All posts by Ahmad Damen

Ahmad Damen is a musician, soundtrack composer and an award-winning film director from Ramallah, Palestine.

Bill Hicks – My American Idol

21 years and 2 weeks ago on the 16th of June, an extraordinary man was receiving really bad news from his doctor: “You are diagnosed with cancer.”

Unlike Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” this legend had already paid his dues and roamed the world criticizing every “broken” system we know today, and he was a game-changer in the history of America.

Very few people in America at that time knew who Bill Hicks was. His name was getting popular in other English-speaking countries like the UK and Australia.

He kept his illness to himself and his family without much fuss in the media, and he took his last breath on the 26th of February 1994.

The reason he had to leave us that early remained a mystery to me:

1) Maybe his body couldn’t take all that stress and traveling in his self-imposed exile anymore?
2) Maybe he got bored of this unbearable status humanity has reached?
3) Or maybe he was a true prophet, and it was time for him to leave.

He reminds us of the old success models of a young age that are very hard to exist in today’s world. It’s also at the age of 32 that Alexander the Great died, a year younger than Jesus Christ. For some he was a dangerous lunatic, but for me and many others I know, he became a hero.

What was his job? A standup comedian! That’s it… he just stood on stage and spoke his mind.

But he was not like any standup comedian of his time or comedians we know today. He didn’t time his jokes well to get some cheers and laughs. He actually didn’t care if the audience liked his material or not. He was a philosopher, a free soul, a visionary musician and, most importantly, a true rebel.

He is one of the few people who applied every firm belief he had in his life, and he was his own role model.

Someone with his abilities could have achieved far more fame and influence than he did, but he didn’t… another mystery that I cannot decipher.  Maybe it was because he was a typical white American from Houston, Texas. That’s not the place to criticize the society, government, religion or our way of life, and Bill simply fell a victim of stereotypes. Most of his shows ended up with him running out of clubs and the audience chasing him with anger.  Or maybe it was because he died suddenly at his prime and without raising any child to carry his banner.   Or maybe he came ahead of his time to warn us about the course we are all taking.

He was a true voice that supposedly got his chance to speak in the “land of the free”, but was instead rejected so harshly, censored from the mass media and pushed out of his own country.

I still remember the first time I heard of him in 2003 during the second Gulf War. This guy was speaking about the first Gulf War during George Bush Sr. years, and EVERYTHING he said and predicted was spot on, even today!

The more I listened to him, the more I realized it’s not just that, but far better. He is a teacher with vision on all our aspects of life! His famous sketch, “It’s just a ride” became my motto and way of life ever since. Bill is one of the few people who had a great influence on me and showed me the way in the darkest hours, despite the fact that we never met.

That’s the type of crazy people we tend to push outside society because they challenge the system, but they are also the type of we need the most.  Societies and governments like only those who conform. If you want to disagree, you better live silently on the outskirts. Bill did neither.

That’s not healthy in such a crazy world, but it is the opposite of crazy. It’s true wisdom that people may never take with ease.

I call on everybody to listen to what this man had to say. He left a message that is too important and urgent to ignore. In the days we are living in now, America gave us things like drones during civil weddings, fast food, capitalism, a hollow peace process, American Idol and a long list of things I’m not sure the world will be proud of 50 years from now.

But America also gave us Bill Hicks, my true American Idol, a man the whole world will come to know and remember hundreds of years to come.

Abbas & Mustafa

How much do I really relate to the Palestinian living next door?

As far as history claims, societies first formed when a group of people decided to gather in caves for protection. So, we are Palestinians because our ancestors happened to live in caves nearby!

Ok, ok… it may mean a bit more than that, but that’s how it all started.

The word “Palestine” shows dedication to the Sykes-Picot agreement, which is basically a manmade border. Before the British Mandate, Palestine used to refer to a region within Syria!

It was the creation of Israel that complicated everything. Palestinians view the dream of a state of Palestine as a way to confirm their identity and long heritage.

Today, whether we like this or not, this basic concept is starting to change. Why?

Let me demonstrate this by comparing my relationship with two people: My dear Chinese friend Liang and Mr Mahmoud Abbas (a Palestinian and the head of the Palestinian Authority).

