Syria’s tra­di­tional oud-mak­ing on the de­cline

'It's a pro­fes­sion un­der threat'

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

An­toun Tawil, one of Syria's last tra­di­tional lute mak­ers, waits in vain in his Damascus work­shop for or­ders of the oud, an in­stru­ment his coun­try was once renowned for pro­duc­ing. While the con­flict that has rav­aged Syria over the past six years has dev­as­tated many of its his­toric crafts, the pro­duc­tion of the oud, the ori­en­tal lute, has been par­tic­u­larly hard hit. Lutemak­ers have em­i­grated in large num­bers, and the Da­m­a­scene wood used to build the in­stru­ments has also be­come rare.

"There were around 20 work­shops be­fore the cri­sis, be­tween Damascus, Aleppo and Hama... Now there are no more than six," four of them in Damascus, said Tawil. The slen­der 57-year-old is one of them. In his tiny nine-squareme­ter shop in Tekkiyeh Su­la­maniyeh, an Ot­toman com­plex made up of a mosque and a crafts mar­ket, Tawil con­tem­plates the ouds hung around him.

Some are richly dec­o­rated, del­i­cately in­laid with moth­erof-pearl and ivory. Named af­ter the Ara­bic word mean­ing a piece of wood, the oud is a key in­stru­ment in Mid­dle East­ern mu­sic. It is re­lated to the gui­tar, the Rus­sian bal­a­lika and the Greek bouzouki, and the in­stru­ment is char­ac­ter­ized by its short neck and large, full body that gives the in­stru­ment a pear shape. 'Beau­ti­ful as a Per­sian rug'

All six crafts­men that used to work in Tawil's two work­shops have fled Syria. "Be­fore the cri­sis, we opened at 5:00 in the morn­ing and worked all day long be­cause there was so much de­mand," he said wist­fully. In a sin­gle month, Tawil used to sell a dozen ouds, many of them des­tined for abroad, in­clud­ing Europe and Canada. "Nowa­days, a month goes by with­out sell­ing any­thing." With the Syr­ian pound's de­val­u­a­tion, prices have also plum­meted. "I used to sell an oud for 5,000 Syr­ian pounds ($100). To­day, I sell them for 35,000 ($70)."

Still, he talks pas­sion­ately about the Syr­ian-specif­i­cally Da­m­a­scene-oud, which he de­scribes as both the most exquisite but also the most durable of Arab lutes. "Our ouds can last 70 years with­out need­ing main­te­nance," he said with a proud smile. "I've made pieces as beau­ti­ful as a Per­sian rug." The se­cret to its dura­bil­ity lies in the first steps of the craft, ac­cord­ing to Issa Michel Awad, an ex­pert in the oud and other stringed in­stru­ments at the Higher In­sti­tute for Mu­sic in Damascus.

"It's the way the Da­m­a­scene wood is cho­sen, the way it is dried and cured," he ex­plained. "That is why you can still play a Da­m­a­scene oud dat­ing from 1990 to­day with­out a sin­gle false note." But in to­day's con­flict-rid­den Syria, it is pre­cisely this trea­sured wood that poses a prob­lem. "We rely on wal­nut wood, which is very high qual­ity and is specif­i­cally avail­able in East­ern Ghouta," said Ali Khal­ifeh, a prom­i­nent lute-maker in Damascus. East­ern Ghouta is a rebel bas­tion east of the cap­i­tal, un­der gov­ern­ment siege and be­yond crafts­men's reach." To­day, this wood is be­ing used by peo­ple in Ghouta for heat... It is be­com­ing rare," he said. 'Pro­fes­sion un­der threat'

The first Da­m­a­scene oud was pro­duced in 1897 by Abdo Al-Nah­hat, who be­came one of the coun­try's most renowned lute-mak­ers. In the early 20th cen­tury, the oud was the fa­vored in­stru­ment among Syr­i­ans, played at mar­riages or dur­ing gath­er­ings of fe­male so­cialites. Khal­ifeh's ate­lier in the Adawi neigh­bor­hood is now half-ar­ti­sanal, half-mech­a­nized. Iron­i­cally, he has found de­mand has in­creased for his prod­ucts be­cause of the rel­a­tively few com­peti­tors. While Tawil uses steam to in­di­vid­u­ally shape the oud's ribs by hand, Khal­ifeh's work­shop uses ma­chines to bend 20 at a time and smooth the wood.

The neck's pegs are screwed in by hand. "Polishing the oud by hand takes be­tween five and six hours. With the ma­chine, it's done in 15 min­utes," said Khal­ifeh, who ex­ports across the Mid­dle East, as well as to France and the United States. "We used to make 10-15 ouds a month, now we make 20," added Khal­ifeh, who learned the pro­fes­sion from his fa­ther at the age of 14.

Even with his own or­ders up, Khal­ifeh feel the in­dus­try is in terminal de­cline. "When I look at the state of my pro­fes­sion, I can say it is in the process of dis­ap­pear­ing," he said. Tawil agreed. "It's a pro­fes­sion un­der threat," he said, lament­ing that in ad­di­tion to the ef­fects of the war, "young peo­ple don't have the time to learn". Like many in the field, he learned the trade from his fa­ther and is now pass­ing it on to his daugh­ter. But he sees a glim­mer of hope in the ar­ti­sans who have em­i­grated, tak­ing their ex­per­tise with them. "In Que­bec, there are now Syr­i­ans who are open­ing their own pro­duc­tion work­shops," Tawil said. — AFP

Ali Khal­ifeh, a lute-maker, tries a oud at a shop in the Syr­ian cap­i­tal Damascus. — AFP pho­tos

Ali Khal­ifeh, a lute-maker, tries a oud at a shop.

A Syr­ian worker sands a oud.

A Syr­ian worker sands a oud.

Ali Khal­ifeh, a lute-maker, ad­justs the strings on a oud.

A Syr­ian worker strings a oud at a work­shop.

A Syr­ian worker sands a oud at a work­shop .

A Syr­ian worker cuts out wood at a oud work­shop.

A Syr­ian worker sands a oud.

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