In the backstreets of Aleppo, if you go exploring near the southern gate, Bab Qinisreen, you might be lucky and find a certain alleyway, quiet and cool.
Follow it into the gloom and you might see, at the end of a long, stone-flagged passageway, a large wooden door.
It’s often left ajar – there are no burglars in the souk – so give it a push. Beyond is a courtyard, open to the sky and shaded by lemon trees. Ahead, through narrow, glazed doors, a slender, grey-haired figure sits over a stringed instrument that looks like a small harp placed on its side. Ethereal music fills the air.
This is how I came to know Julien Jalal Eddine Weiss, a virtuoso on the qanoun – the Arab zither – and one of the world’s greatest interpreters of Arab classical music for a Western audience.
He invited me to stay in his house, a 14th-century Mamluke palace built around that courtyard. At its heart rises a breathtaking space floored in patterned marble and reaching up past a gallery to a lantern-lit dome.
Pink velour floor-cushions line the seating area – Weiss’s music room – crammed with knick-knacks: a Moroccan drape here, an Uzbek tapestry there, dozens of musical instruments alongside great copper platters, long-spouted Arabic coffee-pots and countless antique lamps.
It’s the perfect fantasy-Oriental parlour. I had no sense of stepping back in time, since no Syrian ever lived like this, amidst decorative lutes and tasselled pelmets and four-poster beds. Rather, it felt like an intricate, European coup de théâtre, hidden away inside one of the oldest of Arab cities.
Dressed in a black, high-waisted flamenco dancer’s jacket and narrow black trousers, Weiss poured tea from an ornate silver teapot – holding a black silk scarf around the handle to keep from scalding his fingers. He lit a cigarette and gazed at me. I got the feeling he rather enjoys trying to intimidate newcomers.
We chit-chatted about the room, about Aleppo, about his family – and then, suddenly bored, he moved to his qanoun, fitted a plectrum onto each index finger and began to play. The high, mournful music was extraordinarily beautiful, filling the old house with unexpected warmth. The artifice fell away, and I sensed this proud, complicated man would rather play than talk.
Born in Paris in 1953, to French-Swiss parents, Bernard Weiss has been known as Julien since his teenage years, “rechristened” by a Venezuelan girlfriend. He trained as a classical guitarist but, as he admits himself, never wanted to be a traditional musician. In 1976 he heard a recording by the legendary Iraqi oud(lute) player Munir Bashir. After seeing Bashir in concert in Morocco, Weiss abandoned the guitar and took up the qanoun.
He studied in Egypt and Lebanon, founded his own group, the Al-Kindi Ensemble, and in 1985 received an invitation to play at Iraq’s Babylon Festival from Bashir himself.
Since then, he has won acclaim around the world, performing at Carnegie Hall in New York, the Barbican and South Bank in London, the Théâtre de la Ville in Paris and at concerts and festivals from Hong Kong to Mexico City. He has made more than a dozen albums with some of the Arab world’s finest performers, including Hamza Shakkur, cantor of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Omar Sarmini, Syria’s leading classical singer, Adel Shams ad-Din, an Egyptian riqq(drum) master, the Baghdadi vocalist Husayn al-Azami, and others.
He also converted to Islam, taking the name Jalal Eddine in honour of the 13th-century Sufi mystic Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Yet he remains curiously dismissive of his adoptive religion. “I don’t need to pray,” he told me.
One evening he brought me to a zawiya, or Sufi lodge, in the Bab al-Hadid quarter of Aleppo. We were greeted enthusiastically as we entered, myself as a guest, Weiss as a friend; I recognised several faces from the covers of Weiss’s CDs.
After half an hour, perhaps fifty men packed the room, swaying rhythmically to chanting of the name of God fed through an echo machine to create a booming, reverberating wall of sound. Percussionists clashed tiny cymbals, drummers kept a pounding beat and soloists performed vocal pyrotechnics as devotees splashed perfume on their skin, filling the air with heady fragrance. Every sense was stimulated to bring each individual closer to God – then the lights went off, the music crescendoed and we stood, a mass of bodies chanting, shouting, swaying together in the dark.
Suddenly it was all over. The lights flicked on, men rubbed their eyes, shook each other’s hand and left.
For me, the experience was spiritual: I saw old men rocking, their eyes closed, I saw faces lifted in rapture, I saw fevered intensity. Yet Weiss, when I glanced at him, was inscrutable, almost detached. Later, when we discussed the evening, it was the technical ability of the performers that mattered to him. Rather than spiritual, the experience was musical.
“I am interested in the mystical aspect of music,” he told me. “In the Middle East the mystical aspect of music comes from religion. My philosophy is very rationalist.”
Qanoun or no qanoun, this is not a man who has adopted Arab ways. The coffee he brews is espresso; he strides through the souk in silence, greeting nobody; the music of universally admired Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum he dismisses as decadent.
Yet he has cut himself loose from his native culture, too – moving to Aleppo, embracing Islam and scorning Western music.
He professes not to care what the Arab establishment thinks of him – an outsider – claiming sole knowledge of their own musical tradition. Yet he cannot get concert bookings in Syria.
This melodramatic figure, who has changed his own name twice, seemed the epitome of the rootless artist – misunderstood, rejectionist, practising alone behind his palace walls.
I doubted he was happy.
Six months later I visited Weiss at his modest apartment in the Galata district of Istanbul. He has kept his house in Aleppo, and returns there frequently, but has already embarked on a new venture, bringing together musicians from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Syria to perform original Ottoman court music in a style not heard since the 17th century. His new CD, Parfums Ottomans, weaves stately improvisations every bit as intoxicating as his discs of frenetic Sufi trance.
Away from the flummery of his Aleppo palace, he seemed freer and more relaxed. We walked through modern Istanbul, Weiss pointing out his favourite cafés, then he played for me on a new Turkish qanoun, handmade to Weiss’s own specifications by an artisan in Izmir.
“Music is a personal form of meditation. Every day I practise my instrument for six or eight hours: it’s a discipline. I try to find the old, authentic and mystical colours of the tradition, to show Western people the richness of Arab-Islamic culture. And if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. All I’d ask for is another few years so I can learn Indian music.”
I put it to him that he’s more comfortable with music and musical instruments than he is with people. He thought about this for a moment and shrugged, muttering: “Maybe you’re right.” Then he smiled.