The meeting, held on April 1, 2005, was one of the first steps made by Freemuse to direct a sharpened focus towards the Middle East. For Freemuse, the meeting served as a kind of fact finding mission, identifying possible speakers for a forthcoming Freemuse seminar in Beirut, as well as a discussion forum aiming at identifying some of the key issues related to the censorship of music in the Middle East.
Amman was chosen as the location because of the possibility to link the event to the Amman International Theatre Festival which was running from March 27 to April 6, 2005. It enabled Freemuse to bring together people who were on the location for the festival, and to meet new people and contacts not only at the Freemuse meeting but at the festival as a whole. The countries represented at the meeting were Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
Content of the meeting
The roundtable meeting itself was held as a closed meeting taking place at the Al Balad Theatre from 11 am to 3 pm. The meeting was divided into two sessions, one focusing on creating awareness of musical censorship and the other one providing the space for an open discussion. As it turned out, the two sessions more or less overlapped each other.
The Morning Session included a presentation of Freemuse by Executive Director Marie Korpe who also pointed out some general facts about music and censorship and listed out the most common reasons for censoring music. Moreover two film clips were screened; one about music in Afghanistan and another about the Algerian musician Lounes Matoub who was assassinated in 1998. Both film clips, in particular the interview with Lounes Matoub, raised a lot of issues and proved to be a good starting point for the discussion.
Two personal testimonies about the censoring of music opened Session Two.
Sa’ad, a musician and actor, gave a testimony about his experiences with heavy metal music in Syria. He told the group how heavy metal in Syria is suffering from the state authorities holding back permissions to concerts, interfering and interrogating people at the spot when concerts are actually performed. He also made a central point stating that there are other authorities then the state trying to prevent heavy metal from getting spread and performed. The older generations and the religious communities were both brought up as playing a role in the censoring of music.
Ashraf, a concert arranger and event maker in Jordan, gave a testimony about the range of problems he faced with the authorities. Ashraf has been responsible for a large number of the independent musical events which has taken place in Jordan during the last ten years. He told how these activities had led to his imprisonment a number of times, out of which the longest lasted 40 days. He is still not sure what they actually accused him of, but both he and Sa’ad argued that the censoring of music was not mainly due to specific political issues but a part of a bigger attempt by the state and others to control people. Ashraf said he felt that the authorities saw his events as exemplifying a new lifestyle threatening the state of order and destroying young people. He himself promotes all kinds of music and stated that he doesn’t want music to create amnesia but to make people wake up.
Threat to status quo
This led on to a discussion around the table on what the reasons might be for ordering a censorship. Everybody in the group agreed upon that it is usually not what is experessed in the lyrics which concerns the censors. The issue seems more to be a fear of something unknown to them, plus the whole atmosphere around certain kinds of music. The state, the older generation, parents, the religious authorities, etc., see controversial music – or simply new music – as a threat to status quo. They are scared of change, and the coming up of new and alternative ideas and mindsets. They are all worried about new loyalties different from the ones they stand for.
Different taboos were discussed such as criticising the king or president in person, and to question state loyalties or religious consensuses. Also the question of being a woman and a performing musician was raised from different perspectives. Both the limitations a woman faces in her local society and the way the new pop scene pictures women were discussed.
All of the participants found that the awareness of musical censorship in the region is quite low and that there is a need of raising the issue as part of a more general fight for a free and independent cultural life in the Middle East. All together lots of ideas and viewpoints were shared at the meeting which also helped identifying contacts as well as key issues to proceed with.
The meaning of independence
At the Theatre Festival Freemuse took part in a workshop entitled ‘Dialogue between Artists across Cultures’. One complete day was devoted to discuss what independence means which also proved to be relevant to the work of Freemuse. A wide range of notions of independence was presented around the table. Some viewed independence as being completely self-sustaining and self-supporting while others said that pure independence doesn’t exist. But also the possibility to change was weighted at the discussion. A man from Gaza emphasized the ability to refine roots and produce something new. Or, as one participant put it: “Real independence is when you find yourself surrounded by lots of restrictions and regulations and are able to stay independent inside yourself even so!”