And now for something maybe a little deeper and more personal here…
Some people who know me might sometimes wonder how someone who is an atheist can be attracted so much to music that has religious or spiritual content or is at least based on music inspired by such things. Others, who know me but don’t know me as well, might wonder how come I love so much music that’s essentially Muslim if I am (by background, at least) a Jew. Well, I suppose I can take a moment to answer these questions…
First of all, I think that religiously or spiritually inspired music doesn’t have to be inspired by religious or magical thinking to have the qualities that it has. Basically, what drives it is a need to look beyond the limits of the immediate and the superficial, into feelings and states of mind that will transform or transcend our understanding of life. Some people look to drugs for this sort of thing, but I never felt that was necessary either, at least not for me. (Not a moral judgment or anything, just a statement of fact.) But I do think we all need a little more transformation and transcendence to deal with a culture that can be so destructive and petty. (If this were my other blog, I might say a few more direct things about capitalism…but of course, this isn’t that blog.)
Much of the seemingly religiously inspired music that I do listen to often gets its inspiration form Sufism, which is considered the most nonhierarchical form of Islam. It’s attracted a number of people who consider themselves anarchists, and I’m no stranger to anarchism myself. But I’m not sure if there’s a connection there. After all, a lot of anti-authoritarians seem to be attracted to Wicca and I have no interest in that stuff, though I do like some Goth.
The Muslim issue is maybe more interesting… Well, the fact is that I do like a lot of Muslim music and have felt a strong affinity to certain aspects of Muslim culture, especially in South Asia – which is connected to my indophilia, which also means some affinity with the works of Hindus and Indian Christians.
Some of this affinity was increased quite a bit about ten years ago, when I was involved for about six months with a woman from Pakistan. That woman was not religious – in fact, she was anti-religious and in constant rebellion against the strongly religious influences with which she had grown up. But she still had many ties to a culture that could not be separated from a deep concern with Islam. And I became quite fascinated by that culture for a while, especially after this small window was opened to give me a better glimpse of it. I don’t know how strong my feelings for this woman were (it was not one of my biggest relationships), but I truly loved having that close a connection with someone who could teach me a little more about that corner of the world.
Of course, this was all pre-9-11, so a lot of the stuff that I’m talking about didn’t have the same significance, at least here in the U.S., that it seems to have today. There might have been a little of a rebellious drive within me that caused me to have an affinity for (a) Muslim culture, considering that I have had to deal with Jewish relatives who had a prejudice against Muslims. But that was not immediate family, so I don’t know how much that counts. I have also always deplored the conduct of the State of Israel, especially with regard to its treatment of the Palestinian population, and I might be in some constant rebellion against the anti-Muslim bigotry of our own mass media and government. But, again, many of my cultural tastes and affinities predate 9-11, so if this was an issue driving me, it wasn’t as overwhelming an issue as it might seem in the present context.
And there’s a whole different thought that comes to mind, that maybe through some of the cultural affinities, I am making some connection to my own ancient Semitic roots, given that Jews and Muslims were related way-back-when. I don’t really think about that sort of thing much, but I appreciate it when someone else makes that connection, considering the conflicts of the day. It is also a message that Cheb i Sabbah conveys, very sweetly, in the dedication on the jacket or CD case to La Kahena: “For all Jews and Muslims, daughters and sons of Sarah, Hagar and Abraham.”
Like Natacha Atlas, Cheb i Sabbah apparently wants to bring together people who he feels should not have been in conflict in the first place. His message does not seem quite as political as Natacha’s, but there are very interesting political relevancies hidden within La Kahena. The title itself refers to a historical character whose legacy is pertinent to all of this. I found this out with just a few minutes of research, especially after stumbling upon a fascinating article, The Kahina, Queen of the Berbers, by Michael Klossner. I realized a lot about the significance of the Kahina (or Kahena) after reading a few paragraphs from that:
 The Kahina’s name is given variously as Dahiyah, Dahia, or Dhabba (Women in World History, v.8, p. 414.) The title Kahina meant Prophetess. The Encyclopedia Judaica (v. 10, p. 686) says that the term is derived from the Arabic “Kahin” (“soothsayer”) and dismisses as error the idea that “Kahina” was derived from the Jewish term “Cohen”.
 The Encyclopedia Judaica notes that Arabic authors, notably the major 14th century historian Ibn-Khaldun, say that the Kahina and her tribe, the Jerawa of the Aures Mountains in eastern Algeria and Tunisia, were Jewish. Charles-André Julien, in his History of North Africa, notes that another writer gave the Kahina “the picturesque appellation of the ‘Berber Deborah’” (after Deborah, the judge of ancient Israel). Julien believes that the Kahina’s resistance to the Arabs was “nurtured, as it seems, by Berber patriotism and Jewish faith.” On the other hand, the Encyclopedia Judaica concludes “her opposition to the Muslim Arabs was not religiously inspired; some authorities deny she was Jewish. The history of Kahina remains controversial.”
 What is known is that soon after the Arab general Hassan ibn al Numan took Carthage from the Byzantines, the Kahina’s forces defeated him. Then, as during World War II, a single defeat in North Africa might lead to a retreat of hundreds of miles. Hassan retreated, probably all the way back to Egypt. The Kahina took Carthage and ruled most of Berber North Africa.
 According to Ibn-Khaldun, as she waited for the inevitable renewed Arab assault, the Kahina carried out a brutal and disastrous policy. She declared that the Arabs wished to conquer North Africa only because of its wealth. She ordered Berbers who were still nomadic to destroy the cities, orchards, and herds of sedentary Berbers, to make North Africa a desert.
 If the Kahina actually made this amazing decision, she was tragically mistaken. The Arabs were determined to take North Africa regardless of its wealth or poverty, because there were people to be converted to Islam, and because North Africa was a gateway to Spain and Europe. Unsurprisingly, according to Ibn-Khaldun, this savage policy of city burning cost the Kahina the support of city-dwelling Berbers.
 In 702, Hassan again invaded the Berber lands and quickly defeated the Kahina. Julien writes, “on the eve of the final battle, the Kahina ordered her sons to go over to the enemy.” Her sons had to convert to Islam to seal their defection to the Arabs. Julien believes that for the Kahina, the survival of her family and its supremacy over her tribe were ultimately more important than any questions of nationalism or religion…