Tag Archive | Middle East

(Dis)orienting the Bell: Aural Assault from A Game of Thrones to Richard Coer de Lyon

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman

Hear YE! Below is the introduction to the latest installment of Medieval Sound, Aural Ecology, by series co-editors Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman.  To read their previous introduction, click here.  To read the first run of the series in 2016, click here.

Aural Ecology

What is considered music, noise, or harmony is historically and culturally contingent. For example, some medieval musical theory, or musica speculative, such as Jan Herlinger’s “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries” in Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Agesdefined music as “contemplation that serves the moral edification of the mind” (293). Influenced by the work of Boethius’s De Musica, music is not just everyday music but “connotes harmony conceived broadly enough to encompass the relationships obtaining in the human body and psyche and governing the motions of planets” (293).  This kind of ecological harmony is explored in the work of Boethius, especially in his discussion of abstract qualities in the prelude to the De Musica, The Book of Arithmetic (as translated by Calvin Martin Bower)  “Indeed these things themselves are incorporeal in nature and thrive by reason of their immutable substance, but they suffer radical change through participation in the corporeal, and through contact with variable things they change in veritable consistency” (24).  For Boethius these “essences” are concordant with mathematical properties expressed in music. Thus, music was both speculative and moral, and these intertwining purposes derived from music’s phenomenological pleasures derived in the environment, “for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites” (Bower 32).

Boethius also comments on the psychological effects experienced in hearing music as they “affect and remold the mind into their own character” (Bower 34). Boethius gives examples of how certain groups of peoples, such as the Thracians or Lacedaemonians, delight in different kinds of music that harmonizes with their natures. For Boethius, music is transcendent in that it exists as a kind of eternal sound, but also an immanent sound, in that it appeals to various peoples depending on their nature and environment. Boethius’ speculations lead him to think about harmony and sound as available to reason and sensory perception. Thus the notion of harmony itself is “the faculty of considering the difference between high and low sounds using the reason and senses. For the senses and reasons are considered instruments of this faculty of harmony” (Bower 295).   Harmony (and disharmony in the form of noise) became a marker of the aural ecology for an individual or group.

The essays in “Aural Ecologies” also address the issue of unharmonious sounds, sounds that often mark dissonant critical identities—related to race, religion, material—that reverberate across different soundscapes/landscapes. In this way, this group of essays begins to open up the stakes of Medieval Sound in relation to what contemporary sound studies has begun to address in relation to cultural studies, architectural and environmental soundscapes, and the marking of race through the vibrations of the body.  —Dorothy Kim and Christopher Roman


In the neo-medieval A Game of Thrones (2011), the medieval Saracen-inspired and violent Dothraki utilize bells as a symbol of victories in battle. Each time a leader or khal defeats a foe, he incorporates the bells from his foe’s shorn black braid into his own braid. Khal Drogo, khal of the most powerful khalasar in Essos, sports an uncut braid sensuously described by George R. R. Martin as “black as midnight . . . hung with tiny bells that rang softly as he moved. It swung well past his belt, below even his buttocks” (37).

Dothraki bells serve both a hypermasculine and deterritorializing function: esteem and prowess for Eastern men comes from the symbolic castration of their enemies and the eradication of civilizations. For the Dothraki, sexualized and territorial conquest is centralized around amplitude of noise made by an aggregate of bells adorning a phallic braid. Drogo is frightening because of his noise: he wears “[b]ells so his enemies w[ill] hear him coming and grow weak with fear” (802). In the pilot episode of Season 1 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, writers David Benioff and D. B. Weiss and director Tim Van Patten emphasized the contrast in noise between the copper-skinned Dothraki and the white Valyrians of the Free Cities:

East disrupts West in this scene through a racialized auditory disruption of white silence.

