The Man Who Kept The Band Playing

Kareem Roustom laments being pigeonholed as “the Middle East guy” in the world of composers. But he has nothing to lament. I sat down with the Tufts’ professor in late March and left the interview feeling riveted by his work surrounding Middle Eastern music and narratives.

One of Roustom’s most remarkable professional achievements occurred just last year. After hearing a sampling of Roustom’s work, the world-famous conductor Daniel Barenboim commissioned Roustom to write a piece for his orchestra. The West Eastern Divan Orchestra has an exceptional history and place in current concert music. Roustom tells me, “[it was] founded a good 15 years ago by Barenboim and Edward Said.” It was purposeful in that “Said was Palestinian, and Barenboim was Argentinian-Israeli, and they started this experiment, asking ‘what if we bring Arabs and Israelis to play together in an orchestra? What if it’s about how we have to listen to each other as a meeting point to start this dialogue?’”

After its premier in Buenos Aires, Roustom’s summer tour performed at the Luscerne Festival, then the BBC Proms, and then the Salzburg Festival. Roustom gushes at the mention. “[They] are, you know, the biggest classical music festivals in the world. I kind of added it up, and just on the tour alone, there were 22,000 people who heard the piece. And it was broadcast!”

The summer of 2014 was a salient time for the tour. Perpetual violence in the Occupied Territories and Israel turned into another period of internationally recognized war, resulting in the deaths of sixty-six Israeli soldiers and six Israeli civilians, six-hundred and five Palestinian militants, one hundred and twenty-three Palestinians of unverified status, and one-thousand four-hundred ninety-two Palestinian civilians.

In this time when tensions, resentment, and hatred would have been at their worst, the orchestra’s Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians played works like Roustom’s 13-minute “Ramal”.

Roustom was born in Syria, a country whose own ongoing civil war following the suppression of a 2011 pro-democracy movement has claimed over 220,000 lives. Roustom’s work on pieces like “Ramal” demonstrates his ability to instill music with emotions, glimpses of experiences that deserve acknowledgement and reverence. This human component to Middle Eastern conflict is so often omitted from Western media and dialogue. We then analyze these conflicts as far-off paradigms of power struggles, some of which have more vested interests to the West. It is this that dictates our level of involvement.

“You know,” Roustom lets out an almost inaudible sigh. “I try to write music that will connect with people, and a lot of the music I’ve been writing recently has been reflecting on the horrible civil war in Syria, and the total devastation and destruction. A number of people from Syria who had heard [“Ramal”] responded. At Salzburg, I was told that the Egyptian Ambassador, she was Syrian, and apparently she cried after the piece. So she was moved by it, and not because it’s a great piece, but because, for Syrians, they’re feeling what I was trying to express, they’re looking for something that allows them to cry.”

Non-Syrian listeners were similarly moved. One former student of Roustom’s told him that “I was driving down the highway, and I heard this piece and had to pull over and listen, I was
so blown away.”

Roustom has also completed countless film scores. For feature films like Cannes award-winner Amreeka, which portrays the lives of Palestinian families in the West Bank and in post-9/11 Chicago, “the job of the film score is to manipulate your emotions. At the right time.” The score in Amreeka does so with both power and subtly.

Kareem tells me that documentary scores differ in that “underneath the dialogue, it’s music that needs to be felt, but not noticed.” Roustom walked this fine line while scoring Budrus, which follows nonviolent activism in a Palestinian village combating and eventually preventing the building of an illegal Israeli barrier wall. Roustom used a folk dance called a “Depki” as a basis for the whole score, creating “a folk music element that was very regional to that part of the world. With films about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Roustom concedes, “even when a director really tries to be careful about not offending one side or the other. Each screening, someone would say ‘this is pro-Israel!’ and someone would say ‘no, this is pro-Palestine!’”

In addition to teaching courses in the Tufts’ Music Department, Roustom directs the Arabic Music Ensemble. Roustom gracefully conveys to me its importance as a means to immerse students in Middle Eastern cultures, humanizing an otherwise too foreign and vilified other.

“We’ve had music students, but we’ve also had a bunch of students who were at the Fletcher school, so future Ambassadors or CIA or whatever. It’s nice for some of these kids, they’re interested in the Middle East and while they’re at Tufts, this is maybe one of the few kinds of cultural interaction they have with it the Middle East. They’re trained to think about the culture. I hope they remember it. We plant seeds, and if they grow, they grow. And if they don’t… I don’t know.”

Allowing Fletcher students to play music of the Middle East may not change the future of US foreign policy. A film score like that of Amreeka may not allow US politicians the freedom to openly criticize Israel, and the West Eastern Divan Orchestra won’t turn Khaled Marshal and Bibi into fast friends. Roustom’s music, however, commands respect for the Middle East, highlights beauty in spite of tragedy. It makes visible the human element of the Middle East’s multicultural landscape, a portrayal often absent in Western representations.

As Roustom recognizes, “I’m just trying to put something positive out there. See what happens.”

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