Mr Abbas:

We tend to use different languages. In our dictionaries words like “Palestine”, “occupation” and “friends” refer to completely different concepts.

He hardly ever made me a promise and fulfilled it. He keeps making my life miserable by refusing to dismantle the Palestinian Authority and didn’t manage (contrary to his claims) to put Palestine on the map.

What do we have in common? I assume he likes knafeh too, but who doesn’t?!

Liang:

Yeah, on the surface you may think we have nothing in common.

I don’t speak Chinese and he doesn’t speak Arabic, but we both speak the truth whenever we see it. We tend to understand each other sometimes without having to utter a single word.

He never made a promise and failed me. He has been a blessing to my life and continues to do so. He knows how to take care of himself and give love to those he values around him.

To me, Liang, a Chinese raised in a small village many miles away, is so “Palestinian” in the image of simplicity and humbleness that I gave him the nickname “Mustafa” (“The Chosen” in Arabic). Maybe because it was like finding my version of “Neo”!

My dear Mustafa is expecting his first baby this September and I cannot wait to have the chance to see the newborn, give her some real Arabic love and perform my duties as Uncle Damen!

Mustafa is so different from a great number of Palestinians I’ve got to meet in Palestine or abroad who ran away from their own life problems and dedicated their lives to resisting Israel! Yes, resisting the occupation is a noble cause, but abandoning themselves and even causing problems to others in the name of such resistance is not noble anymore.

Palestine will never come to exist on the shoulders of broken souls who failed their own life battles and decided to chase a false dream of perfection. Palestine to them is a “fantasy,” not a “reality”. I don’t know what they’d be doing if there were no Israel. I’m not sure I can trust these youth with the future of the country. They keep criticising Mr Abbas, and, in fact, many of them are not that better.

A leftist Arab nationalist criticised me once by saying: Yeah, you’re one of those “humanists”!

When was being human a problem? Did I miss a meeting?!

They are so focused on their fantasy of Palestine which sounds a lot more like hell than any form of paradise I can imagine.

As a human being I seek the infinites like love and knowledge. I realize that I’m nothing but a meat-coated skeleton on a very small planet in a VERY vast universe. I like to find those who still didn’t abandon their souls regardless of their country of origin.

And YES these include those very few Israelis, like Ilan Pappe, who abandoned the Zionist aspirations and seem to have more soul than many Palestinians I know, even regarding the Palestinian cause. I’ve been on this soul search with little success so far, but I’m not giving up. After all, my soul is the only thing that I truly own.

As a Palestinian, I was raised to undervalue possessions and the word “ownership”. The first thing that comes to my mind when I buy anything is: “Does it fit in a small bag?” or “Would I take this with me if I was forced to leave home on a whim?”

However, this is NOT specifically a Palestinian problem anymore. We have seen enough war and injustice to know exactly what imperialists are doing to destroy our planet.

The word “Arab” and the word “refugee” became synonyms now, especially with the Iraqi and Syrian catastrophes. Palestinians are now the old-time “refugees” who’ve been around the block long enough to be the experts!

Mustafa, I and many friends around the world realize that resisting “imperialism” is the key to freedom for everybody in each corner of our planet.

The map I’d love to see is not a map with Palestine on it, but a map with no manmade borders on it at all. Everybody would be free to roam Earth again. This is a TRUE nightmare for every imperialist.

But for now, when Mustafa shows his daughter the world map one day, he’ll tell her that Uncle Damen comes from a part of the world they call “Palestine.” At least in those young Chinese eyes Palestine would really exist. By that time of course, I’d have already chosen an Arabic name for her to certify her Palestinian-ism!

By doing this, Mustafa would’ve achieved what Mr Abbas failed to do and without putting much effort (except that Mustafa found his soul and spread love and knowledge).

And as long as Israel exists, I’ll still call myself a Palestinian. Not because I believe in the word, but because it’s the “home” I’ve learnt to love and, little by little and despite all my efforts, been forced to lose.

On the ways up the mountain – Part 2

Following our spirituality, religion and politics discussion, we’d naturally ask:

Why is spirituality important? Is it missing in the Arab world? And what is the alternative?

