Est. 1999

logomaji1.gif (23692 bytes)

I raise my hand and touch the wheel of change
taking time to check the dial

                                                                      Home      Articles     Messageboard  

Contributed by Yusuf

Athens Takhydhromos Issue No. 228, 10 July 2004, pp 26-32

Article by Mary Siani-Davies under the ‘Interview’ rubric: ‘Cat Stevens: “I’m a Surprise Gift for Muslims.” “My Songs Represent Values I’ve Been Wanting To Bring To Life Since the Day I Said Goodbye to Music.”’

From Steven Demetri Georgiou to Cat Stevens. And from Cat Stevens to Yusuf Islam. From an orthodox Christian to Muslim. And from an international superstar in the music business to a benefactor of defenseless children, the poor, and the homeless. But how many lives does this ‘cat’ have? How many identities? The troubadour of Wild World and Moonshadow talks to us about a stormy life full of metamorphoses.

I told people that I would be interviewing Cat Stevens, and they all got excited. He used to be their idol. His songs reflected their own problems and questions. Ask him this, ask him that, they suggested. They were all disappointed, of course. Ever since 1977, when he embraced Islam, he disappeared from the world music scene. And if truth be told, although I was thrilled by the idea of meeting him, I was somewhat worried by what I had read about his life. What kind of man would I be meeting? Some time ago he had declared that he considered his old songs to be ‘improper and immoral.’ And that he had found in Islam the answers to metaphysical questions like what is man, from where do we come, and where are we going.... How would I cope with a fanatic Muslim?

I was apprehensive on my way to the hotel he owns in Willesden Green, one of London’s northern suburbs. But his calm appearance, his smile, and his good manners encouraged me. He has not changed all that much, I told him while shaking his hand. He was wearing brown trousers and an olive green jacket and T-shirt. ‘Yes and no,’ he replied. His 56th birthday is in a few days’ time, but he does not look older than 35. He has trimmed his long beard, and he is slim and agile like a cat (‘Cat,’ his show business name, was inspired by cats). His name ranked alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Eight gold discs. Distinctions. Sold-out stadiums. Worldwide success. Sales of 40 million albums. Songs that were landmarks of the late sixties and early seventies. The early ones were written ‘to order,’ as he says. The later ones, however, came straight from his soul. Out of explosions of emotions, reflections, and spirituality. ‘I can’t tell you what to do/like everybody else I’m searching through’ –- as he sang in Tuesday’s Dead. Disturbed. Unsatisfied. Searching. For the meaning of life. Anti-war songs: ‘Why must we go on hating?’ (Peace Train). Love songs. Songs of human feelings in this ‘Wild World.’

How could he reject such songs? ‘I had rejected everything for a while. I was so happy with what I had discovered, I did not care about anything else. Now I have a more balanced perception. I have understood that the past is part of myself and that without it I would not be where I am today. My songs represented values I’ve been wanting to bring to life since the day I said goodbye to music. I have realized that music is part of our lives. And I have fitted it into the way I look on life today,’ he said quietly and his voice carried the same warmth as his songs. I told him how pleased I was to see him in such good spirits. He smiled back.

From what I’ve read, Islam does not prohibit music but does not encourage it either, I said. ‘True,’ he agreed, ‘you’ve reached the conclusion that has taken me 20 years to reach. The problem with Muslim music is that it is dominated by a conservative musical element originating in Saudi Arabia. It is not the genuine music you’d find in Malaysia, Indonesia, or Turkey. There are also people who preach that Islam is against music. I have studied the sources. There was a feast when music was being played in Muhammad’s presence, and someone said: “Music in front of the Prophet? Stop it!” But the Prophet intervened and said: “Let them, they have a feast.” Which means that, under proper circumstances, people are allowed to play or listen to music.’

Is there any chance of seeing him again on stage? Since his retirement, he has appeared in public on two or three occasions, mainly for charity. Like his appearance with Peter Gabriel in South Africa, at an AIDS awareness concert. Or like the one in Sarajevo for Bosnian Muslims. Has he written any new songs? ‘Yes, one song that is not finished yet, it is called The Dream of Joseph. It carries a universal message,’ he told me. ‘For me music is a matter of spiritual balance and I’m trying to introduce it into the Muslim community. Which, of course, has a particularly interesting music, one way or another.’

