In Memory of Sabah Fakhri
Syrian singer dies at 88
My favorite classic Arabic song of all time was preformed by the great Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri, who died today in Damascus at the age of 88. Fakhri recited spiritual tunes and folk songs known as Qudud Halabiyah, after the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. His work made him one of the most popular singers in the Arabic-speaking world.
The poem of Fakhri’s song chosen here is said to have been composed by a certain Medieval Muhammad al-Manbiji, of the northern Syrian city of Manbij, whose name means spring in Aramaic (the Arabic cognate word is Manbi'). In Latin, the city was called Hierapolis to indicate that it was a holy city. It hosted a shrine dedicated to Atargatis (Bacchus), the deity of wine who dies and rises from the death.
The obscure identity of the poem's composer suggests that this was a folk song, maybe recited as a hymn before Christianity and later at Byzantine Christian churches. The first name Muhammad was added as an epithet to mean "the coveted one," or the Messiah. The theme of this song is that thirsty earth and its inhabitants are calling on a certain "lord" to water it.
A particular verb/noun attached to the watering deity in the poem derives from the Semitic root ayn-sheen (עש), whose equivalent in Arabic is ghayn-tha' (غث). This root produces the verb currently used in Hebrew to mean "to do" (l'asot - לעשות), and the Arabic imperfect past tense verb (asa - عسى). In Arabic, this Semitic root takes another shape that is particular to the Arabic language in the Semitic family, the verb aghatha, yaghouthou (rescue or help) and the noun ghawth or ghaith(a).
According to the late expert on Semitic languages Anis Freiha, the Arab deity mentioned in the Quran, Yaghouthou (يغوث), is the equivalent of Issa (عيسى), the Arabic name for Jesus. A third version of Yaghouth and Issa is Ghassan, a gerund formed from the Arabic verb aghatha pronounced in the Aramaic vernacular that transforms tha' (ث) to seen (س). The Arab Christian tribe that ruled northeastern Syria, including Manbij, before the advent of the "Arab conquests" was known as the Ghassan tribe or Ghassasinah, whose name is the equivalent of Jesuits.
All of this takes us to the idea that the Byzantine Aramaic Arabic hymn that Fakhri performs beautifully addresses the deity of rain pleading with him to water the thirsty. The deity of rein, later Jesus, also took the epithet Muhammad, meaning the coveted one. This hymn mixes layers of pre-Christian, Christian, and Muslim ideology, music and Semitic languages and vernaculars, all crammed into one beautiful song from old times.