Tuning Baghdad Notes: “Fog il Nakhal"

Regine Basha

Perform a YouTube search on the song, “Fog il Nakhal”, and you’ll follow a debate (albeit digressive) of its dubious origin. Some believe the Iraqi folk song was written and composed by the Iraqi-Jewish composer Salah El-Kuwaiti in the 1940s, while others believe it was originally written by Nazem El-Ghazali, a famous Iraqi singer who studied under the great Maqam singer Muhammad al-Qubbanchi and performed often on the Iraqi National Radio. Nazem El-Ghazali appears there singing the song. You will also learn that he was an ellicit lover of the beloved female Iraqi-Jewish singer, Salima Murad (aka Salima Pasha), who was tragically murdered.

The only reason I know this song, “Fog il Nakhal”, which literally means “I am as happy as the highest date palm tree” is because it played continuously against the backdrop of my youth in Los Angeles of 1978–1988, mingled in there with The Police, Blondie, Siouxsie and The Banshees, and Bananarama, for instance. I wasn’t surprised later in college to learn of theories correlating New Wave music and Middle Eastern or oriental sounds, probably deriving from New Wave’s having embraced dissonant or quarter tones. Though I hated the Arabic music my father played, it was “Fog il Nakhal” that stuck in my mind throughout those years and despite that I could sing it perfectly and whistle the tune, I had no idea what the lyrics were, nor did my parents bother to tell me. Arabic was spoken between them and their Iraqi friends—on the phone, at parties, at the Synagogue; Hebrew was spoken to my older brothers and English to me. In fact from around eight to ten years of age, I believed that Arabic was a language that only belonged to adults. I was completely floored when I first heard a child speak Arabic—ironically this happened when we visited Israel and I met Palestinian children for the first time.
Somehow it got absorbed, as languages and music do, in that department of “forbidden sounds” in my brain.
Listen to ”Fog il Nakhal“, a song produced by Naim Rejwan and Sammy Shamoun, sung by Suzanne Sharabani (a.k.a IMAN)

“Fog il Nakhal” was particularly loved at the time because it was, as my mother called it “a happy tune” not a “sad”, “wailing” tune in Arabic.
Listen to a recently synthesized remix by Naim Rejwan and Suzanne Sharabani

Basha house party (Chagli) with my father on the violin (Kamanja) circa 1975 (Super 8 mm film still)

The men seemed to love the sad wailing tunes and sat around on the floor at house parties waving their hands and wagging their fingers at the musicians (my dad was sometimes one of them on the oud), while the women sat in another room and gossiped or prepared food. The food was ongoing. Sometimes breakfast was even served at 8 a.m. because the parties lasted so long. In lieu of hiring babysitters, my parents often took me with them, and in my younger years, before I could drive (and escape to meet my own friends in LA parking lots somewhere) I had to sleep over in the guest bedrooms amidst the coats and handbags. If I was lucky I would get to play with the other kids my age (who were often wealthier and had better toys or even VHS tapes).

It was a bit confusing, trying to figure out the happy tunes from the sad tunes. In my teenage brain none of it made sense: the sad tunes actually had very romantic lyrics, while the “happy tunes” often had tragic lyrics. It did not always break down that way, but it taught me a lot about the complexity of music and sounds and somehow I overlayed this into my growing interest in experimental sounds at the time. People like David Sylvian and Brian Ferry, our own “crooners”, became my own source of “happy/sad” sounds.

Laura was the quintessential hostess for Iraqi parties.

Suzanna Sharabani (a.k.a. IMAN) self-produced album

She made everyone from every class within the community feel at home. She also arranged for all the music, sometimes bringing in Palestinian or Syrian musicians who could play the tunes loved by the Iraqi Jews. No one ever spoke openly of this interreligious musical arrangement, though.

Loads of live recordings of these house parties on cassette and VHS tapes fill my parents’s bathroom cabinets. My own meager teenage cassette collection from this time has nothing on theirs. It wasn’t only about capturing the music but just as much the heckling, teasing, and jokes from the live audience, typical Middle Eastern behavior that you’d never have encountered outside that intimate setting. The cassettes are traded and presented as gifts to friends and family abroad in a network that, ultimately, contains the social code that holds people together. It may not be nostalgia, but it is reenactment, a kind that feels more like a form of resistance than active nostalgia does. It was as if our secret musical citizenship had superseded time and place. Repeated again and again in different homes—the same songs, the same food, the same guests—this was the ever-present internal life of the party, where the music of 1940s and 1950s Iraq played on in pockets of Beverly Hills, Encino, and even San Diego.

Basha house party—mother belly-dancing circa 1975 (Super 8 mm film still)

I had always wondered if Iraqis back in Iraq were still listening to this repertoire. Or was it just within the diasporic community?

As my curiosity about our identification with this music grew over time, I decided to research the history of “Chagli” (the Arabic word used for Jewish musical house parties) in Baghdad. In 1932, a Jewish band called Chagli, a folk ensemble with nay, dumbek, violin, and our, was invited to represent Iraq at the Cairo International Music Convention, the first music industry event of its kind in the Middle East. At that time, Jews and their music were not separated from Iraqi culture; the Chagli was never considered “Jewish music.” But for reasons that had to do with social mores in that era, Iraqi Jews tended to be the musicians of Iraq—so much so that music ceased on the radio and in the streets on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. Throughout the late 1930s and 1940s, the Iraqi National Radio station was a productive place for new compositions and collaborations, headed by the Jewish brothers Salah and Daoud Al-Kuwaiti. Though the Iraqi maqam (a musical scale) was often sung by a Muslim singer, Jews always provided the musical accompaniment. This led to the writing of new modern compositions modeled after the popular Egyptian compositions at the time—which led the way for Modern Arabic music throughout the whole Middle East. The eventual displacement of this culture (a force majeure after Israel was established) affected the music scene of Iraq for decades, as most of the music teachers were also Jews.

In my latest research on the Iraqi Jewish musicians of this generation who are still alive and playing, no one stands out more than the octogenarian Abraham Salman. A virtuosic qanun player, blind since birth, he now lives modestly in an Iraqi Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv, performing only for the friends who come over and egg him on. Salman was a beloved child prodigy in Iraq and continued to perform shortly after arriving in Israel in the early 1950s as part of the program “Kol Israel” (a televised “Oriental” orchestral broadcast à la Lawrence Welk). In his living room over cookies and tea, his wife told me of his continued following in the Middle East—especially in Saudi Arabia, where efforts to bring him for a concert have proved futile. Earnestly, I asked Salman if he could talk about the maqam to me, and explain it in layman terms perhaps. He reluctantly responded in Arabic by asking where I lived. When I stated, “New York,” he simply said, “Oh… that’s too far.”
I don’t know whether or not Abraham Salman’s music is still known to or appreciated by Iraqis back in the homeland.

I have heard of a younger generation of Iraqi musicians who are seeking out this modern chapter in history, as apparently, Saddam Hussein actively erased it from the history books and radio waves. How ironic it is that in the hills of Encino or the suburbs of Tel Aviv, we are likely to hear the sounds of one of the last bastions of cosmopolitanism in Iraq.
If there could be a sound for that condition, it would definitely ring atonally.

Disintegrating VHS tape of Basha House party circa 1983

Silman Basha’s linen closet cassette collection (excerpt)