The Homecoming of Mohammed Fairouz

Mark MacNamara on May 22, 2017
Mohammed Fairouz | Credit: Samantha West

Are we not all agreed that however you regard him, Donald Trump takes up far too much space in this culture, particularly the space to reflect on other things of great importance? Is there no refuge from our addiction to “Trump verite”? “But wait,” you say. “We’re talking about the fate of our democracy, maybe the world; our fascination is in proportion to the threat he’s come to pose.”

Maybe. Or not. It’s the kind of dilemma, partly due to attention-fatigue, that demands unconventional punditry. And so, enter the artist, the comic or composer, who can put truths in proportion, throw light on the dark, and otherwise keep up pressure to change things for the better. 

But as composer Mohammed Fairouz would say, it takes a special kind artist to meet the challenge. The call is not for idealism, no matter how beautifully expressed, much less sentimentality; nor is superior craftsmanship or ingenious architecture enough. The call is for someone true to their surroundings who, in the realm of classical music, can use notes, text, and voice to replenish the imagination, restore the power of empathy, and perhaps do one other thing: generate a moral instinct if you will, a guide to subtle solutions of the heart that transcend reason. Such an artist needs the tenacity and fearlessness of an investigative reporter and the discipline and thoroughness of a social scientist.

Fairouz is a 31-year-old Emirati-American composer, “a postmillennial Schubert,” who the BBC has called “one of the most talented composers of his generation.” And one of the most prolific, having written four symphonies, three solo concertos (for violinist Rachel Barton Pine, cellist Maya Beiser, and clarinetist David Krakauer), and is now finishing his third opera. In April, his second opera, The New Prince, premiered, commissioned by the Dutch National Opera, done with David Ignatius, the Washington Post editor and columnist, now also a talented librettist. Fairouz’s third symphony, Poems and Prayers (2010) will be presented later this month in Germany. The work includes text from Arab and Israeli poets.

“I don’t think it’s incumbent upon artists to be politically engaged necessarily,” Fairouz told us the other day. He was in New York, following his recent little, not-so-brief encounter with immigration officials at JFK. “In fact, if they’re not good at it, I would urge them not to be engaged. A lot of artists have a very idealistic view and don’t do the necessary analysis.”

“You don’t create art to be a provocateur,” he added, “you do it because you want to engender positive change.”

The Screening

At 11 p.m. on April 24, 2017, Fairouz, a particularly worldly man, stepped off a plane at JFK on a flight home from London, where he’d been working on a commissioned work, an adagio for strings, to premiere at the Manchester International Festival, which begins at the end of June. Once in the terminal he began the automated process of reentry for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, which is his custom. But he wasn’t approved and so was forced to a second screening given to international travelers coming in with a visa. Again, he wasn’t approved, despite twice clearing biometric hurdles: His fingerprints and facial scans were recognized.

And so began one of these increasingly common ordeals for people with family connections to the Middle East, even in the absence of an official government ban. Incidentally, Fairouz has no criminal record. However, in the days after the drama, web analysts at The Independent, where he wrote about the incident, found that critics had gone to instant-background sites to try to dig up bodies.

Fairouz says he was detained for a total of about three hours — not 51 minutes, as the border control people claimed — for reasons never made clear, except that his first name seemed to have set off an alarm. A border agent told him quite casually, and perhaps by way of consolation, that his first name is “super common.”

“I don’t think this was about racial profiling,” said Fairouz, “unlike the incident involving Mohammed Ali’s son, which was clearly about racial profiling.” He went on to describe the agents as all people of color and mostly men, in a fluorescent, neon-lit room with agents, immigrants, and the bardo-travelers like himself.

“It was all a United Benetton of misery,” he said, but what was particularly abrasive was that the agents seemed so unaware of what it’s like to be an American citizen arriving home these days, unwelcomed into a legal system as though a criminal, and stripped of carry-on belongings, including laptop and mobile devices, and left to sit incommunicado.

At no point did anyone apologize. 

Mohammed Fairouz | Credit: Samantha West

“If they had sent me through these extra hoops only because of the high level of dysfunction, that’s fine, and so just say that to me, explain it to me: end of mistake. ‘I’m sorry, sir.’ Okay, I understand and it would all be water under the bridge. But there was just never much communication. I still don’t know what the concern was, assuming there was a concern.

