However you look at it, the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir's premiere of a new oratorio by Mohammed Fairouz is a big deal. It's important politically. The piece addresses the Syrian conflict, gay rights and the neglect of Arab culture, among other timely subjects. And it's important to the choir: It was something of a coup to score a new work by Fairouz, a very much in-demand composer. And to make the most of it, the choir plans to record the piece for a major label in the near future.
Fairouz, 29, has been called "one of the most talented composers of his generations" (BBC). The Los Angeles Times describes his work as "at once classic, current and global, a mingling of rhythms and tones, as attuned to Brahms and other 'dead white men' as they are to the inflection of Middle Eastern melodies." An American of Arab descent, Fariouz is very much the socially engaged artist (witness the following interview, which is packed with geopolitics even after some editing to keep things on topic). He's written work concerning the Tahrir Square protests and 9/11.
Zabur, his oratorio premiering Friday at Hilbert Circle Theatre, is similarly headline-driven. It's a war requiem set in a shelter in a city that sounds very much like Aleppo. The protagonists are young blogger, Dawoud, and his friend and muse, Jibreel. Without access to the Internet (or any power source), Dawoud decides to share his words and poetry directly with others in the shelter.
Zabur is also an adaptation of the Pslams. Dawoud's Western or Judeo-Christian counterpart is David, but Fairouz isn't interested in translating David's songs for Western consumption. He's working from an Arabic Bible, using a version of the Psalms that he argues is closer to the original source. "If you look at some images of people in the Sinai Peninsula or Palestine or Babylon, you'd think that they're Norse gods or Vikings. That sort of disconnect always occurred when I would hear the Psalms in Western settings, even when they were very beautiful," he told NUVO in an interview in early April.
NUVO: Can you talk about how you developed the premise of Zabur?
Mohammed Fairouz: Najla [Said] developed the premise, but I don't think it requires a leap of faith. It's something that's happening consistently in Syria and the Middle East today, especially in Syria. Because of Bashar al-Assad's regime, there are over ten million Syrians who have been displaced; there are cities that have been razed to the ground. I'm talking about cities like Aleppo, which has existed for thousands of years. It's one of the oldest inhabited cities on the face of the Earth, and the Assad regime destroyed it. They've left a lot of people without electricity, without homes, without access to a computer or the Internet; without access, sometimes, to food and water. Children have learned, by heart, the sound of airplanes and fighter jets flying over their heads.
The people, whether journalists or bloggers, are chronicling the details and sending pictures to the outside world in whatever way they can; writing poetry, writing literature. Some people are chronicling every detail, every day, like journalists. Some people, like David in my piece, don't do that; they are no longer content to do that, so they turn to poetry. Chronicling every last detail becomes no longer desirable because the disaster has become so mundane, the horrors have become so mundane. You want to create a way to express yourself, to bring people together, in the shelter, which is where they are in my piece, to express the horrors being rained down.
I should also say, it shouldn't be a surprise that a war requiem has been created for Syria today. The situation in Syria is going to be the great shame of our generation for the rest of history. People will look back on us thinking that we're barbarians, asking, 'Why didn't they do anything about this? Why didn't the United Nations do anything?"
NUVO: How did you come to work with the Indianapolis Symphonic Choir?
Fairouz: It's serendipitous, actually, because they contacted me out of the blue. I had this idea: In the Islamic tradition, Gabriel is a messenger to all of the prophets, and David is a prophet in Islam. So I had this idea that Gabriel would be a companion to David, a muse to David and, in some way, David's partner. There's really no other place for it to be set than contemporary Aleppo, in contemporary Syria. And there are these undertones of gay rights that underscore the relationship between Gabriel and David in the piece.
I don't know if you've heard, but much of the country is talking about the new rules that have been enacted by the governor of Indiana. I have to say that I never thought, even in my young life, that I would see a day where the Saudis and the Gulf states in the Middle East are making reforms, moving forward and becoming more inclusive — and the United States is moving backwards and reinstituting laws of discrimination on the basis of religious freedom. But here we are.
NUVO: Some artists who object to RFRA are boycotting the state.
Fairouz: I've never been one for boycotts because they don't work. Taking an aggressive attitude toward people doesn't work. Approaching people on terms other than their own terms doesn't work. We all need to talk about this because we're an inclusive world. We're so interconnected these days that we can't afford to move forward except all together. We can't afford to have some peoples' rights jeopardized and threatened in some areas, while in others they're building the tallest towers in the world.
And what the hell is the point of boycotting a place like Indiana and Indianapolis, where we know that there are so many progressive people and arts organizations? The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra is one of our great and storied symphonies in the country. When you boycott people, you make the assumption that they're all the same and that they all believe the same thing. And, indeed, it may end up proving to be the case that there are a good many people, perhaps even a majority, who don't believe in the governor's new policy.