Dispatches From Kuwait: The City As Music
The first sandstorm of the season kept me awake.
I had just begun drifting off to sleep when my windows began rattling. Being eight stories up this gets unsettling, especially since Kuwait has been known to have earthquakes.
I got up and walked to my front room that overlooks the street and the last few blocks of Hawally before you get to the beach. I couldnt see the beach or the Arabian Gulf. Just a tan wall, swirling and howling and spreading a cover over the city as it barreled towards me. The sand curled and twisted upwards and out vacuuming up the headlights of cars. People were running in all directions. My windows shook more violently, pulsing in their frames. The soccer stadium two blocks away disappeared.
Then it slammed into my building.
I got a mouthful of sand trying to take a picture hanging out of my window. I then crawled back into bed and tried to go back to sleep. But the sandpaper sound of the wind wouldnt let me, so I grabbed my copy of Phillip K. Hittis A History of the Arabs and tried to get some reading done. His book has served me well here in Kuwait. Its an exhaustive and even-handed history of the people who invented the zero and had an empire larger than the Romans.
Laying there, the wind still grinding against my windows, I read that the native Arabic tradition which tries to explain the origin of poetry in the attempt of the cameleer to sing in time with the rhythmic movements of the camels pace may after all contain a germ of truth. The word hadi, singer, is synonymous with saiq, camel driver.
I put the book down.
Instantly I saw it all: the desert sun unyielding and high, sand in a sweeping moor of hills everywhere. No trees. The downcast eyes of the camel driver, attempting to hide from the light. His skin sunburned and slightly cracked. Dirt and sand hiding in the crevasses of his face, the camel snorting and rank. Six hundred miles to go.
And like any man out on the road, alone, driving away the desert blues, a song whispers itself out of his lips. Some memory of home, of comfort, of what hes running from. While the words may have fit his heart, the rhythm didnt. So like an infantry platoon running in cadence to escape the miles, he begins matching his road song to the rhythms swaying beneath him. Cutting words out to match the stride, accenting words to match a lurch and heave. Maybe by twilight there will be five-hundred miles to go.
If Hitti and the native Arabic tradition are correct then poetry is born from the matching of song to the rhythms of the world around the poet. If poetry and rhythm are inseparable and music and rhythm are inseparable, then when isnt music poetry? And when then doesnt music grow out of the rhythms around us?
Sitting outside on a corner sheesha cafthe desert night cool and supporting around me, traffic weaves and clogs. Two cabs arrive at the intersection at the same time and pause, each hoping to get through first. But they pause just long enough for the city traffic to settle behind them and honk. Another honk and a shout in Arabic. Pigeons scatter in a popping of wings and air, the sheesha pipe gurgles. More honking and someone screaming for the waiter: Saudiq, saudiq! Dominoes clinking a plastic rain and someone laughs. Teenagers burning dirt bikes and quads through the traffic, weaving. Ambulances wailing green lights like absinthe eyes. Somewhere fireworks. Cellphone chatter: Salaam alaykum, and the DVD hawkers cry, DVDs, DVDs, DVDs, while a beggar woman in an abaya shuffles, her hand outstretched
All these a great symphony of the night. The Hawally Orchestra in its second set, the first coming at dawn with the morning prayer. The morning prayer: everywhere in the Muslim world, timed exactly to the moment for all, the call echoes out from loudspeakers atop the minarets of the mosques, a tide of voices spreading simultaneously over the Earth. The morning prayer that if you wake up before it you can hear start to call from miles away, mosque by mosque by mosque echoing and creeping until like a beach breaker the moan and echo rolls over your windows prying your eyes and ears apart. On Fridays, the Holy Day here like so many other Holy Days across the cities of the earth, the streets lay in waiting and repose from the week. Then the sun comes and the morning prayer and the echo of it above a chasm of silence.
But theres also a great low and blue sound here. The sound of a desert and vast spaces and the spaces of a man on a balcony smoking a cigarette in the dark. The sound of the space between the echo of the call to prayer and the silent Holy Day streets below. A low blue wail spread in between two mechanics not working, or heard in the spaces underneath the laughs of Indian maids crouched on a floor playing cards barefoot. Ive heard it ringing across the butcher shop as he sits there alone waiting and Ive heard it in the elevator with a woman going down and out of the building in the dawn. A construction crane at rest, like a vulture skeleton above a carcass or the dry cleaners steam pipes hissing next door, locomotive wheezing.
The city, especially my section of it, Hawally, is teaching me to listen to the sound of the butchers knife moving in the air on the upswing. Teaching me to hear the toss of dough into the Iranian bakers circular wood-fired oven or the drip of a loose pipe fitting, the hum of an air-conditioner and a dumpster cat rummaging. Its teaching me to listen to that cats quick pause as I walk by and she watches me. And its taught me to listen to the dead fish lying on ice at the fish market. Somewhere in all of this the cockroaches that crawl across my floor act as an underpin, a counterpoint even. Brushstrokes and madness, upper register solos and underbelly bass.
Across from me at the table in the outdoor sheesha cafsat a friend and co-worker, a music teacher. As if he had read my mind he said, Id like to make this honking into an orchestral piece. Hawally Sounds. Like some John Cage stuff. Exactly, paint it in sound. What noise and rhythm. The special and varied rhythm of humans living closely together, weaving their lives and nightmares between each others moments, sometimes colliding. Remember that cities are planned: their streets and architecture mapped and laid out, the blacktop stretched out over dirt and laid between buildings, businesses and homes. Like traffic and pedestrians, sound and rhythm are funneled then, much like notes on a scale. What harmonies and solos are found in the lines of a skyscraper? Do intersections make chords? If Jane Jacobs is right and cities are organic ecosystems, then these are natural rhythms, improvisations of the urban. After all, isnt concrete made of sand? Isnt glass? The desert floor collected, fired, melted and transformed. Stacked, framed and built. Built on spec, on plan and on streets filled with organic beings from all over the Earth. What happens to them when they get collected, fired, melted and transformed here? Do they absorb the new rhythms around them and match them to their own desert songs?
This city, any city, town or field, a composition. A great electric chorus of gasoline notes and hubcap cymbals. Median strip pauses and palm tree cellos. Blue neon organs and the neo-bop of a womans hips in stilettos. Street-cleaning percussion and the free-jazz of the marketplace.
Why did the hip-hop beat grow out of an urban environment? Why did the blues morph from slave songs carried from Mali? Why do the Allman Brothers, the Black Crowes, Hank Williams, Otis Redding and James Brown all grow out of the South? Is James Browns theory of The One a manifestation of our beating heart? How is the land their sound? Is the angularity of the Arabic scales related to camel driving too? And why the emphasis on melody here and not harmony? Does this grow out of the nomadic desert as well? Black Star wrote Respiration for their first album and Galactic did From the Corner to the Block
There are solitary places in our hearts. These are the places were most afraid of and also retreat into the most. Places whose soft puncture wounds echo the very frame of Being itself. Out of these echoes the desert and the blues have formed and in their formation grounded us all. A formation that when we fail to hear it, we fail to catch the great sweet and low myths of man.
Cities and hillsides pulsing with breath and looking down from my window into a sandstorms howl I can see its lungs exhale. See the spread, yawn and engulfing of the phosphorescent alleys and petroleum blood. Some great midnight ballad of the nomad, a requiem for the alone
Where do you live?