Syria’s tra­di­tional oud-mak­ing on the de­cline since con­flict

Many lute mak­ers have fled Da­m­a­scene wood used for the in­stru­ment also got rare

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE - Rana Mous­saoui

Lute mak­ers have em­i­grated in large numbers, and the Da­m­a­scene wood used to build the in­stru­ments has also be­come rare

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.

Lute mak­ers 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 9sqm 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 mother of 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 char­ac­terised 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 5am 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 (US$100). Today, I sell them for 3,500 (US$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. 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.”

Pro­fes­sion un­der threat

The first Da­m­a­scene oud was pro­duced in 1897 by Abdo a Nah­hat, who be­came one of the country’s most renowned lute mak­ers.

In the early 20th cen­tury, the oud was the favoured in­stru­ment among Syr­i­ans, played at mar­riages or dur­ing gath­er­ings of fe­male so­cialites.

Khal­ifeh’s ate­lier in the Adawi neigh­bour­hood is now half-ar­ti­sanal, half-mech­a­nised.

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 US.

“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.” 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.


An­toun Tawil, one of Syria’s last tra­di­tional lute mak­ers, tunes an oud at his work­shop in Tekkiyeh Su­la­maniyeh, in the cap­i­tal Da­m­as­cus

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