Nidal and Aboud are both 26 years old and long-time old friends – though they prefer to call each other brothers. They live on the slopes of Mount Ebal, just outside Nablus in the West Bank. Together they form the band Duo Oud, with the purpose of delving into the sonorities of their much-loved instrument, the oud. The friends make covers of numerous Arabic classics, and recently started to play their own tunes.
I met Nidal at the brand new mall in Nablus, just overlooking the city’s old souk; a few days after I got to know Aboud when he invited me to his place one evening for a private concert. The view over Nablus from his home is breathtaking. That night, the two acolytes composed (or played? i need to ask) until early morning.
Nidal and Aboud quickly intrigued me, because they seemed to always to be stuck to their instruments. While playing, nothing around them really seemed to matter anymore. “Why I look so overwhelmed when I play?” Nidal replies when I ask about the hand gestures he does while playing: his eyes are closed, he is completely absorbed by his music. After a couple of seconds pause he answers. “It’s the only way I can play a musical composition.” He continues. “I will tell you a story. I was sitting by the window of my bedrom one day, playing Ibrahim Touqan’s poem Mawtini. On the opposite side of the street, in front of my eyes, Israeli soldiers entered the hospital [facing my house] in order to shut it down. That was in 2005. A sad day. It has affected my way of playing ever since.”
We’re in the living room, where the speakers play Marcel Khalife’s song Oummì. Nidal smiles again. “We have a common saying here: each time of the day has its composer. Umm Kulthum for the morning, Marcel Khalife for the evening.”
A couple of hours later, with the first rays of the morning sun landing on the sleepy town, I sit and talk to Aboud. “Nidal and I started to play around the same time, nine years ago,” he says, speaking calmly – in contrast to the energy with which he handles his instrument. What attracted him with the oud was how it is “the top instrument of Palestinian music,” Aboud explains. “As a child, I couldn’t do without music. I always held my hands up in the air, started dancing, whenever I heard a melody. That was my way of passing time when the city was under a curfew.”
For Nidal, it was different. It started with his uncle opening a conservatory. In order to sustain it, he needed young musicians – including, so it turned out, Nidal. His mother had to push him at first, but soon, Nidal says, started playing “frenetically” after having discovered the “unique sonorities” of the oud.
Both Nidal and Aboud’s families pushed them to learn to play the oud. But their choice to make the instrument their profession was not received with a warm welcome from either of them. “In Palestine, when you want to become a musician – or more, broadly, an artist – you will face a lot of resistance.” Nidal continues. “People kept telling me it’s not a profession. Being a teacher? Yes, why not. Most parents want something else for their children [than playing music]. It’s changing, but slowly.”
Both of them keep their options open: Aboud studies medicine; Nidal is working towards a marketing degree. This is partly for their families and their reputation, partly because it’s still impossible to make a living from music in Palestine. The remunerations are just too small.
A few days later, Nadil and Aboud bring me to their oud teacher, Habid al Deek, who has played and continues to play a crucial role in both their lives. “He’s like an uncle to us,” says Nidal. “We play many of his compositions, and his advice matters a lot to us.” Habid al Deek, the academic director of Nablus’ Edward Said music school, is well-known in the city. His apartment is well worth a visit. The rooms are lit with a subdued light, invoking a sense that you are in an imaginary place, dedicated solely to music. Dozens of ouds hang on the walls, or lay open in two pieces – like sliced pears – on the floor. Darbukas pave the way – in all corners, as a matter of fact, are instruments. Habid al Deek takes out and shows some of them: Syrian, Turkish or Jordanian pieces, all dating back more than a century.
His house, in fact, is a salutary workshop. “Ouds need regular and minutious care, especially when the instrument is old,” the teacher reminds us.
Nidal recalls an anecdote from a while ago, about the unexpected fury of human beings and how it can make things very complicated. “One day at the Huwara checkpoint,” he says, “the Israeli soldiers asked us to play something before we could get through. But after that, they just laughed and broke our instruments without any explanation.”
Both Aboud and Nidal maintain a very peaceful composure in their lives – as do many Nabulsis. The friends-brothers express themselves through their music, in a way that doesn’t bring contempt or violence. “We keep saying that our generation is not one to take up arms. Our weapon is the oud, for others it’s all about debke,” says Nidal. “We must use our instrument and our music to convince. We must shift to a cultural confrontation.”
Aboud fills in. “I don’t believe that throwing stones changes anything,” he says. Still, living in Nablus means existing in an extended state of frustration. Of despair. “The past never fades away,” Aboud says. “I remember absolutely everything. The curfews. The nightly searches. When Nablus was occupied during the second intifada, there was no future for anyone. Everything was closed. Sometimes, I was terrified at the mere thought of going to the bathroom. Buildings were blown up randomly, snipers were shooting without thinking twice”.
The situation for musicians in general is getting better, explain Aboud and Nabil. Venues in Ramallah these days are full, which they weren’t years ago. Nabil and Aboud both would like to record an album, but don’t yet have the money for it. Finding sponsors isn’t easy either. A while later, on that same evening, Dio Oud are playing in a popular bar. The performance is intense, with people joining in to end the show with a long, communal debke.