Got a match, effendi?

October 14, 2009



I’m glad Peter Lorre wasn’t around to see this: The president of Syria has banned smoking in public places. President Bashar al-Assad did this by decree, so at least that characteristic of Syrian life has been preserved, but will Syria be Syria without smoke-filled cafes? Assad is a medical doctor, so he is very conscious of the harmful effects of smoking and of exposure to second-hand smoke.

I’ve never been a smoker, so these bans are irrelevant to me from that point of view, and I’m sufficiently convinced of the health risks to believe that the practice should be confined to the great outdoors or to strictly private places. Still, I can’t help feeling a twinge of melancholy over the loss of atmosphere — hazy as it was. No such decree has been imposed on my landsmen in Lebanon — not that any one in Lebanon pays much attention to decrees. The last figure I saw indicated that more than 53 percent of Lebanese adults are smokers and that they suck ’em down at the rate of 23 a day. When we visited there at the end of the Clinton administration, we couldn’t calculate which were more ubiquitous in Lebanese hands — cigarettes or cell phones.

alice-wonderland-caterpillar1As long as President Assad is messing with the ambiance in and around Damascus, he has also imposed sharp restrictions on the use of the argileh, or hookah. Give him credit for chutzpah — if I may use that term with respect to Assad; popularity of the argileh is on the rise, especially among young people.

Not only that, but the president isn’t going to tolerate little Syrians sitting around mimicking the images they might see in old movies and getting the idea that there is something dramatic about taking a long drag, slowly exhaling, squinting through the blue haze and demanding of some quivering lackey, “Did you get the information?” Assad has also banned any candy or toys made to look like tobacco products – and tobacco advertising.

Hey, a little arbitrary rule never hurt anybody.





The Daily Star in Beirut published this story today about Kareem Salama, whom the writer describes as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. It’s funny: Just yesterday a family member was telling me of his disagreement with his sons – they’re 17 and 18 – over whether there is any difference between “country music” and “country and western music.” The boys’ opinion is that “western” is not part of the genre. The dad cites Tex Ritter and Gene Autry, among others, as evidence of the contrary. My own opinion is that the genre can no longer be defined – if it ever could be. It has evolved from the front porch to the honky tonk to the high-tech audio/video recording studio, and there are more and more people  in the industry who have less and less of the kind of life experience that generated the form in the first place. That’s to be expected. And now we have Salama, who may be the first but probably won’t be the last Muslim to put on the broad-brimmed hat. As the story indicates, although he was born and reared in Oklahoma and now lives in Texas, he brings to his music a perspective and a range of interests that never would have occurred to those who dreamed of an “Old Rugged Cross” or warned that “There’s No Excuse if You Don’t Know the Savior.”

It’s a brave new world.


By Amany Al-Sayyed
Special to The Daily Star

BEIRUT: If you’re tired of arguing with your pals about whether culture-clash between down-home America and the Muslim Middle East is inevitable, you need look no further than Kareem Salama. The 31-year-old Salama is known as America’s first Muslim country-and-western singer-songwriter. Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma to Egyptian immigrant parents, he goes horseback riding and enjoys his mother’s southern cooking. He’s performed in Italy and Germany, typically with a guitar accompanist and black cowboy boots. He even sings in a southern twang.

Salama’s music reflects many influences – pop, rock and folk as well as country-and-western. Then there’s the inspiration he takes from the Koran. “I enjoy listening to the Koran recited with a beautiful voice,” he said in an email interview, “or listening to songs praise God or the Prophet Mohammad or praising something good in general.”

He says the work of 17th-century English poet John Donne’s has been “a favorite of mine when I was a teenager and it still is. In order to memorize them, and other western poems, I made them into songs with a melody. This is common in Arabic poetry because it is written and then sung using ‘maqamat.’ I memorized some Arabic poetry the same way.

“Sayidna Ali wrote a line of poetry that says, ‘If it were that wealth were brought by intellect then all the rich people would be wealthy.’ Wealth and fame, these things are difficult to explain.”

Salama describes his music is a hybrid of an American-Arab experience. His latest self-marketed debut albums include 2006’s “Generous Peace” and “This Life of Mine,” from 2007. During Israel’s summer 2006 bombing campaign against Lebanon, Salama released a special single dedicated to the crisis, “Prayers at Night.”

Salama’s parents moved to the US in the late 1960s, where they pursued a university education at various universities, including MIT. Salama himself holds a B.Sc. in chemical engineering and earned a law degree in 2007.

The singer-songwriter depicts a near-idyllic American childhood. “I spent it doing stuff outside like playing baseball with friends or sitting on the porch at night drinking Kool Aid,” he reminisced. “Maybe we’d even sneak out and throw toilet paper at the neighbor’s house.”

Though he hasn’t been in Egypt for some time, he said he finds American rural life not unlike what he found while visiting his parents’ home. “The country style here resembles the ‘Shaabiyyah’ element in Egypt,” he said. “I grew up in the country and my music has a more traditional style to it.”

The songwriting process he describes will be familiar to young pop musicians around the world. “Sometimes I have a thought or idea about a song,” he says. “I sit with my guitar. I start singing it with a melody or rhythm underneath it. Then a line or idea comes to me about something and it flows out of me in tandem always with the melody. Then I write a rhythm.”

Afterward, he sits with his producer, who works the melody and the chord progression around the song with a piano interlude here, or a riff there.

Salama says he writes his own lyrics, mostly about chivalry, love, home and family values. Yes, he knows Umm Khoultoum and likes her music. “I don’t demonize or idolize any particular time or era,” he says, “because there’s something good in all times. You get more modern progression sound in the remixes today, but there’s still enough of the old, because people still appreciate it.”

Though he doesn’t sing about Arabic cultural heritage, Salama believes he still weaves its spirit into his music. He says his lyrics are inspired by readings from Al-Ghazali, John Makdisi and “Maqamaat al-Hareeri” as much as good old Southern race/slavery narratives – “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for instance. “There is an enjoyment of the old and the new,” he said. “That’s why I think country music is the most lucrative market in the USA.”

Salama continues to live in Texas where he pursues his musical career. He still prefers shawarma over falafel, loves to go horseback riding and believes line dance resembles Arabic dabkeh. A polymath, he’s finishing a book on political fiction.

Though he’s faced challenges as the son of immigrants, Salama depicts himself as an American nationalist. “As far as my relationship with my American-ness, yeah I love my home,” he said. “I’d still visit other places but I love this place. I had a good childhood and I’ve always been happy where I was born. I can relate to it. As for the racist element, I think of it like this: it’s like having a family with a history in abuse; at the end of the day they’re still your family.

“I don’t neglect the Egyptian part of me or that of my parents,” he continues. “But you get some people here who have a bad experience and they wake up one day and say; ‘I’m only Egyptian or I’m only Lebanese.’ That’s fine but in my opinion, I say I’m sorry you’re not just one thing.”


For more information on Salama’s performances and music, visit

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star


Posting my blog at has added plenty of hits, although I can’t understand the pattern at all. One movie review blog I wrote has been getting more hits than anything else, but I can’t see why.