I met Münir at a cafe near the Galata Tower in Istanbul. He had a bass guitar slung over his shoulder and a familiar shaped bag in his hand: my new oud! I was eager to see it, to play it, and soon after we finished our çay he headed to his rehearsal while I ran home to tune up and play my lovely new instrument, one with an extraordinary backstory. This is the story of my Damascene oud.
I’ve known the oud player and luthier Hussain Sabsaby since my first field research in Syria beginning in 1996. We became fast friends and I got to know him and his family well. His brother, Ali, manufactures and repairs ouds in Hama, and not only did I entrust my 1925 Ḥanna Naḥḥāt oud to his care, but acquired one of his fine instruments during a visit in 2000. Hussein and his son Muhammad, also a fine player, turned their attentions in recent years to making ouds of their own and set up a workshop (warsheh) in Damascus.
The life of a musician is hardly easy in Syria, but Hussain, through performances and work abroad, as well as sales of ouds, was able to save enough money to buy a home, set up a workshop, and even acquire cars for himself and his son. What many of us take for granted in much of the West was a major accomplishment for him. By the time of my last visit with him, in late 2008, he was doing well, and Syria seemed on the road to a prosperity for some, at least.
After I left, Hussain remained in touch via email and social media. He began to send me photos and videos of his ouds, often posting them as well on Facebook. When the Syrian rebellion began in March 2011, we exchanged cautious greetings – cautious because of the sensitivity of communications in a time of strife, and the vulnerability of musicians and others lower on the Syrian status hierarchy. After exchanging New Year’s greetings in early 2013, our communications stopped. I wrote to Hussain via Facebook, email, and even called. All to no avail.
Finally in May of 2013 I heard from him. His home in the Barzeh district of Damascus had been shelled for the second time, and as a result, the building — all ten stories — collapsed, with Hussein and his son inside. They survived but their severe injuries required months of treatment in a local hospital. As the war raged on, medical supplies were in short supply, but when I asked him how he was, his response was always, “al-ḥamdu lillāh, ‘ayishīn / Thank God, We are alive.” This optimism, in the face of disaster characterized his next moves. Upon leaving the hospital, Hussain and Muhammad relocated their home and workshop to another neighborhood and restarted their lutherie business. If this does not define resilience, I don’t know what does.
From time to time Hussain would send me photos of their instruments. They ranged from models with floating bridge, to instruments with traditional bridges and ovoid sound holes (qamariyya-s), and some with experimental backs or rare woods.
They also made a few ouds in the older Damascene style reminiscent of Nahhat with either single or three sound holes.
Being a fan of traditional Damascene ouds I told him one day in early 2015 (half-jokingly) that I wanted one of them (not knowing when or if I would ever be able to return to Syria to retrieve it). He told me he’d make one for me with a special Damascene flavor, knowing how much I loved the city (despite my work in Aleppo, I always felt more at home in Damascus). He had a good idea for which wood to use, and what sort of ornamentation I’d prefer. I left it at that and gave it little thought. Just talk (hakī) between old friends.
Six months later, in June 2015, I received a note on WhatsApp that my oud was being made!
Hussain sent a series of photos showing the process from soundboard (wajh) to the back (tāssa), and the final construction.
He later sent me a video of him playing on the instrument. It looked and sounded great! I was not a little taken back by the beauty of the gesture, and asked about the instrument. He said the back and soundboard braces were made from recovered walnut wood from the ceiling beams of a home that had collapsed in the Old City of Damascus (due to neglect, not war). The wood is at least 80-100 years old, according to Hussain.
The soundboard had a more interesting story. One day while walking in an Old City neighborhood, he saw a barber using an old piece of wood as a bolster for children to sit on in order to raise their heads high enough. He negotiated with the barber for the old wood, which turned out to be cedar with a lovely wide grain. The wood, claimed Hussain, gave the instrument a Damascene sound, even a Damascene smell and spirit. The older style, with simple ornamentation, single sound hole, and traditional tuning (from C to c) made the instrument complete: a material symbol of the sonic spirit of Damascus!
When I offered to pay him whatever he wanted for it, he told me it was his honor to present it to me as a gift and would accept no payment. The only hurdle was how to get it to me in New York. He said he’d arrange for shipping with DHL via Dubai, but sanctions meant that no cargo could go from Damascus to the US, and alternative companies were less trustworthy. So the oud would have to wait in Damascus until such time as I could come and retrieve it (and I held out little hope for that eventuality), or until such time as someone might travel from Syria to Europe or the US and be able to bring it, also a long shot.
I let the thought go and kept the oud in the back of my mind. However, Hussain did not. He would send me photos and videos not only of his new ouds, but also of “my” oud. I recall a video chat we had in late 2015 when Hussain took me on a virtual tour of his Damascus warsheh. In addition to introducing me to the workers and highlighting the machinery (including advanced laser cutters), Hussain showed me a variety of instruments in various stages of preparation. In one corner he found my oud, withdrew it from its case, and played it for me. I felt like a long-distance parent communicating with a child I’d not yet even met! “You’ll get it some day,” Hussain said. “In sha’allah / God willing,” I replied.
The war raged on, areas of Damascus were attacked, but life seemed to creep along for Hussain and many others in the capital. His workshop was busy, and soon he was able to buy another apartment in his former neighborhood – another sign of resilience and optimism, or sheer determination and strength, in the face of great uncertainty. In the spring and summer of 2016 I was in Istanbul for some field research on Syrian musicians. As was his wont, Hussain would send me Friday morning greetings, and usually I’d respond hours later when I’d wake up in New York. But one Friday I replied promptly, saying “Good morning from Istanbul!” Hussain was surprised and excited that I was so near, and immediately asked if I had a mailing address so he could send me my oud, there not being sanctions on Syrian cargo to Turkey. I inquired with my Turkish friend Münir, who agreed to receive the oud at his home in Kadıköy. A few days later I got an email from Münir with a photo showing a wooden crate containing my oud, being inspected by his trusty dog Pati. The oud had arrived! I could not wait to see it, to play it.
Running home to my apartment in Tarlabaşı, I bounded up the stairs, rushed to the living room, then carefully opened the case and took out the oud. My first instinct was to play it but, in light of Hussain’s words, I first stuck my nose by the sound hole and took a deep breath: Ah, the spirit of Damascus! With some new strings the oud sounds wonderful, with a rich, warm, and round tone, and an easy, responsive action. Moreover, it fits nicely in the arms, as if it were made to order … which in this case, it was! On my way out of Istanbul, this nomadic oud traveled with me where many Syrians long to go but cannot, or must risk their lives to get to: Greece, Italy, and France, and now the US. When I play it I hear the mournful sounds of a city — a country — rent by division and violence. But I also hear the sounds of hope for reconciliation and a better future. This may well be my own fingers sounding the sentiments of my sad but optimistic heart, but there is something to the spirit of Damascus in this.
Maker: Arabic Oud Center Syria, Damascus branch
Date: June 2015
Length; 84 cm
Scale length: 60 cm
Width: 37 cm
Depth: 17 cm
Soundboard: recovered cedar (arz)
Back: recovered walnut (jawz)
Fingerboard, Pegs: rosewood (ward)
Strings: La Bella