The Oud

My informant, (18), from Lebanon, describes an instrument as a folk object: “An instrument in Arab/Middle-Eastern culture that was very popular is the Oud. And it’s literally spanned for generations and generations. It resembles a guitar, it has 6 strings but it has three holes. […] If the Oud is ever played, it’s kind of like you’re listening to God. And like you have to respect it, even though it’s incorporated into some songs, the main origin of the Oud is like the king of all instruments because it resembles that celestial body, and it has representations of the moon because of the higher pitch. And it’s mainly played with the older generation; it’s died down over the years. Usually you bring it around like campfires.” I asked the informant how often he is in a group where it is played. “Every summer I’d say 10-20 times. It’s something that people casually bring out to play, but it has such a big meaning to it. It’s very common to experience it even though it has such a high meaning. It also resembles wealth and luxury cause they’re very expensive. It’s typically played in summer, because it’s usually played outdoors: That’s important. It’s usually played outdoors so that the sounds flow out into the world instead of staying inside. It’s tradition to play it in the summer, because summer is when everybody gathers together, especially during holidays, or weddings. Mainly it’s Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, the Middle East., mainly like West Middle-East.”

“So usually men play the Oud and they play it in gatherings and that’s when everyone has to be quiet, they have to listen, or else its seen as disrespectful because the oud is seen as a symbol of the celestial Arab body.” When I asked about the specifics of the rules of when it is played, my informant said, “Truth is about Middle-Eastern culture is that nothing is that deep. It’s their culture, they do it cause they can, they should be able to do it whenever they want to.” So it would seem that, at least from his point of view, the specific rules are less important than the fact that people should be allowed to enjoy their culture the way that they want to.

The informant seemed to be self aware of the patriarchal implications of men being the ones expected to play this instrument connected to the divine, and that the whole group is expected to listen when a man is playing the instrument. It’s interesting that the instrument can be so casual yet so important at the same time, and I think that this suggests that the culture has integrated the more traditional beliefs to more contemporary contexts. As the informant mentioned, the instrument is used in a lot of songs, but still retains its underlying cultural significance.