The Middle East has been a vital theater for the world's dealings and concerns since the very start of human civilization. Not much has changed in this regard and not much seems destined to change. The region's geopolitical role is central to the connection of Europe, Africa and Asia facilitating the flow of trade and ideas throughout the globe. Beyond being Earth's vital hub in terms of location, the concepts that have emerged directly from the Middle East have had an irrevocable role in shaping the face of humanity. Over half of the world's population subscribes to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other ideologies that have their roots in the region. Other milestones, from the laws of Hammurabi and the development of the alphabet to the advent of the first cities have changed the trajectory of human history. In our age of immediate connectivity, where the events of one region can have instant repercussions across the planet, disengaging from this critical part of the world is less of an option now than it may have ever been before.
I wrote my string quartet, The Named Angels, against the current backdrop of unrest in the Middle East. Each of the four movements of the quartet portrays of one of the four angels shared by the Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths. Michael, Azrael, Gabriel and Israfel are not only recognizable to all the people of the book, they also embody bold universals of power, healing, death and kindness that have made their stories pervasive in many of the world's cultures.
Michael represents the dichotomy of power and mercy. The music vacillates between hymns and resounding thunder. In Islam, Michael's deliverance of rain and thunder to Earth is both awesome and a blessing to the growth of crops in the oases of the Arabian Desert.
Azrael is the most all-embracing of the angels. He signifies death. While my music for Azreal-Malak al-Maut (Arabic for Azreal, the Angel of Death) contains expected chorales and funereal stretches, it unexpectedly begins rather than ends with the exhalation of life. The journey of the movement is the transportation of the soul and, at the end, the reinvention and rebirth of the spirit. I made a deliberate choice to end this movement about death with a celebration of the eternal nature of the human soul, a concept that has provided comfort to countless people in the face of death and loss for millennia.
The most challenging movement of The Named Angels for me to compose was the third: Jibreel at Hira (Gabriel at Hira). The Angel Gabriel features in too many stories in the Torah, Bible and Q'uran to recount an essential feature about this archangelic messenger so I picked a story that I've known since my early childhood: the first revelation to the Prophet Mohammed. The music takes a storybook approach and a ballad-like tone building to the ecstasy felt by the Prophet when Gabriel appeared to him on the Night of Power commanding the illiterate Prophet with what was to become the first word of the Q'uran: "Read!"
The final movement begins with the sounding of Israfel's trumpet symbolizing the end of the world and the Day of Judgment. The apocalyptic passages of the Q'uran describe the trumpet being blown twice which I followed with literal representations in my music. The earth quakes and the graves give up their dead. The tumultuous music follows these verses.
Many of my works deal with the crises and issues of the contemporary Middle East explicitly but by choosing to focus on longterm legacies and universal stories in The Named Angels, I hoped to outline the ever-present centrality of the region to our imagination. Some of the things that need to happen in the Middle East today seem painfully clear. The killing in Syria needs to stop (and in particular the use of Syrian arms against Syrian people cannot be permitted to continue). Any destabilization of Lebanon must be contained and ended. The unspeakable suffering of the Iraqi people brought on by an ill-considered invasion 10 years ago that was unprepared to deal with its own aftermath and prolonged by increased disengagement on the part of the world community has to be counteracted by meaningful aid to the Iraqi people to the end of rebuilding a strong Iraqi state infrastructure. Vigorous international attention needs to be paid to ending the decades-old conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians once and for all. Last but not least, Egypt needs to get its affairs of house back in order and resume its position as the leader among Arab states.
These items are easier said than done but they are not optional. Israfel's trumpet is sounding loudly in the Middle East today, and it's a sound that the international community cannot afford to ignore.