Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dar al-Opera

When you ask anyone – Syrian or otherwise – of their favorite buildings in Damascus, they will inevitably list structures built hundreds of years ago. Past civilizations, going back to the Umayyads, who ruled the Muslim World from Damascus in the 7th and 8th centuries – left a remarkable architectural record. The same cannot be said for the rulers of modern Syria.

One exception, however, is the Assad House of Culture and Arts, often referred to simply as Dar al-Opera -- the Opera House. Built only a few years ago, it is a monument to the nation’s commitment to the performing arts, and its reputation as a cultural capital – along with Cairo – of the Arab world. Performances there are free, subsidized by the Ministry of Culture.

Last week, I attended a performance of the famous Iraqi singer, Faridah Muhamad, who sings in the classical Arabic style, called Maqam. Her seven-piece band, which included a violin, an oud – the Arabic precursor to the guitar – and a table harp, were also Iraqi. Since 1997, they have been based in Holland.

The performance was riveting. After the first song, she apologized for her voice; she said that it felt tired – she had also performed there the night before – but I couldn’t tell. The man sitting next to me, a French literature student at the University of Damascus – whispered to me, “If her voice is tired now, can you only imagine …”

One of the loudest applauses came during a song, when she sent a "salutation from Baghdad to Damascus." More than a million Iraqis – by some estimates, three million – have fled to Syria, most to Damascus, since the Iraq War began. The influx has increased in recent months. The newcomers have strained Damascus city services and driven up rents. Similarly, Lebanese sought refuge here by the hundreds of thousands during the war with Israel this summer. And Palestinian refugees and their progeny have lived here since 1948.

A Syrian friend explained to me that Syria has become home for the hanan – those who yearn for their homelands.


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