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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, October/November 1998, pages 103-106

California Chronicle

Syrian Symphony Scores Success in California Debut

By Pat and Samir Twair

History was made in Syro-U.S. relations during the first week of September when the Syrian National Symphony made its premiere performance in the United States. The enthusiasm of the musicians was matched by that of the audiences who demanded encore after encore at concerts in Orange County and Los Angeles.

At the Sept. 4 concert in the magnificent Orange County Performing Arts Center, Dr. Hazem Chehabi, a physician and honorary consul of Syria, opened the program by explaining that since he heard the orchestra for the first time in 1997 in Syria, he has been working to bring the symphony to California.

“It has been a lifelong dream of these musicians to perform in America and they are coming here with open arms to meet the American people,” he said.

And it was with open hearts that the audience thrilled to an exuberant yet polished performance of Beethoven, Mozart and Azerbaijani composers Adel Jeray and Suleiman Aliskinov.

Founded in 1993, the Syrian National Symphony is composed of more than 100 musicians, of whom 70 were selected for its first performance outside the Middle East. The precision and intensity of the artists reflected hours of rehearsals as well as their emotional attachment to conductor Solhi al-Wadi, who has been the spirit behind Syria’s musical achievements for nearly four decades.

Al-Wadi’s dynamic style was immediately sensed by the audience in his robust, upbeat version of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” “I’ve never heard our anthem played with such gusto,” commented one concert-goer. “Now I can see why Americans accepted it when Francis Scott Key wrote it.”

Beethoven’s Overture to “Fidelio” opened the program and, within minutes, the Syrians demonstrated their abilities to perform impressive allegros, resounding fortes and thrilling pianissimos under the baton of their dedicated maestro.

In Syria, the symphony performs only Western classical music such as Purcell’s “Dido and Aeneas,” but in recognition of its initial performance in the West, it offered two Eastern compositions. Juan Karajolli, who plays the double bass in the symphony, rendered an oud solo in Jeray’s “Maquam Shahnaz” for flute and strings.

Karajolli’s mastery of the oud brought round after round of applause from an audience anxious to hear Middle Eastern motifs. As the string section and percussionists complemented his solo, a happy, collective sigh emanated throughout the concert hall.

A zesty offering was Aliskirov’s Movements for Three Lutes and Strings, performed by Karajolli and Fouaad Shelgen. A third oud player, Hamsa Homsi, was unable to perform due to illness.

The favorite of the evening was a performance by pianist Hamsa al-Wadi Juris offering Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, No. 20. The daughter of conductor al-Wadi, Juris was trained at the Moscow Conservatory and is a professor at Helsinki’s Sibelius Institute in Finland.

At the grand piano, the petite musician magically brought Mozart’s work to life with her interpretation. Juris, who began studying piano at age 6 under the tutelage of her pianist mother, traveled from Finland to join the orchestra in its American debut.

She was a prize-winner in the 1981 Beethoven Competition in Vienna and was the youngest competitor in the 1975 Chopin competition in Warsaw. She has appeared in London, Paris and Vilnius, Lithuania, but the applause she received Sept. 4 probably set a record.

The featured soloist for the Sept. 6 program at UCLA’s Royce Hall was violinist Bassam Nashawati performing Beethoven’s Concerto in D Major Op. 61. Damascus-born Nashawati graduated from the Arab Institute of Music, received his master’s degree from the Cleveland Institute of Music and is a member of Michael Tilson Thomas’ New World Symphony in Miami.

Nashawati displayed the stamina of an athlete as he played three movements of what one critic describes as the “mother of all violin concertos.” UCLA’s Dr. Nabil Azzam, a violinist, praised Nashawati’s bowing technique and remarked on his ability to tackle the difficult concerto with time only for a few rehearsals after his arrival in California.

“It is a plus that Solhi al-Wadi has built an appreciation for Western classical music in Syria while still preserving the Arabic classical traditions, Dr. Azzam noted. “His work is of supreme importance.”

Dramatic soprano Lubana Quntar, a 1997 graduate of the Damascus Higher Institute of Music, offered a spirited Habanera from “Carmen” and a moving Violetta’s Aria from the end of Act I of “La Traviata.”

