On a dark and rainy evening I go in search of a church in a part of London I don’t know well where my uncle is to perform. I enter a large courtyard where a man rears up and asks me if I am here for the music. He ushers me into the building’s bright nave. The space is gemlike and richly toned in shades of dusk and gold and not at all like the more austere stone interiors one expects to discover inside an Anglican house of worship. Already it’s quite crowded, so I settle where I can, off to one side and near to the back. The chatter is polyglot, the gathering mixed: one of those mysterious momentary alignments of strangers that can happen in London. Under the evocative banner, tonight, of Voices for Peace.
The programme is dedicated to Ziriab, the great and long forgotten innovator of medieval Iberia who, half Arab and half African, summed in his own person the interfused musical and ethnic streams of his own era. Ziriab was born in Mosul, capital of Nineveh, an ancient and illustrious centre for Mesopotamian culture whose rich and storied history today lies toppled and in flames, ravaged by conflict.
My uncle was also born in Mosul. Like Ziriab he found a home in a foreign land. As he raises his voice now to the church’s vaulted ceiling I am carried back to all the other times since my childhood when I have sat and listened to him, to his eclectic repertoire from Khorenatsi and Komitas through Mussorgsky and Franck, all the way to the lost songs of the twentieth century, and as I hear his voice now drenching the earth and rock of Anatolia in the pigments of Italy, I fall back through it to a memory of his father and my grandfather, sitting across from me in our London home at the makeshift dining table built out of a basement door, who would rise, imperious in his immaculate suit and tie, and ask my father to translate for us that he would like now to sing to his grandchildren, and almost before the message was conveyed would with his elemental baritone, powerful as the grip on my shoulder whenever he greeted me, open a sky through the ceiling above us and roll out the fields across our feet. I knew Armenia through his songs. I knew its haunted landscape. All lost now. Part of that great wounded desert that stretches from Asia Minor to the plains of Nineveh, Song is a world that must be carried by man and we live in its perpetual aftermath, its falling. And I hear sustained in my uncle’s voice something cast out of memory and place, of hope, of the unglimpsed future to come.
Towards the end of the evening a young pianist of Iraqi descent and British nationality played her own composition to us, a piece dedicated to the memory of her father. She told us she had been inspired to write it after her first and only visit, a decade ago, to her ancestral home. She had composed it, she said, in optimism for better times. I approached her after the concert was over, seeking to extort from her some sense of the despair that I was sure she must now feel about her country’s fate. She did not oblige. Instead she smiled and told me her feelings had not changed: that all she had was hope and faith. It seemed absurd, but I also understood. Perhaps the damage and division of the world can be healed for a moment, suspended in the collective mystery of a single hour’s light.