The association of the Middle East with noise pervades Western culture. One need only recall juxtapositions of quietly carefully groomed news anchors in sterile American news sets conversing with correspondents struggling to be heard in earsplitting raucous streets embroiled in Middle Eastern crises in countries like Iraq and Syria.  See Aron Brown of CNN announcing the U.S. War on Iraq in 2003, for example:

However, this association of the Arab world with noise is not a new one. In medieval literature, noise played a crucial role in distinguishing Saracen East from Christian West. Bells and particularly the cacophonous noise they cumulatively make came to be associated with a violent imagining of the East in literature of the medieval period. The late medieval crusading romance Richard Coer de Lyon, centered on the exploits of the twelfth-century crusading king, Richard the Lionheart, situates the pealing bell as its central object. [Note: Richard Coer de Lyon is cited by line number. All quotations come from the widely-used complete modern version, Richard Löwenherz, ed. Karl Brunner, Wiener Beiträge zur Englischen Philologie (Vienna and Leipzig, 1913)].

As in Dothraki warrior culture in A Game of Thrones, bells gain symbolic power in the romance through replication and accumulation. Richard Coer de Lyon features pealing bells in two crucial episodes concerned with the East and a maternal rather than phallic male body: 1) the exorcism of Richard’s demonic Eastern mother at Mass with a sacring bell (l.221-34); and 2) the appearance of Saladin’s demonic mare arrayed in clamorous bells attached to her crupper at the climactic battle of Acre (l.5532-49, 5753-8). Drawing on both medieval treatises on the function of bells and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of the refrain, I argue that the bell—initially a symbol of Christian order, the West, and patriarchy—becomes a disorienting aural force associated with chaos, the East, and maternity.

Early on in the romance, the king’s men try the piety of Richard’s mother, Cassodorien of Antioch, a bewitching foreigner whose only apparent fault is that she cannot remain in church to hear Mass, by physically restraining her during a service. To the shock of the English parishioners, at the ringing of the sacring bell, Cassodorien breaks free of her male captors, seizes two of her children, and flies through the church roof never to be seen again:

And whene þe belle began to ryng,

And when the bell began to ring,

The preest scholde make þe sakeryng,

And the priest was about to do the sacring,

Out off þe kyrke sche wolde away…

Out of the church she tried to go away…

Out of the rofe she gan her dyght,

Out of the roof she began to make her way/transform,

Openly before all theyr syght…

Openly before all of their sight

— Richard Coer de Lyon, 221-5.

At this striking moment of contact between queen and masculine material object, the bell is forever altered, (re)oriented on a trajectory that transmogrifies it from a symbol of priestly power to a chaotic symbol of maternity and the East.

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Sacring Bells in Aberdeen, Scotland. Image by Flickr User rethought (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Medieval thinkers conceptualized the church bell as an agent for revealing both foreign and demonic threats from within the community.  In The Rationale Divinorum Officiarum of William Durand of Mende thirteenth-century French liturgical writer and bishop, William Durand,xplains the significance of the pealing of bells– “when the bell rings . . . the people are unified with the unity of faith and charity” (51) –but also expounds on this exorcising function of the church bell:

[T]he bells are rung in processions so that the demons who fear them will flee . . .  They are so fearful when they hear the trumpets of the Church militant, that is the bells, that they are like some tyrant who is fearful when he hears in his own country the trumpets of some powerful king who is his enemy (51).

Durand conflates the demonic with the East, both qualities embodied by Cassodorien who hails from Antioch (near the border of Syria and Turkey). He also imbues the bell with an emasculating quality; it renders even a tyrant fearful. The measured sounding of the church bells forms a tonal refrain, an aural sequence to familiarize Christian space.

The purpose of the aural refrain, for Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, is to deterritorialize and then reterritorialize unfamiliar space. In A Thousand Plateaus, they explain the refrain/‘ritournelle’ as a threefold place of disorientation, the familiar, and escape:

They are three aspects of a single thing, the Refrain (ritournelle)…. Sometimes chaos is an immense black hole in which one endeavors to fix a fragile point as a center. Sometimes one organizes around that point a calm and stable “pace” (rather than a form): the black hole has become a home. Sometimes one grafts onto that pace a breakaway from the black hole (312).

