Mid East in the Midwest

A woman in a black dress and a man in a black tie and white-collared shirt stood on stage. Black binders in hand, they read from a collection of letters, diary entries, philosophical musings, and poetry from diverse authors. Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi, Islamic mystic Ibn al-Arabi, and Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk were all spotlighted in little more than half an hour.

“Voices of the Middle Eastern City” was performed on May 14th at the University of Chicago as part of the 25th annual Middle Eastern History and Theory Conference. The symposium attracted scholars from such varied institutions as the University of Melbourne, Columbia University, and Turkey’s Bilkent University. The assembly hall of the International House was filled with these intellectuals and others who chose to spend last Friday evening listening to the sounds of the Middle East.

The University of Chicago’s Middle East Music Ensemble took the stage next, parading their collection of bendirs, ouds, and santours alongside violins, recorders, and clarinets. Students, professors, and others jubilantly strummed and hammered and bowed away at their respective instruments. Men got up one by one to sing as the performance moved through classical Arabian songs, old Iranian folk tunes, and Andalusian poetry put to music.

From the outset, “Voices of the Middle Eastern City” spoke to the plurality of the word “voices.” Throughout the performance reverberated echoes of Jewish, Persian, Turkish, and Sufi traditions, to name a few. With each bedtime tale read aloud, each personal thought jotted down in a journal 200 years ago that was again invoked on stage, each folk tune being sung for the umpteenth time, the understanding deepened: there is no singular Middle Eastern perspective.