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“We Ask the World Not to Help Us”–Acclaimed Lebanese Composer, Singer Marcel Khalife on US interference in Lebanon, War, Censorship and Art

StoryNovember 20, 2007
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Marcel Khalife, world-renowned Lebanese composer, singer and oud player, joins us in our firehouse studio for an extended conversation on war, censorship, Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, US interference in his country, and much more. Khalife is a cultural icon of the Arab world and is sometimes referred to as the Bob Dylan of Lebanon. He has consistently opposed war, performed in bombed-out buildings during the Lebanese civil war, and passionately defended the rights of Palestinians. In 2005 he was named UNESCO’s Artist for Peace. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The song you’ve just heard was called “Passport,” based on the poem by the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and performed by the world-renowned Lebanese composer, singer, oud player, Marcel Khalife.

Khalife is a cultural icon of the Arab world, sometimes called the Bob Dylan of Lebanon. He has consistently opposed war, performed in bombed-out buildings during the Lebanese civil war, passionately defended the rights of Palestinians. In 2005, he was named UNESCO’s Artist for Peace. During Israel’s bombing of Lebanon in 2006, Marcel Khalife wrote to fellow UNESCO Artists for Peace, saying, quote, “Nothing justifies our art other than to speak for those who cannot speak. This is the cause for which we dedicated our efforts, and the cause that endorsed our voices. We only wished to take it as far as we can, and vowed to release our work as songs of love for, and unity with, the victims of persecution everywhere.”

Marcel Khalife is also no stranger to controversy and persecution. He is banned in Tunisia, was tried for blasphemy by a Lebanese court, was denounced by Bahraini parliamentarians for, quote, “encouraging debauchery.” Most recently, a venue in San Diego, California canceled a scheduled concert, claiming it would, quote, be “divisive” and “unbalanced” to host Marcel Khalife without an Israeli artist alongside him.

Marcel Khalife and his ensemble have just completed a twenty-five-city tour of the United States and Canada. He joins us in our firehouse studio here in New York.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be in the United States?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Once I come to the airport, you feel a certain difference in treatment, in the negative, not positive, sense. Once our names are checked on the computer, the computer reacts unnaturally. They isolate us inside rooms, then questions are asked which have to do with our very humanity. This is truly regrettable that the place or the identity that you have becomes grounds for accusation.

I would like to add a small note here. The American people came and attended our concert, but I can say that we do not agree with American policy. This, after all, is a democratic country in which one can say anything.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they ask you at the airport?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Questions that even dehumanizes a person. They ask you about people whom you know or you have associated with, who they are and what they are. They even check your personal email. They even take your credit card number. They even asked me about my grandfather, a poor fisherman in my village, who passed away a long time ago.

AMY GOODMAN: What did they ask about him?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] What does he do? Where does he live? If my grandfather had known that they were going to ask about him in the United States, he would have been overjoyed.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, they checked your personal email?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] They asked for my email account so that they can check it.

AMY GOODMAN: The song we just played was your song called, well, ironically, “Passport.” Tell us about it.

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I just want to say something. It says, “The house of all my men are my nationality. Take away my passport.”

At the end of the interview with the immigration officer, naturally, this was not the first time. Anywhere I landed, I had the same conversation. I had a CD, and I gave him a copy, and I told him, “I would like to give you this as a gift, so that you’ll know that I am just an artist and a musician.” He was surprised that I gave him a CD. I told him at the same time, “I’m the UNESCO Artist for Peace.” And he said, “What does UNESCO mean?” It’s regrettable that an immigration officer does not know what UNESCO is. This happened here in New York. I told him this is a UN organization for culture.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Marcel Khalife, about what music means to you?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Ever since I was young, I felt that the melody would create in me a certain internal situation. I would accompany my mother in our village when I was young to church. I was not seeking God or anything. I loved listening to the hymns. At home, later on, I would tap on the table with the pots and plates.

It turns out that ever since I was very young, this rhythm, this sound, means something to me. My mother was the first to discover this madness in my fingers and talked my father into buying me a musical instrument. Naturally, they bought me the cheapest one. It wasn’t my choice. An oud came into our household. And we had a big celebration, and I gave up my domestic instruments, such as pots, tables and dishes.

On the following day, they took me to a certain person in the village who knew a little about music and notes and who taught me for three months. Then he called my parents and told them, “This boy is very talented. You should send him to an institute to study.” Once more, my mother intervened to talk my father into sending me to Beirut. And this is what happened, and I joined the conservatory.

Music is my oxygen. Without it, I feel life is lacking something. I wish that these politicians who control the world would listen to a tune before they go to bed. Perhaps then, instead of declaring war, they would declare love.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to just play an excerpt of “Ummi.” Can you introduce it for us?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I lost my mother at an early age, this woman who discovered me when I was just a child. I didn’t live with her for a long time. And then I discovered that she was there. This song is a profound salute to her, and to all mothers.

AMY GOODMAN: The words?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] The words are by Mahmoud Darwish.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s take a listen.

[music: Marcel Khalife–“Ummi”]

AMY GOODMAN:Ummi” means “mother.” Fawwaz, can you roughly translate “My Mother”?

FAWWAZ: I yearn to my mother’s bread. I miss my mother’s coffee. The child in me grows day after day, because if I were to die, I would be ashamed of my mother’s fears.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to a break, and then we’re going to come back. But of course the break will be your music. We’re joined by the acclaimed Lebanese musician, oud player, Marcel Khalife. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Taqasim,” an all-instrumental tribute to the acclaimed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Our guest is the acclaimed musician, UNESCO Artist for Peace, Marcel Khalife, just finishing his tour through the United States.