“Now this is not a grand romantic tale, it’s not the diaries of Anne Frank; not a historical moment in music history — no matter how much editors may try to attract attention with heads and titles that include the word, ‘Trump’ or ‘Muslim.’ Which is why SEO [search engine optimization] is ruining the world. I really think that what happened to me was just a mundane clerical error that happens every day. The most sinister explanation is that they have a quota to keep this self-sustaining ecosystem alive.”

Fairouz wanted to be clear on the point that he didn’t think Trump had anything to do with what happened to him, “But that’s the point, it’s hard to talk about anything these days without assuming he’s in some way involved.”

“The larger question,” said Fairouz, who along with 10 million pageviews, took a barrage of Twitter hits following the incident, “is whether we’re at the point where the discourse that’s followed this election has seriously debilitated us from having a conversation about how we can fix these broken systems. If we are at that point, then I think we’re screwed. And the fact of the matter is that it’s not just our border patrol system, it’s our education system and our healthcare system. We’re in a dark place right now and if we can no longer talk to one another, then we’re not going to be able to solve problems. That’s really what this all about: solving problems.” 

Sketches of a Composer-Gadfly

In conversation, Fairouz sometimes sounds like the provocateur he warns against; an enfant terrible, proudly brash, consciously outrageous, brooding but magnetic, both modest and immodest, a human spillway of commentary, both bitter and sweet; by nature an obsessive; just now entwined in his own colorful whirl as a public intellectual, whether at the Aspen Institute or on Morning Joe; railing against “human dumpster fires” like Trump along with his anti-intellectual base; railing against the “programmed” quality of political dialogue these days; and though a globalist himself, railing against plutocrats and “transactionary globalism;” and all the while very conscious of his own worldliness, his familiarity with neighborhoods from those along Sheik Zayed Road, Dubai’s main drag, to the narrow streets of the Kabukichō district in Tokyo.

Kabukicho is the “sleepless town” in Shinjuku, a famous red-light district and one inspiration for an essay Fairouz is writing about the politics of sex. Incidentally, he notes that Putin is once more sending Tchaikovsky “back into the closet” by stripping the Russian conservatory curriculum of letters documenting his same-sex attractions.

Fairouz may himself be a provocateur, but he is also a thoughtful moralist, a true optimist, with a fierce affection for strong female characters, in life and in fiction, refreshingly unguarded, always loyal to his heroes, never an ideologue, always analyzing, riding the times atop his witty rants, delivered with the timing of a stand-up routine. He also volunteers, once a week, to mentor LGBT and minority youth.

“Someone described me, somewhat facetiously, as a man of letters,” he noted, always cutting praise with salt, and added, at the very bottom of his breath, “a renaissance man.”  Which is true enough: His music catalog alone includes operas, symphonies, chamber pieces, as well as choral works, which is perhaps his favorite form.

He is of the voice in many ways, and a true music journalist, crossing back and forth from one form to the other, using each to stimulate the other. What’s topical is always in play, both for the sake of relevance, but also as an access point to grander arcs. About opera he said, “I’m always looking for the political moment in opera. And so, weaving connections and reimagining them ...”

The difference between opera and op-ed, he noted, is all to do with the current moment. “On a higher level, you’re obviously trying to create a body of essays that people in 50 or 60 years can get an interesting commentary on what it was like to live in that time. In opera, you’re doing that right out of the gate. You’re taking all these forms of human expression, the voice, lighting, staging, all that stuff that no one can claim a monopoly on, and you’re putting it all on stage to make a grand statement that transcends the present moment, and touches something eternal; and the articulation of eternal truth is a very important counterpoint to the current truth that you find in journalism.”   

The Great Disparity

In his guise as a political writer — regular venues include Foreign Policy and the Daily Beast as well as The Independent — he’s propelled by his conflicts with various establishments, including his own. Not least his tempered view of Barack Obama, “fiddling while Rome burns.” He has more fondness for the likes of Saul Alinsky, Hilary Clinton, and Benazir Bhutto, who is the subject of his upcoming opera about her death and the death of her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The opera, written in collaboration with the Pakistani author, Mohammed Hanif, is set to debut in 2018 with the Pittsburgh Opera. It’s founded on Fairouz’s interest in people haunted by ideas.

Fairouz, the journalist, has shown a particular interest in the disparity women face in the arts. In a recent article for NPR about the lack of women composers, Fairouz wrote, “I'm pretty sure that if women could solve the problems of equality and representation themselves, then they would’ve done it by now. We made this mess and now we need to help clean it up. For my part, I will say this: If you are programming a show and my music appeals to you as much as the music of one of my colleagues who happens to be a woman, then please practice positive discrimination and pick my colleague over me.”

