Image Description: A header illustration of an oud, a musical instrument, in the center with text in Arabic and musical notations surrounding it.
Image Description: A header illustration of an oud, a musical instrument, in the center with text in Arabic and musical notations surrounding it.

Illustration by Sidra Dahhan

Are You Playing Fairuz?

Playing the oud, although initially daunting, helped me connect with my culture and family the way I had always wanted to.

May 8, 2023

I glance at my phone again, confirming that the music store opened at 9:30 a.m. A borrowed oud bulges awkwardly from the bulky case on my back, garnering quick looks from the rare passerby. It is 9:32, I squint into the darkened store window, looking for signs of movement. There are none.
9:33 am. I can not stay much longer because I have a class, but I came all the way into the city to get into this store. Of course an Arab teacher would recommend a store that runs on Arab time. I could have just come the day before. Maybe it is time to go—
I am interrupted by a bicycle pulling up next to me. The man on it shimmies off his leather jacket and helmet, and asks me to wait a moment. He disappears into the next store only to reappear with a plastic white chair. He unlocks the glass door from the top right corner. We are in.
I turn to him. “Hey, can I change the strings on this oud?”
“What kind?” he replies.
“Pyramid,” I say, remembering my teacher’s offhand comment on the subject earlier.
The man retreats behind his desk, and I wander through the store. The store is small, it has the door on one end, a counter and accessories on the other, and two instrument-laden walls in between. One wall, the less populated side, is more random. It is a sprawl of assorted string instruments — classical guitars, ukuleles, violins. The other side is the gold mine — dozens of wooden ouds in every shade of brown lined the walls. Dark mahoganies. Warm cedars. Pale spruces.
“What tuning would you like?” he asks.
“Um, the normal kind.”
He looks up to me. “Are you from Beit al Oud?”
“No, my teacher is from there. But I am a student.”
“You can play if you want.”
I helplessly look at the intimidating wall, and back to him. He picks out a pre-tuned oud and hands it over, before retreating back to the counter.
The risha, the pick in my hands, hovers over a string, but like two negative charges, they refuse to make contact. I know he is not looking at me, he is hunched over the oud at this point. But he is there. He is there and I can not ignore that. I have not played in a couple months; I have probably forgotten everything. I am horrible.
But I force the charges to attract, and the risha strikes the string. Softly. Off key. But I feel a surge of contentment from the act. I missed playing.
Oud, to some, has been called a fretless lute. Although it could be more fitting to say a lute is a fretted oud, as the European stringed instrument descended from it after the diffusion of oud through Muslim Iberia (“lute” in itself etymologically derives from al-oud). Oud means “a thin strip of wood” in Arabic. The kinds of woods that the pear shaped instrument can refer to are endless, however, from walnut to rosewood to spruce.
It descends from the barbat, a Persian stringed instrument dating back to at least the first-Century BCE. The original instrument had fallen out of existence so its original sound is unknown, but modern recreations of it are often made of warm walnut or maple wood, with a longer neck and smaller body than ouds. The barbat evolved from other unnamed instruments of the Middle East, thousands upon thousands of years past. It also left a legacy — it is said to have evolved into instruments like the Yemeni qanbus, Chinese pipa, Japanese biwa, and nation-less oud.
Oud, in itself, belongs to many music cultures. The Turkish oud is typically tuned a step higher than its Arabic counterpart, leading to a tighter, sharper sound. The Persian oud, in contrast, takes its form in the modern Barbat or in a slight Arabic oud variation with a more round shape and calmer sound. Arabic ouds are subdivided into multiple smaller categories — such as the flat, lower pitched Syrian oud, to the bright Iraqi oud, to the heavy Egyptian oud, to the more standard, mellow, deep Arabic oud. The instrument flourished in Islamic Arabia, onto the present day.