The most moving selection was the closing piece, conductor al-Wadi’s composition “Meditation on a Theme by Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab.” The work was composed in 1990 on two motifs by the Egyptian master and beautifully combined Oriental themes with melodious string passages incorporating lyrical cello solo parts.

Encores for both evenings were offered by Kinan al-Azmeh performing “Fantasia for Clarinet” by Hungarian composer Frigyes Hidas. The handsome and gifted clarinetist graduated this year from Syria’s Higher Institute of Music and took first place in the 1997 Nicolai Rubenstein competition in Moscow.

It was a daunting task Dr. Chehabi set for himself when he astutely chose to bring the Syrian symphony to California. The results are inestimable in terms of good will and new respect for the Syrians. He hopes to invite the orchestra again in the future.

The Newport Beach physician scheduled the concerts to coincide with a convention of the Arab American Medical Association in Newport Beach. He also dipped deeply into his own pockets to cover many of the expenses of transporting 72 people from Syria, lodging them in hotels for 10 days, and chartering three buses to transport them. The ninth day of their stay was a holiday—a tour of Universal Studios and lunch at Planet Hollywood.

All members of the orchestra are either instructors or advanced students at the Higher Institute or Arabic Institute of Music. They were not paid for their performances in the U.S., but Dr. Chehabi presented each with an envelope containing five crisp $100 bills at a post-concert event.

Speaking to the orchestra and conductor al-Wadi, filmmaker Moustapha Akkad said: “It was important for Americans to hear our Syrian symphony, but it was more so for Arab Americans to hear it and be proud of their culture. When an Arab American is proud of his Arabic legacy, he can impart this pride to the world. Instead of spending money on military buildups, how much better it would be if we could invest it in music, culture, the arts.”

Dr. Chehabi told the assembled group that all the bureaucratic red tape in getting 70 musicians to the U.S, the frantic fax messages and suspenseful wait for approvals was worth it when he witnessed the reception the symphony received.

“Things were in a shambles, your luggage was lost, we had to rent tuxedos and buy clothes, but look at the miracle you performed,” he told them. “When I phoned the Syrian Ministry of Culture, I told them they should be proud, that you were the best ambassadors Syria has ever had and you have accomplished more than Syrian embassies have ever done.”

A minor disappointment was the review by Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed, whose confused and patronizing comments reflected embarrassingly on Southern California journalism. He referred to Iraqi-born al-Wadi as an Iranian, and expressed disappointment that the program was less “exotic” than many of the Arab Americans in the audience.

Asked conductor al-Wadi’s Welsh-born pianist wife, Cynthia: “If a symphony orchestra from Japan performed in Los Angeles, would the music critic find it so exotic that they played Western classical music? Classical music is international. The West does not have a monopoly on Beethoven.”

A more technical review by Timothy Mangan in the Orange County Register praised the symphony.

When conductor/composer al-Wadi was growing up in Iraq, his father was an adviser to King Feisal. He attended Victoria College in Alexandria, where one of his classmates was Jordan’s future King Hussein.

After completing his studies at London’s Royal Academy of Music, al-Wadi and his bride, Cynthia, who met as fellow students in London, traveled to Damascus, where he helped to found the Arab Music Institute. Al-Wadi was appointed its director in 1961 and has held the post ever since. With the opening of the Higher Institute of Music and Dramatic Arts in 1990, al-Wadi was named its dean. The national symphony was formed in 1993 and al-Wadi was appointed resident conductor.

The symphony performs six or seven times a year in Syria to audiences of more than 2,000. Traditional Arabic music is performed by the Institute’s Arabic Ensemble, led by Karajolli.

Cooperation with Italian artists has led to a spectacular project al-Wadi is contemplating for the year 2000. La Scala Opera House conductor Riccardo Muti has traveled with the Italian Radio Orchestra to trouble spots of the world such as Sarajevo to raise funds for war victims.

Last year, Muti staged a concert in Beirut to focus attention on the need for Israelis to withdraw from south Lebanon. After visiting Quneitra, the Syrian city in the Golan Heights which Israeli forces looted and leveled before withdrawing under an agreement negotiated by Henry Kissinger, Muti’s manager decided a “Golan for Syria” concert should be staged in the Roman theater of Busra in southern Syria. The performance will be in the autumn of 1999.

