Marwan Khoury harnesses love for Arabic to power his greatest songs

Lebanese musician credits the language's inspirational and mystical qualities for striking a chord with listeners

epa06928029 Lebanese singer and composer Marwan Khoury sings for fans during a concert at the Damascus Citadel during the Damascus Citadel Festival in Damascus, Syria, 04 August 2018.  EPA-EFE/YOUSSEF BADAWI
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Musicians have a role in preserving the Arabic language, insists celebrated Lebanese singer and composer Marwan Khoury.

“There is nothing wrong with writing songs purely for entertainment," he tells The National. "Music, in all its forms, needs to have that element of fun and make people smile.

"But we also have to understand that we have a beautiful language unique in its aesthetics and diversity and we should harness some of those values in delivering a message that strikes a chord with the listeners."

Khoury's comments come ahead of his show at Arabian Days on Monday.

Running from Friday to Monday, the free festival at Abu Dhabi’s Manarat Al Saadiyat will celebrate the diversity of the language with a daily programme of concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions and literary discussions.

Organised by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, the event is catered to all nationalities with all sessions and films simultaneously translated into English.

In addition to the closing concert, which coincides with World Arabic Language Day, Khoury will also take part in a session reflecting on his successful 35-year career.

It started with a love for Arabic as a child, he recalls.

Born to a family of five in Zgharta, a city in northern Lebanon, Khoury remembers a childhood replete with books and parents impressing on their children the importance of Arabic in a country where French and English are frequently spoken.

"It wasn't because they necessarily felt a certain way about these languages but they believed the Arabic culture, with its words and traditions, is the most important inheritance they could leave behind," he says.

"They knew that to succeed you first need to communicate effectively with your surroundings. And with the Arab world being a big place, the language is a unifier. So if you can't communicate it, then you will be at a severe disadvantage immediately.”

After dabbling with academia and poetry, Khoury decided he could best express himself through music.

He graduated in composition and piano at a university in Lebanon and gradually shifted from being a keyboard player in bands to composing his works.

As well as his romantic hits such as Kel El Qasayed (All the Poems) and Khedni Ma'ak (Take Me With You), it is his songs for others, such as Carole Samaha's Itla' Fiyee (Look at Me) and Nawal Al Zohgbi’s Tia that define his lyrical prowess.

These ballads, rich in meanings and metaphors, also show the Arabic language‘s vast scope when it comes to matters of the heart.

"Human nature and feelings are the same and there are no new subjects really out there when writing songs," he says. "But what can be different in a song is the kind of message you want to convey.

“Arabic has many words we can use as tools to help you craft that message.

“Sometimes, that creation process is enjoyable and other times it is painful. But I never walk away from a piano not feeling that same thrill of writing a song for the first time.”

As for why these combinations of letters and words hit home, it’s all a mystery.

"Don't ask me what its secret is because I don't know," Khoury says. "But what I do know is Arabic is something that I was raised with and everything I read about our history, arts and culture was presented to me in Arabic by some of our most important writers. It’s a relationship that is special.”

Khoury has been sharing part of that passion in his acclaimed television series Tarab, which is a sonic travelogue through the region’s music history.

As the host, each episode has Khoury sitting down with a leading music personality as they break down the characteristics of different genres, ranging from the classic sounds of Egyptian crooners Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum to the more niche fields of Moroccan folk.

He confirms production of a new fifth season begins early next year.

Meanwhile, on a personal level, Khoury is also feeling inspired.

While it has been a relatively quiet year as he revels in the domesticity of a new marriage, he says new songs are on the way.

“It has been a year full of positive changes,” he says. “But I have also been quietly working and there are about seven tracks that are done and ready to go.

"You will be hearing more from me in 2024.”

Arabian Days is at Manarat Saadiyat, Abu Dhabi. The festival runs from Friday to Monday. More information is available at

Updated: December 14, 2023, 2:06 PM