The terrible danger of avoiding dangers

In this book I am describing a journey into a region whose 'differences' from Europe are too great to be easily bridged: and difference is, in a way, akin to danger. We are leaving the security of our too uniform environment, in which there is little that is unfamiliar and nothing that is surprising, and entering into the tremendous strangeness of 'another' world...

But are we really excluded from that world? I do not think so. Our feeling of exclusion rests mainly on an error peculiar to our Western way of thinking: we are wont to underestimate the creative value of the unfamiliar and are always tempted to do violence to it, to appropriate it, to take it over, on our own terms, into our own intellectual environment. It seems to me, however, that our age of disquiet no longer permits such cavalier attempts; many of us beginning to realize that cultural distances can and should be overcome by means other than intellectual rape: it might perhaps be overcome by surrendering ourselves to it.
Those extracts come from Muhhamad Asad's The Road to Mecca. Muhammad Asad (1900-92) was a Jewish-born Austro-Hungarian formerly known as Leopold Weiss. He converted to Islam in 1926 and took a Muslim name; later he became a Pakistani citizen who held important posts including that of Pakistan's envoy to the United Nations. As well as his administrative roles he was an important author and political theorist. A Guardian tribute recounted how: "Asad was saddened by the intellectual insularity of the Muslim world, the intolerance of the extremists, and was a powerful advocate of the rights of Muslim women. It was Asad’s insistence that the constitution of Pakistan allow for the election of a woman leader that opened the way for Benazir Bhutto".

Muhhamad Asad's The Road to Mecca was published in 1954; but like many forgotten gems contains wisdom that is as relevant today as when written. Take for instance the warning against underestimating the creative value of the unfamiliar. Classical music has for years been obsessed with dispensing with silly conventions. But as one set of silly conventions has been discarded, they have been replaced by yet more silly and familiar conventions.

Silence between movements at a concert has been replaced by the silly convention of applause, no matter how inappropriate or undeserved that applause is. The convention of allowing the music to speak for itself has been replaced by the silly convention of appropriating the music to make sound bite political statements. The convention of physical storage media has been replaced by the silly convention of streaming, thereby rewarding the wrong people. The convention of embracing a wide range of views has been replaced by the silly convention of political correctness policed by the self-appointed social media mullahs. And the silly convention of intelligent music writing has been replaced by "Why you sound better singing naked".

Elsewhere in his book Muhhamad Asad writes about 'the terrible danger of avoiding dangers'. Nowhere is this more true than in Western art music, which in a misguided attempt to woo a wider audience has created a uniform environment in which there is little that is unfamiliar and nothing that is surprising. But elsewhere musicians refuse to avoid danger. My recent explorations of the unfamiliar have taken me to the work of the French-Algerian singer, composer, auteur, inventor of Algerian 'Gourbi-Rock', graphic designer and caricaturist, Cheikh Sidi Bemol who is seen in the header photo. Cheikh Sidi Bemol belongs to a lineage of Maghrebian music theatre activists that stretches back to Moroccan folk revival bands Nass El Ghiwane and Jil Jilala - his latest and recommended album L'Odyssée de Fulay seen above, which is a contemporary take on ancient Berber songs, can be sampled in the video below. (If any further proof is needed of the fear of creative danger, L'Odyssée de Fulay is brought to market not via a corporate media company but by Cheikh Sidi Bemol's own record label CSB Productions.)

One of Western classical music's silliest conventions is the Last Night of the Proms. To this institutionalised silliness has been added a new convention, that of using the Last Night to make click baiting activist gestures. If in the interests of avoiding the often predicted death of classical music we have to accept this silliness, I would like to make a suggestion. In the northern Rif region - traditionally Berber territory - there has been long-running civil unrest. This is Morocco's most serious civil unrest since Arab Spring-inspired rallies six years ago and it potentially could pose a threat to the Moroccan government, which is effectively the royal family.

This unrest has received minimal coverage in the Western media despite Morocco being just 36 miles from the EU frontier. The media lacuna is wrong for many reasons: fundamental human rights are involved, the Moroccan government is an ally of the increasingly bellicose American administration. Moreover Morocco is the fourth domino in a line where the other three, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria have already fallen into internal strife triggered by political unrest and fuelled by religious extremism. So to raise awareness of the Moroccan unrest I suggest that Sidi Bemol's version of 'The drunken sailor' sung in the Berber dialect - audition via this link - is given at the 2017 Last Night of the Proms instead of the mandatory anti-Brexit gesture.

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billoo said…
Thanks for that, pli. Road to Mecca is one of my favourite books! His translation of the Qur'an is also very good (in my opinion).
Could I also recommend Gai Eaton's King of the Castle ( if you haven't already read it).
Philip Amos said…
Hello billoo. Nice to see you here again. May I ask a question of you?After the September 11 attacks, I got thoroughly sick of hearing news readers and a myriad of others speak of 'jihad' when I knew they had not the foggiest idea of its meaning. And I wanted more clarity myself, which is why I went hunting for an edition of the Koran. I think I was very lucky. I have a fine copy of the text, translation and commentary by Abdullah Yusuf 'Ali. Myself a retired academic, I was immediately drawn to the scholarly nature of the work. It has an index in which there is just one verse that addresses 'jihad', and the commentary on that verse should, I believe, be paid attention by all. It seems a strange thing as I read it that this edition comes from 1934. My question, of course, is: Do you know it and, if so, have an opinion re its quality.
billoo said…
Hello, pli.

Yes, I've read it but can only say, in a non- scholarly way, that Asad''s translation appeals to me more ( partly for the footnotes, partly because I think in numerous places he emphasizes the pluralism which I'd like to believe is the orthodox position).

On your wider point, there are some difficult things in Islam ( or any religion) that are not easy to accept. I suppose that will always be the case, but it should at least be acknowledged.

I'm so sorry to hear about your difficulties with the Iranian visa ( sounds about par for the course). Especially for someone like you who values the crossing of borders so highly.
billoo said…
So sorry, Philip. I wrote that when I was still half asleep. I should learn from Trump: don't write in the early hours of the morning!

Hope all else is well?

Best wishes,

Philip Amos said…
Thank you so much, Billoo -- helpful indeed! I shall read Asad's work with great interest -- pluralism is a major interest for me, and I am delving deep into Baha'i at present.

I'm never the slightest bit been bothered by little mix-ups in comments. I've created quite enough of them myself. (--: All is well here, very hot and humid, with the result that there are strange moments of complete silence -- so rare even in a small city -- and little movement, all rather still. Strange, I must say, and an ambiance relevant indeed on a music blog!

But do watch out for my mix-ups -- I'm on the waiting list for three operations, and of them is for cataracts!!!!! Overgrown Path is a bit blurry for me at the moment.

Best wishes and again my thanks.


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