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Why I Only Listen to Arabic Music

This is Listening Guide #30, a series of music recommendations & reviews posted to Patreon every other week. If you liked this post, I’d appreciate your subscription.

Hand on a darbuka (Lebanese drum) with text to the side that says "Why I Only Listen to Arabic Music"

Looking back at this year so far, we’ve almost exclusively explored Arabic music. I didn’t intend for it to be that way, it’s just that…nothing else can compare to the profound connection I feel when listening to this music. Arabic music isn’t superior to others, but it does speak to me like nothing else. Here’s why.

Arabic music an important part of my identity — it’s my connection to a culture I have few connections to.

When I say I listen almost exclusively to Arabic music, I hear my contemporary music mentors insist I diversify my listening pallette. But there’s something to be said for my deep dive into the Arabic world.

Picture of a delicious plate of Middle Eastern food
photo credit to Louis Hansel on Unsplash

At my old job, my coworkers would talk a lot about cooking. They strategized the best way to create their array of American foods — pasta, steak, fried chicken, pork roast. I was pretty shy and didn’t feel like I had much to add so I stayed quiet. Yet, noticing that I wasn’t contributing to the conversation, my boss asked what I like to cook.

Warmed by this invitation, I start listing all sorts of Lebanese dishes. Djaj wa battata, Kibbeh m3a laban, beoufsteak (not the French one), makloubi, and more.

My boss stopped me and asked, in a slightly condescending tone, if I cooked any other food besides Lebanese. As if Lebanese food alone isn’t enough. I regretted my excitement and spoke about this one time I made a chicken pot pie.

But here’s the truth:

I don’t cook a lot of non-Lebanese food. I love having a routine, it makes me feel in control.

My career as a freelancer who never had an office job has been fruitful but requires a ton of learning and often, overwhelming anxiety. I need a routine. I need control. We all do. So I won’t apologize for sticking with what I know.

But there’s something deeper here though: an Ancestral connection.

I listen almost exclusively to Arabic music because it’s one of the few ways in this country I can connect with my cultural heritage.

While I will always love the classical music repertoire, no other genre of music offers me that connection. Nor does that connection form after listening to Umm Kulthum once.

The way I listen runs deeper.

It’s one thing to be aware of the Arabic Golden Age discography. But I want to love it. I want to know them like the grandfather I never got to know.

Picture of Turkish Coffee sets organized on a wooden shelf
photo credit to Waqas Saeed on Unsplash

Many people don’t know this about me, but growing up I was actually very lucky to have half of my family here in the US, and the other half in Lebanon. I grew up surrounded by my dad’s Lebanese immigrant family, and their grappling between the love of our culture and the pressures of assimilation.

But we have a complicated history, my family. To this day they don’t like to talk about what happened before I was born. The civil war, the Israeli invasion. Except for my grandfather, who died when my dad was born.

They told me stories about his journey to the US, how he was a cook in the navy. How he married a woman here before he met my Teta, who left us in 2008 before I learned enough Arabic to carry a conversation with her.

I feel a tremendous loss, not being able to hear her personal story, or the story of my grandfather, and many others who were close to us that I couldn’t speak to.

So when I say I want to learn the repertoire like it’s a story my grandfather never got to tell me, it means that I’m perfectly content with waking up every morning, making my cup of qahwi, sitting out on the porch, taking out my laptop, and listening to the same piece of music every day, and getting to learn the message behind every single note.

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Lately, I’ve been listening to this one song on repeat: Qareat el Fengan sung by Abdel Halim Hafez.

This music, these singers, they reveal who they are to us slowly, over time. They tell us their history, their story, their legacy, as they learn to trust us more. You can know them for a lifetime, and they would still surprise you.

Abdel Halim Hafez’s voice is that friend. And this recording in particular.

I’m coming closer to memorizing every note every day. The operatic gestures, the call, and response in the strings. The slow, passionate melody played right before Hafez enters, 8 minutes into the piece. This is a story with gravity.

And that moment of Tarab when Hafez reaches a peak, and holds it there, and it lingers in the heavens, not wanting to say goodbye. The music stops for a moment, and the audience cheers. Hafez hears the pleads of his audience, and repeats the phrase again.

This song is a story from a grandfather I never got to meet. It’s a relic of a past generation and its messages of love, connection, unity, and passion. And I won’t apologize for hearing the same story from this lost relative over and over in a world that’s insisting I leave my Arabic identity behind.

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