US press: pick of the papers

The ten must-read opinion pieces from today's US papers.

1. Pain without gain (New York Times)

We could actually do a lot to help our economies simply by reversing the destructive austerity of the last two years, writes Paul Krugman.

2. Iran as continual regional menace (Politico)

Tehren is likely to increase these terrorist activities, based on the belief that nuclear weapons could provide an umbrella and that its regional enemies are weak and irresolute, says Stephen Blank.

3. Is this the end of market democracy? (New York Times)

Thomas Edsall asks: What if the legitimacy of free market capitalism in America is facing fundamental challenges that the candidates and their parties are not addressing?

4. The super PAC confusion (Washington Post)

What it has done is compromise basic First Amendment rights, clutter politics with baffling laws and regulations and actually deepen cynicism, writes Robert Samuelson.

5. Political double standard: GOP astounds in its hypocrisy (Oregonian)

This Republican presidential campaign is demonstrating conclusively that there is an unbridgeable divide between the philosophical commitments conservative candidates make before they are elected and what they will have to do when faced with the day-to-day demands of practical governance, writes E.J. Dionne Jr.

6. Liberals vs. conservatives (Los Angeles Times)

I equate Republicans' political views with thoughtlessness, intolerance and narcissism, says Diana Wagman.

7. Conservatives vs. liberals (Los Angeles Times)

There is no "how" in talking to a liberal. You can't talk to a liberal, period, writes Charlotte Allen.

8. Teacher's right -- kids need to know history of n-word (Chicago Sun Times)

As Joan Rivers likes to say, "Can we talk?" Apparently not. Not when it comes to the n-word, says this editorial.

9. The lush Life (New York Post)

Should public employees be treated substantially better than everyone else? Asks this editorial.

10. Why Romney can, and should, win evangelical vote (USA Today)

Think values, not stereotypes. Plus, we're picking a president, not a pastor, argues Nancy French.

 

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle