Huda

 Visit Huda's website to familiarize yourself with her work here: http://hudaasfour.com/index.html

Visit Huda's website to familiarize yourself with her work here: http://hudaasfour.com/index.html

Huda Asfour’s Musical Upbringing: From Tunis to Gaza, Ramallah to Lebanon

 

Huda:

You know the sea, I mean, I don’t know like, it’s how I heal. Watching the  waves. I feel like it washes me. I feel so…There’s a sense of peace around the sea for sure, for me, but, umm, the difference between Gaza and Tunis is pretty incredible, huh?

 

I mean, you know, like two polar opposites. Socially. And then, no one really like, gives you proper warning. Like, I think my mom was pretty aware that it’s gonna be difficult, but the transition was much more difficult than anything we had anticipated.

 

I think the hardest part is really the shock of discovering that being home can make you feel more of a stranger.

 

It was difficult.

 

In Tunis I learned how to play music. I grew up in a house where music was part of everyday life. My mom has a beautiful voice. Like, she sang with Anouar Brahem on stage once.

 

Donia:

Wait, seriously?

 

Huda: 

Yeah.

 

Donia:

Where, in Tunis?

 

Huda:

In Tunis yeah.

 

I have a fuzzy memory of it but yeah, he was playing and I remember we went there and he was singing on stage. But you know, like, women are not taught to believe that they can really do something with that talent.

 

My aunt is a composer. She’s a songwriter. She also like retired in her forties from the BBC. She was a producer and she had her own show. And she did some really crazy shit, like, I mean, she was one of the first people in press to talk about Female Circumcision, what do they call it?

 

Donia:

Genital Mutilation

 

Huda:

Genital Mutilation

 

Donia:

Where was this?

 

Huda:

She lives in London. She left Baghdad and then went to London sometime in the seventies. And then, um, worked at the BBC and then retired and now has seven novels.

 

Donia:

Wait, whose your aunt?

 

H:

Salwa Jarrah.

 

Donia:

No way!

 

Huda:

All four of my aunts sing and my uncle plays guitar, and they had this like, sort of like, weird lefty type, you know like, band. They sing poems about, you know, exile and Palestine, um..

 

D:

In London?

 

H:

No this was in Baghdad.

 

D:

In Baghdad?

 

H:

Yeah. Yeah. She told me that she, she actually, she had like a couple of songs supposedly aired on the radio under a fake name. She was commissioned I think , at some point, to sing. She has a beautiful voice, oh my goodness.

 

D:

Like you.

 

H:

No, no, no, no, we’re talking about a whole other level of mastery.

 

D:

 So this is your dad’s sister?

 

H:

Yeah, I’m actually featuring one of her songs in this new album. It’s a poem by Mahmoud Darwish and it’s her song.

 

D:

Wow. Is she still alive?

 

H:

 Yeah.

 

D:

Oh wow.

 

  She lives in Baghdad?

 

H:

She lives in London, now.

 

D:

This is Salwa Jarrah?

 

H:

Yeah.

 

D:

Oh my god.

 

H:

When you hear them singing, they’re like a trained chorus, without one moment of error.

 

There’s this song (starts singing).

 

Oh! She even has a song for a poem setting of Darwish by Marcel Khalife (starts singing). 

 

D:

Can we translate it?

 

H:

I walk, uh, straight.

 

D: I walk with dignity or honor. My head held high.

 

  An olive branch in my palm.

 

And on my shoulder…

 

H: My coffin.

 

 

D:

So this influenced you to become a singer and poet too?

 

H:

Yeah, but education was so important in the family and because my grandfather was an engineer and he was also such a talented singer and oud player. He was very, he was like, you know, the entertainer. But he was also… there was so much depth to that man. Of course he had a temper and crazy things but… he raised his girls to be very, very strong women.

 

D:

Your mom?

 

H:

All my aunts.

 

D:

But not your mom?

 

…So your whole family’s musical.

 

H:

But despite of all of this, they still weren’t convinced that I can actually have a degree in music. Like I couldn’t convince them that I should just do this for a living.

 

D:

I think that’s called being Arabs.

 

 

Both:

(Laughter).

 

D:

You became a doctor, lawyer or engineer like a good Arab girl.

 

H:

Yup. (Laughter). So I did.

 

D:

Well, now you can feed yourself so… I think that was the most important thing for them is that they know… they go to sleep at night knowing that they didn’t get so tired for nothing. And we didn’t lose all our land for nothing. And we didn’t go through all of this shit for nothing. Because now they know, well at least my daughter’s gonna be okay.

 

H:

But it’s crazy, like, they didn’t let me study anthropology in music. I didn’t say “fine, okay, music and that’s it!”  I wanted to study anthropology/ sociology, I was very interested in humanities. Very much so. And I really thought it would be a much easier, you know, mix for my life.

 

My mom conspired with my math teacher. Like for a whole year, he did nothing but talk to me every day about going to engineering school . Every. Day. For a whole year. He was like “did you apply?” “Did you look into the program?”

 

D:

Where was this in Gaza?

 

H:

No this was in Ramallah.

