From “Anahita” to Ÿuma, Festival Arabesques Dazzles Thousands

26 September, 2022



Often west­ern media, when por­tray­ing the Arab world and the diver­si­ty of south­west­ern Asia, Iran­ian, Kur­dish and Afghan cul­tures among them, fairs poor­ly at pre­sent­ing the broad­est imag­in­able pic­ture of this vast and beau­ti­ful region. That is where the Fes­ti­val Arabesques, now in its 17th edi­tion, inter­venes. From Sep­tem­ber 6–18, 2022, Arabesques — now the largest such per­form­ing arts fes­ti­val in Europe — pre­sent­ed some two dozen con­certs, film screen­ings, work­shops and oth­er cul­tur­al encoun­ters to more than 20,000 spec­ta­tors of all ages and back­grounds. [Ed.]


Angélique Crux


When the Fes­ti­val Arabesques presents a per­for­mance at the Opéra Comédie, Montpellier’s 18th cen­tu­ry land­mark, one must expect to leave con­ven­tion­al clichés behind. In effect, with “Anahi­ta,” the per­form­ers’ blend of tra­di­tion­al ori­en­tal music inter­min­gled with jazz and west­ern clas­si­cal music stands out and gives a bewitch­ing fla­vor through sounds, voice and dance.

The per­former, Fran­co-Iran­ian mez­zo Ari­ana Vafadari, com­posed the music for “Anahi­ta,” a co-cre­ation with Leili Anvar, also Fran­co-Iran­ian, who wrote the sto­ry, in which the two women go in search of their ances­tors and the ancient leg­end of Anahita.

We might have been large­ly sat­is­fied with the oper­at­ic, ele­giac voice of Vafadari, accom­pa­nied by a pianist, a dou­ble bass play­er and Driss El Mal­ou­mi, majes­ti­cal­ly play­ing the oud.


Rana Gor­gani in the Fes­ti­val Arabesques’ ren­di­tion of “Anahi­ta” at the Opéra Comédie (pho­to Luc Jennepin).

But then, Sufi artist Rana Gor­gani, of Kur­dish ori­gin from Iran, added a spir­i­tu­al flight of fan­ta­sy in the tur­moil and the inces­sant turn­ing of her hyp­no­tiz­ing dance, the samâ, which she per­forms as an act of devo­tion. Gor­gani dom­i­nates the stage and cap­ti­vates her audi­ence; the splen­dor of her inner light shines through as a whirling dervish. For cen­turies, the rit­u­al­is­tic dance has been reserved for men, but for the past few decades, women, who are very much con­test­ed in Turkey, have been eman­ci­pat­ing them­selves through spir­i­tu­al­i­ty by reap­pro­pri­at­ing this dance.

“Anahi­ta” is a real trib­ute to women who take a cen­tral place in and beyond this show — as I write this, Iran­ian women, and men, are out in the streets, protest­ing against the oppres­sion of the state, and mil­lions around the world are post­ing notes of sol­i­dar­i­ty on social media.





In anoth­er uni­verse, at the Domaine d’O, in the Jean-Claude Car­rière the­ater,  we find the Kabareh Cheikhats, whose singers and musi­cians are exclu­sive­ly male while being dis­guised as women, bril­liant­ly inter­pret­ing the reper­toire of the Aïta. These pop­u­lar songs were once sung by women, the sheikhas, whose mis­sion was to denounce loud­ly and clear­ly the evils of soci­ety. Fan­ny Soum-Pouyalet, Ph.D. in social anthro­pol­o­gy and eth­nol­o­gy, gives us this def­i­n­i­tion: “The sheikha, a tra­di­tion­al singer who was once respect­ed and hon­ored, the only mis­tress of the par­ty, has become a despised, las­civ­i­ous dancer, pushed to the banks of pover­ty and prostitution.”


Theirs is a broad her­itage of tra­di­tion­al Moroc­can songs in a fad­ing reper­toire, so the role of Ghas­san El Hakim, direc­tor and singer of Kabareh Cheikhats, is to pay trib­ute to these women by keep­ing their songs alive.

Once present at cul­tur­al cel­e­bra­tions and cer­e­monies, sheikhas were appre­ci­at­ed for their texts and their fem­i­nine demands; for the longest time, they were per­ceived as coura­geous and free women yet end­ed up being mar­gin­al­ized. Whether they are the sheikhas of yes­ter­year or today, with the Kabareh Cheikhats, we have male or female fem­i­nist artists who devi­ate from Moroc­can social codes and mores.

