or friends to senseless violence across the world. 

Sunday 8 October 2017

Empty nester run-up

You haven’t left the house yet. But everything
suddenly falls into a chill headlong -
a choked gasp like my room itself were being
sucked dry of all the room you’d brought along.
No space, no space, none to breathe or to sing,
even the urban birds lose their tortured songs;
the universe feels like it’s lost its footing -
the sky and earth are both awry, hanging wrong.

You’re not going away just yet, you’re here,
a foot sometimes must swing out - that’s enough
to deform rooms to ooze, undo the year.
All birds’ eyes are wounds, all the stars are fears;
and all the words I can speak, or think of,
keen at the edge of grief, though they start with love.

Saturday 30 September 2017

Nine nights


My goddess is a patch of sky
between two raffia palms -
a bird streaks down like a spear
thrown by one of her arms.

My goddess is a curl of cloud
on the skyline somewhere
and the wingspan of a kite’s her crown,
tangled mesquite’s her hair.

My goddess is a snapped off stem -
an arrangement of spice
fortuitously made in the kitchen.
A rich bubbling of rice.

She is, and isn’t, made of clay,
she’s whole seasons, not just four days.


She sends me a sign that I don’t
instantly recognise -
the mind admits only a want
to relate might to size.

I look at the sky and forget
the grass beneath my feet
and I think she’s a mauve sunset
where seas and heavens meet,

but the horizon’s just a line -
the limits of my eye,
a sunset is as much divine
as an earthworm or a fly.

She is broad as winds, warriorlike
and a stick thin match ready to strike.


The temple dance of northern lights
she sends me through a friend,
and I watch the worship mesmerised
before I comprehend.

Likewise a different autumn night
there is a quiet fall
of moonlit shreds of small insights -
but their sum’s not small.

She’s among my friends and my folks,
the least of my brethren -
she doesn’t need to be invoked
and worshipped now and then.

She demands not one thing from me,
just lets me breathe and walk out free.


She sends me more, but by this time
I am on high alert
get clued up how she leaves her signs,
offhand, hidden by dirt.

She isn’t there in lotus buds
hundred and eight, or more
neither the soil we call sacred,
nor a foot drawn on the floor,

she sends me a pulse of light and dark
a scratch of old perfume
and news of distant loved ones marks
her grace within my rooms.

She’s a cell, a text, telephone ring -
a massive world of tiny things.


She’s not a fast, she’s not a feast -
she’s core of grape and grain,
what goes into the mouth is least
for it passes out again.

She’s hard to trap, she’s hard to fold
in sandalwood and stone,
and eight rare metals never could hold
and claim her for their own.

She’s not the conch, she’s not a song
she’s not in lamp nor flame.
Nor is she the bell, nor overlong
chant of a special name.

No exact angle quite defines
her intimate bounds, and what’s divine.


She comes to mind about this time
with all my womenfolk,
stretching behind in one long line,
half lost in incense smoke.

I knew no goddess as a child,
maybe not even now.
I knew her through my mothers’ smiles
an aunt’s kiss on my brow.

I knew her from the silky sands
that ran between my toes;
through elephant grass, savannah lands,
where the sandbur grows.

She’s woman, and burr, and long ago
she pricked my cuff and never let go.


And now from time to time I get
distracted by my cuff
at the mass of spines that firmly sits
and won’t be shaken off

Does she like things neat? yet won’t let
me snugly button them up?
I finger the fabric and get pricked
her spines are somewhat rough -

but there’s a smoothness obvious too.
As we move from spot to spot
the garments change, the years, the views,
but the massed burrs do not.

She’s a spine, a roughness - in my side,
and smoothly endures through the ride.


The gods don’t come, they don’t return -
it’s me who comes and goes,
falters at the gates and then turns,
afraid to get too close.

The marquees are made of floodlights
and a thousand-strong crowd,
inside my space her touch is like
silk poured on a raincloud -

and when she can, she lays her hand
on my temple and cheek
though I may see the raffias and
a spear-like sparrow streak.

She is bird-flight, and animal-track,
but she doesn’t arrive, nor go back.


She looks at me through the prayer niche -
her seal’s on calligraphed walls.
On the crucifix. On flesh and fish.
And gutters and urban sprawls.

Her footmarks weave the river bank
into its sunlit scarf,
her thumb print’s on the desert flanks
and on the ocean surf.

She loosens out the date palms coif;
asks neither wind nor breath,
a full moon night she quite shrugs off,
nips out the wicks of faith.

She’s never at home and always near,
she’s everyWhere and everyHere.

Today marks the end of one of the main festivals in my community in India, celebrated over nine nights. I got sent various images by friends and family members the past few days and looking at them this is what happened.  None of the pictures belongs to me, I don't know the copyright holders, credit where credit is due and I do emphatically wish to salute the amazing creativity and expression, kudos!

One of the things I like about my community is the pluralistic approach to religion - it allows space to the devout and the atheists and the agnostics, we are all God's children whether we believe in an Almighty or not, or the forms of our beliefs, or how we observe our festivals. India has been practicing live and let live for centuries, probably the most ancient community to adopt this as a motto, for all I know. But recently this pluralism has been under attack, which is concerning and saddening. 

My own devotion quotient is irretrievably flawed, I leave my family members and friends to intercede on my behalf, and they do a fantastic job - the evidence is amply clear in my life. I'm deeply grateful for that. Therefore, I find it preposterous this vicious effort now to herd us all into one 'right' way of observance, to create one path where there are obviously many. 'There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.' The clueless have a claim to a way and a kiss too!

Happy Festival to you, whatever it is you are celebrating today. May all our prayers in all their various ways find their mark.

And we are getting together for the Halloween at Write...Edit...Publish later in October, see you there.