In the meantime, al-Wadi has acquired the unpublished manuscript of 17th century Italian composer Tommaso Albinini’s opera, entitled “Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra.” Working with the Italians, al-Wadi hopes to debut the opera during the year 2000 in the remarkably well-preserved ruins of Palmyra, a Roman-era city which was a major stop on the caravan routes between Aleppo, Damascus and Babylon.

We’re already reserving tickets for that spectacular.

Muslims Move to Dispel Terrorist Image

Hours after news broke of the Aug. 7 bombing of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzaniya, the Muslim Public Affairs Council notified the media of a Friday sermon to address the East African tragedies and a press conference to follow at the Islamic Center of Southern California.

The dust had barely settled at the bombing sites, but local Muslims obviously didn’t want accusatory fingers pointing at them as happened in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing.

“Regardless of whether the victims are Africans, Americans, Muslims or Christians, this is human life that has been violated,” stated MPAC spokesman Dr. Maher Hathout during the well-attended press conference. “A crime has been committed and it should be condemned.”

“On the other hand we ask reporters to be balanced and restrained,” he continued. “There was a shooting at the nation’s capitol a few days ago and we still do not know the perpetrator’s religious affiliation. We don’t know if he was a Catholic, a Protestant or a Jew. But if he had been a Muslim, we would know.

“By tomorrow, there will be a flood of accusations. This is a crime that can’t be justified. To kill people is criminal if it is Israel bombing civilians in south Lebanon, or Muslims being bombed in Kashmir or Kosovo.”

Subsequently, when U.S. intelligence targeted Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden as the likely mastermind of the U.S. Embassy bombings, MPAC spokesmen Dr. Hathout and Salam Marayati spoke on numerous talk shows and published op-ed pieces emphasizing that Islam does not preach violence.

In the wake of the embassy bombings and U.S. missile attacks on a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and sites in Afghanistan identified with Bin Laden, the Muslim community was dismayed to learn of yet another Hollywood film in which the villains are Muslims. Entitled “The Siege,” the 20th Century Fox film, directed by Ed Zwick, deals with a Muslim bombing campaign in the U.S. that brings about martial law and the mass arrest of American Muslims and Arab Americans.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), based in Washington, DC, had received complaints from Muslims in Brooklyn who had seen graffiti in the streets and had viewed trailers of the film. The previews featured a split screen showing Muslims at prayer on one side and blowing up U.S. landmarks on the other.

CAIR officials met with Zwick and producer Linda Obst, who conceded that they might modify scenes depicting Muslims cursing and drinking alcohol, but the basic plot was to remain. The two filmmakers, both of whom are Jewish, argued that the film challenged Islamophobia and group hysteria by demonstrating how innocent members of a religious or ethnic group could be rounded up as Japanese Americans were at the onset of World War II.

In response, CAIR called a national press conference Aug. 26 across the street from 20th Century Fox Studios in West Los Angeles. National CAIR executive director Nihad Awad and communications director Ibrahim Hooper stood with Prof. Jack Shaheen, author of books on Hollywood’s negative stereotypes of Arabs, and MPAC’s Marayati in front of an array of TV cameras and print media reporters.

Awad said that Muslims have come to wonder—given 20th Century Fox’s anti-Muslim films, “True Lies” and “Executive Decision”—if the studio has a political agenda to propagandize Muslims and Arabs as a threat to American society.

“We are your neighbors and your coworkers,” Awad pleaded. “How would you like to see a film that showed Jews in a synagogue next to scenes of them blowing up the city of New York? How would you like to see a split screen with Catholics at communion while simultaneously blowing up cars and buildings?”

Shaheen noted the only group Hollywood studios have vilified more than Arabs are American Indians. “The danger is when these harmful stereotypes are perpetuated, the innocent get hurt.”

Marayati told the dozens of news people on hand that CAIR and MPAC would have preferred to have been inside Fox Studios rather than speaking across the street in a park. “The studios should look at what they are doing. There is no balance. That’s why we’re out here talking to you instead of inside Fox.”

