Escaping the Mold of Oriental Fantasy
My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music. As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.
“How are you going to become a composer?” My uncle said angrily, “No Lebanese person has done it. Why you?”
I was sitting in the baranda of my teta’s (grandmother’s) home in the Lebanese mountains. I finished my junior year of high school and made the unalterable decision to study composition in college. It was nighttime. The family gathered to chat while my teta cut peaches for us from Jido’s (grandfather’s) farm.
Being the first generation to study in the U.S. in my immediate family, I had the rare privilege of deciding what I wanted to study.
In our culture, I had the responsibility to craft a future where I can continue accumulating wealth (and therefore stability and opportunity) for future generations of my family. In that regard, pursuing the arts was akin to refusing this responsibility. This decision caused my uncle to become tense.
“Then I’ll be the first,” I responded.
My family and I didn’t know any composers of Lebanese or Druze descent. We were all in uncharted territory.
“Hrmph,” my uncle scoffed. He reclined into his seat with eyes that clearly said “you’re making a mistake.”
As an aspiring composer, I knew the risks of what I was getting into. I knew that there were thousands of people like me, and that my success as a composer is not guaranteed, no matter how good I was. But I also knew that I didn’t have a choice. I had a radical something that needed to be expressed, and music was the only way I could express it.
My parents got married in Lebanon in 1994 and moved to the U.S.A. in 1995 when my mom was pregnant with me. She was 19. My father would get up to work at 3:00 a.m., and wouldn’t come home until 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. My mom spent equally long days between work and caring for three children.
My parents couldn’t afford to give me lessons, or take time off work to see me perform, and were skeptical, if not hostile, toward my decision to enter a field they knew nothing about. Other musicians my age had the resources and support they needed to succeed while I had to navigate my artistic passion alone. This discrepancy between myself and my journey, and other upper class composers only grew with age.
I also had very few friends in high school, and frankly a lot of it was a blur due to my PTSD. But I distinctly remember my music being there when I had no one to confide in. Music became my life, and I had no choice but to create.
Despite everything working against me, I decided that I must pursue music as a professional. And I hold that same spirit today. As the first one in my family to major in the arts, I have a lot of eyes on me. If I fail, I will be used as an example of why no one else should attempt to become an artist. But if I succeed, that success will provide hope and comfort to other aspiring artists in the family.
Despite all of these setbacks, I was (naively) comforted by the fact that there was a hole in the new music community. My experience as a queer Lebanese composer made me unique. I had the opportunity to authentically represent my culture through music.
As I grew older, I realized that the spots for Middle Eastern representation has been filled for a while. But not by the hundreds of Middle Eastern and North African composers and artists. Instead, our stories were being controlled, and even monopolized, by white composers.
How to Colonize a Culture
A culture can be defined through a people’s land, language, beliefs, food, or art. Colonization works by limiting access to these cultural markers while also rebranding them so that the colonizing force steals the culture of those they colonize and claims it as their own.
In action, colonization works by invading or destroying land, criminalizing the native language, making it as difficult as possible to practice the colonized religion, and restricting access to ingredients needed for the colonized people to cook their own food while rebranding their recipes as the colonizers’ own.
But in this article, I want to focus on how white culture colonizes the Middle East through art, specifically music.
Composers Use Orientalism to Further Colonize Non-Western Cultures
Europe is not the only place with a classical music tradition. Every major culture in the world has a tradition of creating music that expresses the height of human achievement.
Yet much of the Western world pretends that they were the only ones to compose music beyond entertainment, and use other classical traditions not as a source of inspiration to grow together, but as a resource for stealing techniques and growing their own genre at the expense of other cultures.
Stealing Middle Eastern Stories
Abusers don’t have the right to tell the story of their victims. Even if it’s an attempt at reconciliation. Yet white composers have been writing about and critiquing stories from the Middle East for centuries.
Western composers always had a fascination with the exotic East. A place of magic and wonder, where strange people with strange customs create fascinating stories for audiences to gaze upon.
This narrative of an “other” whose purpose is to entertain the eyes of Westerners is very much in practice today. I see plenty of composers, some prominent, praised for writing music that references the Middle East.
And the music they compose makes no reference to Middle Eastern classical music. Because such a reference would concede that the Middle East has a classical tradition. Instead, they use a few cartoonish references to an exotic Arabian land of their own creation.
