‘Kan ya ma kan, fee Qadeem Al Zaman” (“There is a place, a long time ago”).
Some of the oldest Arabian tales start with this magical line, a line that is so strongly embedded within our souls that it is sure to bring a dreamy smile to whoever grew up listening to fairytales from this region.
Some were given a chance this week to be transported back to childhood and dream again when the Toulouse Symphony Orchestra made its debut in the capital, as part of Abu Dhabi Classics. They performed magical musical pieces inspired by the Arabian Nights tales.
The highlight of the evening was the most famous piece inspired by these tales: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s majestic Scheherazade.
Some have credited Rimsky-Korsakov, who composed Scheherazade in 1888, with keeping the magic and myth of Alf Layla Wa Layla (known in English as One Thousand and One Nights) alive for generations. This has helped keep fans enchanted by Scheherazade.
The testament to this enduring love was the huge crowd that attended the performance on Tuesday night.
Many of them were non-Arabs. When they were asked why they came, they replied with a variation of: “Of course, I love 1,001 nights.”
I asked some Arab concert-goers the same question and most came out of a “curiosity” to try something different.
Even though live orchestra music is nothing new to the region, some of those I spoke to were in awe of the amount of effort and detail that goes into the music. Everyone I spoke to enjoyed rediscovering the magic that inspired the world’s greatest artists and continues to inspire new artists and visitors to this region.
Even the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz was inspired by the tales, and refashioned Scheherazade into Arabian Nights and Days.
I recall my first introduction to Rimsky-Korsakov’s masterpiece when I was about 7, in the back seat of our family car, as our father drove around Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.
As someone who speaks eight languages and is a walking encyclopaedia on almost every topic in the world, my father would tell us the story behind the piece and the composer.
He told us to appreciate all kinds of music, and how it was a universal language that “speaks to the soul”. From Wagner to Rachmaninoff to the works of the Lebanese giants, the Rahbani Brothers, we were introduced to the world of music as children.
These days, when I drive around town, I tune the radio to Abu Dhabi Classic FM. It is the only local station I listen to. Whenever I hear a piece I recognise, I remember the story that goes with it from my father.
At the time, I would hear people make critical comments such as, “Why bother teaching children the classics?” First of all, there is no money to be made in having this knowledge, some of them said. Yet others turned to their interpretation of religion and insisted that music was forbidden in Islam.
I am glad my father didn’t listen to anyone, and continued to inspire us with tales of music, art and history. In doing so, he opened a window into a world that has inspired me as a writer and author. It was while listening to Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No 2 that I was prompted to write a novel for young people, inspired by a haunted palace in the UAE. It was later published by Kalimat.
The origin of some of the world’s most important instruments are believed to be here in this region. The oud is the father of stringed instruments such as the guitar, and the rababa is the father of bowed string instruments.
For the next live performance of an Arabian legendary tale, it would be great to see what Arabian composers come up with. For sure, they will have been inspired by the classics that still touch us today.