When we had to borrow an oud from the music storage on campus, I gravitated toward the Syrian Oud, not knowing what made it Syrian. I just knew my Syrian family would kill me for choosing otherwise.
Over spring break, I traverse around Dubai with my oud, jumping between different family members’ homes. One Ramadan night in a family member's house, I find yet another opportunity to play.
In the few hours before Iftar, time refuses to move along. Rather than endlessly subject ourselves to the torturous scent of cooking food, we decide to force it to move — we bring out the instruments.
I do not come from a family of musicians, but in a group as large as ours, there’s bound to be the casual instrumentalist here and there. The acoustic guitar player, the electric guitarist, the pianist. Me not being able to decide what. That day, my cousin showed her new electric guitar which spiraled into an afternoon of playing. Western music, as is typical to learn on Western instruments. After some Green Day and Beatles, it is passed down to me and I play.
It is so easy. I don’t have to think when I play, my fingers dance through the strings with little resistance. Everything is light. But then I am asked if I could play the oud and everything becomes tense again. I find my fingers touching the tough plastic of the risha rather than the smoothness of nylon and metal. The notes are choppy when they should have been smooth. The rhythm slightly off beat. But I want to keep playing. While I did not have to think while playing guitar, I didn’t feel anything either. While with oud, as frustrated as it made me feel to fail, to not be perfect at it in front of others, it is all that occupies my mind, the only instrument that penetrates through my heart. It's gratifying to hear people hum along to the Fairuz. This is a new feeling. Why did I feel this way, when guitar was so much easier to get into?
A thought runs through my mind a few days later. The oud makes me feel more Arab than I have in years. As a Syrian-American, it validates my identity as being more than non-Arabic speaking Arab. But why do I feel this way? How can it make me feel so anxious in one moment, only to feel like a giant weight is lifted off me once I do end up playing it? Why is it so easy for me to connect with my Arabic speaking family through the instrument?
One afternoon, I find myself in a small corner room of the NYU Abu Dhabi Arts Center, in the middle of one of my bi-weekly oud classes. My fingers strike up the nylon strings, reaching a squawk, and down, until the air gradually buzzes under my too-lax bass string; my fingers dance through the scale in unison with the other three players in the room. A cymbal on the drum set nestled in the corner begins to hum along unprompted, bouncing to the beat of the lower notes.
You are slightly off tune, move your finger a hair to the right, our Emirati instructor tells me in Arabic.
On the first day of class, in the excitement of having three Arab students in the class, he abandoned the English language in favor of speaking his mother tongue. I did not elect to tell him how inept I felt, especially with non-Shami Arabic dialects, instead silently slogging through class dialogues.
In the first few sessions, I found myself trying to stop drowning in quicksand and grasping on to floating isolated Arabic words he emitted to the air, hoping to create a sentence. This was further complicated when he was talking about music theory. Music theory in Arabic? Come on. I would stare, blankly, whenever he asked me one of those foreign-sounding questions. Then he would explain it, and I would feel dumb for not realizing he was talking about something as basic as the scale I had been learning for months.
But gradually it got better. I know Arabic. My family speaks it. Maybe I am just too stubborn to put in the extra bit of effort to train my muscles in the language. Now it is easier to process sentences in the class, but I still rarely speak. The pesky broken accent peeps through. Instead, by playing what is asked of me, I speak. I move my ring finger a hair to the right.
That is another part of the oud that I had to get used to after guitar. There are no frets, no lines on the finger board to guide you to the right notes. One of my uncles put it rather poetically, “You have to feel the right note.” It makes me think of my mom when I ask her how to cook an Arabic dish over the phone.
“Cool, and how much cumin do I add?” “However much you need.” “What do you mean however much I need? A teaspoon? Tablespoon?” “No no, you just sprinkle until it feels right.”
Maybe oud is the same way. Arabs with their pesky “feel until it's right” tirade. To be fair, it is all the more rewarding when you do get it right. They (we’re) on to something. Like, I can’t say my ear is particularly trained to perk at the intricacies of different sounds, but I can already tell, that with that minor adjustment, the note sounds sharper, brighter — infinitely better.