‘Cyprus Needs What South Africa Has’

Cat Stevens has relatives all over the place. In Athens, from his father’s first marriage to a Greek lady. ‘Today I had a phone conversation with my brother George Georgiou in Athens,’ he said. In London he has his siblings from his father’s second marriage. His nephew is also his manager. Relatives from his father’s third marriage: ‘My half-brother Mark works here at the hotel.’ And in Cyprus, where his father was born: ‘Our relatives are now living in my apartment in Nicosia.’ He keep in touch with everyone: ‘You are not considered a good Muslim if you break off contact with your relatives,’ he explains.

Although I know that political topics are not on today’s agenda, I’m eager to ask him about the Cyprus question and Kofi Annan’s plan. Something strange happened when I plucked up the courage to ask. I was talking politics, and he replied along religious lines. Speaking in parables. Not so much about Cyprus but about the worldwide political climate, which we discussed later. ‘There is a positive atmosphere in the north. In the south... people are influenced by politicians,’ he told me. A short while ago, I interrupted, BBC TV had carried scenes from a Greek Orthodox church in Cyprus, showing the Bishop of Kyrenia urging his flock to vote ‘No.’ ‘Why? If they had voted “Yes” would they have gone against the will of the Lord,” he asked with curiosity. ‘I don’t think so,’ I replied, ‘rather against the Bishop’s will.’

‘Problems are created when we distance ourselves from the basic principles of kindness, forgiveness, and patience,’ he went on. ‘Muslims and Christians have proved historically that they can live together in peace. I am disappointed that an opportunity has been missed. A different mechanism may be needed. A “Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” like in South Africa. Let us accept that mistakes have been made and let us move toward a solution. The Cyprus question is also overshadowed by a broader political picture. I’m sure that Turkey would like to put an end to this story. I recently visited the north of the island, it is in a desperate situation. Poor, badly governed... but the opportunities are there.’

‘Peace Will Reign After the Darkness’

Question: Is there any chance of going back on your decision to become Muslim?

Answer: No. It would be like reversing. I do not believe that another prophet would come to Earth. But some anti-Christ will emerge toward the end, who would have to be destroyed.

Question: Yes, but the price will be high....

Answer: The Qur’an says that, when the angels witnessed the making of man, they realized that he was violent by nature. And God told them: ‘I know something that you don’t know. Men have also goodness inside them.’

Question: Are you disappointed with what is happening?

Answer: I don’t think that perfection exists. I have recently come across people who think that they are right and everyone else is wrong. We must admit our mistakes and our failures if justice were to return.

Question: You are talking about people while I’m talking about countries.

Answer: I do not believe in collective responsibility. If you do something, you must bear responsibility for your actions. You cannot put one billion people on trial.

Question: But you can make them commit atrocities on your behalf.

Answer: In war there are leaders who drive others to violence. The people who obey are victims.

Question: What about the Muslim suicide bombers?

Answer: M-m-h. This is not acceptable, either. Suicide is prohibited by the Qur’an.

Question: Why do they do it, then?

Answer: Man breaks at a moment of madness and under pressure. And he forgets the rules according to which he lives. If this madness lasts a long time, the result is an imbalance which could affect whole nations.

The Greek-Cypriot Steven Demetri Georgiou

Steven Demetri Georgiou, son of a Greek-Cypriot restaurateur and his Swedish wife, has Greek music running in his blood. Did he listen to Greek music? ‘Oh yes,’ he replied firmly, ‘we went to weddings and parties. Greek music inspired me. I believe that my strange tempos and unexpected rhythms are rooted in the music I was hearing when I was young. It wasn’t only Greek music, though, there was Spanish, Russian choral works, Latin American music.’

‘Do you know the story of Majikat,’ he asked, showing me the latest DVD containing songs from the Earth Tour 1976, his last tour before becoming a Muslim. ‘Athens should have been the culmination of the tour. I was eager to sing before the Athenian public. But I heard that tickets were not selling. So I cancelled the concert. Later I was told that there was a football match that same day, and that it was in the middle of school exams. A Greek tragedy, I tell you. I ended up playing in Thessaloniki....’

His first job, at the age of 10, was serving customers in his faher’s restaurant in Soho, in the heart of London. Steven was dreaming of becoming a painter like his Swedish Uncle Hugo. And when he left school at 16, he enrolled in the Hammersmith College of Art. In the meantime, he had taught himself to play the family piano and the guitar. At the time when the Beatles were at their height, he started writing his first songs. He changed his name to Cat Stevens. He left school. And his first song –- I Love My Dog – made it into the British Top Ten.

