By Jasmine Rodriguez
Syrian clarinetist-composer Kinan Azmeh captivated a Santa Barbara audience with a composition about a lover’s resilience in a war-torn Syrian village, which he dedicated to the Islamic philosopher Ibn ‘Arabi.
Azmeh appeared alongside the UCSB Middle East Ensemble for a concert, lecture, and poetry reading to open the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society’s annual conference “This Vast Earth,” hosted by UCSB’s Center for Middle East Studies.
“I was totally inspired by what I read,” Azmeh said, telling the audience how discovering Ibn ‘Arabi’s poetry led him to compose the music. “The piece ended up being a depiction of Ibn ‘Arabi’s journey, of love and fate intersecting.” Azmeh is a Grammy-award winning musician from Damascus who performs with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble.
The annual Ibn ‘Arabi conference attracts scholars and lay people from around the world who have an interest in the 12th century Sufi philosopher’s writings. One viewer in Abu Dhabi tuned into a Facebook Live stream of the concert from Santa Barbara.
Azmeh often uses his music to advocate for recovery efforts in his war-torn home country. Recently, he played for a summer camp of refugee children from Syria. At the UCSB event in November, Azmeh dedicated his second piece to those who continue to fall in love during the ongoing conflict in Syria. The musician and his clarinet fused as one when he performed his piece, listeners bowing their heads and closing their eyes to fully ingest the cries floating from his clarinet.
The UCSB Middle East Ensemble devoted its performance to surveying music from the region. Six instrumentalists and vocalists, led by director Scott Marcus, played a slow-winding Armenian song titled “Bardezoom Varter” or “In My Garden,” composed by Gusan Ashugh Sheram. That was followed by a song associated with Muhammad fleeing to the city of Medina, “Tala‘ al-Badru ‘Alaynā.” Scott said that song appears in several countries in different forms. “In Saudi Arabia, many people have told me that when they lined up for school, the kids would sing ‘Tala‘ al-Badru Ala ‘ynā.”
The concert followed a lecture by Islam scholar Michael Sells, visiting from the University of Chicago, who read his translations of Ibn ‘Arabi poetry that explores universal themes of unity, love, and inner-connectedness to Earth. “Gentle now doves of the thornberry and moringa thicket, don’t add to my heartache,” he recited. Sells said that one of the primary notions that pervades Ibn ‘Arabi’s writing is the concept that those who know their essential self, know God.
Sells also shared an English translation of Poem 11 in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Tarjuman al-ashwaq or ‘The Interpreter of Desires,’ originally written in Arabic. “A white blazed gazelle is an amazing sight, red-dye signalling, eyelids hinting,” he read.
Event co-organizer Jane Carroll said the Islamic philosopher’s message is particularly relevant during times of divisiveness. “This universal point of view that Ibn ‘Arabi spoke of could be very helpful at this time,” said Carroll, an London-trained architectural designer.
Carroll remembers coordinating an Ibn ‘Arabi Society conference at UCSB in 2001 shortly after 9/11. She was pleasantly surprised by the number of people who sought harmony in a country experiencing heightened racism and rifts in foreign relations.
“The previous conference was six weeks after 9/11. Two of our speakers were too frightened to travel,” Carroll said. “Yet, it ended up being a wonderful conference, because the people who did turn up felt very good about being there. The kind of understanding that Ibn ‘Arabi brought was more important than ever.”
Now, back at UCSB 16 years later, she sees a parallel. “We are again uniting in a time of divisiveness to understand what is truly essential,” Carroll said.
The conference continued the next day with a discussion moderated by Hany Ibrahim on Ibn ‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Love. Angela Jaffray gave a lecture about emigrating in God’s vast earth by worshipping in three dimensions. Eric Winkel spoke on understanding Ibn ‘Arabi’s Futuhat, which was followed by Atif Khalil’s talk on Ibn ‘Arabi’s Grammar of Gratitude.
Jasmine Rodriguez is a third-year Political Science major at UC Santa Barbara.