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Arab oldies well-kept in Damascus

Walking through the crowded Shaalan market in downtown Damascus, one sees numerous CD stores, selling DVDs, movies, and playing music by modern artists like Bon Jovi and Sting.

A modern sight for an old-fashioned market, one wonders, then sees a small, worn-out wooden shop at the edge of a dark alley. Only those intending to visit the store make their way through its doors.

Behind the counter, an old and joyful man listens to Um Kalthoum. A very untidy and over-crowded collection of tapes and recordings surrounds him. With pipe in hand, and eyes closed to “feel” the grandeur of the diva’s voice, he looks at you and says in an old-fashioned yet eloquent Damascene dialect, “Order me my dear sir, what can I do for you?”

The store has been around for 40 years, and its owner has loved music for even longer.

Adel al-Zaki is a music lover in his early 70s who has been collecting songs “for as long as he can remember.”

He worked at the official radio station in Cairo in the 1940s and 1950s, when Arabic music was arguably at its grandest. Zaki left the station after 20 years and headed for Damascus, taking along the entire collection of the Egyptian Broadcasting Station.

He worked at Damascus Radio for 10 years, then resigned, brought the station’s “music library” and opened his store Cham Dan in downtown Damascus.

“I have got recordings that are no longer available in most parts of the world. Some artists don’t even have copies of their own work ­ and come to me to purchase what their music library lacks,” he said.

“Some artists used to record private concerts, or sing in the presence of kings and heads of state,” he added. “Naturally, these recordings were not available to the public, and kept at the central radio station in Cairo.

“In the late 1940s, King Farouk threw a party and asked Um Kalhtoum to sing for him. She obliged and sang with vigor, changing the tune at times to suit her own pace and going off the record with melodies that are so rare, that in fact, they are a musical treasure. That concert, for example, is one of my prized possessions.”

He points to other rare performances he cherishes, including a private dinner with Abdulhalim Hafez recorded in Cairo, with Hafez playing the oud and singing, and a private concert by Abdulhalim in which he sings, for the first time, songs that are not his, especially those of Um Kulthoum.

Other masterpieces include private concerts by Mohammed Abdul Wahab, rare recordings by Fairuz, forgotten shows by Asmahan, and concerts by George Wassouf when he was just a 10 year old singing at local parties in Zahle and Rashaya in Lebanon.

“I’ve got material other than just songs” Zaki added, “like speeches, plays, poetry recitals, debates, and interviews.”

Among his treasures are a complete collection of Duraid Lahham’s plays unedited, as well as a complete collection of the Rahbani works. Zaki points out a collection of Adolph Hitler’s speeches, in German, along with speeches by General Franco, Benito Mussolini, and a prized collection of everything Gamal Abdul Nasser ever said on radio.

“I have got everything from his first speech on the July Revolution in 1952, through his nationalization of the Suez Canal speech in 1956, the union speech of 1958, the succession speech of 1961, and his resignation following the 1967 war.”

Other works include a radio interview with Queen Farida of Egypt conducted after her husband King Farouk’s death in 1965, where she speaks of how difficult life was with the flamboyant royal. Also present is a poetry recital at Nizar Qabbani’s home in London, where he recounts his favorite works and says them to a limited audience of friends.

“I have got other political works, Riad al-Solh’s independence speech, a speech by Lebanon’s first president, Charles Dabbas, an interview with Habib Bourgeba before he became president, the founding conference of the United Nations in San Francisco, and the Arab League founding conference, which begins with an interesting speech by the Secretary-General Azzam Pasha.”

Regarding works on Syria, Zaki seems cautious at first to reveal his possession of material that the state has restricted, insisting that all he has is the complete collection of Hafez al-Assad’s speeches. As he slowly becomes more comfortable during the interview, Zaki reveals speeches by President Shukri al-Quwatli, the father of Syrian independence, Baath Party co-founder and future dissident Salah al-Din al-Bitar, outlawed political poems by Nizar Qabbani, and concerts by the Quatash Musical Band, a Jewish group that were persecuted in Syria after the war of 1948 and forced to flee to Israel.

One of his favorites is a 1958 concert at the Damascus International Fair, commemorating the union between Syria and Egypt, where a group of artists, led by Abdel Wahab as conductor, presented Gamal Abdul Nasser and Shukri al-Quwatli with their classic Watani Habibi.

During the show, artists like Abdulhalim Hafez, Sabah, Warda, Shadia, and Najat al-Saghira, all praise the initiative of Quwatli and Nasser. Zaki says his version of the concert is different from all the versions present in the Arab world that were later recorded at studios.

Zaki says Cham Dan also deals with “foreign material,” but concentrates on old classics and has nothing of the new.

“I sell songs by Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, but also have traditional songs from France, Spain, Hungary, Poland, China, and just about any place in the world you can imagine. This place is restricted for listeners,” Zaki added. “My customers come with the intention of buying one tape, and end up with five.”

“We do try to serve all talents, and sell music ­ or so-called-music ­ of modern artists like Amr Diab and Ragheb Alameh.

“They have terrible voices,” he continued, “and if it were up to me, they should be asked to sign a declaration pledging to go into any business other than show business.”

Zaki boasts that he is the only person in Syria “to possess 10 or 13 different versions of every song by Um Kalthoum.”

Some of them, he points out, date back to the early 1920s before her career really took off, when she used to sing in the cafes of Cairo as a teenager. “While listening to them,” Zaki said, “one can hear the background sounds of the cafe, with dice rolling on board games, and the sound of narghilehs!”

The Daily Star, 19 July 2001