Home, for Syrians exiled by war, is gone, irretrievable, a lost paradise just as it is, at the same time, a place forever unattainable and mythic. Listening to concerts this week by Kinan Azmeh, the Syrian clarinetist and composer, I was reminded of the mystical desire of Arabic love poetry. The object is unattainable. The wonderful paradox is that in evoking absence, art walked right in and created presence.
Azmeh’s music, presented by Community MusicWorks at local centers, evokes wistful longing with sighs, bends, microtonal wavering and high solemnity of Arab string exhortations — and Kinan’s clarinet wrangles with clarity and fading memory. The feeling is raw, open and shared. Mohammed al Shawaf, a recent immigrant, jumped up spontaneously to read his own poem gathering at Dorcas Institute, a resettlement organization. I scrawled down some of the lines as Kinan translated it into English. It’s about a nightingale who was encountering a displaced poet (apologies for the scrappy transcription!).
“Nightingale, I saw your sad face from the East…Are you a refugee like me? How did you leave heaven on earth? Everything is different, everything destroyed. Did you bring anything from home? You have awoken my feeling…. I promised you, Damascus, I would never forget you.”
The unexpected continued to pop up. Azmeh described how he composed part of a suite, 139th Street, melding Arabic and Hispanic cultures. But while Kinan opened the door to merengue in his Harlem brownstone, klezmer walked onto the stage. He dedicated the wonderful Syrian Wedding piece to “all the Syrians who managed to fall in love during the past eight years. In spite of barrel bombs, chemical attacks, utter destruction. Love is one human right no one can take away from us.”