ZAID JABRI: “For me, the highest value is the human being.”

Zaid Jabri

Zaid Jabri

O Marvel,
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles, a cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground, Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim
The tablets of the Torah, the scrolls of the Qur ‘an.
I believe in the religion of love
Whatever direction its caravans may take.

-Ibn Arabi

The Sufi poet, philosopher, and mystic Ibn Arabi wrote those lines at the turn of the 12th century. Born into the Moorish culture of Andalusia, Spain, where Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought came together and influenced one another, he left Spain at the age of 35 and traveled throughout the Islamic world, finally settling in Damascus where his tomb is now a revered shrine.

Zaid Jabri, born in Damascus in 1975 and trained as a composer in Krakow, Poland, where he has resided since 1994, was inspired by those lines when he set about creating a new piece for The Cecilia Chorus of New York, two soloists, a children’s chorus, and an orchestra. The South African-born poet Yvette Christiansë provided additional lyrics.

Jabri’s humanist vision is echoed in Ibn Arabi's famous poem. “The text is timeless and universal, just like musical language. If we focus on one spot on the map, then yes, it fits a certain place and a certain time, like Syria right now. But the message is broader than that. Music has the ability and the capacity to fit many places and many times. But because we live in such a critical moment, Yvette’s additional lyrics draw it sharply into the here and the now.”   

Yvette Christiansë’s text describes the plight of people fleeing repressive regimes. How does that fit in with the Sufi philosophy of Ibn Arabi?

“The enemy of every dictatorship—religious, military, political—is thinking. Sufi is an Islamic religion of thinkers. And my music is intended to make you think. For me, the highest value is the human being, and perhaps this puts me at odds with the fundamentalists and dictators in the Middle East, where individual human life does not mean a lot.”

“In my music, I care very much about the human dimension. I always consider the performer, and through the performer, I keep contact with the audience. My music is contemporary, but it does not sound like it was made in a laboratory, like some other contemporary music, which seems not to care about the audience. The score isn’t the music; the performance is the music. So you have to keep the performers in mind.”

A Garden Among the Flames will be sung in English, Arabic and Latin. Why three languages?

“The original Ibn Arabi poem was of course written in Arabic. The words are so well known to everyone in the Arab world that they would feel familiar to an Arab-speaking audience; to our audience here, they will sound enigmatic and exotic.  Yvette’s English-language texts are very immediate to our audience, moving us from Ibn Arabi’s Sufi words to the reality of our day.”

“The children’s chorus will sing in the Biblical language of Latin: Beati pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers. By using this elevated, ritualistic language, we are freeing it from the over-mediated use of the word ‘peace’ and connecting it to the antiquity and universality of the Bible. Latin is also a beautiful language for singing.”

Zaid Jabri was born in Damascus, Syria in 1975 into a secular, educated family: his father is a retired theater and television director, his mother is a well-known artist in Syria. After studying violin at the Damasus Lycée, Zaid Jabri moved to Poland to study composition at The Academy of Music in Krakow. Graduating with honors from a five-year B.A./M.A. program under the tutelage of Zbigniew Bujarski, he went on to earn his Ph.D. under the supervision of Professor Krzysztof Penderecki.

He won first prize at the Adam Didur Composers' Competition in Sanok in 1997 and second prize at the 2 Agosto 2012 International Composition Competition in Bologna. In 1999, he participated in the International Musikwerkstatt Buckow in Germany. In 2014, he was awarded a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and in 2015, he earned a Bellagio Fellowship in Italy from the Rockefeller Foundation. In 2016, he was a visiting scholar, artist-in-residence and/or fellow at Barnard College in New York, the MacDowell Colony Artist’s Residency in New Hampshire, and he is currently completing a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University.

A member of the Polish Composers Union since 2011, twice elected to its board, Jabri taught at his alma mater, The Academy of Music in Krakow, from 2008 to 2015. He holds dual Polish-Syrian citizenship.

Zaid Jabri’s works have been performed in Poland, the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, France, Belgium, Ukraine, Slovakia, Armenia, Dubai, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. The world premiere of A Garden Among the Flames represents his Carnegie Hall debut.

For a list of Zabri’s compositions and awards, and audio samples of some of his works, visit