Marayati announced that an Entertainment Resource Center has been established by CAIR and MPAC which ideally will dialogue with studios on films dealing with Muslims or Arabs before the damage is done.

When a reporter asked how Muslims could justify Bin Laden’s threat to attack U.S. targets—even civilian targets—Shaheen responded:

“It’s interesting how you switch things to religion. Did anyone call the Unabomber a Christian terrorist? No one discussed the religion of the individual who murdered two guards at the nation’s capitol. Nor did ethnicity have a role. But if either of those men had been an Arab or a Muslim, it would have been significant.

“No producer in Hollywood has made a movie on the Palestinian-American Alex Odeh, who was murdered right here by the Jewish Defense League. Why is it fair game for Hollywood to target Arabs and not others?”

Marayati then touched upon the issues that disturb Muslims and Arabs. “”˜The Siege’ has jumped from fiction to depicting what some people could assume is fact. It’s as if we are all held hostage to terrorism in the Middle East. The U.S. is carrying out policies that are earning it hatred. There are one million civilians dead in Iraq because of U.S-enforced sanctions. Lebanese civilians die all the time when Israel drops U.S.-made bombs on them.”

Then on Aug. 29, a watershed event was observed on the religion pages of the Los Angeles Times. For some time readers have looked at the two-page religious section published each Saturday and wondered about balance. Local news on these pages is dominated by headlines and copy dealing with temple and synagogue activities. Some Catholic and Protestant events are listed in a calendar of events. Wire service copy generally deals with Judaism in Israel or abroad. Mention of Buddhist or Sikh temple events is generally confined to major rare annual occasions, and mention of Muslim events generally is relegated to the month of Ramadan.

Therefore it was with pleased amazement that many readers beheld the Aug. 29 religious pages, which featured a lengthy Q & A format report on how Southern California Muslim leaders are dealing with the U.S. perception of Muslims as terrorists. Those interviewed were Hussam Ayloush, director of CAIR in Anaheim, CA, Marayati and Dr. Hathout. Although some questions seemed to be both patronizing and profoundly misinformed, i.e., “Are U.S. Muslim leaders fearful of repercussions if they speak out against Islamic terrorism too forcefully?,” most were fair and gave the spokesmen the opportunity to portray Islam in a truthful light.

NAAA Calls on Congressmen

A contingent from the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Arab Americans met Aug. 13 with Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-30th District) in his Los Angeles office. On hand for the meeting were chapter president Samir Mansour, Prof. Brice Harris, Florence Richards and these columnists. The astute Latino solon explained that the dilemma facing all members of Congress is that since they represent constituencies with widespread and sometimes competing interests, voters must make their concerns known to their representatives.

Rep. Becerra voted with the minority against S 1322, the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, calling for the U.S. Embassy in Israel to be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999. He also was termed a “good guy” in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,’s September issue Hall of Fame and Shame story dealing with House members’ voting records on the Middle East.

The congressman noted wryly that he hears regularly from pro-Israel persons before and after a crucial vote, but rarely from Arab Americans.

Becerra made it clear, however, that he votes on his conscience and not from outside pressures.

“I have positions out there that are known,” he said. “I was elected to Congress in 1992 while I was saying I believed in a Palestinian state.”

In 1992, while on an AIPAC junket to Israel, Becerra, who then was an assemblyman, traveled on his own to the Galilee to talk to Father Elias Chacour, a Roman Catholic Palestinian priest and author who is one of the most articulate spokesmen for Palestinians of all faiths.

“If Arab Americans are to make a difference, they must involve themselves in the process,” he said. “When you know a bill is coming up that is important to your community, get some people to walk the halls of Congress and spend half a day talking to congressional staff members. You won’t get a congressman the first time or the second time, but you must develop that presence—otherwise your opponent will always prevail.”

The congressman agreed to appoint field representative Cindy Aguierre as a liaison to work locally with the NAAA chapter and for legislative assistant Arshi Siddiqui to work with NAAA in Washington.

