How a piece of music changed my life
I started composing and playing music on the piano when I was eleven. Before I went to the University of Cairo I had won a piano competition for the Opera House for playing Rachmaninoff C sharp minor. As a young man, I decided to take a degree in Agricultural Science which afforded me with a knowledge of the land and its animals. I worked for a company, when I graduated from Cairo University, that sent me out to the land to teach the people what the animals needed, how to rotate the plants on the land and how to set up irrigation systems.
There was a group of ten or twelve of us that would go out to the farms in Egypt. When we would arrive it was a big celebration. All the villagers including the singers and the dancers would receive us, the engineers of the land. Then we would do the work the next day. It was a wonderful way to learn about Egypt’s different music styles when these incredible people would come and celebrate our arrival.
This was my work until suddenly I heard about the war. It was 1948. Of course, I was subject to the draft and I didn’t like the idea. I felt that war was really something that lived in the heart of every human being. When you declare war, you are really affecting everybody. So, I said it is dark and damp on the war front and this affects everybody involved. I put my feelings into a piano composition. Then I found I was exempt from the war because I was with the Agriculture Department.
We had in Cairo a huge cathedral called All Saints and it dedicated itself to performing European classical music. There was a committee made up of people from the cultural offices of France, of Italy, of England and lay people in the community. The lay people asked, “Why don’t you have any Egyptian music?“ They said, “We don’t know anybody that plays it.”
One of the lay committee people said, “I know someone who plays Egyptian music, Halim El-Dabh.” The head of the committee said, “I have never heard of this man. We don’t want any scandal.” So, they decided to spy on me. One day I am at home and someone knocks on my door from the British embassy, its cultural office. He makes up a story as to what brought him there, “I have come to say Hi. I heard that you are a composer. I play the flute and maybe I can play the flute for you.” He was very jolly.
The custom in Egypt when someone comes to your door is that you invite them for tea. When you have strangers coming in you offer them tea. We sat down to tea and he began looking at my music and he began to play and he said, “Wow, what kind of music is this? It is really difficult!” So, I guess he went back to the committee and said, “This guy is for real.”
So, the Cathedral scheduled me to play February 1949. They told me that I had a half hour on the program to play my new work, It is Dark and Damp On the Front, a declaration of how I felt about the war and how people did not want to fight. Also, the other compositions I had composed while working on the land and watching the people dance and listening to music they exposed me to. It was part of my life.
I was very nervous. One of my oldest brothers was very interested in my music and he was a philosopher in his own way. My other older brother was a medical doctor and funny enough he gave me a combination of vitamin B and C combined, he injected it in my vein right before the performance. I was just ringing with energy. I was so nervous and he was helping me be strong.
On stage was a nine-foot Pleyel piano, it was a huge piano made by a French firm and it was as good as a Steinway. I sat down and went “BANG” and I really shook up the place with my It is Dark and Damp on the Front and then the other pieces. I played them all. And boy, it was such an excitement in Cairo because my “BANG” shivered the city. We have in Cairo many newspapers, local Arabic papers, British and French papers and all of them wrote about Halim El-Dabh. I was claimed that night and I couldn’t believe it, one concert. All of a sudden, I am a composer of international status. I was excited but I couldn’t believe what was going on, I said, “I couldn’t have done that.”
So, this went on. The Egyptian government was excited. I was on the radio and they invited me to talk and play on the national radio. They commissioned me to write a piece to play for Mohammad Ali, one of the government leaders. The whole of Cairo’s music scene and my music teacher was electrified at what I had done and what had been accomplished so quickly.
I remember the first time I ever heard that I had an older brother. I was fifteen years old. I remember the moment. I was living with my dad and we were in the kitchen and I was getting into the fridge and I was blithely saying something about being my mom’s first born. My dad got this look on his face, the “I know something you don’t know look” and said, “You are not your mother’s first born.” My whole world just stopped at that moment. I said, “What!?”
