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Persona Non Grata: Musician Wisam Gibran Tries But Cannot Escape Politics (with VIDEO)

By Maya Margit | The Media Line

November 21, 2018

Arab-Israeli Wisam Gibran performs at the Jerusalem International Oud Festival.
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The world-class Oud player made headlines by refusing to appear at Obama’s inauguration ceremony

Born in the Arab-Israeli city of Nazareth in 1970, acclaimed composer Wisam Gibran is famous for weaving together classical music with experimental sounds. He learned to play the violin when he was only four years old, moving on to mastering the piano and ultimately the oud—an instrument similar to the lute that is popular in the Middle East. In fact, he is recognized by some music critics as one of the best oud players in the world.

Gibran’s musical creations include vocal works, concertos, a symphony and an opera, which he has performed in dozens of countries. His eclectic style reflects his unique upbringing, having grown up in a Christian household, within a wider Muslim community, within the Jewish state. The desire to express this cultural fusion led him in 2002 to found the Arab-Jewish Youth Orchestra, which features musicians of Arab and Jewish origin.

“The oud for me is the space where I can combine a lot of cultures in a very natural way,” Gibran conveyed to The Media Line ahead of a recital at the Jerusalem International Oud Festival. “I have my own language for the oud because I come from composition, from western music and not only from Arabic music.”

So far, he has released two full albums: “Exile” in 2003, and “Chromatic Silence” in 2007.  In 2004, he won the prestigious Israeli Prime Minister’s Prize for Composition. At the moment, he is composing music for Philadelphia University inspired by the texts of famed Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran.

While Gibran primarily performs in Europe and the United States, he has played concerts in Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.

However, he has not always felt welcomed.

“For the Arabs I am Israeli, but for the Israelis I am Palestinian,” he explained. “It’s very complicated, so everywhere I go I am persona non grata.”

This has led Gibran to shirk definitions, neither referring to himself as Israeli or Palestinian.

“I prefer to say only my name and that I am a musician or composer from Nazareth without mentioning these problematic [labels].”

Though Gibran has attempted to steer clear of politics throughout his career, at times he has taken a stand. For instance, in 2009 he refused to perform at former U.S. president Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

While such an appearance would have garnered him international exposure, he declined the invitation because it coincided with Operation Cast Lead, a conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. According to Gibran, his attendance was conditioned on performing alongside a Jewish-Israeli musician.

“I don’t like people who are officers for politicians, I prefer to be a musician only,” he affirmed.

At the Oud Festival in Jerusalem, under the artistic direction of Effie Bnaya and produced by the Confederation House, Gibran played many of his original compositions with guest opera singer Nour Darwish, a rising star in the Israeli music scene.

Born in the Arab village of Iksal near Nazareth, Darwish is currently studying music at Brooklyn College in New York and has performed as a soloist with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of legendary maestro Zubin Mehta. She also recently assumed a lead role in the Israeli Opera Festival.

“What’s beautiful about Arabic music for me is that it’s connected to the heart,” Darwish remarked to The Media Line ahead of Gibran’s recital. “It’s not very complicated but it so moving and deep.”

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