Turning to sanctions against Iraq, the congressman said: “As an individual, I am not a fan of sanctions whether they are on Cuba or any nation. But as a member of Congress, I can’t support lifting sanctions on Iraq because [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussain won’t allow full UNSCOM inspections of weapons of mass destruction. If Saddam won’t live up to the agreements on inspections then the sanctions can’t be lifted.”

Richards showed Rep. Becerra a book, Secret Channels: The Inside Story of Arab-Israeli Peace Negotiations, which cannot be bought in the U.S. The author is Egyptian journalist Mohamed Heikal. Richards was able to purchase a copy of the book in England where the highly praised hardback edition sold out and a paperback edition was published. In the U.S., the book was withdrawn from bookstores by the publishers, HarperCollins, just three months after its release. This has led to some speculation bordering on accusations of censorship as to why the Heikal book is “out of print” in the U.S.

When another contingent of NAAA members called on Rep. Christopher Cox (R-47th District) in his Newport Beach office, he, too, was presented with literature—a pamphlet entitled Binyamin Netanyahu In His Own Words.

On hand for the Aug. 21 session with Cox were chapter president Mansour and constituents George Hanna and Norman Tanber. Stressing that NAAA condemns any form of terrorism against anyone, Mansour asked Congressman Cox to consider sponsoring a bill that would put into motion an investigation as to why the U.S. is the target of terrorism in the Middle East. Representative Cox noted a task force on terrorism has been organized and he would talk to Florida Congressman Bill McCollum, who heads it, when he returns to the capital. (The problem is that McCollum’s objectivity is questionable inasmuch as he has gone on record as being an unabashed supporter of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s extremist Likud government.)

Hanna noted that it is increasingly difficult to recruit Arab Americans into the Republican Party because of the pro-Likud, pro-Netanyahu stance House Speaker Newt Gingrich has taken, especially in his speeches in Israel this summer.

The conservative solon noted only that “the Speaker feels very strongly on this subject,” thus avoiding any criticism of Gingrich.

The California congressman, who sits on the new House Policy Commission, commented that when the Israeli prime minister visited Congress and stated he did not need money from the U.S., there was a spotty standing ovation. “I led that ovation,” Rep. Cox said, “because I don’t think it is in Israel’s best interest to be a socialist country.”

Tanber, a stockbroker, pointed out that a cost/benefit analysis is overdue in Congress. “Are the interests of the U.S. being served when Congress obeys the demands of Israel?” he asked rhetorically. “No cost/ benefit analysis has been made on what it costs the U.S. to support Israel whether it kills civilians at a United Nations camp at Qana, Lebanon, or refuses to honor signed peace agreements with the Palestinians.”

The future of Jerusalem was brought up by Mansour, who was born in that city. Also on the agenda was a tribute to NAAA chapter member Dr. George Dibs which Representative Cox will place in the Congressional Record. Dr. Dibs, who died this summer (see below), traveled with Rep. Cox and Hanna to Lebanon in 1993.

According to the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, neither Representative Becerra nor Representative Cox are recipients of money from pro-Israel PACs.

Activist George Dibs Remembered

The Arab-American community is paying its respects to the memory of educator and Arab-American activist Dr. George Dibs, who died July 25 at age 68.

Dr. Dibs was born in Brooklyn, NY. His grandparents were immigrants from Syria and Lebanon. His father was an officer in the U.S. Air Force and the family lived in South Carolina and Florida before settling in California in 1946. After earning a Ph.D. in education from the University of Southern California, George taught and was an administrator in three school districts. He ended his career as superintendent of the Ontario-Montclair School District in California.

After his retirement, George served as principal of the International School in Aleppo, Syria, during the 1988-89 academic year.

George was dedicated to the goal of broadening a better understanding among non-Arabs of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and of the proud legacy of the Arab culture. To this end, he served on the board of the Greater Los Angeles Chapter of the National Association of Arab Americans and was a president of the Arab American Republican Club of Orange County. He also was president of the American Arab Education Foundation, which annually provides some $30,000 in scholarships to deserving high school and college students.

In addition, George served for 25 years on the board of trustees of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of Northern California. He also helped to establish three new parishes in Southern California and was parish council chairman for St. Mark Orthodox Church in Irvine, CA.

Pat and Samir Twair are free-lance writers based in Los Angeles.