The bell was arguably the most important and pervasive aural symbol in medieval Europe, one whose refrain regularly demarcated Christian spaces in times of chaos. Sound theorist R. Murray Schafer has called the medieval church bell “the most salient sound signal in the Christian community” in The Tuning of the World (53), and a unifying force “acoustically demarking the civilization of the parish from the wilderness beyond its earshot” (55).  Yet, as the bell multiplies through contact with Cassodorien and Richard wanders into the wilderness or black hole of the East, its sound is layered and its signification coopted by the East and transformed into a disorienting force that decenters Saladin’s enemies.

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

Richard battles Saladin, Luttrell Psalter, BL42130, 4v

The bell resurfaces once more as Richard prepares for his epic battle against Saladin at the gates of Babylon. In this climactic battle with a second pairing of mother and son, reimagined in the form of a demonic belled “mere” and her “colt” summoned by Saladin’s necromancer, bells occupy a central place of prominence on the mare’s accoutrements. In 1192, Saladin reportedly sent two new horses to Richard after his horse was slain in battle (For an overview of this event, see page 73 of Sir Steven Runciman’s A History of the Crusades, Vol.3: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades).  The mare, as one of only two mothers in the romance, uses the same aural symbol to assault the English Christians that they had used to exorcise Cassodorien. As Saladin’s mare proudly strides onto the battlefield, the poet emphasizes the deterritorializing effect of her cacophonous bells:

þerffore, as þe book vs telles,

Therefore, as the book tells,

Hys crouper heeng al ful off belles,

The mare’s crupper hung all full of bells;

And hys peytrel, and his arsoun.

From the armor, too, and the saddlebow,

þree myle men my3ten here þe soun.

For three miles men could hear the sound.

Þe mere gan ny3e, here belles to ryng,

His mare began to neigh, her bells she rang

Ffor gret pryde, wiþouten lesyng.

With great pride, it is no lie.

–Richard Coer de Lyon, 5753-8.

Fascinatingly, Brunner again diverges in this passage from Caius 175, and changes “þe mere” to “his mere,” further stripping the demonic mare of her agency.

Whereas the church bell is a singular symbol of order, symmetrical and “acoustically demarking” space with its meted refrain, the bells of the mare are multiple, discordant, chaotic, and cacophonous, designed to disorient rather than to unify (see Schafer 55). The medieval illuminator of the Luttrell Psalter (c.1325-1335) similarly emphasizes the clamorous quality of the belled mare, and distinguishes Saladin’s mount from Richard’s by the vast array of bells attached to its crupper and the noise these bells suggest.

The noise, suggested in the Luttrell Psalter by the movement and detail given to the crupper bells, can be heard on a smaller scale in the following video clip of a horse merely walking noisily with a smaller bell-laden crupper:

One can easily infer the discordant sound a running mare might make with a crupper “hung all full of bells.” The poet suggests that the noise encompassed an aural disturbance of three-miles and disrupted the Christian crusaders. The bells also serve an insidious maternal purpose: they serve as a trap to lure her colt to abandon Richard and “knele adoun, and souke hys dame” (kneel down and suck his dame)(Richard Coer de Lyon, 5547).   In A Thousand Plateaus, Deleuze and Guattari suggest the layering of sounds, particularly maternal sounds, can disrupt and deterritorialize space. In their discussion of the reterritorializing effects of layered song, Deleuze and Guattari provide the strikingly maternal example of Debussy’s Sirens, which, they posit, integrates voice with orchestra to make the voices of child and woman inextricable from “the sea and the water molecule” (340). In much the same way in Richard Coer de Lyon, the mare’s imbrication of voice over bells seeks to make the dichotomies of the romance—mother and son, east and west, chaos and order, demonic and angelic—implode as the demarcated boundaries between them are dissolved in her cacophonous demonic lullaby.