One example is the use of augmented seconds to represent the exotic. Or using the oboe to mimic a snake charmer or other Middle Eastern instruments. (What instruments they mimic, I don’t know. The oboe sounds nothing like any Middle Eastern or North African instrument that I know of.)
Or perhaps they compose a simple melody with an old style drum beat. Or try to mimic the Baladi by composing a flashy piece that has no substance or meaning, and is instead supposed to create the effect of an underdeveloped people dancing and performing a ritual.
Written down, these examples are obvious racist caricatures, but I still see them used today in pieces where composers are lauded for their activism.
And the stories they produced are not just exotic fun, but reinforce white supremacist beliefs about non-white people.
Presenting the Middle East as “Barbaric”
White supremacists believe that the white race is the most advanced. Which means that non-white people are inherently less intelligent, less emotionally mature, and less civilized. In other words, white supremacists look at non-white people as a step in between them and barbarians.
In order for this ideology to stick, white supremacists need evidence. They don’t have truth, but they do have power, and they use their power to manipulate non-white cultures to make them appear as though they are more barbaric than white people.
The most common way to examine this phenomenon is to look at the Middle East’s track record with LGBT+ and women’s rights. After colonization, the Western powers supported conservative despots to increase instability in the region to prevent the area from becoming communist. The far right regimes they supported enacted some of the worst human rights abuses in the world.
I recognize that Middle Eastern politics is very complicated territory. And I can’t accurately state what happened in the Middle East within a paragraph. But the West’s attempt to impose itself on the region as an act of modern colonization is well documented and researched.
These human rights abuses are now used by the West as evidence of the Middle East’s backwards values. The West is more developed because women appear to have more freedom. By hiding the fact that these regimes were initially supported by the West, they create the unreal case that feminism is a Western value that the Middle East is too barbaric to enforce.
And composers love writing music “for” Middle Eastern women and minorities without their consent, and doing so by highlighting the abuse they receive and the toils of war. The trauma these regimes place on minorities is regularly displayed in a piece of music. The effect is something profound for white people, and triggering for minorities.
Never Ending War
The sound of war is a common theme for white composers to write about. But rarely is it handled with care and research. Rarely do these pieces consider the effects they have on the victims of war.
I remember going to a concert with my mother, immediately feeling horrified when a piece about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon played and my mom was forced to hear the very same sounds of war she witnessed growing up. White people were amazed by the piece, while my mother and I were on the hinge of panic attacks due to this senseless trigger.
In all of these pieces, the message seems to be questioning why warring factions can’t get their acts together and stop fighting. They generally suggest that these victims need saving and it’s calling on their listeners (who are white since classical music audiences are almost always white) to act as white saviors and stop the violence through their charity. While coming from a meaningful place, this narrative saves no one and actually worsens the effects of white supremacy.
And these stories also act as barriers that keep Middle Eastern composers from telling our own stories. I am expected to continue praising white feminists for their work in writing about the trauma my people face, while stories by actual Middle Eastern women are largely ignored. Here we see Western classical music saving a space for Middle Eastern representation, but maintaining a white monopoly over its presentation.
These pieces may come from a desire to help, but they ultimately reinforce colonization. They reinforce the trope of the white savior. They spread harmful false messages about Middle Eastern values. They don’t reference Middle Eastern music or traditions, but instead incorporate cartoonish signifiers of racist caricatures. Ultimately, they are not Middle Eastern stories, just exotic displays masquerading as authentic work for the Middle East.
I spent my college years learning how to navigate this environment. In a desire to be authentic, I decided to expand my knowledge beyond the Western classical music world. I needed to explore the traditions of my own people’s music so that I can keep the Middle Eastern Classical tradition alive. As you will see in my next article, discovering one’s own culture can be extremely difficult in a colonized world.
1. I apologize for not making this point clear enough: When I was in high school, I didn’t know about the hundreds of Lebanese composers before (and after) me, nor did anyone else in my family. I was not trying to make a claim about being the only Lebanese composer. Instead I wanted to show how, even within our own communities, we can feel alone and isolated from our own traditions despite it being very much alive. As I grew older and started to discover more about my own tradition, I managed to find a thriving culture of Lebanese composers and musicians, but I had to look for them first.