This song, dedicated to Mahmoud Darwish, why do you dedicate it to him? Talk about his significance in your work.

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] At the beginning of the Lebanese civil war in ’76, I was confined to my village because of the political events. I was not in agreement with the political trend in our area, the eastern area, so I had to stay indoors in my house. In that retreat, I only had the oud and the books of Mahmoud Darwish.

I had just graduated from the conservatory. I was an ambitious young man who wanted to change the world. But in the final analysis, one cannot even change oneself. I said to myself, I have to do something.

I began putting these Mahmoud Darwish poems to music. I put them to music so that I could feel my own presence. I never thought that they would become popular songs and sung by millions of people. I felt that Mahmoud Darwish possibly wrote his words for me, or it was revealed to me, a relationship that dates back thirty years with the poetry of Mahmoud Darwish.

And this work, I wanted to dedicate to him. My voice is not part of this work, and neither is his poetry. But I have always felt that his mother’s bread is like my mother’s bread, and the eyes of his beautiful Rita look like the eyes of my beautiful Rita. His Red Indians also look like mine. His sand and his birds also look like my sand and my birds. That’s why I dedicated this work to him.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcel Khalife, you have been banned in Tunisia, tried for blasphemy by a Lebanese court, denounced by Bahraini parliamentarians as “encouraging debauchery.” Most recently, your concert canceled in San Diego because they said you were “divisive” and “unbalanced.” Tell us about each circumstance. Tunisia, what happened?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I was banned previously in Tunisia. But later on the problem was resolved, and my work is available.

AMY GOODMAN: Right, but why?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I was banned possibly because what I present attracts people in the audience. On the stage, I feel that I’m in my natural milieu, saying what I want. There’s no censorship of what I say. Many of my works are not allowed in many countries. The moment they read the name of Marcel Khalife, even if just purely music, it’s banned.

AMY GOODMAN: Why blasphemy in Lebanon?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I put a poem by Mahmoud Darwish to music, which talks about the prophet Joseph, who is acknowledged by all religions. Naturally, he has the Palestinian people in mind. Part of the poem was from a Quranic verse, which I recited. This was not approved of by many extremists. I was tried by the Lebanese judicial, Lebanese court. But the Lebanese court acquitted itself, proved that it’s not a suppressor of art and culture and found me innocent, after three or four sessions at the justice palace, and I was found innocent of committing any crime.

In Bahrain, I presented Kais and Layla, a love story that predates Romeo and Juliet by a thousand years. The extremists also did not like that, because Kais and Layla fell in love, they were close to each other. Those who denounced me were extremist parliamentarians who did not even attend the concert. They simply based their opinion on the photographs published in newspapers that showed Kais and Layla next to each other.

In San Diego, this was the first case of an ethnic nature. They said that this would offend the Jewish community, that this concert would offend the Jewish community, according to them. They did not agree with the right of return of Palestinians, because the sponsoring organization was the Right of Return organization. It’s regrettable that this happens in a country which claims a culture of democracy. They banned the concert in that venue, although they had already received a deposit on the payment. But we did not give in. Together with the audience, we moved to another venue. And it was a major concert, a significant concert. Everyone came. I always like to say no against this tide of misery and filth.

AMY GOODMAN: Marcel Khalife is our guest, the great oud player, the great musician, the UNESCO Artist for Peace, just finishing up his tour here in the United States. This weekend, he played at New York University here in the city. The audience was both adoring, and it was absolutely packed. Can you talk about the situation in your country today, in Lebanon?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Very briefly and quickly. We ask the world not to help us, because this assistance, whether American, French or anything else, is assistance to consecrate the confessional system, because what they’re doing today, whether we elect a president or not, the situation will remain the same. Let the Lebanese do away with their confessional system and transform it into a secular one, so that the Lebanese would be united under the banner of Lebanon, and not under the banner of the confession, or the sect. If the world would help us achieve this, then they would be saving Lebanon. But it is clear that the world is seeking to consecrate this confessionalism.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean sectarian, when you say “confession”?

FAWWAZ: Sectarianism, yeah.

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Regrettably, this is what the foreign ambassadors are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: You played your music during Israel’s bombing of Lebanon?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] Naturally. Throughout the history of a war that lasted thirty years, our music was available, even in the front line positions. Sometimes it’s a balsam. It’s like a small candle that one tries to light. And if it sheds a little light around it, then one will have done something.

AMY GOODMAN: During your concert here in New York, you talked about the bombing of Lebanon, the bombs provided by the United States.

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I talked about smart and not-so-smart weapons. This was covered by the media. I did not invent it. As we saw, the US tried to prolong the war as long as possible. This is truly regrettable.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re getting away, Marcel Khalife, from singing, using your voice, and more toward instrumental. Why?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] I began with instrumentals and music, and I started singing by accident. Still, I see no difference between writing a song or writing music. I have greater freedom when I have a blank page on which I just write my notes. Sometimes I’ll ask poetry to leave me just to compose a musical oeuvre, and sometimes I go to poetry.

AMY GOODMAN: Are there any American artists you admire?

MARCEL KHALIFE: [translated] No particular person. I like always to listen to the music of the world, east and west, north and south. Sources of my work are not confined to any one place. I feel this globe is too small. A pigeon crosses it in two days.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Marcel Khalife, renowned musician, artist, oud player. And that does it for our broadcast. Fawwaz, thank you for translating.

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