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Daenerys, Created in ArtRage Studio by Flickr User Happy Snapper 80 (CC BY-NC 2.0)

While A Game of Thrones and its HBO counterpart pick up on the resonances of medieval noise to differentiate between East and West, noise is gendered differently. In RCL the threat signaled by the sound of bells is that Richard will be emasculated by his inability to cut ties with the specter of his mother’s influence and disambiguate himself from the Eastern Saracens she represents. However, in Martin’s series, the Dothraki bells, like much of Dothraki culture, exist only to be subsumed under Daenerys’ imperial ambitions for an Iron Throne the Dothraki neither care about nor want. Daenerys’ bell, affixed to her hair after the death of Drogo and the dissolution of his khalasar, becomes a symbol of cultural and racial appropriation Martin stages under the guise of (white) feminism. That is, the issues noise signals have changed from the challenge of excising Christian West from Islamic East (a fear literalized in Richard’s cannibalistic consumption of Saracen flesh) to cultural appropriation (the devouring of Dothraki culture for the benefit of white colonialism).

Featured Image: Proceso Khal Drogo by Flickr User Orgita Sucubita, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Thomas Blake is Assistant Professor of English at Austin College.

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An Ear-splitting Cry: Gender, Performance, and Representations of Zaghareet in the U.S.

At the opening of a recent annual “Under a Desert Moon” concert presented by Sahara Dance, a belly dance studio located in Washington, DC, one of the teachers began by telling the audience that the dancers would appreciate vocal feedback during the show. Holding a microphone with one hand and the other in front of her mouth, she demonstrated the practice known in Arabic as zaghareet, asking audience members to imitate her sound. This pedagogical interaction with an ethnically and generationally diverse audience on the campus of American University illustrates some of the complexities of translating sonic practices across cultural and economic divides. Zaghareet carries very different weight in a Palestinian wedding in the West Bank, where it is one piece of a larger formation of celebratory experience, than it does in a belly dance performance in Washington, DC, where it is used in part to generate authenticity in a tradition both geographically and culturally removed from the Middle East.

Located somewhere between singing and yelling, ululation occupies a unique position in the spectrum of human vocality. The sound is created by touching the tongue either to the sides of the mouth or the teeth in rapid succession, and it is characterized by a piercing sound quality enacted in the upper vocal register.

https://soundstudies.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/zaghareet-egypt.mp3

Having taken belly dance classes in the U.S. and seen a number of performances, I thought I had a sense of what ululation was and what it represented. The more I ran across it in the course of my dissertation research, however, the more I wanted to know about its historical background and affective meanings across contexts. In other words, what are the cultural genealogies of zaghareet in the Middle East, and how has the sound been perceived and represented in the U.S.? Although ululation is performed in a range of locations in South Asia, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), my research is on U.S.-Middle East sonic encounters, and thus I will focus primarily on that context in this post. In particular, I became interested in why female voices typically perform zaghareet, and how its circulation in U.S. media and pop culture fit into larger narratives about the Middle East before and after 9/11.

Zaghareet is auditorally conspicuous, and in U.S. during the postwar decades before 9/11, it was often framed as a sonic encapsulation of an Arab exotic. The sound itself came to invoke elements that constitute classic Western stereotypes about the region known as the Middle East: veiling, gender oppression, desert wandering, and pre-modern ritual. Its status as a primarily female practice made it appealing as a sign of difference, since the West has been notoriously preoccupied with the status of women in the Middle East (see Chandra T. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses;” Lila Abu-Lughod, ed., Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East; Leila Ahmed, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate, among others). Zaghareet poses a contradiction to this orientalizing logic, as it works against the image of the oppressed Arab woman “silenced” by her surroundings. Instead, her voice takes on an uncanny resonance, indicating the tantalizing alienness of Arab culture. In a post-9/11 U.S. context, zaghareet become directly correlated with premodern barbarity, taking on more menacing anti-American associations. By taking a critical approach to the practice of zaghareet and its representations I hope to deflate some of these prevalent views and help to develop a new framework for thinking about aural exoticism.