We have always associated Europe’s success with its ability to break away from the Catholic Church, start the Renaissance and establish the importance of logic and science over superstition.

And who is the guy who started this trend in Europe? An Arab, of course!

YEAH… we used to do other things instead of smoking shisha all day!

The Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd of the 12th century (known in the west as Averroes) wrote on merging the philosophy of Aristotle with that of Islamic philosophy started by scholars like Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and Al-Farabi. He wanted to respond to the extreme right religious scholar Al-Ghazali, hoping to re-establish the “power of the mind” and logic as part of the world’s answer to religious extremism.

But is that really the reason of the success of the European model?!

Well, it did help in justifying the eradication of the natives in the New World back then, and giving a good excuse for stealing the resources from Africa and taking its people as slaves. But in all cases, the pope would have given them permission for the “greater good” if the issue were to come to his table.

The model of capitalism and greed is still being used today in the West, with horrible results for planet and humanity, in my opinion.

And yes, it is helping in keeping certain parts of the world rich over others, but it’s not working for Arabs and also does not provide a lot of answers to the average European/American.

Why is it not working for Arabs? Because it conflicts with our fundamental set of beliefs that were evident since Christ’s time and continued to develop with the arrival of Islam. Due to later failures (that would not fit here), we were not able to succeed in pushing our model forward, and we were resigned to adopt the European model without limits. We didn’t choose the success factors that apply to our culture.  Instead, we simply took everything.

This resulted in a society that is full of contradictions, multiple personality disorders on a massive scale, and (as you can see) a broken system. The Arab economic, educational and social institutions are now useless.

I don’t claim to know the answer to this big dilemma, but I could at least look at a practical solution within our grasp. For an Arab reading this (no matter what religion you follow) there is a way to pull yourself together and start your climb up the mountain.

It’s called Spiritual Awakening.

Eastern societies have always understood the importance of spirituality for their society’s structure and way of life. You can see this in India, China, Japan, Malaysia and other models in the Far East.

The Arab World has always been the link between the East and the West… Remember “The Silk Road”?

Spiritual awakening is NOT about following one path.  It’s the use of one or many paths to reach salvation and inner peace for your soul and body, to find the answers and seek to be an active part of humanity as a whole.

It is based on the idea that the mind or consciousness, upon which the humans are allegedly unique, is a limited device. It could only show you so little about life, keeps deceiving you into confusing reality and dream, and limits your acceptance of imperfection, by creating the ego.

And oh I bet you have met and seen many of those “inflated egos” in this world, a world driven by competition and greed, which is causing the rise of a new trend psychologists in the West now call a “narcissistic epidemic”.

Everybody wants to have the full cake and is looking for their “cheese” everywhere. Books have been written, talks and presentations held on how to succeed by climbing on top of others, to be a “highly effective” person, and to have the largest share you can grab of the world’s limited resources!

When your PC (god forbid) is full with viruses and is not operating well, you have the choice of “formatting,” no matter how painful and time consuming this could be, and starting anew.

And that is exactly what spiritual awakening is all about. Our society that is becoming dangerously exclusionary, competitive and greedy needs to get rid of all the rust that’s clogging it. We have to realize we are no longer teachers in this world and stop asking the world to adopt “our way,” because it has failed.

This is a huge issue for the new “ego-inflated Arab” nowadays.

We are merely students who should accept failure and start again with a lot of humility. We do not have to re-invent the wheel, we just have to adapt a new system that could fit our basic culture.

This was suggested by the Morrocan scholar and philosopher Taha Abdel Rahman in his “Religious Practice and Renewal of the Reason” (1989). In order to achieve this, according to Abdel Rahman, we have to:

1) Realize the limits presented by the mental model adopted in Europe, which is far from being sufficient in answering both the moral and life questions.  Also, we have to realize the potentials and blessings of reaching higher dimensions that surpass our ever-deceiving consciousness.

2) Give spirituality back to the people by experiencing it firsthand instead of the voices of priests, imams and mullahs.

Again, I’m not referring to one path over another. There are many ways up the mountain.

What are the religious clerics and politicians doing about it? They are standing at the foothill telling everybody that their choice of the “way up” is a “sin” and the wrong choice that would lead us to hell.

