Syria’s traditional oud-making on the decline

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While the conflict that has ravaged Syria over the past six years devastated many of its historic crafts, the production of the oud, a pear-shaped traditional musical instrument, has been particularly hard hit.

Photo by: AFP

Antoun Tawil, one of Syria’s last traditional oud-makers, waits in vain in his Damascus workshop for orders of the oud, an instrument his country was once renowned for producing.

While the conflict that has ravaged Syria over the past six years has devastated many of its historic crafts, the production of the oud, ancestor of the lute and guitar, has been particularly hard hit.


Antoun Tawil works on an oud, an instrument his country was once renowned for producing, at his workshop. (AFP)

Oud-makers have emigrated in large numbers, and the Damascene wood used to build the instruments has also become rare.

“There were around 20 workshops before the crisis, between Damascus, Aleppo and Hama… Now there are no more than six,” four of them in Damascus, said Tawil.

The slender 57-year-old is one of them. 


Out of the many oud workshops in Syria that existed before the war, only six of them remain open. (AFP)

In his tiny nine-square-metre shop in Tekkiyeh Sulamaniyeh, an Ottoman complex made up of a mosque and a crafts market, Tawil contemplates the ouds hung around him.


The oud is a key instrument in Arabic and Turkish music. (AFP)

Some are richly decorated, delicately inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory.

Named after the Arabic word meaning a piece of wood, the oud is a key instrument in Arabic and Turkish music. It is also used in Persian, Armenian and Greek music.


The walnut wood that gives the Damascene oud its durability is specifically available in Eastern Ghouta, a region that has been difficult to reach due to fighting between opposition and regime groups. (AFP)

The instrument is characterised by its short neck and large, full body that gives the instrument a pear shape.

Limited access to walnut wood

All six craftsmen that used to work in Tawil’s two workshops have fled Syria.

“Before the crisis, we opened at 5:00 in the morning and worked all day long because there was so much demand,” he said wistfully.


Other than some minor changes, the modern oud has remained unchanged for nearly 1,000 years. (AFP)

In a single month, Tawil used to sell a dozen ouds, many of them destined for abroad, including Europe and Canada.

“Nowadays, a month goes by without selling anything.”

With the Syrian pound’s devaluation, prices have also plummeted.

“I used to sell an oud for 5,000 Syrian pounds ($100). Today, I sell them for 35,000 ($70).”

Still, he talks passionately about the Syrian — specifically Damascene — oud, which he describes as both the most exquisite but also the most durable of Arab .

“Our ouds can last 70 years without needing maintenance,” he said with a proud smile.


While some ouds are plain, or consist of carved wood motifs, others can be richly decorated and inlaid with mother-of-pearl and ivory. (AFP)

“I’ve made pieces as beautiful as a Persian rug.” 

The secret to its durability lies in the first steps of the craft, according to Issa Michel Awad, an expert in the oud and other stringed instruments at the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus.

“It’s the way the Damascene wood is chosen, the way it is dried and cured,” he explained.


Ouds are also used in Persian, Greek and Armenian music. (AFP)

“That is why you can still play a Damascene oud dating from 1990 today without a single false note.”

But in today’s conflict-ridden Syria, it is precisely this treasured wood that poses a problem.

“We rely on walnut wood, which is very high quality and is specifically available in Eastern Ghouta,” said Ali Khalifeh, a prominent oud-maker in Damascus.


The European lute and guitar are both descendents of the oud. (AFP)

Eastern Ghouta is an opposition bastion east of the capital, under regime siege and beyond craftsmen’s reach.

“Today, this wood is being used by people in Ghouta for heat… It is becoming rare,” he said.


The first Damascene oud was produced in the late 19th century by Abdo al Nahhat. (AFP)

“Profession under threat”

The first Damascene oud was produced in 1897 by Abdo al Nahhat, who became one of the country’s most renowned oud-makers.

In the early 20th century, the oud was the favoured instrument among Syrians, played at marriages or during gatherings of female socialites. 

Khalifeh’s atelier in the Adawi neighbourhood is now half-artisanal, half-mechanised.

Ironically, he has found demand has increased for his products because of the relatively few competitors.


Some craftsmen use machines to speed up the process of oud-making, while others continue to bend, shape and polish the wood by hand.  (AFP)

While Tawil uses steam to individually shape the oud’s ribs by hand, Khalifeh’s workshop uses machines to bend 20 at a time and smooth the wood. 

The neck’s pegs are screwed in by hand.

“Polishing the oud by hand takes between five and six hours. With the machine, it’s done in 15 minutes,” said Khalifeh, who exports across the Middle East, as well as to France and the United States.

“We used to make 10-15 ouds a month, now we make 20,” added Khalifeh, who learned the profession from his father at the age of 14.


The war in Syria has caused a decline in the demand for the traditional instrument. (AFP)

Even with his own orders up, Khalifeh feel the industry is in terminal decline.

“When I look at the state of my profession, I can say it is in the process of disappearing,” he said.

Tawil agreed. 


Most ouds today consist of 11 strings, arranged in 5 pairs and a single string, but can have more or fewer strings. (AFP)

“It’s a profession under threat,” he said, lamenting that in addition to the effects of the war, “young people don’t have the time to learn”.

Like many in the field, he learned the trade from his father and is now passing it on to his daughter. 


Oud-makers have emigrated in large numbers due to the war, but some are opening ateliers and workshops in their new countries of residence. (AFP)

But he sees a glimmer of hope in the artisans who have emigrated, taking their expertise with them.

“In Quebec, there are now Syrians who are opening their own production workshops,” Tawil said.

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