Celebration of Egyptian revolution in DC, 2011, Image by Flicker user Collin David Anderson

Celebration of Egyptian revolution in DC, 2011, Image by Flicker user Collin David Anderson

Zaghareet’s combination of high pitch, loud volume, vibrato, and tongue oscillation contributes to its prominent, distinctive sound. In Jennifer Jacobs’ dissertation on ululation in the Levantine context (the term Levant refers to a region made up of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine/Israel, and other areas in the Eastern Mediterranean), “Ululation in Levantine Society: The cultural reproduction of an affective vocalization” she points out that zaghareet typically last approximately 3 1/3 seconds, which is longer than the articulation of most words in speech, but not beyond the length of a typical speech phrase (111). Thus, though it is not speech or singing, zaghareet is related to these vocalizations in the sense that it lasts approximately the length of one breath. The practice is most often performed by women, and its acoustic intensity is remarkable considering that in an indoor setting with the performer near the microphone it can reach 85 dB, a level that can cause hearing damage with prolonged exposure. These components highlight the significance of zaghareet as a primarily female performance, making the practitioners audible at a level that isimpossible to ignore.

Woman at pro-Palestinian rally in France, Image by Flickr user lookingforpetry

Woman at pro-Palestinian rally in France, Image by Flickr user lookingforpetry

Zaghareet takes place within a unique set of circumstances with a range of other sounds occurring simultaneously, and therefore should be conceptualized as part of a web of social meanings and practices, not as a discrete element to be observed on its own. The history of zaghareet (and ululation more generally) reaches back to ancient Greece, where the practice was referred to as ololuge, an onomatopoetic reference to the sound. In the 21st century Levant, zaghareet is often part of social gatherings where live music and dancing are also present. While most often situated in celebratory social settings, zaghareet can also take place in a variety of everyday circumstances, but in almost all cases it connotes farah, or joy. Performers generally do zaghareet to express their excitement, delight, and/or encouragement to others present. The practice tends to be contagious in that after hearing it others tend to join in, but the exact origins of the sound can remain mysterious due to the fact that most practitioners cover their mouths with their hands or clothing. This produces an omnipresent effect that both dislocates the listener and develops shared experience, and the collectivity of the performance magnifies its affective power. Jacobs writes, “When one person begins performing zaghareet, another person might join in; then, a third person might also join just as the first vocalist is dropping off. This overlapping of performances creates a perceptual experience of zaghareet as something layered, continuous, and emanating from different spatial locations, a haunting bodily experience, especially for a first-time listener” (75). This is complicated by broader soundscapes in which it is performed, which may include music, clapping, firing of guns, traffic, and other sounds.

In addition to performance setting, gender is a key component of zaghareet. While it is performed more often by women than men, in certain contexts and communities, men do participate. Jacobs describes one case in which men had demonstrated that they could skillfully perform zaghareet, but only minutes later jokingly denied that they knew how to do it when she asked. This emphasis on modesty is also apparent in the way that most female practitioners cover their mouths while doing zaghareet to hide the movement of the tongue, which tends to be considered immodest or impolite. In this Youtube clip, for example, the zaghareet performer covers her mouth with her hijab:

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And as is shown in the clip, zaghareet often takes place in homosocial environments where men are not immediately present, providing space for playful exchange between women in ways that heterosocial settings may not. The homosociality of the sonic practice is related to its affective reverberations, as the sound is used to convey bonds of attachment, conviviality and mutual appreciation between women. In this sense zaghareet embodies these interpersonal connections, and also reinforces them through its aural intensity.

In American and European popular culture, zaghareet has played a notable role in framing depictions of the Middle East, particularly through the female body. In the years following World War II, zaghareet samples often marked the Middle East as wild and exciting. Lebanese-born singer Mohammed El Bakkar, for example, used the sound of zaghareet on his song “Yalla-Yalla” from the 1958 album The Sultan of Bagdad, one of several albums he recorded for the Audio Fidelity label in the late-1950s marketed to a mainstream American audience.