He told me that my mom had gotten pregnant at 22, she had given up the baby and that there was a brother out there somewhere. I felt a lot of things. Mostly anger against my mom because I felt so betrayed. I very awkwardly brought it up to my mother the next time I saw her because I wanted her to tell me about the baby. We were in her garden. She lived in this sweet little home where I saw her on the weekends. We often worked in her garden. I made a very awkward, fifteen-year-old attempt to get her to confess.
She just looked at me and that look on her face was sheer horror. And she said, “What did you say?” I tried to back pedal but there was no getting out of it. I thought she would look guilty, not sad. She looked the saddest I had ever seen her look. She said, “How do you know, who told you?” When I told her that my father had she was angry, “He had no business telling you that.”
I knew that. Of course, he didn’t. I sat on this knowing about an older brother for a while. I had never felt completely at home in my family. I had always felt relatively safe but I always felt there was something else that I was looking for. I always felt a bit like the family outsider which caused a deep longing inside me to belong. So, I went about my business, found my tribe in strange places that were different from my family. I was like, “Whoa, people come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and are just fascinating.”
I eventually married and had kids and the longing crept back in. When you start to have children that is when you turn back to your family of origin to see what is there. It was rough and bumpy. My mother was affected by her decision to give up her baby. It haunted her. It was her private and painful burden one that she couldn’t resolve and this burden made it difficult to be in relationship with her other children.
She didn’t want to find adopted baby for a long time. Her husband had five children and she brought two to the marriage and when they started to have kids, she just felt overwhelmed and didn’t have the energy to worry about one more life.
When Audrey, my daughter was born, for whatever reason Mom started to get curious and feel ready to find her son. She opened the closed adoption from her side so that he would be able to find her if he decided to look. She waited. She didn’t hear anything. We would check in periodically and she became discouraged.
A few years after this, I was diagnosed with cancer which complicated things again with my family relationships because I was very vulnerable and in a time of need. If you don’t feel a strong sense of belonging with your family when you are well, it is even harder when you are chronically ill.
Last year I became worse and although I had not been in contact with my mother for several months, I had to go and live with her so she could take care of me. I was in so much pain that I really couldn’t get out of bed so she would lie with me in this tiny bed in the dark. One day she said, “I found him.” She had known for a while, and she had met her son. She said his name is Jon. He is fine and he is a good man. My mother and I hadn’t been talking so I hadn’t heard before.
Within a week or two, Jon and I started talking on the phone. I have never had that longing for a soul mate. My longing has been always to have a brother, that trusted person that you could just connect to and feel comfortable with. I finally felt connected to that older brother. But the biggest connection came later as I dealt with my body that was weak and needing so much care from the cancer. I was wishing to feel deeply cherished and that is when Jesus tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Here I am, cherishing is what I do. I am ready to listen and to talk. This is what I do.”
I was like, “Oh, that is what You do!” Growing up with the bad cultural messages about Christianity I literally thought that God was about following the rules and doing good works. I literally was unaware that Divine Love was a gift. That changed everything. Divine Love became my place of rest, this love met my longing.
Then I found that Jon was also supported by walking on a Christian path. This was my dream, to have a family member who was also seeking, who had also felt lost, who was struggling, questioning and looking for that sense of belonging. Jon came in with all of these things and there was this ease between us, what a gift.
Jon Baker, Chandler, Arizona
I was raised in the Lutheran church. There are Scandinavian roots in the family. When I was ten we moved out to a rural area outside of San Diego, California. We weren’t close to any church so we just stopped going. When I went to college I was what you would call a seeker. I was looking for information and trying to learn. I spoke to some Christian friends and asked them about their faith. I read parts of the Bible, just looking to learn not to join or to fill some place in my heart. I was just curious. I met many different kinds of Christians. I even met and talked to a Catholic priest. I found nothing objectionable about anything, it just didn’t quite stick. Yet.
I got married straight out of college and have been divorced since. My first wife was Catholic and that brought me more into the church. However, I had been exposed to a lot of ignorance and prejudice against the Catholic Church if not Christianity in general. This bias really kept me away from the Church. In 1993 I had what I guess you would call an epiphany. I don’t know what participated this experience at this time and place. I had been reading a biography about Bob Marley who was a very spiritual man. He was very deeply into Christianity. That really affected me. I had a lot of respect for him, his music and his attitudes towards life and I as I read his biography I realized this all came from his faith.