The article drew a strong response. 

“I got all these messages from artistic directors saying, ‘oh we’re so embarrassed. Where do we start? What’s a good library to discover scores from women composers?’ That 1.8 percent of the music played by this country’s leading orchestras is written by women is pathetic. It’s pathetic that you’re doing worse than congress, worse even than the Trump administration.”

The day after the NPR piece appeared Fairouz was at The University of Arizona talking to a room full of women composers and musicians. They had read his piece and wanted advice on how to do “the ambition thing.” He told them he’d been disgusted with the disparity in prospects between men and women for a long time. “When you give a man a job or a promotion his response is ‘what took you so long?’ A woman asks, ‘well, but do you think I’m ready? Do you think I can do this?’ They’re asking this and I said, ‘fuck ’em. Just fuck ’em.’ You should be ambitious. You’re going to pay a likeability tax because all women who are ambitious have to pay it. But you’re doing this for the common good and you have lots of allies.”

At one point in our conversation Fairouz talked about the difference between himself and Hilary Clinton, in the context of activism. “For her, there’s the fight and then you stand to the side and watch the demonstration, take notes and make it better. But with me I’m like, ‘OK, the end of history has ended, this is a contact sport, get in the mud pit, I’m going to fight the pig.’” 

In the Age of Acceleration

“You have to be obsessed to do something really well,” he went on. “If you’re not obsessed with text and music and policy, and literature, and all those things then don’t write about them. Seriously, don’t write an opera about Machiavelli if you’re not interested in who he really was. Because you’ll find, much to your chagrin, that here was somebody who was not the lying, peeving, Trump-like figure that you thought.  He was actually quite different; he was also a policy wonk ...”   

Fairouz, himself, is a policy wonk, a “child of the diplomatic corps” — his parents are both “medical diplomats.” He has become a backstage player in certain political theaters, but would rather not reveal more publicly. Suffice to say that, in addition to composer and columnist, he has always been interested in statecraft, the third horse pulling his chariot, and an interest indivisible from the other two.

“For me, the separation of art and the world in which we live is bullshit. At least, it doesn’t work for me. If I was able to pick one from another then it wouldn’t be in this world. I wouldn’t be living on this planet.” After a pause, he added, “Every once in a while, someone asks me, ‘why don’t you write a piece of music that’s just about music.’ My answer is, usually, along the lines of, ‘because I’m capable of more.’”

He turned to something else.

“I’ve reached a boiling point,” he said, referring partly to all the political commotion and his growing conviction that the public fascination with Trump is based on his presidency’s likeness to reality TV.

Mohammed Fairouz | Credit: Samantha West

Fairouz’s boiling point also has another context: He’s got so many projects spread all over his table. The opera about Benazir Bhutto; finishing another work, The Raven, a three-part cycle based on three Poe poems, and dedicated to Hilary Clinton, whose emails Mohammed “Rodham” Fairouz has been releasing on his Facebook site; his essay on sex.  And then there are all these other things. Should he pursue the incident at JFK? Should he file a Freedom of Information Act to investigate further? Should he be more open about his background? The truth is, he’s tired of being “identified” as Syrian or Egyptian rather than Emirati but he’s reluctant to correct mistakes. Is it worth the effort each time?

And, finally, there is his campaign to develop “new training grounds for empathy.”

“This is very, very important to say. That choral piece, that poem, recited as an expression from the heart, has never been more vital, and never more denigrated. Self-expression and individuality have never been more denigrated. You know that when the Israeli and Palestinian poets started meeting together — not the diplomats — that’s when the people began sharing their experiences, becoming human beings to one another.”

At one point in our conversation, in the middle of a boil, Fairouz sounded as though he couldn’t catch his breath.

“Sorry, I’m having a little bit of a ...” His voice faded away. “I just have to breathe for a second ... You know it’s been days and days and days with no real rest ... And you just keep going ...”

He pulled away for a moment. A reflection of your obsessions, we wondered aloud.

“I think so, but also a reflection of news cycles right now. I thrive in this kind of atmosphere in one way, I acknowledge that, but I am also beginning to understand the reality of living in an age of acceleration. It’s become very unhealthy.”

The moment passed and he was off on another gallop, you’d think handicapped by the weight of his success at such a young age, but no, not yet at least. No, right in stride, imagining some new work or political strategy, and firmly believing that “progress happens” despite all setbacks, and “without angels.”