Wednesday, October 20, 2010

music in dialogue

wednesday, 20 october 2010

It is a principle of beauty that a fair face cannot bear to remain hidden behind the curtain;
it is incapable of modesty, and if you close the door on it, it will only appear at the window.

All my events here in this region are co-sponored by Danmission with two other groups: Adyan and the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue. Both of these organizations are represented by women every bit as competent and talented as Agnete from Danmission. Our first activity was to go to the offices of Adyan and meet all the people involved. We took a slow taxi ride for about 40 minutes through Beirut. Aside from a casual jog in the morning along the "corniche," the walkway along the sea shore, this was to be my first real glimpses of the city. It was quite powerful to still see bombed out buildings and bullet-riddled walls. It's a crowded city, full of construction sites and traffic, though nowhere nearly as gnarled or crazy as Delhi or Chennai, with which I was comparing it.

Adyan is a Lebanese foundation "for interfaith studies and spiritual solidarity," as their own subtitle reads. (I couldn't help but think of other ways to describe what we hope to do with Sangha Shantivanam.) I met first Fr. Fadi, a Lebanese diocesan priest educated (highly, it seemed to me) in France, who had just returned from Rome taking part in the synod of Mideastern bishops, about which I have read quite a lot from John Allen's reporting in the NCR of late. And then I met Nayla Tabbara, who is a professor of religion at two different universities and also leads some e-courses online. She and I had a nice private talk at one point, her telling me some of her background. She is a Muslim, an expert in Sufism but teaches World Religions. In the course the day I heard her quote both Gregory of Nyssa and Paul Tillich, and she nodded her head knowingly and approvingly several times while I was being interviewed later and during the concert, so she obviously has a broad knowledge and spoke passionately about her work. Nayla explained to me that Adyan (an Arabic word simply meaning "religions") was founded right during the war in 2006, with the thought that people from different traditions needed to unite in prayer. It is run by both Christians and Muslims. Among their various educational programs, they organize Spiritual Solidarity days, gatherings for religious leaders and believers from different denominations on the grounds of common spiritual and moral values, and aim to enhance inter-communatarian relations and networks in "post-conflict societies through sustainable reconciliation and developement." In a war ravaged country such as this, that is no mean feat.

I don't know quite as much yet about the working of the other sponsoring organization, the Forum for Developement, Culture and Dialogue (FDCD), but their title is already pretty descriptive. The representative we are working with is a young spark of a woman named Linda Macktaby, who was also there to greet us at Adyan. That doesn't strike me as an obvious Lebanese name, but she is all Lebanese and a very dynamic vivacious woman, who seems to be able to make just about anything happen.

My first activity was an interview with a reporter from An-Nahar, the main newspaper of Beirut. The interviewer was an apparently well known journalist named Hala Homsi. She was delightful and quite well prepared. She had checked out my website and read some of my blog entries as well. (I still am getting used to the fact that the internet really is a public forum and has made it a very very small world...) The interview lasted a full hour I think, with Agnete, Nayla and Linda in attendance for the greater part of it as well. Hala had quite a range of questions for me, about my own work, my relation to my monastic community, about Fr. Bede, about music and interfaith dialogue. I'm always worried before hand that I am going to tongue tied in a situation like that but, as almost always happens, just put a nickel in my machine and I can't shut up. It's funny how when people ask you a question, it makes you think about something in a new way for the first time. She asked a number of times about my "mission" and my "message." I am not sure that I have been intentional about formulating either, and I told her as much. I just wanted to get out there and sing. I surprised myself sometimes with some of my other answers. She asked me what my main motivation was, and I said "pain and suffering," meaning, that I saw so much suffering in the world and I have wanted to find for mysewlf, and pass on to others, some way of not only surviving that suffering but being relieved of it. "Pain is inevitable," I have heard it said, "but suffering is optional." She also asked me what my main message was to the people of Lebanon, and I said that I felt like I was here more to learn than to teach. I hope people will like the music that I bring, and I hope if called on to teach I can offer some inspiration, but I feel, as in India, that I have so much to learn in a culture such as this that has lived with such turmoil, survived civil wars and invasion, and has lived with the tensions of two religions trying to coexist for so long--this is all new territory for a kid from Romeoville, Illinois.

I said to Hala a few times, "I want to say this very carefully in case my friends back home read it," to which she replied, "No worry, it will all be in Arabic."

We had our first concert then last night at the Near East School of Theology (NEST). This was one of few events that John Pennington luckily could do with me. So miraculous, it seemed to me, that he even showed up in the subterranean auditorium, and we had about an hout to put a program together. The times when I have been nervous are very rare, and this was one of them. Besides being my first concert in this region, having no idea what to expect of the audience reaction or participation, I was going to try to sing the few songs from Islam, with Arabic words, in front of native Arabic speaking Muslims and sheikhs. This felt more intimidating than singing Sanskrit in front of brahmins and Indologists. My biggest worry (still twitching from my experience in Malaysia two years back) was mispronunciation, but I was also worried about a slip of the tongue, as often happens when I am nervous, and accidentally saying something downright stupid, if not offensive. And then on top of that--if I knew this, I had forgotten--a film crew from the local TV station showed up with three cameras, and while I was trying to figure out the set list and rehearse with John they were re-arranging microphones and lights and setting up cameras. I was a little relieved to find out that Agnete was somewhat nervous too, this being our first event together here.

As it turned out, we were able to focus the nervous energy into a very good performance. I barely had to consult my notes or cheat sheets, and the Bismillah (the piece I was the most worried about) was a huge success. That's the song that has the phrase "Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim" as the refrain with Francis of Assisi's Litany of Praise as the verses. I tell the whole story of Francis and the Sultan as a prelude. I had worked on my pronunication with Linda all day and apologized in advance to the audience. They were very forgiving and, in spite of the fact that Linda had warned me that this audience probably wouldn't sing well, they sang very well indeed! I felt like I heard the song for the first time, with the proper enthusiasm. What a gift. I'm glad that first event is over.

Today I have an event at Haigazian Armenian University. I met the campus minister last night at the concert. To my immense comfort he's a guy named Greg from the Bay Area in California, and a musician besides. Not to my credit, I never retain many details about an event until just before it, and when I finally read the itinerary that Agnete and Linda had set up I was surprised by the title. I knew I would be giving a talk at some point but I wasn't sure what it was going to be about. It's entitled "Music in Dialogue: the Ground We Share." I had come with some a my high falootin conferences, which again I was a bit nervous about delivering in a public lecture at a university in a foreign country, but instead I can fall back on this format that I have enjoyed in the past: sing a few songs and talk about them a lot. There is a lot of teaching that goes into just talking about the philosophy, spirituality, history that is the background of some of these pieces. The introductions in concert have gotten longer and longer (John P can quote them line for line...), so at some point I started writing them down without worrying about length and turned them into fodder for conferences. It winds up being a little more casual than either a lecture of a concert, and I hope that there will be some room for conversation with the students as well. I'll let you know.