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In War and Peace, the Oud Never Leaves This Syrian Musician’s Side

Hassan Hamza preserves the traditional craft of making the musical instrument in a country that has seen more than a decade of war.

In a small workshop where the scent of wood and sound of music blend, Hassan Hamza works to make one of the most important instruments in Arabic music.

The 67-year-old is one of the few artisans in northwestern Syria who still preserve the traditional craft of oud-making, which has endured the ravages of war for more than a decade.

“The oud is a close and old friend of mine, and the connection between us is hard to put into words, especially when I embrace it close to my chest,” Hamza told Al Jazeera from his workshop in the town of al-Bab.

Syria is renowned throughout the Arab world for its musical heritage and oud craftsmanship.

What Hamza does is not simple. Significant skill is required to put the oud together, skill that he had to learn slowly over the years.

The oud, which is similar to a lute, is known for its pure tones and its unique, harmonious sounds, so much so that UNESCO added it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in November, recognising its distinctive sound and meticulous handmade curves.

From hobby to profession

The skill of crafting an oud is often passed down within families, but Hamza did not inherit the profession from his relatives.

Instead, he began playing the oud as a hobby, something to do in his down time while he was studying at Aleppo University.

Hamza Hassan is one of the few preserving the craft of oud in Syria
Hassan Hamza is one of the few people preserving the craft of oud-making in Syria [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

After studying the French language and graduating from university, Hamza ended up working in an electrical repair shop. But still, the oud was by his side, a companion for when he wanted to relax. Eventually, he turned his passion into a profession and decided to start making the instrument that he had spent years playing.

“I started in 2004. It was a very challenging journey and experience,” Hamza said, referring to the process of crafting his first oud, a skill he taught himself. “But by the end, I was successfully able to make an oud that impressed my friends and family, who encouraged me to continue until I became one of the most renowned oud makers in the region.”

After the war in Syria broke out, Hamza was forced to leave his city and workshop in 2012. He headed to Turkey, where he was a refugee for eight years, but he did not stop working with ouds.

“During my time in Turkey, I tried not to break away from my beloved profession. I helped several musicians, both Syrians and Turks, in setting up their own workshops for crafting ouds,” Hamza said.

Hassan's workshop
Hamza had to flee his workshop in Al-Bab in 2012 because of the war, but after six years in Turkey, he returned and re-established his workshop [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“One of the key conditions I have for passing on my expertise to those interested in making ouds is that they must be skilled musicians,” Hamza added. “A musician can feel the soul of the oud, determine the right measurements for the musical instrument and craft it based on their intuition, unlike a mere craftsman who lacks the proficiency in playing.”

During his time in Turkey, Hamza was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and three years of treatment followed until he fully recovered.

He then decided to return to al-Bab in 2019, a year after it had been freed from ISIL (ISIS) rule in an operation by the Turkish military and opposition Syrian National Army.

“I returned to my city with even more energy than before and quickly set up my workshop again to resume my work,” Hamza said. “The desire to come back to my craft was due to the many people who contacted me to acquire the ouds I create.”

Hassan in his workshop
Hamza says oud-makers need to know how to play them to make a quality instrument [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Source : Al Jazeera