Many, many years ago, when I was just a young cub living in Egypt — have I told you little’uns this here story before? a’sittin’ out on the porch in this here rockin’ chair, a feller does tend to reminisce a bit — my wife and I drove out past El Alamein, almost to the Libyan border, along the Mediterranean coast of Egypt. (There are, or at least were, some unbelievably pristine beaches with clear turquoise water out along that distant, rather lonely, and quite undeveloped route.)
Anyhow, the couple we were driving with were from the American South — possibly Texas, but maybe not — and, as we conversed over the long drive from Cairo, through the Delta, and along the coast, it became pretty obvious that they weren’t overly fond of Egypt, Egyptians, or “A-rabs” in general. He was an oil industry worker, as I recall, and was there purely for the money. He had no interest whatever in local history or culture. But, as it happened, it was his wife who was by far the most vocal in her disdain.
And the more she went on, the more irritated I became.
Finally, she got onto the subject of Arab music, which — surprise! — she hated. And, truthfully, it is very, very different from familiar Western music. For one thing, it does little if anything with harmonies, choirs, or complex choral arrangements. As compensation, though, its melodies are often extremely involved — sometimes hardly recognizable as melodies, frankly, to an untrained or unfamiliar Western ear — and its rhythms are frequently far more complex than those of all but the most avant garde modern Western music.
I tried to explain this a bit, but to no avail. She continued to complain about “fingernails on the chalkboard,” etc., etc., and to ridicule everything about Arabs and Arab culture.
It was in December, I think, and Christmas was much on our minds. In fact, she had even contrasted “that horrible A-rab wailing and screeching” with “our lovely Christmas carols.”
And, suddenly, inspiration came upon me.
The angelic choir that sang to the first-century shepherds of Bethlehem to herald the birth of Christ, I told her, almost certainly didn’t sound like Händel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” or “Silent Night” or “Angels We Have Heard on High.” If their singing made any kind of musical sense to those Palestinian peasants, it surely resembled more closely the modern singing of Umm Kulthum or Fairuz or Farid al-Atrash (or his ‘ud playing), which emerges from a musical tradition that has deep roots right there in the Middle East.
“Oh,” she responded, in a dull voice. “Oh. That’s horrible. What a terrible thought.”
I confess that I was really satisfied with myself for the rest of the day. And she stopped complaining about “the A-rabs.” In fact, she was distinctly silent for quite a while.