Takhydhromos Issue No. 228, 10 July 2004,
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
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.
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?
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
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.
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.’
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
‘Cyprus Needs What South Africa
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
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.’
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
‘Peace Will Reign After the
Is there any chance of going back on your
decision to become Muslim?
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.
Yes, but the price will be high....
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.’
Are you disappointed with what is happening?
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.
You are talking about people while I’m
talking about countries.
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.
But you can make them commit atrocities on
In war there are leaders who drive others
to violence. The people who obey are victims.
What about the Muslim suicide bombers?
M-m-h. This is not acceptable, either. Suicide
is prohibited by the Qur’an.
Why do they do it, then?
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
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.’
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
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.
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
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
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.’
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.’
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.
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.
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?
translation copyright © Alex Zolas 2004