The Memory of Something Forbidden

The Memory of Something Forbidden

Contemporary composers derive inspiration from one of the most famous mystics of the Arab world: martyr and Sufi master Husain ibn Mansur Al-Hallağ. Samir Odeh-Tamimi also drew on personal experience for his new work for chorus and orchestra Mansur.

by Margarete Zander (Translation: Gail Schamberger)

As I prepared for my conversation with Samir Odeh-Tamimi, I had the sound of Istanbul in my ears. In 2008, the composer was asked to capture the ambience of the city in music. Amid the bewildering, even menacing chaos in the Cihangir quarter of the city, he found an oasis of calm in the prayers of the muezzins and in a mysterious picture by the painter Osman Hamdi Bey, entitled The Tortoise Trainer. The idea suddenly struck him: the strange submissiveness with which these attentive tortoises gaze at their Koran master reflected his own disbelieving wonderment, and the very heartbeat of Istanbul. We feel in his work Cihangir how Tamimi does not build bridges between cultures, but creates an emotional reality.

The composer was born near Tel Aviv in 1970; his grandfather was a wellknown Arab Sufi healer. From what native soil did this Palestinian – who has lived in Germany for over twenty years – generate his new work? His formative influences were music and the fine arts. When he was a child, a recorder teacher came to his village of Jaljuliya (pop. 15,000); 500 pupils enrolled for lessons – but only one stayed: Samir Odeh-Tamimi. 

This proved a significant encounter for him, and he still loves the recorder; but it would hardly have mattered what his first instrument was – it would have inspired him anyway. From his childhood onwards, his perception of life was shaped by music. 

When a band-leader in search of loudspeakers came knocking at his parents’ door and discovered the 14-year-old playing a keyboard, he was so enthusiastic that he took the boy with him on a tour of Israel; they played Palestinian folk-songs and popular songs by famous Arab stars. At fifteen, Tamimi discovered a Beethoven recording, then Mozart, Schubert and Bach, and he knew he wanted to be a composer. He took lessons with a Russian pianist, but failed the entrance examination for the Academy in Jerusalem, and went to Greece. Here, however, in the cradle of western culture, he did not find the kind of music he wanted to compose. 

Then a friend wrote to him from Kiel, suggesting that he should come to the country which had brought forth so many composers. There he studied musicology, learned German, discovered that one could even study composition, and enrolled with Younghi Pagh-Paan at the Academy of Music in Bremen. The Korean composer not only awoke his enthusiasm for Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Giacinto Scelsi, but advised him to study his own heritage, the music of his native land. Through her constant stimulus, he recognised that music and art had always enabled him to transcend confessional boundaries. Thus when he was still living in Israel, it had been a matter of course for him to visit not only mosques, but also Jewish synagogues.

As a child, he was deeply impressed by the voice of Abdel Baset, the most famous Koran singer in the Arab world. “Whether you’re Christian, Jew or Muslim, you can’t escape his voice”, says Tamimi. “He sings with an intensity I’d never heard before. He has a counter-tenor voice, and he presses out the notes with the dynamic of a triple forte – for hours on end. The sound is enthralling in its beauty. He sang in the largest mosque in Cairo, in that echoing hall, with a megaphone. He created so many different timbres that I was quite hypnotised.” This fascination was not without consequences; Tamimi himself practised Koran singing. “Every Wednesday, the eighth lesson was Koran tuition, and I was able to sing the Koran for 45 minutes. I tried to follow the example of Abdel Baset.”

His new work developed from an encounter with Tunisian writer Ali Mosbah, who lives in Berlin, and who was the first to translate into Arabic works by Nietzsche: Ecce homo and Also sprach Zarathustra. A deep friendship grew up between the two men. Their conversation frequently turned to Husain ibn Mansur Al-Hallağ. As a schoolboy, Tamimi had often heard of this famous Persian Sufi teacher, who was cruelly executed in 922, but closer acquaintance came with these conversations.

Tamimi emphasises that he is not religiously motivated. “I’m not religious in the confessional sense. I feel this kind of love for God as something really quite alien to me. But I am a spiritual person. After all, each of us believes in some kind of creation, some kind of energy. Al-Hallağ’s message goes beyond the scope of any existing religious community. It plays a very important part in my new piece that a person exists only through his knowledge, and that God remains something indefinable.”

In the Arab world, every child knows the life-story and the philosophy of Al-Hallağ. He has become known in the western world through the works of Islam scholar Annemarie Schimmel, who writes that anyone exploring Islamic mysicism will frequently encounter the name of Hallağ, his utterance Anā l-Ḥaqq [“I am the Absolute Truth”] and his death on the gallows. He has become a symbol; his teaching has often been misrepresented as pantheistic, and he is as controversial a figure today as he was over a thousand years ago – but his total commitment and his acceptance of suffering never fail to fascinate.

Schimmel’s work deserves particular respect from those who cannot read the original Arabic. She recommends that the text should be read aloud, slowly, allowing time to meditate on each word. A translation, she says, cannot give adequate expression to its essence; a translator hardly ever feels so helpless as when faced with a text written by a master of Arabic – a wonderful language, with its unique combination of conciseness, sonority and keenness of expression.

Samir Odeh-Tamimi has mastered this language; he can feel the poetry in its sound. “There’s a rhythm that emerges from Sufi music. I feel an incredible fascination that comes not only from his words, but from the whole world of music that lies behind them.” These songs awoke in him the memory of something forbidden. His family was against the idea of someone being drawn into the secret rituals of the Sufi, practised by his grandfather. 

But as a child, whenever possible Tamimi would steal into the night-time worship of the Sufi community, and the greatest treat for him was when his grandfather occasionally allowed him to play the drum. He loved the pulsating rhythms, the murmured texts, the Sufi manner of reciting verses from the Koran, accompanying them with their own texts, and the way they become caught up in the rhythm of the words. He was at once fascinated and alarmed when they were completely carried away in this rhythmic oscillation, arriving at heights of ecstasy until they reached the point of exhaustion. After some hours, collective prayer, during which the Sufis walked in a circle, eventually became a monotonous, ecstatic chant, until they fell into a state of trance. Finally, close to collapse, they would breathe a single syllable: hu, which means He – God.

This is the experience Samir Odeh-Tamimi represents at the end of his new piece. During the final minutes the chorus sings itself, through repetition, into a kind of trance. The climax is the total collapse. “Al-Hallağ wished even this final hu to die away”, explains Tamimi, “so that only knowledge remains.”

Source: Salzburger Festspiele Almanach 2014. Published with the kind permission of Salzburger Festspiele