Review: Arab Christmas “Christians have been part of Gaza’s fabric since time immemorial”

by Hamja Ahsan   

It is a Friday night and I am inside the Rich Mix, a venue at the foot of East London’s Brick Lane, where three musical acts organised by Arts Canteen transport me into a Byzantine Temple, during Queen Zanubia’s reign of Palmyra in Iraq and Syria (269CE).

The venue is where I have attended concerts for Bangladesh’s Independence, Nitin Sawney DJ, the improvised poetry club night Tongue Fu, and where I have hosted my own DIY Cultures festival. But on that Friday night, closing my eyes, I was in the heart of Jerusalem under a marble dome. The trendy clubs, the inner city pressures, the hipsters, the segregated ghettos of East London all melted away.

Where usually stands a laptop, there were six fat candles and a simple banner with white text on black reading “Arab Christmas”. On this Winter’s night, stillness and musical simplicity filled the venue with a type of warmth rising from the singers breath into our hearts, pervading the room, that I never felt before in that space. On that night, the blue stage lights felt like the light from a stained-glass window, such is the solemnity and grace of the acts.

The opening performance of Lebanese singers Najib Coutya and Christelle Madani of liturgical Christmas included chants from the Greek Orthodox tradition. All acts were performed in the language of Aramaic and medieval Arabic. Though I do not speak either, the stripped down voices penetrated right through to my core. At times, the hymns were sung a cappella, at times they were accompanied by traditional Arabic instruments, such as the oud, the qanun and the Persian santur.  To someone who, as a teenager, sought solace in angsty indie rock, I was reminded of Kurt Cobain’s live performance on MTV’s Unplugged in New York. The oscillating male and female voices reminded me of  the duets of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and, at times, of slowcore band Low, stripped to a delayed heartbeat, but deeply influenced by the Christian vocal tradition under the glow of candle light.

Arab Christmas with Arts Canteen-24

Oud player at Arab Christmas (photo credit: Arts Canteen) (2016)

During the interval, open trays of gingerbread biscuits were handed out to the audience, adding to the sense of atmospheric hospitality. And in between sets, a man would take to the stage to sing a du’a, a call out to God often made to supplement daily Muslim prayers, on the Oud with weathered gravity.

Merit Ariane Stephanos took the stage for the second half of the concert, wearing a long black dress, accompanied by virtuoso multi-instrumentalist Jon Banks.  A singer of Coptic Egyptian and German ancestry, Stephanos spent three months in Lebanon researching the Arab Christian chants in their original homeland, and she reminded the audience that Aramaic, the language of the performed songs, was the language Jesus Christ spoke.

Stephanos’ performance evoked images of the legendary Sevdah singer Amira Medunjanin, from Sarajevo, who sung with the same depth of tone and estranged yearning. Recent scholarly work of Darryl Li suggests that there were was much exchange between Bosnian and Ottoman cultural traditions, during the 15th century. Perhaps I heard the influence of Bushnaqs, Palestinians whose ancestors hail from the territory of present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina.  At its peak, I could hear the sounds of Qawwali, the Pakistani exponent of Sufi music, Abida Parveen, in Dhikr, in the stretch of Stephanos voice, invoking the love of God. By listening carefully, the music revealed the richness of religious and spiritual traditions where civilisations once weaved rather than clashed.

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Merit Ariane Stephanos performing at Arab Christmas (photo credit: Arts Canteen) (2016)

There was no percussion for the night, bar the tinkle of a tiny cymbal for the closing-song Hallelujah. The finale was accompanied by the humming chorus  of the audience – hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah – and ended in celebratory whistles and fanfare.

The visionary of Art Canteen, Aser El Saqqa, has previously worked in cultural affairs for the Palestinian Ministry of Culture, and his work has always involved engaging interfaith practices. When asked about the inspiration for the event, he cited memories of “growing up in Gaza with Muslims and Christians visiting each other during religious festivals” as a major reason. “There are three official churches in Gaza, each representing a different denomination. Christians have been part of Gaza’s fabric since time immemorial.”

However, Israel’s occupation of Palestine, including the Gaza Strip, has devastated the living conditions, and most of Gaza’s Christian population has had to flee. El Saqqa lamented, “ten years ago, there were some 3,000 Palestinian Christians in Gaza; today, just a little more than 1,000 remain. Both Muslim and Christian put their efforts to serve the same cause and reach unity, freedom, dignity, return to the land and independence.” By organising a ecumenical Christmas event, El Saqqa hopes to contribute to such interfaith efforts.

In the introductory remarks to the concert, a priest with a localised English accent had mirrored El Saqqa’s unease. He reminded the audience that the lifeworld of Jesus Christ was more attuned to the Arab region than Europe, and that, in spite of that, Christianity remains threatened in many part of the Middle-East, especially with the rise of Daesh.

The Arab Christmas concert was the language of religious traditions – Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islam and the Anglican Church – not only at peace, but in unison. It was that which inspired me to attend the event despite my Muslim background. Attending the concert defied my childhood experience of being assimilated at school and singing Christian School Assembly hymns against my will. Here I was, consciously and voluntarily, in a sold-out concert in the heart of the spiritual homeland of my Bangladeshi Muslim diaspora, Tower Hamlets, in total serene contentment of Christian chants.

Arts Canteen is a UK-based arts organisation curating arts from the Arab world. Plans for Arab Christmas to be staged again. Contact info@artscanteen.com for details.

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Hamja Ahsan is an activist, artist and curator. He co-founded the DIY Cultures festival. and Other Asias collective. He was shortlisted a Liberty Human Rights award for Free Talha Ahsan campaign His book Shy Radicals: The Antisystemic Politics of the Introvert Militant (Bookworks) is due out in 2016.

This review was edited by Media Diversified’s Middle East & North Africa editor, Mend Mariwany. To pitch an article, or feature please contact mend@mediadiversified.org

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