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“Yalla-Yalla,” which translates loosely as “Come with me,” features finger cymbals, clapping, and female zaghareet, along with jovial calls from El Bakkar at the ends of phrases, conjuring a celebratory setting. All of these elements–along with the album cover photo that shows El Bakkar lounging on a cushion with two beautiful dancers standing over him–combine to create a quintessential exotic scene for many American listeners.

sultan

Although unintentionally kitschy at times, the 1962 British epic Lawrence of Arabia—a film which has the dubious distinction of having no spoken lines by a woman in its 3 1/2 hour running time—represents zaghareet quite seriously.  The ululations first appear about half of the way through the film, where Lawrence and the Arab forces set off to fight the Turkish at Aqaba, and women provide blessings and encouragement.

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Lawrence of Arabia is a classically orientalist film about the scope of British empire, and in this instance, zaghareet accentuates the majesty of the scene where Lawrence rides beside his Arab counterparts through the desert with veiled women calling from the cliffs above. Like the previous example, the women here constitute part of a foreign landscape, and their cries of encouragement serve along with the visuals to construct a multi-sensory experience of otherness.

Zaghareet has taken on more explicitly violent associations in a post-9/11 American context, where it is often coupled with Arab depravity and linked to terrorism. Zaghareet was demonstrated in a newsclip aired on CNN, Fox, and several other news networks displaying Palestinians in the West Bank “celebrating after 9/11.” One woman in the clip briefly ululates in front of the camera, connecting the sound to perceived Arab hatred for Americans.

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The video went viral, and reactions to it exemplify the extent to which zaghareet has come to symbolize a new stereotype in the post-9/11 era: the depraved Middle Eastern Other. This formula collapses and combines the categories of “Arab” and “Muslim,” and, although it complicates the figure of the terrorist as male, since it is a woman who is shown celebrating after 9/11, it also reveals western anxieties about the power that Lawrence of Arabia represented as harnessed by colonial forces.

Screen shot by author

Screen shot by author

A parody of the viral news clip appeared on a 2004 The Simpsons episode entitled “Bart-Mangled Banner” in which Bart accidentally moons the American flag at a basketball game, and subsequently faces a public outcry from critics calling him anti-American.  The nightly news shows the “overseas” response, in which a woman wearing niqab holds up a photo of Homer and says “Simpsons be praised! Praise be to Springfield!” and then performs zaghareet against a backdrop of celebratory gunfire. This satire hints at the absurdity of controversies over such displays, but it also reinscribes the idea of the Arab/Muslim female as a source of danger, a new element of anti-American hostility that became associated with the sound after 9/11.

Unlike previous impressions of zaghareet, which focused on the sound as part of an exotic terrain, post-9/11 visions tend to locate practitioners in a distinctly antagonistic matrix. The distinctive sonicity of zaghareet makes it particularly susceptible to portrayals that frame it as a sign of Arab barbarity. For certain performers, however, such as belly dance students in Washington, DC, zaghareet is not subject to this type of racialized logic, and is instead treated as an ethnic novelty. In American film, TV, music, and a range of other contexts, zaghareet is becoming increasingly audible, and it is a phenomenon that deserves thoughtful and critical attention.

Meghan Drury is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at the George Washington University. She received an MA in ethnomusicology from UC Riverside in 2006. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Aural Exotics: The Middle East in American Popular Music 1950-2011.” This project examines the interplay between popular music and American cultural representations of the Middle East from the mid-20th century to the present, illustrating how music and sound acted a means of consolidating and disseminating a range of ideas about Middle Eastern culture in the American mainstream. She is particularly interested in the way that sound increased the visibility of Arab Americans both before and after 9/11, offering a space for negotiations of identity. More broadly, Meghan’s interests include sound studies, U.S.-Middle East cultural relations, and Arab American cultural performance. 

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