After that class, an oud student from another section, Reem Hazim, Class of 2023, and I drift into conversation. A question pops into mind, why does she play the instrument? What does it mean for her? I ask her. Hazim, a Lebanese, Jordanian-Palestinian student who grew up in Dubai, also started playing the oud this year.
“I didn’t know what oud was until I came here,” Hazim comments. Growing up, she always heard it in the background: during iftars, in restaurants, in old songs. “But I never knew that it was its own instrument.”
She decided to take oud classes so she could learn to play old Arabic songs — her favorite music. “These are the songs that my parents and my grandparents would listen to when they were young… I remember one time, my aunt and my uncle and my grandma came to visit. And we were in the car with my dad, and he started playing this Abd al Halim song that he remembered about a few weeks ago. And he's like, ‘do you guys remember the song? We used to listen to this in the car.’ It felt nice to be part of that family history.”
Her desire to primarily learn Arabic songs permeated through the classroom. “I feel like I'm just biased. Like, I really just want to learn Arabic songs like I don't want to learn Ed Sheeran. Just give me Fairuz.” Hazim loves how the instrument connects her to her background. “These are the creative expressions that we've developed over generations. And I feel like these bring us closer to our community and our people.”
She recalls her parents’ enthusiasm over her decision to learn. “It's nice to have someone who can play an instrument, someone to impress the guests.”
An image of my dad telling me to play at dinners comes into mind and I laugh. We part and I am left wanting to know more. So I search for other students learning the instrument on campus, until one day I come across another friend of mine in a student lounge — Shaza Elsharief, Class of 2023, who comes from a Sudanese background and grew up in Abu Dhabi.
Elsharief’s father was the parent most interested in the prospect of her learning oud. “He is very much a fan of music in general,” she notes. “So he was like, ‘oh, it's difficult’. That was their initial reaction. But then after that, they just wanted to hear me play it every time…[I live in Abu Dhabi so] they would keep asking me to bring it home. And I was like, it's huge.
She recalls a time her father actively engaged in her oud journey. “One time our teacher asked me to prepare a Sudanese song, and I was a little bit lost because it's very difficult to find sheet music online, especially for Arabic songs. So I asked my dad and then he reached out to some friends he has in some music academy that teaches oud. And the other friend was very willing to help and he sent me a bunch of scores,” she added. “[My parents] were very invested.”
She was surprised that her mother recognized the songs she played because, as a beginner, she felt she played slow. “I was like, oh, I'm just gonna play and you can guess the song. And then I was playing it. Then my mom guesses the song. She turned out to be very good at it — when I messed up, she'd be like, oh, like, you missed a note there. How can you tell?
The songs she was learning — Fairuz songs — were very familiar to her, because they’re the tunes she grew up hearing. “We had a CD of Fairuz songs, back when CDs were a thing. And we played it in the car all the time. So I think when I think of Fairuz, it's like reminiscing about my childhood.” She guesses that her, and her parents’ familiarity with Fairuz led to their quick recognition of the song.
When I later speak to Mohammed Muqbel, 2023, a Jordanian-Palestinian oud learner who grew up in Saudi Arabia, he notes that he, like Hazim and Elsharief, grew up on Fairuz songs. “When I'm at home, I find my mom on a channel where Fairuz is singing. Khalas it’s part of her routine… I find that common across different households, you know, a lot of people play Fairuz in the morning — right, only in the morning for some reason…and then at night, Um Kulthom perhaps…”
He had received mixed reactions from a few around him about learning the instrument. “Coming from a Muslim background… [there are] people who have a negative perception about music in general,” he says, reflecting on one experience in particular. “At one point, I was just walking with the oud on my back, which is twice my size. I said hi to someone, and then they were like, ‘you know, it's better to stay away from the oud.’ And I understand their concern. Because the consensus is that just music in general is not a good thing to take your time with when you can do other stuff.”
