An Ode to the Oud

Ali caressed the curved, pear-shaped body, his fingers running over the fingerboard before resting on the short, delicate neck. The Cedar wood, cool to the touch, gave a beautiful, surprising deep sound that took him back to his childhood in Damascus every time he played a few notes.

The Oud was a family affair. Ali’s grandfather, Adib, had taught his five children and twelve grandchildren to play the “King of Instruments” from a very young age. Ali was by far the most talented. Ali’s father, Sadiq, then turned this family affair into a thriving business. Until the war broke out.

The young man took a deep breath and delicately put the Oud down on the chair next to him. The last notes of the sunset prayer was fading into the warm spring air. From the sixth floor terrace, the view overlooking the Nile was stunning. The lights started flickering in the dark. Ali hadn’t seen his family in almost four years. He had not been back home, getting a new passport was extremely complicated. Finding a job in the region was taking forever, nobody needed another English teacher. He was lucky he could stay with his cousin Amin, a doctor at the Cairo Institute of Radiology.

Ali poured himself another cup of sweet mint tea and grabbed a sugar-dusted Maamoul. The shortbread cookie, stuffed with dates, was not as good as his mom’s. Amal, who was from Joun, Lebanon took cooking and baking extremely seriously. She claimed Lebanese food was the best in the world, which provoked many heated discussions in the mostly Syrian family. Ali smiled, fondly remembering the many disagreements between his parents. And yet, they were the cutest, most loving couple he had ever known.

Although Amal did not play the Oud, she never missed the Baalbeck International Festival, when people from around the world gathered in the ancient Roman Acropolis to listen to Miles Davis, Fairuz, Placido Domingo or Umm Kulthoum. It was an opportunity to go back home of course, but al-jed al-ab (granddad) Adib had played on that stage a few times, bringing fame to the whole family. Where cooking was dividing the family, the Oud was uniting them all, over borders and generations.

Adib had long died and Sadiq was struggling keeping the business afloat, but Ali made a silent promise that night, on the terrace overlooking the Nile, that the “King of Instruments” would one day reunite them all.

This post is dedicated to Noura, who introduced me to the Oud and the Trio Joubran, and to George, for all those lovely nights sipping tea on your terrace overlooking the Nile.

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