In a soci­ety where cross-dress­ing is a bad omen, the Kabareh Cheikhats also rais­es the ques­tion of gen­der. Apart from the fact that this show is fun­ny, even with the best inten­tions in the world, once again men are tak­ing the place of women. Isn’t the point of this show to incite women to become sheikhas again, to belt out their free­dom at the top of their lungs and denounce what­ev­er they wish?




Fes­ti­val Arabesques — Samah Mustafa — pho­to Luc Jennepin

Also per­form­ing at the Domaine d’O, on the grounds of a for­mer chateau, was Samah Mustafa, Pales­tin­ian singer, musi­cian and music ther­a­pist. Hav­ing cut her teeth as the fea­tured vocal­ist in var­i­ous projects in Pales­tine, Moroc­co, Swe­den, Nor­way, Sri Lan­ka, the UK and Spain, among them Jawa Tour, the New Star com­pe­ti­tion and Yabous Pales­tin­ian fes­ti­val, we found our­selves swept up by her unique style. Mustafa presents as a true mod­ern woman orches­tra. Sur­round­ed by com­put­ers and elec­tron­ic instru­ments, she com­pos­es her own arrange­ments live, using the echo of her own voice. The dex­ter­i­ty of her fin­gers, fly­ing from one key to anoth­er, is impres­sive. She embod­ies a world apart, a world one might imag­ine aimed at the younger gen­er­a­tion, but think again! Samah Mustafa sings clas­si­cal Ara­bic songs won­der­ful­ly well and appro­pri­ates Ara­bic folk music. The per­for­mance offers a tru­ly inno­v­a­tive inter­gen­er­a­tional music.

What is obvi­ous is Samah Mustafa’s musi­cal intel­li­gence, for her har­monies make us feel ela­tion, and as we lis­ten, we feel we are cross­ing many borders.

The last piece she would per­form at the fes­ti­val is titled “Hope,” and we won­der why!




The Tunisian duo ŸUMA in Fes­ti­val Arabesques, with Ramy Zoghel­mi and Sabrine Jen­hani (pho­to Luc Jennepin).

On this same stage, we wrap up with Ÿuma, because we can­not men­tion all the artists, as the Fes­ti­val Arabesques this year was so rich. Ÿuma con­sists of Sabrine Jen­hani and Ramy Zoghel­mi, a Tunisian duo with two voic­es and a gui­tar, whose min­i­mal­ist folk uni­verse con­trasts with the urban pro­duc­tions of the new Arab scene. They are mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary artists (she grad­u­at­ed from École des Beaux Arts in Tunis; he comes from the cin­e­ma). The two ama­teur rock­ers spon­ta­neous­ly found them­selves in the acoustic soft­ness of inti­mate songs, but also in a mil­i­tant approach.



In Ÿuma, the woman and the man are artis­ti­cal­ly equal, each one mak­ing light for the oth­er. They are beau­ti­ful, touch­ing, sim­ple and shy. Their eyes close on the melodies, and nev­er cease to open again to see each oth­er; they breathe togeth­er, sing togeth­er, shine togeth­er. In this har­mo­nious agree­ment, time has no place, only the beau­ty of their songs is our dimension.

Com­mit­ted artists, they speak of love, forced mar­riages, the con­di­tion of women … with mod­esty and much gentleness.

To claim their iden­ti­ty, they choose to write their texts in Tunisian dialect. Stripped of all arrange­ments, their music is pure, only a gui­tar in a folk-blues style accom­pa­nies them. Sabrine Jen­hani and Ramy Zoghel­mi were among the high­lights of this beau­ti­ful fes­ti­val, ded­i­cat­ed to the diverse sounds and col­ors of the Arab/Muslim world.


Angélique Crux is a humanist who considers herself above all a citizen of the world, enriched by encounters through numerous trips and currently living in the south of France. She is a committed mime artist who participates in artistic projects defending causes such as disability with the association Différent Comme Tout le Monde, and shipwrecked people at sea with the association SOS Méditerrannée, during events or in schools.

Arabic musicIranian cultureMahmoud DarwishMarcel KhalifePalestinianTunisian


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1 month ago

Won­der­ful music! From read­ing this, I wish I had been there