1. Intro- Voices of Syrian Music
  2. The Diversity of Music in Syria
  3. Music & Religion
  4. Music & Community in Syria
  5. Folk Music
  6. Jazz Lives in Syria
  7. The Sound of Dayr az-Zawr
  8. Muwashahat: A Memory from Damascus

by Rania Kataf

Growing up in Damascus, my childhood memory embodies echoes of al-Muwashah playing in the background of my day-to-day life. Whether it was on the radio on my way to school, hearing that unique musical genre by the profound velvet voice of Fairuz; or with every rolling of the dice in a game of Tawleh (backgammon) in a local café in Salhiyyeh with my grandfather, and the melodies of ‘ya mal al Sham’ by the authentic voice of Sabah Fakhri of Aleppo pleasingly confiscating the ears and minds of those in the coffee shop.

Today, when speaking of al-Muwashahat (plural of Muwashah), this classical yet very modern musical genre is usually linked to Andalusian music, al-Muwashahat al-Andalusia, known for its sensory imagery and unique poetic literary form. This school of Muwashahat began to flourish in modern day Spain during the 9th century; a byproduct of prolific Eastern and Western cultural exchange current in Andalusian society. But Muwashahat has always been a vital part of living heritage in Syria, too, and for me personally an important part of my childhood memories in Damascus.  

Listening to al-Muwashahat

With Sara Darwish, a student of the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus, one is able to experience first hand the special atmosphere of listening to al-Muwashah in the beautiful scenery of a traditional courtyard house in Damascus, smelling the scents of Damascene life and hearing the fresh splatter of the fountain in the background.

Sara Darwish is singing her favorite Muwashahat pieces

[Min 0:22] Sara Darwish sings poetry lines from a famous Muwashshah of Andalusia and later composed by the Rahbani Brothers and song by Fairuz, known as ‘Ya Man Hawa Ward Al-riyyadi bi Khaddihi

[Min 1:23] Drawing on similarities in musical rhythm with Waltz, Sara sings lines from ‘Ya Ghazalan Qad Jafani’. Another famous Muwashah using lyrics from Muhammad Harbali and music of Bahjat Hassan.

[Min 1:46] Sara sings the start of Yamuru Ojban Muwashah, a poem by Fakhri al Baroudi, composed by Omar al Batch. Song by Sabah Fakhri and other tenor singers.

For Ibrahim al-Sheikh Omar, a music teacher and composer, his memories of al-Muwashah are deeply connected to this city. As we walk through one of the ancient alleys of the old city, he tells me about his Damascene home, its open space, and the chirping bird sounds present in the background; singing in rhythm with the water fountain at the center of their courtyard. Al-Sheikh developed his love for music and al-Muwashah at a very young age, he adds, “everything about this city, its element, and the way it communicates with your soul turns you into an artist.”

Muwashahat: A Memory from Damascus
Chirping bird in a courtyard in Damascus © Rania Kataf (CC-BY-NC-ND)

It is no wonder that even centuries after the fall of Andalusia, Muwashah was revived again in Syria to settle in the voices of artists like Sabah Fakhri, and in the works of Fakhri al Baroudi, Omar al Batch, and the father of Arabic musical theater Abu Khalil Qabbani. In his book on Damascene traditional recipes, Kitab al Tabeekh w Moujam al Maa’koulat al Dimashkiyyeh, Baroudi mentions the unfortunate loss of his book of memoirs when his house caught fire during the coup d’état that took place in 1963, which included his archive and all his personal works of Damascene Muwashahat. Instead of giving up, Baroudi sought the help of Omar al Batch from Aleppo. Together they established a music institute and a band, but more importantly, al Batch incorporated Baroudi’s poems into his works, giving birth to a very special composition of Muwashah.

Muwashahat: A Memory from Damascus

Did you know?


The word Muwashah refers to a poetry style that is believed to have developed in 9th century Islamic Spain al-Andalus as a novel innovation of classical Arabic poetry which later developed into a musical genre. This new style allowed poets to use several rhythms (Awzan) in the same poem and spoken word, unlike classical poems, which were composed in one rhythm mostly and in sophisticated Classical Arabic. With the beginning of the 10th century music started to accompany the performance of Muwashahat. One reason could be the simplicity in language and diversity in rhythms that made this genre more suitable for singing and easier for vocal composition than the regular classical poetry.

One famous Andalusian Muwashah that is still performed and known in the Arab world today is Jadaka al ghaythu by Granada’s poet and politician Lisan al-Din Ibn al-Khatib, in which he describes his greef for the fall of Andalusian kingdoms in the fourteenth century. This historical event marked a change in the development and spread of Muwashah. The fall of Al-Andalus resulted in a drastic demographical change with a migration movement of a half million Arabs to North Africa. By this, Muwashahat is believed to have been carried to new regions and can still be found in the musical and poetic heritage of other areas such as Yemen, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, from where different branches of Muwashshahat have developed since. However, where it originally came from still sparks discussions up until now.

We also cannot forget the legendary Abu Khalil Qabbani (1835 – 1902), the man who revived many forgotten Muwashahat from our Arabic heritage. Qabbani is considered the father of Syrian theatre and the founder of the operetta in Arabic theatre. He studied Muwashahat believing it defines part of the cultural identity of Damascus. And he recomposed and rewrote twentry-five original Muwashahat including the famous folklore song ‘ya tera tiri ya hamama’, and as I have come to discover, a personal favorite ‘ya mal al Sham’. Qabbani performed many of these pieces in his plays, which ran in Damascus since the 1870’s, yet many of his works remain unknown as they have not been recorded during his lifetime.

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