Meanwhile, in fact, their way has lead us only downhill to the pits of darkness and the real hells beyond.

The mystic, the cleric and the politician – Part 1

What is religion?

What is spirituality?

I don’t claim to know the answer to these questions.

But, maybe creating a distinction between both could make this very complex and vague picture a bit clearer. One way to define the difference is to say, “Religion is the belief in someone else’s experience; spirituality is having your own.”

Religion, as we observe it today, is all about the decisions of the institution. There is always a higher body that decides what is right and wrong. Of course, in a vast religion like Islam there are several higher bodies, whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Iran, which means they are more likely to disagree than agree. The same applies for churches that still hold on to centralized systems like that of the Catholic Church.

Muslims tend to believe in the institution of religion more than religion itself. They are more likely to believe what their imam/mullah is telling them, and sometimes they even approach the ones who would give them the answers they want to hear. It resonates a lot with the same dilemma that Western Christianity had to deal with during the dark ages in Europe.

This system of interdependence has turned many to follow the European and American lifestyles which totally abandon what they believe to be a broken system.

But the main questions that comes to mind, whenever we are faced with suffering, dilemmas or questions of our existence: Are the common sense and the power of the mind enough to find the answers? Did Europe and America find their salvation in capitalism, for example?

Institutions, especially the big ones, are all about politics. The desires of the individuals will always clash with the need to develop and go forward. I’m still fascinated by the fact that in all the major religions in the world, you will never find any woman reaching a high position. Why?!

The reason the Catholic institution lost a lot of power was not because Martin Luther was an influential man. We could even say he was part of the extreme right, a “salafi” in today’s Islamic terminology. But his thoughts of abandoning the absolute power of the pope synced deeply with the desires of England and France at the time.

We probably had many Martin Luther(s) in Islam, and even more open minded ones, but the political situation was never in favour of their success. The emergence of the petro-dollar created a central form of religion decided by those in power, unlike the openness we once had with the different schools of thought in the Islamic tradition (Shafi, Maliki, Hanbali and Hanafi). Today however, if someone has other views than the centralized ones we totally abandon him/her, loath them and in many cases kill them!

This has deeply influenced our inability to accept the “other” opinion. We have been taught in both the educational and religious institutions in the Arab countries that the “other is ALWAYS wrong, and what we see today is the result of these teachings!

So, how can we find salvation on an individual level?

If we consider the definition of spirituality as forming your own belief system, then the Quran clearly distinguishes between the Believer and the Muslim.

The bedouins say, “We have believed.” Say, “You have not yet believed,” but say instead, “We have submitted,” for faith has not yet entered your hearts. Quran 49:14

The believer creates his/her own belief system on issues of God and the purpose of life. You cannot be a true believer if you are a follower, because you are simply following the rules of other humans, not the divine! When the test of patience or suffering knocks your door, you’ll be the first to doubt all of your beliefs.

Humans, as we discussed earlier, are driven by politics and the benefits of the immortal lives. Just because they have devoted their lives to any religious institution doesn’t mean they are incorruptible. It actually implies the extreme opposite in most cases.

A path of self-belief and the creation of a system that accepts the power of God, with the realization of the limits of man, is not an easy task. However, the path has never been clearer in the world of chaos we live in today.

Those who believe they were saved simply for being born into a certain religion (whether Muslims, Christians or Jews) are dangerously delusional. There are many paths up the mountain, and the institutionalized Islam today is not leading anywhere. It’s not about believing in God any longer, but about following the institutional form. The path is not about seeking the spirit of Islam, but about the political powers and their aspirations.

And those who say that God will always protect their house fail to realize that it’s already gone! You cannot even see the Ka’aba in the middle of the huge structures surrounding it. They are luxurious hotels and towers built on the resources of the petro-dollar itself.

Next time, when you apply for your Hajj, you could choose between Hajj Standard or Hajj Extra! Is this what you expect spirituality to be like?

Do you think I’m sounding like an “infidel” just because I’m speaking my mind?

Good! That means you are angry, and maybe thinking, for once! Thinking is not favourable among such deeply-rooted institutions.