 

Then he would set up meetings with my physics teacher. My chemistry teacher. He was so persistent.

 

D:

So this was 16 years ago, so this was right before the intifada.

 

So you were here during the intifada?

 

H:

No I was in Ramallah. I left in 2002. It was my sophomore year. I couldn’t get to the university and I was very frustrated.

 

D:

Birzeit?

 

H:

Mmm-hmm.

 

(Begins retelling memories of Israeli occupation checkpoint Surda):

 

(Mimicking an Israeli soldier)Go up the mountain, Go down the mountain, go up the mountain, go down the mountain.

 

Surda. (Both laughing. Absurdity lingers).

 

You remember Surda? You know Surda?

 

 

D:

Wait… can we explain that in English?

 

H:

So, it was so fucking frustrating. It was so frustrating because it wasn’t about security or anything.

D:

It was just about humiliation.

 

H:

Yeah, exactly! You can’t cross down the road, but if you go up the mountain, and then go down the mountain again and end up in the same place they’re fine with it!

 

D:

That’s basically our whole struggle, the whole Palestinian struggle right there. It’s like Sisyphus. It’s just like pushing a rock up a mountain to nowhere.

 

H:

I remember my first trip to Lebanon. (So I was born in Lebanon, right, but I couldn’t visit until I was 20). So when I got the visa I couldn’t really, I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I actually got the visa to go. Tamer and I were playing at the UNESCO.

 

D:

When did you get the visa?

 

H:

2001, I think. No, 2002. February-

 

D:

To come to the US?

 

H:

No. The first time I went to Lebanon. As a Palestinian that’s almost impossible, even though I was born there.

 

And I remember like, we had to go through the (in Arabic) side streets, and it took us seven hours to get to the border.

 

D:

You were playing with UNESCO in Lebanon? Playing oud?

 

H:

We were playing at UNESCO. Khaled Gibran and Kamelya Gibran were supposed to go but they both had Israeli passports of course, so they couldn’t get in, so they sent me and Tamer as a replacement. We had a small band that became

 

D:

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh?

 

H:

Yeah… we played together for seven years.

 

D:

His music is so good.

 

H:

Mmm. He’s a genius.

 

(Silence).

 

D:

Why do you love the oud so much?

 

H:

There is a sense of intimacy that I feel. So before I played oud I used to play piano as a kid. But then the nuns used to hit me on my fingers so I hated it so I stopped playing.

 

D:

The nuns in Tunis?

 

H:

Yeah.

 

D:

They hit you?

 

H:

They hit me.

 

D:

With what?

 

H:

With a long, black, like, thin, uhh, baton, like what’s the word?

 

On my knuckles.  Every time I made a mistake.

  I was seven.

 

So one day I came back and I was like “I’m not playing piano anymore. I’m not going back there.” And my mom respected that.

 

And then at thirteen, through the actual school, we had a music class. And I really loved it. I was so good, like, at picking up the skills.

 

It was easy. It came naturally to me.

 

(In Arabic) For example with dictation everyone suffered, but I loved that. I had no idea it was happening, but I think there was so much value in the fact that these were proper music classes. Actual theory. Actual history.

 

D:

The conservatory?

 

H:

But this wasn’t the conservatory, this was public school. In Tunis. That’s how I ended up in the conservatory, through my teacher in the public school, who took me to the conservatory.

 

D:

How old were you?

 

H:

Thirteen.

 

D:

OK. And then you had a teacher in the conservatory?

 

H:

He was teaching me theory there in the conservatory. He was the theory teacher there and I had a oud and vocals teacher.

 

Yeah.

 

And then I went to Gaza and went to the conservatory in Gaza, and I was very lucky because the year I got there, that fall…

 

D:

You were 15 right?

 

H:

No I was 13. That was the same year.

 

D:

oh—

 

H:

So I started playing in the conservatory earlier that year, and then in the summer we went to Gaza, and then in the fall the conservatory opened its doors in Gaza. The first ever, which is now the Edward Said Conservatory in Gaza.

 

D:

Which was bombed in 2014.

 

H:

Yeah, twice. It was bombed twice.

 

So that’s where I started learning qanun. There was a qanun in the room where I used to take my oud lesson, and then I would just start playing around.

 

But my professor Ibrahim’s main instrument was the qanun. So when he saw me playing around he was like “do you wanna learn?” and of course I wasn’t going to say no.

 

And then when we went  to Ramallah I still wanted to learn oud and qanun, but they had too many oud players, so they only accepted me in the qanun track. And then by the second or third year, Khaled (Gibran ) agreed to start giving me oud lessons.

 

D:

(Arabic) He was living in Ramallah?

 

H:

Mmm. He was living in Jerusalem all his life but he is the one who started the Middle Eastern music in the conservatory.

 

Why did I start telling this story? What’s funny is that I fell into playing the oud just by my own research. Because I was teaching myself guitar by myself and started playing simple things. But then I saw my grandfather playing oud (long pause) and I had already started learning about maqam, so it was really--

 

Doorbell buzzer rings.

 

 

Ann Arbor, Michigan

February 26, 2017