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

A post shared by Tania Saleh (@taniasaleh) on

“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.”


British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

Updated 20 June 2018
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British Museum reveals secrets of ancient Assyrian ruler

  • Exhibition on King Ashurbanipal reveals treasures from the 7th-century kingdom that stretched across northern Iraq and eastern Mediterranean.
  • Director of the British Museum Hartwig Fischer: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.”

LONDON: When Daesh ransacked Mosul Museum in February 2015, the world watched in horror as cultural treasures were pushed from plinths and relics from ancient civilizations smashed to the floor. 

Priceless pieces of Iraq’s history were lost, taking thousands of years of heritage with them while the militant group tried to wipe out pre-Islamic past and destroy all memory of the ancient civilizations Iraq is built on.

Rescuing the artefacts that escaped the group’s savagery and restoring Iraq’s archaeological ancestry has become part of the healing process as the country emerges from the trauma of Daesh rule and pieces its identity back together following a decade of turmoil. 

Programs to train Iraq’s archaeologists in emergency heritage management are being supported by overseas institutions, including the British Museum in London, where a new exhibition will delve into an era when Iraq was at the center of a great Assyrian empire. 

Priceless treasures from the archaeological archives of ancient Assyria will go on display at the museum in November for the first major exhibition on the kingdom’s last great ruler, King Ashurbanipal. 

Described as the most powerful person on earth during his reign in the 7th-century BC, Ashurbanipal ruled with an iron fist from his seat in Nineveh, now northern Iraq. 

He presided over a vast territory that stretched from the shores of the eastern Mediterranean to the summits of western Iraq and was known, according to the exhibition, as a “Warrior. Scholar. Empire-builder. King-slayer. Lion-hunter. Librarian.”

A map showing the extent of the Assyrian Empire (in pink). (Courtesy Paul Goodhead)

His feats on the battlefield, which included conquering Egypt and crushing the state of Elam, established his military might but the Assyrian king also cultivated an intellectual prestige, amassing the largest library in existence to showcase his scholarship.

For Ashurbanipal, the ruthless ruler, harnessing the power of learning to build his status as “King of the World, King of Assyria,” was equally important in cowing his enemies.

Among the notable pieces in his extraordinary collection, which predated the famous Library of Alexandria, was the Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem from ancient Mesopotamia considered the earliest surviving work of great literature.

About 30,000 of these texts are in the hands of the British Museum, where they tell the story of life at Ashurbanipal’s famously extravagant court in ancient cuneiform script, hammered out on clay tablets. 

These are among the 200 rarely-seen objects due to be displayed at the museum, which has brought together pieces from across the world, from the History Museum of Armenia, Yerevan to the Musée du Louvre in Paris to supplement its existing collection of artefacts from the glory days of ancient Assyria. 

Huge stone statues, delicately-carved reliefs, rare wall paintings and elaborate armory give a sense of the opulence of Ashurbanipal’s palace, which stood as a symbol of the vast wealth and influence he wielded, flanked by expansive gardens where an elaborate canal network reached 50 kilometers into the mountains.

Recent speculation has suggested that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon — one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — were in fact those at Nineveh.

Some of the the artefacts have been brought up from a decommissioned basement gallery at the British Museum, where few have had the opportunity to lay eyes on them for 20 years. 

Brought together for the first time, they capture the scale and splendor of the era before Ashurbanipal’s empire fell to the Babylonians and recalls an era when the influence of Assyrian monarchs reached across the world. 

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “This exhibition will bring visitors face to face with a king whose reign shaped the history of the ancient world.” 

Many of the items on display originate from archaeological sites in Iraq, including Nineveh and Nimrud, cities recently ravaged by Daesh when the group stormed the ancient sites armed with sledgehammers and drills. 

Gareth Brereton, exhibition curator, said: “As present-day Iraq looks to recover the history of damaged sites at Nineveh and Nimrud, this exhibition allows us to appreciate and relive the great achievements of an ancient world and celebrate its legacy.”