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UPDATED: August 3, 2015 NO.31 JULY 30, 2015
The Many Sounds of Civilization
By Emad El-Din Aysha

British-American historian Bernard Lewis famously condemned Arab and Islamic civilization for not having a polyphonic sense of music, even accusing them of accepting totalitarian ideologies and regimes because of their taste for "monophonic" music. That is, having one single singer with all the music following the ups and downs of his or her voice. Polyphonic music, by contrast, is when a piece of music has two or more independent melodies in it. As for the related notion of counterpoint, this is from many voices present in the chorus of a classical Greek drama and a reference to the coordination evident in choir singing.

Lewis saw the very essence of Western civilization as lying in such polyphonic notions and practices--the balancing of opposition and dissent in an orderly fashion, within the accepted limits of law and order and the public interest. This was a famous sticking point with the late scholar Edward Said, someone who actually knew a thing or two about music. Said turned Lewis' musical argument on its head, since the whole point of harmony and counterpoint is how order was sustained by opposition and diversity. To Said, national exclusivity was a myth and so people should own up to the multiple origins of their national culture and learn to accept and even embrace the necessary contradictions that come with this. Music was a concrete illustration of this through polyphony and counterpoint, since the melodies or voices can often have varying speeds and pitches to create opposing moods. Hence, harmony as a musical maxim.

For Said, polyphony was a metaphor for what culture ought to be like, something he often saw to be "lacking" in the very West Lewis was busily praising and contrasting to the East. Music in Chinese civilization is all about harmony, whether of body and soul through the elevation of the senses or of people in society and between societies through the building of cultural bridges. No wonder then that the word for intimate friend (zhiyin) is phrased as a "person who understands fully the music you are playing--a friend keenly appreciative of one's talents; an understanding friend."

While a musical novice, I have a slightly different interpretation. The word barbarian in European history is a reference to gibberish--barr, barr, barr--and how the speech of foreigners sounds like "gobbledygook" to your insular ears. It's even been said that the derogatory word Americans use for Vietnamese, "gook," comes from this term. We have this in Arabic, too, since one possible root for the word Arab is i'raab (the pronunciations we use over letters in written Arabic). Speaking Arabic then means speaking a "clear language," whereas foreigners just speak gibberish, something that is offensive to your ears. Contrast this to phrases like "that's music to my ears" when somebody says something you like, or describing certain kinds of music (like rap) as nothing but "noise."

Polyphony, it seems, has little to no meaning when coupled with isolationism. Muslims have their own history of such shameful behavior, so we have nothing to brag about, but the history of Islam in China generally has been better, with a great many openly integrating themselves into Chinese culture over the centuries. This in turn means that the dream of cultural harmony through counterpoint has more chance of success in the (Far) East than in the West.

China has traditionally been open to foreign religions and communities, provided they abide by the law and do not disturb the peace (or balance) between other faiths and their respective communities. The Chinese are very popular on the African continent because their aid money and development projects don't come with political strings attached and religious proselytizing. You could chalk this up to secularism and communism, but the Soviets insisted on interfering in other nations' internal politics and spreading their brand of party ideology with a great deal of "religious" zeal too.

The author is a staff writer with Egypt Oil and Gas.

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