By Khaled Diab
Love is a universal theme in music, but there are good reasons for the Arab world's preoccupation with romance.
24 August 2010
Love them or loathe them, love songs seem to be written into the DNA of just about every culture. One of the most private and personal of emotions is also, paradoxically, the most public. Although I'm of the conviction that being in love – not to mention making it – is far more pleasurable to hearing about it, I would hazard to say that most of the songs ever sung are about this ever-fascinating subject. Even the alternative forms of music I prefer, though they don't quite wear their hearts on their sleeves, do deal with love, as well.
Despite the universality of love songs and certain common themes, each culture has its own peculiar way of going about it – and this can say a lot about the nature of the society behind the songs.
Whereas love is a regular theme in modern western music, in Arabic music – both modern and traditional – it often seems to be just about the only theme (with a few exceptions like some Algerian raï music, certain forms of sha'abi music and a new generation of alternative musicians). In addition, while modern Anglo-Saxon music expresses a wide range of forms of love and relationships, and has a tradition of challenging taboos, Arabic pop usually focuses on a safe range of socially acceptable emotions and feelings.
This fixation on love is partly practical, because singing about politics or thorny social issues – or even sexual attraction – can get you banned or land you in serious trouble, as was the case with sha'abi artists like Sheikh Imam and Ahmed Adaweyah.
On another level, the Arab obsession with love in music may reflect the large number of social barriers that keep the sexes apart, as well as the disempowerment and lack of choice many young people feel in their love lives.
The fact that in real life love often plays second fiddle to other considerations – such as social standing, class and familial cohesion – is mirrored in the large preponderance of dramatic (often melodramatic) songs that deal with the torment of romance, the large distances separating lovers, desperate longing, pain, separation, unrequited emotions and dashed hopes.
Arabic songs may often begin with a description of the beauty and inaccessibility of the object of the singer's desires. The moon is often evoked to express the beauty, mystery and distant other-worldliness of the object of one's desire, while eyes and eyelashes are weapons of not just seduction but also destruction. While innuendo is rife in Arab love songs, they rarely venture explicitly below the neckline. More bizarrely for the non-Arab, fruit can often be a marker of beauty.
The lyrics often don't translate well, but here's a verse I penned in English (along with some others below) to give you a flavour:
Hibiscus cheeks, pomegranate lips
You're sweeter than any smoothie I've sipped
As beautiful and distant as the moon
I howl when you appear like a loon
I am your majnoon
See me soon
Love, your majnoon
There is said to be a fine line separating pleasure from pain, and many Arabic love songs confirm this theory. In fact, the torture endured – sleep deprivation, solitary confinement, etc – by many Arab crooners is surely the kind of infringement on their human rights that should be referred to the international criminal court.
All day, I dream of you
All night, I scream for you
Your killer eyelashes slash me
Tormented by the smile you flash me
Aloofness, reserve and remoteness on the part of the singer's love interest are part of the painful reality of the parallel world of Arab love.
Every day, I send you love letters with my eyes
But your faraway, unlisted face betrays no reply
How about just a short postcard to say hi
Written in your glance as you walk on by
Far-fetched and even impossible promises are a staple of Arabic lyrics.
Since we can't afford to rent or buy
Because property prices are sky high
I'll wrap you safe inside my eyes
And fly you to our castle in the sky
Seas and oceans also regularly lap against the shores of Arab love songs, partly to express the bottomless depth of emotion the lover allegedly feels and partly to reflect the unseen emotional and societal rocks against which their love boat can crash and sink.
Before I could swim, I dived in your sea
With hindsight, I realise that was stupid of me
But when your swirling currents pulled me down
Why, ya habibi, did you just leave me to drown?
This raises the question of why Arabic love songs so often navigate such narrow, cliched straits. Part of the reason is the “precautionary principle” that governs so much formulaic mainstream culture, which sees artists wanting to stick to the tried, tired and tested.
Beyond that, the reverence of tradition and “timeless” musical principles – as well as fear of the subversive nature of creativity and youth – remains strong in Arab societies, while in the west innovation and subversiveness elicit far less resistance and, up to a certain extent, have actually become part of the process.
But when all is said and sung, you have to admire the tenacity of Arab love lyrics, or pity their dedication to hopeless causes. Even if the deck is stacked against their impossible love, some refuse to admit defeat and may still harbour, in the devastated haven of their broken hearts, the dream of reunion.
Never again will I invite such pain
But meet me just this once, then – never again!
This column appeared in The Guardian Unlimited's Comment is Free section on 20 August 2010. Read the related discussion.