So, one day in June 1993 I had been reading this book outside on the patio and I came into the house and something hit me like a ton of bricks. I stopped dead in my tracks. There was something overwhelming happened in my brain and in my soul. I remember thinking, “What just happened?” I realized that whatever I had been believing before just wasn’t true. And God wanted me to go and find the truth. When God tells you to do something, you pretty much have to do it.
I was told to go to church. When I asked God which one, I got that it didn’t matter just as long as I went. My wife was Catholic and there had been some friction because of my attitudes and I said that I wanted to go to church with her. It must have absolutely floored her. So, I came into the Catholic Church with a lot of zeal. It was a bit extreme and I did some proselytizing and fell into some judge mentalism about people who weren’t in the faith. That moderated over the years. I was compelled in my heart to help those less fortunate so I did a lot of volunteering.
In 2000 my mom died and I had a latent bi-polar disorder that had manifested a bit before she died but after her death, I went completely off the rails on the crazy train. I left my job, became pretty much useless as a father and a human being, horrible to live around. My faith got mixed up in all that. Where does that go? Bi polar disease it is like putting my brain into a blender, buzzing it and pouring it back into my head. I was totally mis-wired. I turned to my faith during this time and I just didn’t find any answers. I didn’t find any comfort and I felt abandoned. I was doing a lot of swearing and shaking my fist at God.
We look for reasons when bad things happen and wonder why God isn’t doing anything. Why wasn’t he doing anything to help me? I had been a loyal, faithful Christian all these years and now he was just abandoning me. I was left with many questions and no answers at that time. Eventually I got treatment for my bipolar condition but I was still left with a heart full of bitterness. I was back to square one of questioning: What is this faith< Really? Who is God, Really? What is my relationship with God, Really?
Over time I continued to pray and think and instead of forming in my mind this image of who God is based on the bible and the faith, I looked at the reality of this world here and now, of my life and looked for who God really is. You can’t describe Him in a book. There is no church that has a lock on who He is. And you can’t put God in a box and say this is the way He is, period. As messy as we humans are, God is even more incomprehensible.
I ended up from being on one end of the spectrum where God plans everything to being somewhere in-between this and God winding up the universe and letting it just play out by itself. It was the beginning of my restoration when I realized that God works with us by giving us opportunities and it is up to us to make use of them. Now I had a better understanding of what our relationship was. It has its ups and downs and I learn more about God as time goes on. I grew up.
About twenty years ago my mother died after a long illness. My father took care of her and I helped a lot. Five months after she passed away my father had a stroke and died, right out of the blue. All of a sudden, I inherited a lot of money and a lot of furniture and our life changed. At the time we were living in a little rental house in Durham. It was time to buy a house of our own. I was forty-five and I had never bought a house and didn’t know how to buy one which made me quite nervous.
One night I was having dinner with a good friend of my parents and a good friend of mine. She was the mother of my best friend and has been important to me for my whole life. I was lamenting the fact that I had to buy a house and she looked at me and said, “What is your dream house?” And immediately I said, “We would love to Chatham County on a piece of land big enough to have large gardens and it would be really cool to live on the Haw River.” We had friends out that way and had already met a lot of people who lived in Chatham.
Two days later she called me and said, “I have this friend who has this brother selling a house in Chatham County and it is on the Haw River. You should check it out.” I contacted this guy and we came out to take a look. It took us a couple of months to get out here. When we finally did, it was so drop dead gorgeous that we couldn’t believe it. Even though we had been to a financial planner and had a budget and this house was beyond that budget, we said, “Why not? We have all this money.” It felt like playing Monopoly. We bought it and we never even looked at another house. It just felt like this house was coming right to us.
Our daughter Katie has been able to grow up here, wild and free. She turned nine when we moved here. Her birthday is in May and it was really warm so we did a Floating on the Haw River Birthday Party. We had all these little girls floating on inner tubes going down our little rapids. It was darling.
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.