On Orientalism: Kan Ya Ma Kan

I would like to discuss a particular issue I find myself going back often in my work: Orientalism. For those not familiar with the concept, a quick Wikipedia read should get you up to speed. It has become a very common term in Critical Theory and in many fields, from the Arts to Politics, especially since the publication of Edward Said’s book Orientalism in 1978. I don’t want to get super technical here, and my point is not to contribute to research and discourse on Orientalism. My goal is to use Orientalism as a tool in trying to understand very personal issues when it comes to my own identity problems (which I have in common with many people from Lebanon, and elsewhere) but also when it comes to my music and “Eastern” art in general.

Orientalism in a Nutshell

Essentially, some people have argued that Orientalism was (is?) a global, uncoordinated movement that took place in the West over centuries in which the “East” was portrayed as the other, the inferior, the backward, while the West was presented as the progressive, the good, the strong, and so on. This began a long time ago, way before the many examples that may pop into a current reader’s mind, like Hollywood movies or CNN and Fox News. Essentially, over the course of centuries, through books, arts, laws, colonialism, crusades, missionary schools, and many others; through a broad consortium of means, an unconscious prejudice and a set of — usually negative — assumptions has shaped the identity of people from the East in Westerners’ minds.

This “other”, against which they were set, allowed Westerners to build a stronger sense of who they were. In a way, it also allowed them to build an ego. The racism many people from the East experience in the West, even today, comes from this old tradition of condescendence, of stereotyping, of domination. Because domination does not only happen through the military, through economic hegemony, or even through sciences and technology alone. It happens through ideas, through the arts, through literature, through very subtle public relations campaigns.


As far as we’re concerned (and by we, I mean Easterners, and people who are sensitive to our plight and our position in today’s world), a more important and dangerous consequence of this state of affairs lies not only in how the West ends up seeing us, even without realizing it, but in how we end up seeing ourselves. For such is the power of Orientalism and of broad movements like this one in shaping perception and senses of identities: we end up only being able to see ourselves through their eyes.

Questions like “when am I being racist towards myself and my fellow countrymen”, or “when are my criticisms of Lebanese society, for example, a residue of colonialism”, are things I wish to talk about a lot. But I will to do so later. For now, I’m going to focus on a recent situation I’ve run into in my music as an illustration of this problem and leave it at that. I’m going to talk about this project I’ve recently been working on, which I think many people will find interesting regardless of whether they relate to its Orientalist problems or not.

Kan Ya Ma Kan

Briefly: eight years ago, it was while I visited my family in Lebanon for the summer that the war between Hezbollah and Israel broke out. I was a fairly inexperienced but very passionate young composer, and I decided to block out the horror happening around us by throwing myself into writing a large orchestral work that would be my personal reaction to the war. The piece was huge for me, a big step forward, but it was unplayable as I had written it. It was too ambitious. So it stayed in the back of my mind for eight years. Until a few months ago, when a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to write him a piece for a large wind orchestra. I took the old piece as a canvas on which I painted a new work. At times, you can hear the old piece almost as is. At other times, you would not be able to recognize the initial piece at all because it was completely reworked.

I called it Kan Ya Ma Kan, which is Arabic for “Once upon a time”. It’s a story, although I don’t tell the audience exactly how I think it goes. I invite the listener to imagine their own unfolding of events. Lebanese listeners will undoubtedly recognize our national anthem making various appearances, as well as well-known references: the car horn signatures of the Lebanese Forces (Ouwwet) and of the Free Patriotic Movement (3awniyyeh), which happen together in a sort of cacophony. I also use the dabkeh rhythm, and other devices in order to give the piece as much of a “Lebanese flavor” as I can.

The piece features many bells that sound like church bells, a distant tribute to my grandfather who passed away in the days preceding the fighting. It was a few hours after his funeral that Israeli jets began bombing the country, as those bells still resonated in my ears.

You can find a recording of the piece here.* A video recording of the performance is now also available on Youtube.

*Please use earphones or good speakers in order to hear the bass clearly. The recording was made of a live performance, so it contains some inaccuracies and details that will need to be improved, so please do keep that in mind. Thanks for listening.




The Orientalist problem

I grew up listening to Lebanese music, and I still do. Whether it’s Fairuz, Marcel Khalife, or many other national emblems, I think I’ve absorbed it completely to the point that it’s subconscious. Even when I perform non-Lebanese music, my friends frequently comment on my different way of trilling, ornamenting, and performing, which I recognize as being due to my life-long exposure to my native music.

One thing that could distinguish the music of Lebanon from that of our Arab neighbors is that it often seems to sit on the border between Eastern and Western traditions — more so than in other countries. One can find harmonic progressions that closely mimic progressions found in European music, while still retaining the ornamentation and melodic devices so prevalent in Levantine and other Eastern traditions. To purists, it often sounds bad because they find it confused, inauthentic. To me, it’s normal, and I often ended up playing music of this nature when I improvised while growing up.

To be fair, I have to remind you that I have spent the past 12 years studying music in conservatories and universities in Canada and the United States and have studied with European and North-American teachers for the most part. During that time, I hardly ever composed music that allowed my Lebanese side to come through in a dominant fashion. I wrote music that you could mostly describe as being new Western classical music. I did most of my musical education in this context, and as I grew and became an experienced composer, I realized that I often felt very phony. It was like I was trying to participate in other people’s family meetings. When I wrote music that tried to push the limits of Western tradition, it was like I was fighting someone else’s fight. It’s not that Western music isn’t natural to me. To be perfectly honest, it’s quite the contrary: it’s the music I know best. The problem was that a very large portion of my musical personality lay unused, ignored, almost repressed.

It was only when I began writing Kan Ya Ma Kan a few months ago that things fell more into place for me. I ran into big issues: I was trying to write Lebanese music, a music that I supposedly knew well; and yet every time I would pause and look at what I was coming up with, I was horrified to find clichés that Western composers wrote when they would try to set Rumi to poetry. Or worse, it sounded like modern Aladdin! It’s as though I don’t know how to be Lebanese anymore without adhering to the image: the false, stereotypical image of the Arab that Westerners have written and invented for themselves.

It’s like I don’t know how to be me without going through them. I got really lost. What is Lebanese? Can I even ask this question in this day and age? Is Nationalism still a thing? Many Western countries went through the Nationalist stage in their development, during which they built their own identity, a stereotypical and largely fake one, but a necessary step that precedes questioning the assumptions and moving forward.

So much of what you find in the “box” called Lebanon, we’ve inherited from the West. They built it, filled it, and we had very little say in it. It’s a heavy box to carry, to be honest. Especially when you live abroad. I’m expected to function, think, write, speak; everything I do, I’m expected to do it as a Lebanese. Or as what they understand to be a Lebanese.

I felt so empty. Or did I feel free? I’m not sure which. I’m just now intensely aware of how much this label over my head matters to everyone around me and just as aware of how heavy it is to carry around. I didn’t invent it. I didn’t contribute to it at all.

In fact: very few Lebanese people did.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *