Art in Diaspora
Growing up across the East and West, I always felt intuitively that distinct cultures exhibit different aspects of the transcendent Sacred. The emotions evoked by Arabic music, in its rich modal system of maqāmāt (stations), vary tremendously from the subtle harmony of Western music. Likewise, the vivid display of passion in Eastern drama contrasts with the illusive narrative tension that pierces through the skin of an actor in the Western moving arts.
Of course, underlying these various forms of cultural expressions lies the spring of language. It is the distinction in languages that highlights the kaleidoscopic vortices at which heavens touches our souls and infinite rivers from which creative inspiration flows. Thus, the metaphorical prowess of English thrives on a Named that remains hidden between the alcoves of powerful descriptors that, in turn, bring the desired beloved alive in clear absence and freedom of any noun.
Meanwhile, Arabic dances to an altogether different choreography. The named here does not hide behind metaphorical forms, but rather lingers behind the name itself. Appellations in this case do not delimit the named but rather set it free in a fortress of perplexity erected by intricate etymological connections. If that is the brick and mortar of this uttered fortress, then its blueprint is the sacrality of a sound so universal that it remains beyond the metamorphosis of language.
This art of languages’ varying spirits can only be truly appreciated beyond the mere rational understanding of grammar; which to the spirit of language is what the chemical description of color is to painting. Without the unbridled and primordial awareness of the Sacred hand, the paintbrush cannot stroke nor can language’s spirit be felt.
In other words, the ocean of language, its branching river of arts and fertile banks of culture are intimately married to a society’s experiences and collective memories. What the Arabic language and music conjures upon being released into the spiritual bloodstream of a local audience is an avalanche of vivid recollections of a time long gone. This al-zaman al-jamīl (e.g. golden age) returns instantly through an instrument like the Oud or Qanun to reminisce about the past through its ṭarab (musical ecstasy) and saltana (overwhelming state).
Similarly, yet differently, the agonizing birth and redemptive subsistence of Jazz, spiritual movement of Gospel music and its socially precipitating country flavor, or hip hop and rap music that decry in their bluntness our benign unawareness of being human … all these send a different set of winds upon the listener’s ears. Only an ardent memoir in the heart of the listener corresponding to the suffering out of which these genres were born can yield to a complete melding with the redemptive art produced therein.
In lieu of this serene marriage between art and the ardent memoirs of a people, I have found in my experience as a Muslim artist in America a dreadful incognizance of this subtle intimacy in the burgeoning American Muslim cultural movement. The attempt to mutate original Arabic art forms into their English alter