Al-Sham (2013)

20 minutes
Commissioned by VisionIntoArt for Jeffrey Zeigler


I. Barada
II. May 25th 2012
III. Naaman’s Song
IV. Shora


It’s a testament to the immense influence of Damascus in the Arab World that the Arabic nickname for the city, “Al-Sham”, is also the name for the whole Arabian Levant. The last few years of upheaval in Syria have been difficult for me to digest given the cultural and musical transformation that I underwent as a kid travelling through Damascus. Today, as The New York Times describes an entire “lost generation” in Syria, the need to musically respond is more desperate in me than ever. The sonic results of many of these thoughts are collected here in my first cello suite: Al-Sham.

Barada, the opening introduction, takes its name from the river that runs through Damascus. It captures the fluid motion of the eternal river as it winds through the ancient city interrupted by the terrible and decaying grandeur of the Old City. The movement has a breezy, folk-tune quality reminiscent of the Syrian and Armenian melodies heard on the banks of Barada.

This winds down without pause to May 25th 2012, a movement that takes its title from the date of the massacre at Houla in which 108 people (25 men, 34 women and, remarkably, 49 children) were massacred. The music starts in a dark place and builds to a screaming outpour of grief. It vacillates between heartfelt lamentation and introversion. The cello is made to scale its highest heights and fall to the lowest depths. This visceral music captures the extreme grief and disgust that I felt on that day.

The following movement takes us back to the River Barada through the biblical tale of Naaman, the ancient Syrian general who attempts to cleanse himself of his leprosy in the river. He eventually seeks out the help of Elisha who famously tells him to wash himself in Jordan. This movement represents a moment of cleansing and recovery.

The final movement sees the reactivation of the limbs through the Shora, a vigorous and energetic Syrian dance. This unashamed music is a celebration of the dance, of the vitality and strength of the Syrian people and of the ability of the human spirit to recover after suffering unspeakable loss.

- Mohammed Fairouz (2013)

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