But he considers how, in a way, his religious and cultural background strengthened his connection to oud in comparison to other instruments, because the oud has hundreds of scales, and one of the more popular ones is the one typically used for the Muslim call to prayer. “Every country usually adopts a certain scale for the call for prayer. And so I think that perhaps [there is an] association between the scales and both the instrument and call for prayer.”
He also concludes that he has always been familiar with the instrument. “I come from a background where the masjid is five minutes, two minutes away from my home. I go there walking, and so I would hear the call to prayer. Perhaps the association to how that is translated into music, into oud stronger than other instruments.”
Gopika Krishnan, Class of 2023, also highlighted how fascinating the maqam system was to her. “We got to learn the maqam system which I see as a privilege and blessing to study.” Oud taught her a new way to understand music scales. “When you first begin studying ‘Classical’ music, more often than not, you are taught European standards. To learn the maqam system was very exciting and there were some overlaps with Carnatic music which was really cool to learn about.”
Krishnan, who is from Kerala and grew up in the UAE, had also grown up hearing oud. “I adored the instrument whenever I heard it. In a way, studying the oud gave me a way to connect with this world as well, and learnt about the musical systems that govern the region.” In addition, it allowed her to learn yet another stringed instrument — which she loves.
“I play Carnatic-style violin and have taken guitar classes also,” she commented. “What I adore about playing Carnatic music (which is a form of Indian classical music from South India) is that it reminds me of home. Since I grew up in the UAE, the violin gave me a pathway to stay in touch with my roots.” The oud, similarly, provided the opportunity to learn non-Western music styles.
In addition, she highlighted how sometimes, the most special moments in music learning come in practicing songs others know and recognize. “To play the song I adored [Careless Whisper by George Michael] at the final recital, with friends in the audience who also knew how much I loved the song, remembering the first time I ever heard the song when my dad first played it on the radio, was an incredibly special moment for me.”
Aya Abu Ali, Class of 2023, similarly told me her relationship to the string instruments extended beyond her time at NYU Abu Dhabi. Abu Ali, who is Palestinian-Jordanian and grew up in Jordan, discussed what brought her to first learn the oud. “I remembered how much I enjoyed learning the Darbuka [Goblet Drum] as a child so I wanted an instrument that would allow me to play Arabic music, but also one that I felt was underrepresented in the music world. The oud offered me both.”
It, to her, reflected her Arab heritage. “I think there are considerably more oud players in Syria, Egypt and the Gulf, but there are definitely ways in which playing the oud is connected with my identity as an Arab,” she said. “Once you leave your home environment, you start realizing how much the Arab World and the Middle East are severely understudied and underrepresented in a variety of ways. Playing an oriental instrument doesn’t necessarily solve any of these issues, but I do think it mediates the marginalization of the collective Arab identity, especially that different regions play it in different ways, so it really does keep the culture alive.”
One of the musicians that encompass this sentiment, to her, is one familiar to many. “I like learning Fairuz songs because she was such an integral part of our mornings growing up, and I think her music incorporates a lot of oud, qanun and other beautiful oriental instruments.”
Perhaps it was the fact that I was also almost exclusively playing Fairuz that united me with all these students, or our parents’ uncharacteristically strong enthusiasm over our learning process. It could also be the odd, liminal space of acceptability the instrument occupies when I come from a religious and cultural background renowned for its ambivalent relationship with music.
Maybe, it makes me feel Arab because I don’t have to speak to connect to these unique, shared experiences Arab families seem to have with the instrument. The instrument itself is not only Arab, it is Persian and Turkish too, with variants across the world, but it is still strongly tied with the heritage I always struggled to clearly express. Now, all I need to do is play. The notes speak for me.
Sidra Dahhan is Managing Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo