Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

Tania Saleh has flourished as an independent musician in the Middle East. (Photo supplied)
Updated 04 March 2018
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Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

DUBAI: Surviving as an independent musician in the Middle East takes a level of determination and, occasionally, stubbornness that many would reasonably feel was just too demanding. Tania Saleh has survived for more than two decades. Not just survived, but thrived.
Saleh, who first gained recognition in Lebanon in the late Nineties, when support of any kind for non-mainstream art was practically non-existent, is now hailed as a pioneer of the alternative Arabic music scene. She’s lauded for her singular, emotive vocal style and her heartfelt, unflinchingly honest lyrics that have tackled both the personal and the political. And she has made her name without the backing of a label, or even a manager.
You might expect Saleh’s struggle to have been all the greater because she’s a woman. But, as she tells it, that’s not the case. If anything, as an artist, she feels it’s been a blessing.
When she spoke to Arab News on the eve of her appearance at Wasla music festival in Dubai in early February, Saleh had recently attended a workshop in Sweden about how women in the MENA region are making themselves heard in the music industry.
“Sometimes (at these events), the conversation veers into ‘Oh, poor woman. It’s so tough …’ But, in my case, I never felt like I was mistreated because I was a woman or I didn’t get certain offers because I was a woman,” she said. “I always felt that I wanted to be a good musician before my gender even came into it.
“So, I never felt like being a woman was my problem,” she continued. “I felt that the market was the problem. The people were the problem. People were used to listening to a certain kind of music; either the traditional, like Fayrouz or Umm Kulthoum — old but good material — or the mainstream on TV or the radio. The majority of people didn’t want to look for something new, but those who did found us. And they realized there was something there.”
The real struggle for independent artists in the region, Saleh feels, is unrelated to gender. It’s simply the restrictions on self-expression.
“In general, in this region, it’s not as easy to express yourself, because of religion, because of society, because of how people view you as an independent person,” she explained. “When you can’t express yourself, whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s a problem. And it’s not because you don’t have enough guts, it’s because whatever you say isn’t going to be accepted.”
In her latest project, the album “Intersection,” released in October last year, Saleh uses classical Arab poetry, and also produced a number of street-art pieces around the region, to examine some of these themes. It is, she said, “an ode to the Arab streets.”
It started with one of the two tracks from the LP for which she wrote the lyrics herself, “Show Me The Way.”

Lovely meeting you @majaz_music from #bahrein at the @waslamusic backstage

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“The song is a question about the Arab world. Like, ‘Is this really the Arab world? Are you still brothers? Or are you killing each other?’ That’s the main question,” she said. “So I chose poems and poets related to this topic. Poets who talked about their societies and their streets. And nothing has really changed. If you hear these poems today, you’d think they were written today.”
Setting the words of legendary poets including Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Kabbani, among others, to song was, Saleh said, “a big responsibility.” It was also a chance to bring a feminine perspective to traditionally male-dominated Arabic poetry (although, she pointed out, most of the poets she selected were “very open to their feminine sides,” and two of the poets featured — Nazik Al-Malaika and Joumana Haddad — are women).
For Saleh, the importance of a female perspective in art cannot be overstated.
“Man is a hunter. In every way. Hunting food, war, women … The woman is not a hunter, and that shows in her way of expression,” she said. “Women can bring something to poetry — to art of all kinds. The ways women express their emotions are different from men. That’s why it’s so important to have more songwriters who are women. It’s not because of feminism, or equality, it’s because the feelings we bring in are different. The way we see things is different. Particularly when we become mothers. And it’s important to see that perspective on things.”
The guiding principle behind Saleh’s long music career has been integrity. The emotional honesty of her vocals and lyrics is mirrored in her actions. And sometimes in her lack of action. Like turning down big-money offers to perform for, say, “a TV show that supports stupid stuff.”
“It can be a statement to say no,” she said. “When you see how your image has remained intact because of all those decisions you’ve taken, you’re fine. And you know people will remember you how you want to be remembered.”
It’s the reason she still fights to control every aspect of her career. “I’m not making a lot of money, but I’m fine,” she said, while admitting she’d “maybe” like to own a small boat one day.
“I don’t dream of having a lot of money. I don’t like expensive stuff. To me, it doesn’t matter,” she explained. “What matters is how I feel and the integrity of my work, and having honest relationships with people.
“After all, you write your own story,” she continued. “You don’t want someone else to write it for you.”


West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

Updated 20 June 2018
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West End theater turns migrant camp to get London audience talking

  • The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle.”
  • The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.

LONDON: London theatergoers used to spectating in comfort are in for a rude awakening after the authors of a play swapped the traditional plush velvet seating for wooden benches and covered the floor with soil to simulate the feel of a migrant camp.
The Playhouse Theatre in London’s West End aims to immerse the audience in the squalid camp in the northern French port city of Calais that inspired “The Jungle,” whose authors hope their play will stoke debate about migration.
“People often hold strong opinions about this subject because it doesn’t seem to have any immediate answer,” said Joe Murphy, 27, who co-wrote the play.
“Discussion is the only think that is going to get us forward ... and hopefully this play can provide some of that space for debate,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Co-author Joe Robertson said the pair had “tried to depict both the terrible conditions that existed in the Jungle camp, but also the hope that existed in that place.”
Up to 10,000 people seeking ways to reach Britain used to live in the giant slum before it was cleared by authorities in late 2016.
Immigration remains a major political issue across Europe, as well as in the United States, where the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant families at the Mexican border has caused an international outcry.
Several European leaders including those of France, Germany, Italy and Austria are to hold talks on Sunday to explore how to stop people from moving around the European Union after claiming asylum in one of the Mediterranean states of arrival.
Murphy and Robertson, 28, based the script on their experience as volunteers in Calais, where they ran a temporary theater within the camp.
The immersive play offers a glimpse into life in the camp, telling the story of asylum-seekers, people smugglers and charity workers who used to populate it.
“There were 25 different nationalities of people all forced to live side by side often on top of each other and the phenomenal story about that place was people did make an effort to come together,” said Robertson.
Theatre-goers are invited to seat at the tables of the camp’s makeshift Afghan café, where the action unfolds.
“The closer you are to the audience the better the message is delivered,” said actor Ammar Hajj Ahmad, who plays one of the leading characters.
Ahmad, from Syria, is one of many actors from a refugee background featured in the play. Several asylum-seekers the authors met in Calais are also part of the cast.
“I am proud of this, I love telling stories ... about the many people who lived in Calais,” said cast-member Mohamed Sarrar, a musician from Sudan who arrived in Britain two years ago.
The play, which premiered at another London theater The Young Vic, last year, runs from July 5 to November.