12 March 2008

Zenobia, the Musical

The epic play by Mansour Rahbani finally on professional video.

If you missed the première in Dubai last April and didn't make it to Byblos in Lebanon to catch the show at the festival, you can still watch a video clip that gives an idea of the breathtaking scale of the musical starring Carole Samaha -- the popular Lebanese singer and actress, who plays Zenobia. By all accounts, Zenobia, the Musical was a spectacular and moving experience.

Horses, camels, water falls and burning fires, live on stage, with an all-singing, all-dancing cast of hundreds. Some hint of this is on the clip. You'll also see Rahbani (and his talented sons) talking about the vision behind the epic.

But I still have a bone to pick with this great composer and writer.

"The audience witnesses history re-enacted, as Zenobia, one of the greatest Arab leaders of all time, fights for freedom from imperial oppression.”

I hate to be a spoilsport.

But, as I've said before and undoubtedly will say again, Zenobia was not an Arab. So it's worse than nonsense when she sings these final words:
I am the first cry of freedom,
the first cry from an Arabian land.
I am to give my blood for freedom.
Zenobia lived hundreds of years before the Arab conquest of Syria. There's absolutely no reason to think that she was of Arab blood; on the contrary, everything we know about her points to the local Aramaic-speaking aristocracy mingled with Macedonian-Greek ancestry. In the Middle East, I don't think it mere pedantry to criticize a play for rewriting history.

Especially since the play is pitched as based on fact. And has been taken as such by those who've seen it.

"History is a mirror of the future," says Oussama Rahbani (one of Mansour's sons). "If you don't have a history, you don't have a future."

Now, who can argue with that?

And I love the music.

My thanks to Aayko Eyma for alerting me to Rahbani's new video clip. There are also more amateur videos at YouTube (search on Zenobia).


  1. Popular historicism at its finest. If we set aside that inaccuracy, might it be a little encouraging to see a woman trusted to carry the standard of pan-Arab nationalism? Or do Zenobia-caliber characters appear in Arab drama somewhat regularly? I have no idea.

  2. That's a good point, David. I'm not up on modern Arab drama. Perhaps someone else on the list can help.

    The only woman who does come to mind is from the medieval Islamic period: Queen Shirin of Armenia (thought to be legendary, but I'm not so sure). Michael Barry of the Metropolitan Museum of Art has lectured on her 'afterlife', Queen Shirin of Armenia: How an Ancient Near Eastern Queen Became the Symbolic Lady Beloved of Medieval Islamic Mysticism, Poetry and Art. Unfortunately, it has not been published and there is little about her on the Internet.

  3. Mind you, if Shirin was an "Armenian" then she probably spoke that Greek-ish Indo-European language which goes by that name. We might have to concede that she could have been a Chechen or Dagestani, especially if she was Muslim. Either way Zenobia, whatever form of Semite she was, wouldn't have understood a word Shirin said. :^)

  4. At least initially, Shirin was not Muslim but was most certainly a Christian who eventually marries the pre-Islamic Sassanian king Krosrow II. Later, she does seem to become Muslim -- or at least Sufi.

    Given her intelligence -- she is seen as a form of Sophia -- she would surely have known Greek and might well have conversed with the Queen of Palmyra (who was bilingual, if not trilingual) in that language :-)

  5. I think most Syrians would not appreciate your taking issue with Zenobia's Arabness.
    It all depends on what we want to call Arabian, Arab, or Arabized.
    Anyhow, of course you are correct that it is impossible that Zenobia's ethniciy is a product of the Arab conquests of the Islamic period, but then again - look around Syria and Lebanon- and we could argue that few of the population except the Bedouin are of some pure arabian stock. It is absurd. The Syrian are a product of all the conquests and migrations of the history of greater Syria. It is an incredible genetic amalgam.
    Queen Zenobia precedes a great deal of this, although there were supposedly arab migration from the gulf much earlier than is generally highlighted because of the later dramatic movements.
    The point is, the arabs of today's Syria would say that she is still of the original Aramaic peoples, and the Syrians of today are also decended from those same people, and although at some point were arabized by continued migrations from the south, and now calling themselves Arabs - are nonetheless no less related to the earlier peoples.

    no, there are not everyday Zenobia caliber characters in Arab drama, so they are right to embrace her as theirs - and if a banner for Arab pride or nationalism, so be it.

  6. I love the blog, it's so hard to read up on pre-Islamic Middle Eastern history and I thank you so much for your efforts.

    I'm not sure if you've gotten a chance to listen to the music of the play, but it is very beautiful. While I like to support good art, Rahbani CDs are near impossible to come by so I had to make like a pirate and download it. Let me know if you'd like a link, it's the least I can do.

  7. Visiting your blog, Tabbouche, reminded me of so much great Arabic music I listened to when I travelled more in the Middle East than I do nowadays. I'd love to hear the whole of the Rahbani opera. So, yes please, send me the link -- either here or to my email address: judith@judithweingarten.com

  8. she says she is the first cry from an Arab land, she does not call herself an Arab. The Arabs know that she was not an Arab, but they still consider her theirs. I would know, im Syrian.


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