In 1969, however, he contracted tuberculosis. He spent a year in hospital. That was the time when he started looking for the meaning of life. When he recovered, in the early seventies, he bought a plot of land with a small shrine in Corynth. It backed onto the mountain and ‘dropped’ into the sea in the front. ‘My first dream was to have a shrine on a Greek island – and maybe call it Cat-o-polis. A perfect white shrine in an idyllic Greek setting,’ he reflected, ‘but reality was different. A huge rock fell onto the land during the earthquake and “sank” it. Fortunately, the shrine survived. I sold the land and bought an apartment in Cyprus.’

By that time his life was a spiritual quest. The fact that he came face to face with death, while swimming off Malibu in California, made this quest even more intensive. Caught by a huge wave, he found himself out in the open Pacific. He vowed to God that, if He were to save him, he would work for Him. And suddenly another huge wave pushed him from behind and he started swimming toward the beach. ‘Some people consider this a coincidence,’ he said on one occasion in the past, ‘but I call it a miracle.’ He then embarked on a long journey of discovery. In December 1977 the singer officially embraced Islam.

The Muslim Yusuf Islam

Yusuf, fed up with the hustle and bustle of show business, turned his back to stadiums, parties, women, and drugs. He sought peace of mind. A natural life. A family. He married and has five children, four daughters and one son. He said on one occasion that his son listened to his songs and liked them. And his daughters? ‘Ah yes, they too,’ he added. Do they wonder when they see his photos or his CD’s, guitar in hand and giving his all? ‘No, they know me well. Both the good side and the other side.’ All well and good, but did he have to become a Muslim in order to find his inner peace? What was it that drew him toward Islam? ‘The divine message contained in the Qur’an,’ he answered, ‘because this is what we should look up to, not men. God’s voice that did not come from within me but from some strange place. And it talked to me about unity and the indivisibility of the universe.’ But that is also contained in the Bible. ‘It was the clarity with which he Qur’an declared that God is one. It did not leave the same impression on me when I read it in the Bible.’ Would he have liked to have been born a Muslim? ‘Oh, no. Of course, whatever the Lord wants. But I am so grateful for this journey. I am also a surprise gift for the Muslim community. A proof that Islam is not a heritage based on tribal homogeneity.’

He said on one occasion that it was through Islam that he succeeded in finding answers to topical metaphysical questions concerning the nature of man and the meaning of life. Is this still valid? Is it not dangerous to be marching with such certainty? Most of us are still searching. ‘Yes, it is valid. But the answers to these questions are continually updated. Look at what is happening in biogenetics. The attempts to decode the DNA. New dimensions in science. Can you imagine the genius of the Maker? Life is a constant quest. It is nice to look at the world through a child’s eyes. Amazing. If my songs offered anything, it was this feeling. A feeling that I’ve tried to keep alive throughout my life.’

Since he became Muslim, he has never ceased his charitable work. He has founded four Muslim schools. Charitable trusts to protect the poor and needy children. Income from album sales is offered for humanitarian projects. And not just for Muslims, as in Bosnia. Yusuf has contributed generously also to the fund for 9/11 victims in New York.

He could have been very rich. But, as he says, ‘giving makes me feel lighter.’ Before becoming a Muslim, he was a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF. His songs, always spiritual and deeply meaningful, have in their own way inspired and helped millions of people cope with everyday life. I may have been right when I told him, at the start of our conversation, that in some ways he has not changed all that much. He is still giving. But in a different way. And if I were to ‘accuse’ him of anything, it would be that he abandoned so many fans who needed his art.

‘If I had not stopped then, I would have kept on doing the same things. I wanted to be honest with my fans. Although I had found what I was looking for in music, music was not taking me where I wanted to go. It paved the way, but did not give me directions. I was seeking answers. Great truths. I could not lead my fans anywhere when I myself did not know where I was going. Hypocrisy is not my style. I still feel loyal to them,’ he assured me. Is it not said that the secret of a truly successful person is knowing when to stop?

This translation copyright © Alex Zolas 2004

This site is best viewed on "800 x 600" screen resolution.
Site Creator - Christine Chenevey   
Special Thanks To:   Jill Mallow, *Keith Balaam, George Brown, Linda Crafar, Bruce Lawrie, DJ Illingworth, Gerardo Roman, Chris & Annie Abrams, Patricia Squillari, Harry Schmieder, Sue Vukson and all who have contributed either with material or support to help make Majicat magical.
* This site is dedicated in the memory of Keith Balaam. ---<----<----@