Farewell to the Quarter-Man

If you have been exposed to the songs of Fayrouz and the music of Ziad Rahbani of Lebanon, Qasabji of Egypt or Khammash of Iraq then you definitely have been introduced to the “quarters”.

The Arabic music is characterized by several factors and is unique in its own way. It includes the use of sounds called “quarters”, which lie between the black and white keys on a regular piano. Arabic music is defined by its rich melodic tunes that have been a central part of the Arabic culture for centuries, way before the famous singer Ziryab of the 8th century. This field of study formed its own version of music theory and was the attention of many great scholars like Al Farabi in the 9th century with his “The Great Book of Music” (Kitab Al Musiqa Al Kabeer).

The use of quarters was also common in certain parts of Europe. Sometime along the way, the regulation of Western music theory (by composers like Johann Sebastian Bach) abandoned the quarter-tones. The desire for experimenting with new sounds in the 19th and 20th centuries tempted Western composers like Reiner and Ives to reuse quarters in their works.

I remember one day visiting the museum of music history in Prague and coming across a piano that has been designed especially to include Quarters. The piano was designed by a Czech company in 1924. Many clarinets, trumpets and horns were also designed accordingly. I felt really proud of my heritage and the richness of my musical identity and its vast variety of sounds.

What we see today is the emergence of young Arab bands of artists who are trying to produce quality work of music and lyrics in order to create a new identity for Arabic music. This is a good alternative to mainstream TV songs which are designed for “show” and entertainment purposes rather than an artistic and serious consideration of the musical heritage.

Most of these bands, however, are not using the musical heritage that has been prospering and developing for thousands of centuries in the region.  Rather, they are simply creating Western tunes and melodies to accompany the Arabic lyrics. Many of these songs aim at our love to the land, freedom and resisting occupation and prejudice. The melodies and chords they embrace are in no way even close to the Arabic music, and in my opinion, are not doing well in accommodating the Arabic language and eastern instruments in their productions. They only want to ride the successful wave of Western evolution of music to the atonal scales, electronic music and beyond.

Now before jumping to conclusions and accusing me of being old-fashioned and resistant to positive changes in tastes, hear me out!

I’m NOT totally against this new trend of musical development. I see no harm in any band wanting to do metal, pop, rock or any other genre of music. What I fear is that we are trying to make failed copies of Metallica, the Eagles and Pink Floyd. We do not use our musical heritage to push these genres to new dimensions, and we are not even creating our own new genres.

When the families I know come to me for advice about their children’s musical education, they are interested in teaching them guitars and pianos. They do not approach music for cultural education or to put their children on the road of spirituality and inner peace. They want to make more copies of Western success! They abandon themselves in search of a false belief… and do you know what these instruments lack?

RIGHT!

They lack the fundamental quarters and the ability to use the full scales of Arabic music which children would require to form their future musical identity.

This resulted in an overwhelming majority of alternative Arab bands that are abandoning the “Quarter-Man” with all he has to offer and jumping to the “Middle-Man” directly instead. I know Arabic music is not only about quarters, but even the melody and music form they are using are totally Western.

This is not about whether I like this trend or not, but it is about preserving our music and culture. There are few bands who have tried to remain faithful to that heritage, and the ones who succeed mainly imitate and reproduce the old Arabic classics. The bands who are trying to reach a genuine Arabic musical identity that responds to the tastes and developments of the 21st century are few and dwindling.

I will end this by a story I heard about the renowned Iraqi oudist (lutist) Munir Bashir. When young Munir moved to Europe in the 1960s and offered to perform his music in a radio station, he used his oud and compositions to play rock music. The producers were upset by the result. They told him that if they wanted him to do rock, any guy on the street there would beat him in that genre. They wanted to hear what he REALLY had to offer, and this is how Bashir pushed Iraqi Music into a new realm and introduced it to the world.

If Bashir went on to try to be a rock star, I don’t think we would have heard about him or enjoyed his music today!

The “Quarter Man” is currently in a coma. He’s immortal and I doubt he’ll ever cease to exist. But if we were to abandon him, or use him only to repeat old tunes from the past, then I don’t see any future legacy for these Arab bands. This is not the way to revive our sense of identity and deliver quality of music and lyrics. Their music will most probably leave little legacy and far more less of a contribution to world music.