Lebanese poet uses art to unite

Sunday, February 10, 2008 | 7:18 p.m. CST; updated 6:03 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Marcel Khalife signs Raz Oufabia's oud, or lute.

COLUMBIA - The Lebanese poet and composer Marcel Khalife sat in MU’s Waters Auditorium on Saturday to indulge an admiring and, at times, teary-eyed audience. Khalife, who influenced an entire generation of Arabs, was hosted by the Columbia Peace Coalition and Columbia radio station KOPN/89.5 FM.

But the event was not a performance. It was an intimate conversation between Khalife and the audience. Although many people asked questions in English, they received answers in Arabic, translated by KOPN’s “Arab Music Arab Culture” radio host, Rihab Sawah, who is also an associate professor of physics at Moberly Area Community College.

Sawah said Khalife represents the beat of the Arab world’s heart in all of its art and culture.

“Art does not promote sectarianism,” Khalife said. “The role of art is to unite and not divide. Music has to be a uniting factor for peace.”

Raz Oufabia, a member of the audience, said Khalife’s music has meaning.

“It whispers to you,” Oufabia said. “He was about something deeper.”

Oufabia started playing rock ‘n’ roll on guitar at age 13 and was listening to Khalife’s lyrics years ago when he had an epiphany.

“The way he played the lute, I never heard before,” Oufabia said. “It was completely different.”

The lute, or oud in Arabic, is an Andalusian-style guitar that Khalife is famous for playing.

Khalife smiled at the audience through his gray beard as he talked of his inspirations and major influences on his art, many of which are derived from the Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, an artist who wrote of cultural revolution.

Although Khalife stressed he is not a politician, he recalled an incident that propelled him into working for peace.

He said he first tasted injustice just outside Beirut where Palestinian refugee camps were built, and he had a hard time reconciling how many of the refugees were living in squalor. Khalife said he connected with the people, even though he wasn’t Palestinian.

Carine Tannous, a Lebanese American, and her husband, Ian White, sat in the back row as they listened to Khalife speak. Tears welled in Tannous’s eyes as she stood from her chair to comment on how Khalife’s artistic expression and words need to be portrayed as the real image of Arabs, rather than what many of the politicians portray.

White expressed similar sentiments.

“As an American, it’s so important for us to hear this message because it is different from what we normally see of the Middle East. We’re not aware that this element exists,” White said. “It’s not just one person, but there’s an entire cultural following for peace.”

Sawah said it’s important to bring intellectuals and artists such as Khalife to speak.

“An event like this plants a seed in people’s hearts and, with growth, can become a tree, and that tree can later spread other seeds of peace,” Sawah said. “In that sense, peace is a grassroots effort.”

Khalife graduated from Beirut National Conservatory and later taught there from 1970 to 1975.

Khalife has toured many of the major music festivals in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including the World Music Festival in San Francisco and New York City. He has also been named the United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Culture Organization’s 2007 UNESCO Artist for Peace.

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