Mahmoud al-Abadi: The drowned artist who tucked me in

Mahmoud al-Abadi: The drowned artist who tucked me in
Gazan singer drowned at sea along with hundreds of Palestinians and Syrians as they attempted to flee war and poverty. But his sensitive soul did not die in vain, and his legacy endures.
4 min read
19 Jan, 2015
Thousands of Palestinian, Syrian and African migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean (AFP)

A few months ago, Gazan musician Mahmoud al-Abadi drowned at sea. He was on his way to a new life along with hundreds of other Palestinians and Syrians and a new continent that they thought would better respect their rights and dignity.

Nearly two years ago, I spent three days with Mahmoud and two of our mutual friends, Khaled Shaheen and the poet Othman Hussein in Cairo.

First meeting

With the exception of Othman, I was meeting these people in the flesh for the first time. We had spent a decade of friendship online, through Facebook.

Our virtual friendship was boosted through a series of animated phone calls, and constant promises to meet one another in Ramallah or Gaza. 

As I sat with them I could hardly believe that at long last I was able to see and speak to Mahmoud, Khaled and Othman in person.

I found Mahmoud to be an artist consumed by a sense of unfiltered, all-consuming honesty. His straightforward manner made him appear to be someone who at any moment might trample over the feelings of others without meaning to.

Fragile figure

In my lifetime, I have known many people who acted in a similar way. Usually they leave me speechless and nonplussed; but what can one do when they are standing in the presence of an angel?

Mahmoud was so real that he was almost ethereal. He spoke almost in whispers, as though he was constantly apologising. He moved as though he was negotiating his way through a crowd of shadows. When Mahmoud spoke he almost sang. When he slept it was as though he was hugging a whole city.

Mahmoud sang in my room, 311 at the Vermont Hotel, while Othman and Khaled were present. He sang until Gaza, his home, could hear him. He sang until a series of shy knocks came from the hotel door. A young Sudanese man staying in the room next door had come to ask Mahmoud not to stop singing, because he loved his voice.

Gaza's call

I was in Gaza recently, and felt overjoyed and confused about being back there. Hearing the local dialect, the names of the neighbourhoods, the names of the refugee camps, and the names of friends - Naim, Khaled, Bassem, Jamal, Nasser, and many others.

I enjoyed the book and poetry readings I attended there.

Most of all, I was happy glance at the beautiful (proud, but sorrowful) young women of Gaza. They must have spent endless nights consumed by tears. They appeared like saints inspired by pain.

     Mahmoud sang on the pavement. No, Mahmoud sang for the pavement, and for death.

They had been present with us that night in the hotel - in Mahmoud's song and in his voice. They were also present in our silence, during that cold Cairo night.

On the pavement outside the hotel, we sat on the ground and laid out a banquet of falafel, chili paste, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, olives, and cheese. We feasted , shouted, and at times came close to crying. Was it our fate to have come to another country in order to meet?

Mahmoud sang on the pavement. No, Mahmoud sang for the pavement, and for death. For Gaza, for Sheikh Imam, and for Ramallah, and its silvery, rare, and wild beauty.

Crashing waves

The Gazan artist was shaped by the oppression he endured, and the death that surrounded him, and the music of Fairuz and Sheikh Imam. He is no longer with us.

Mahmoud died at sea, caught between crashing waves that did not mean to drown a young artist who had nothing to do with their quarrels.

I can almost say with complete certainty how he died: He gave the waves his soul in the hope that it would put an end to their war. Did he tell them, "take me as an offering so that peace can come between you"?

This was his way in life, and this was his way in death. This was his way of becoming one with his own existence. This was his last tune, after a lifetime of songs. He let himself drown, perhaps, so that the two waves did not feel guilty.

He merged with the waves until they no longer existed. The musician died, and the song came to an end.

Khaled Shaheen told me, on the last night in our hotel: "You slept early as usual. Othman, Mahmoud and I stayed up, singing and chatting. Then Mahmoud suddenly whispered to us. He said, speaking in a lower voice, 'Ziad is asleep'. Then he walked quietly towards you, took off your shoes, and tucked you in."

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.