Tackling the anti-Islam backlash


'A Song like a Spear' will show how the West was influenced by Islam, writes Judith Mok

One night in The Netherlands a couple of years ago, I woke to strange noises outside my bedroom window. Burly men were whispering into walkie talkies, and looking under bushes. It transpired we were having a social visit from Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Dutch politician, but no ordinary one.

She was born in Somalia into an Islamic family. At the age of nine she was circumcised, and some years later was sentenced to an arranged marriage. To avoid this fate she fled to Holland as just another teenage asylum-seeker. She learnt Dutch, and eventually became a politician, holding a seat in the Parliament for the Liberal party. However, she continued to campaign for the rights of women in Islamic countries, and this led to her being sentenced to death by Islamic fundamentalists. She now has round-the-clock police protection, and lives in a secret bunker, emerging only to attend Parliament, and make unannounced, heavily guarded visits to her friends.

Last year she collaborated on a film about women in Islam with Theo van Gogh, a Dutch film-maker who was our neighbour and my husband's colleague. Soon after, Van Gogh was savagely murdered on an Amsterdam street by a religious fanatic, throwing Dutch society into convulsions, and provoking a backlash against Islam, as had happened in America after September 11th.

For me, this anti-Islamic mood was horribly reminiscent of the Anti-Semitism which led to the deaths of millions in the last century, including most members of my immediate family. I decided to do something which would highlight the positive aspects of Islamic culture.

As a classical singer, I was aware of the many positive influences Eastern culture has had on musical art in the past centuries. The fashion among French writers and composers after Napoleon was for Egyptian locales: Thais by Massenet for example, is set in Cairo, and Ravel's Scheherazade is set in Persia. Then there is Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio which takes place in Turkey. Or Goethe's poetry inspired by the Persian Diwan.

The idea came to me to set up a festival which would explore and showcase these influences and cross-fertilisations, and show how the West has always been influenced by Islamic cultures. In a book of Arabic poems I found a bittersweet sentence from the Syrian poet Adonis describing A Song Like A Spear. It seems a good title for a festival. A spear, not to hurt and kill people but to cover the distance between them with a song. And now I find myself discovering new treasures in Persian music, which as a classically trained singer, was unknown to me.

The festival aims to combine European opera with music from Islamic countries, involving visual artists and contemporary composers over a period of two years. As I now live in Dublin, this seemed the place to start. To my delight I have encountered great enthusiasm here for the project. Temple Bar Properties, Dearbhla Collins and Julie and Aileen le Brocquy, as well as the Moroccan charge d'affaires Minna Tounsi, have all joined in to make it happen.

This week Temple Bar is playing host to a foretaste of the festival (to be held in 2006) in the context of the area's summer festival, Diversions. This week there will be a Moroccan market on Meeting House Square, with food and crafts, there will be a screening of the acclaimed Afghan film Osama, readings, and a photo exhibition. On Friday night I will be performing a programme of classical Persian and Sephardic music.

I have long been fascinated by Sephardic music. Sepharad is the old Hebrew name for Spain. In 1492 when the Spanish Jews, including my ancestors, were expelled from Spain, they found a welcome in the Islamic world, particularly in the Ottoman Empire. They weren't allowed to take money or possessions with them, but took the Spanish language, and the beautiful words and melodies of the medieval Spanish ballads.

Over the years, the Spanish spoken by these double exiles, written in Hebrew characters, mutated into the language know as Ladino, which survives to this day in Turkey and the more obscure corners of Brooklyn and Buenos Aires. Ladino music was strongly influenced by Arab music and has a much richer and larger scale system than we use in our contemporary classical or popular music.

In Paris, I met the musician Laurent Galili, one of the world's leading exponents of the Santour, the traditional Persian stringed instrument. Laurent is a Persian Jew whose family left Iran for Israel in the 1950s. So, the programme we will perform on Friday is a strange kind of homecoming for both so us. In Dublin, of all places.

See www.judithmok.com; www.temple-ar.ie/culture_diversions_islamic.asp