Arts, Culture & Media

The Art and Friendship of Marcel Khalifé and Mahmoud Darwish

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was a leading literary figure in the Arab world. His friend, the Lebanese composer and oud player Marcel Khalifé has a similar place in Arabic music. The two collaborated many times over the nearly three decades they knew each other.

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Now, in an album called "Fall of the Moon," released this month in the US, Khalifé pays homage to his friend. He's bringing the music on a two-week tour of the US that starts Friday in Houston.

One of the songs on the album, "Now, in Exile," draws inspiration from the Mahmoud Darwish poem of the same name. It considers life–and death—from the vantage point of 60 years. That's how old Darwish was when he wrote it. The poem begins:

Now, in Exile…yes, at home.
At sixty, in a fleeting life,
they are lighting candles for you.

So rejoice as calmly as you are able,
because Death has strayed and missed you
in the crowds…he put off his visit.

When the poem was published in 2001, Khalifé, who was in his early 50s at the time, talked to Darwish about composing a piece based on it. "And he said 'Why write it now? You're still young. Wait till you get to be 60 and then you can write the music to this poem,'" Khalifé remembered this week, talking over Skype from Houston, the first stop of his US tour.

So Khalifé took the poet's advice. "The sad thing is, when I wrote the song once I turned 60, Mahmoud didn't get to hear it because he had passed away." Darwish died in 2008.

Darwish published his first poem in 1960, but Khalifé didn't discover his writing until the late 70s. He'd just finished music conservatory in Beirut, and Lebanon's civil war was beginning. The fighting kept him confined to his home, and he happened upon one of Darwish's books.

"I felt like these poems were written for me, like they were handed to me," Khalifé said, speaking through a translator. "In one poem, he speaks of his mother's bread–I felt like he was talking about my mother. When he talks about his passport it's my picture in the passport."

The two met in the early 80s, and quickly formed a close working and personal bond. A few songs they've collaborated on have become anthems in the Arab world, like one, called "Passport."

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The Art and Friendship of Marcel Khalifé and Mahmoud Darwish
By Bruce Wallace â?? April 18, 2012 â?? Post a comment
Marcel Khalifé leaves a rose on Mahmoud Darwish's casket. (Photo: marcelkhalife.com)

Marcel Khalifé leaves a rose on Mahmoud Darwish's casket. (Photo: marcelkhalife.com)

The late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish was a leading literary figure in the Arab world. His friend, the Lebanese composer and oud player Marcel Khalifé has a similar place in Arabic music. The two collaborated many times over the nearly three decades they knew each other.

Now, in an album called "Fall of the Moon," released this month in the US, Khalifé pays homage to his friend. He's bringing the music on a two-week tour of the US that starts Friday in Houston.

One of the songs on the album, "Now, in Exile," draws inspiration from the Mahmoud Darwish poem of the same name. It considers life–and death—from the vantage point of 60 years. That's how old Darwish was when he wrote it. The poem begins:

Now, in Exile…yes, at home.
At sixty, in a fleeting life,
they are lighting candles for you.

So rejoice as calmly as you are able,
because Death has strayed and missed you
in the crowds…he put off his visit.

When the poem was published in 2001, Khalifé, who was in his early 50s at the time, talked to Darwish about composing a piece based on it. "And he said 'Why write it now? You're still young. Wait till you get to be 60 and then you can write the music to this poem,'" Khalifé remembered this week, talking over Skype from Houston, the first stop of his US tour.

So Khalifé took the poet's advice. "The sad thing is, when I wrote the song once I turned 60, Mahmoud didn't get to hear it because he had passed away." Darwish died in 2008.

Darwish published his first poem in 1960, but Khalifé didn't discover his writing until the late 70s. He'd just finished music conservatory in Beirut, and Lebanon's civil war was beginning. The fighting kept him confined to his home, and he happened upon one of Darwish's books.

"I felt like these poems were written for me, like they were handed to me," Khalifé said, speaking through a translator. "In one poem, he speaks of his mother's bread–I felt like he was talking about my mother. When he talks about his passport it's my picture in the passport."

The two met in the early 80s, and quickly formed a close working and personal bond. A few songs they've collaborated on have become anthems in the Arab world, like one, called "Passport."

Its words wrestle with the complexities of identity and nationality.

The politics of both artists have irked various governments and caused concert promoters in the US and elsewhere to cancel shows.

But Darwish reminded readers that a lot of his works were deeply personal, even apolitical. In a 2001 interview with the New York Times, he said "When I write a poem about my mother, Palestinians think my mother is a symbol for Palestine. But I write as a poet, and my mother is my mother. She's not a symbol."

Khalifé makes a similar point. His US tour is billed as an homage both to Darwish and to the spirit of the Arab Spring. When asked if he saw a role for himself in these popular movements he said that, while his heart is with the demonstrators, his music comes from somewhere else.

"Creativity and art typically tell their own unique stories," he said. "The inspiration may come from life itself, but it's not a mirror on life. Creativity may be searching for a different meaning, maybe something deeper than what is actually happening."

Much of the art on the new album feels like it's searching for these different meanings. One of the songs, an instrumental called "The Stranger's Bed," is named after a collection of Darwish's love poetry. Khalifé said it's personal and everyday themes like this that he builds all of his work on.

"We've been through many wars, yet kids went to school, people went to work, people had their own affairs, they loved," he said. "I cannot separate the personal from the public; I cannot stop from telling a story of love if there is war."

And so, with Mahmoud Darwish's help, he keeps telling that story.

  • marcelKhalife.jpg

    Rami Khalife- as photographed by Muzzafar Salman (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

  • marceldarwishcoffin.jpg

    Marcel Khalifé leaves a rose on Mahmoud Darwish's casket. (Photo: marcelkhalife.com)