They are prepared to do anything for Tarab: how art shapes Syrian souls

Third, an art method for tracking subjectivity formation may enrich our notion of agency and complicate our approach to the realm of politics. Say you wanted to explore Syrian citizens’ social and political alliances in 1997. Say you were puzzling how best to trace citizens’ attachments and allegiances in a situation of strong government and fearsome censorship. Yet, you find yourself wondering, what the point is to studying the orientations people form when the state co-opts popular discourses and eliminates discussion of alternatives. Anthropologist Jonathan Shannon conducted research in Damascus and Aleppo that involved learning to play the ‘nd with professional teachers, visiting music shops and requesting mix tapes, attending musical events, and interviewing artists, audience members, and professional “listeners (sami’d)” He explored how tarab music operated among his interlocutors as an index for “cultural ‘authenticity’” and, metonymically, the “oriental spirit” (Shannon 2003, p. 88). These two concepts frequently arise to account for one’s political outlook, but what do they mean in practice? What do they involve in terms of organizing one’s material world and social relationships?

Sit with Shannon as he listens carefully. The ear for art can hear experiments not recorded elsewhere. Shannon hears both the structure of the compositions and the audience responses. He identifies features characteristic of tarab (though not necessarily exclusive to it) which lift listeners and performers alike out of their daily concerns. Our daily lives are structured by social, personal, and biological rhythms, from our work hours, to our alarm clocks, to our heartbeats. As a musical rhythm establishes a beat, it carries the listeners into its special realm. As the rhythm picks up, listeners “move” with it, often tapping a table surface, their own legs, or the floor with their feet. They establish tawasul (connection) with the performer (p. 76). Shannon listens for how they attend to melodic repetitions and their slight modifications with verbal and corporal responses which encourage the player and draw out the other listeners, too.

As with De Cesari, Shannon found that art manipulated experiences of, and relations to, time which affect audiences’ commitment to the chronologies and teleologies of community. When, ultimately, the musical rhythm elongates the spaces between notes, listeners feel they are now soaring with the music over the ground of mundanity. Shannon calls this a “suspended time” for how it transcends conventional experiences of being tied to professional and social clocks. At these temporally shifted moments, emotional audiences will praise the musicians’ mastery (saltana) of the composition to produce tarab, and, simultaneously, the music’s mastery of them. Such moments of ecstasy carve a “temporal margin (barzakh, to use Sufi terminology) between the temporalities of everyday life and those of transcendent experience,” according to Shannon (p. 87). People respond with sighs, waving arms, pounding feet, or more. As one interlocutor tells Shannon, “It’s strange. When a vocalist sings a beautiful phrase or a line from a qasida (poem), the audiences doesn’t just react with him—they are prepared to do anything as a result of the tarab” (Shannon 2003, pp. 76—77, emphasis added). Shannon adds, “1 was never able to ascertain just how extreme the acts associated with tarab might be, but stories circulate in Aleppo of people dying from being overpowered by strong emotions while listening to a song” (p. 77).

Aesthetic overpowering need not lead to fatalities to be socially relevant. Simply cultivating desirable selves can powerfully impact social relations. Listening to the work people put into listening, the affect it has on them and on the musicians, and the sense of expanded capacity and concern that results from such highly interactive settings, Shannon hears the refashioning of subjectivities. First, what he hears in the feedback between artists and audiences is the enactment of a “we-feeling” encompassing music, musician, and music listeners. Through a “mutual tuning-in,” whereby listeners attend to the musicians’ skillful manipulation of compositions and musicians absorb their audiences’ attention, a sense of intersubjectivity emerges (p. 80). Participants find themselves enlarged, expanded beyond their personal boundaries into an experiential “we.” The analytical notion of the individual self washes away in such melodic settings.

People generate collective, experiential selves through their carefully crafted musical encounters; but more, they also fashion desirable subjectivities. Not everyone Shannon met fancied tarab music, but for both its proponents and its detractors, across classes, the ability to respond emotionally to such music indicated subjects’ possession of an “oriental spirit” (p. 88). In turn, they linked this “oriental spirit” to pursuing “strong family ties” and honoring “basic humanity” (p. 88). However, as their musical strategies show, listeners could not assume that they simply held such values; the music allowed them to practice the emotional resources needed to continue to commit to such values and, more importantly, to be seen to do so. If a “we” emerged from their emotional listening, an “1” also gained substance for an on-looking self. Thus, the “oriental spirit” appears in Shannon’s study to be intersubjective and processual rather than essential and fixed. Moreover, the “oriental spirit” is not mutually exclusive of other ways of being and belonging. At listening sessions, Syrians could experience and communicate aspects of their being which they called “emotions” and held to be fundamental, yet which had few other arenas for enactment, assessment, and endorsement. Experiencing is expressing: tarab listeners are affected in as much as they work hard to be affected. Based on his multichannel listening, Shannon argues that music indexed authenticity, not through its construction but through interactions people formed with it by working on themselves to become listeners who could demonstrate “emotionality” (meaning the ability to be moved by sound and express that responsiveness). Honoring the people who taught him how to “listen properly,” whether in music lessons or at concerts, Shannon defines tarab not as a musical style (determined by a type of composition), but as an aesthetic style (established through a way of listening and responding). For the notion of self, then, Shannon’s study argues strongly that the means of self-presentation afforded by aesthetic experiences are really a means of self-realization.

Consider, finally, how Shannon’s study can refine our implicit assumptions about citizenship, sociality, and even agency. Echoing Winegar’s findings from plastic arts in Egypt, Shannon’s informants argued for different ways of relating to legacies of colonialism, the Syrian political regime, the global economy, and economic “modernization” in Syria by taking different stances in relation to tarab music (Shannon 2003, p. 92). By taking listening thus as a “performative and creative act,” Shannon explores how music rearranges alliances and boundaries among audience members, between audience members and performers, and between audience-performer sets and Syria/outsiders (p. 75). Tarab produces and undergirds social alliances, rather than merely manifesting them. What intrigued Shannon most was his observation that people used emotionality to experience, discuss, and model social alliances and divisions (p. 73). He found art that is not bound to a single maker, but emerges from the interactions of performers and audience. As they switch subject positions for each other, each tuning in to the other, performer and audience together generate a “we” that changes how people relate to themselves and their community. The daily time and personal boundaries that we draw upon to explain how people can realistically act and impact each other subtly dissolve in such listening atmospheres. Further, note that, while Shannon’s interlocutors attributed the experiential “we” to a strict correlation of musical aptitude among performers and listeners, in practice, they worked hard to control the settings in which emotionality could be experienced. Here art provides a guide for thinking about our agency in constructing the identities that we take to be essential and often claim for political motivation. How are these identities outside of art, or even prior to them?

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