Water trickles across Mojave desert sands as Naima Shalhoub strums the first solemn guitar notes of “Two (Rivers in the Desert)” and begins to sing. Precious for its scarcity and its necessity, such a substance in such an arid landscape serves as a poignant symbol for finding — and making — purpose and personal truth in what is so often a harsh and unrelenting world.
Shalhoub‘s inspiration is deeply and delightfully personal. “I smile every time I think about my family on FaceTime in a spirited debate about the Arabic translation of Isaiah 43:19 — the song’s inspiration — and how it would best sound with the melody my father helped me with,” she says, referring to a verse that speaks of divine creation in desperate times — only too relevant today for many.
For the visual aspects of “Two (Rivers in the Desert)”, Shalhoub enlisted nearby artist Excentrik as director, a first-time collaboration that she gushes, “was magical”, with both bringing their whole selves and experiences to the filming. “Our respective Lebanese and Palestinian ancestry is extremely important to both of us,” Shalhoub continues, “and the whole experience felt like we were in a portal of some sort.”
Seeing Shalhoub among the near-otherworldly boulders and resilient flora of Joshua Tree truly truly is a dramatic way of setting the artist apart from the world. At the same time, it makes for a brilliant representation of Shalhoub herself, her music and self so strongly influenced by both her family history — both parents are refugees from Rahbé, a town in northern Lebanon — and her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as both artist and advocate, doing work in schools, juvenile halls, and other community facilities that are crucial to a number of underserved groups.
Much of Shalhoub’s work focuses on concepts of healing, which her video evokes in a moment of total reverence, as Shalhoub kneels, face pointed upward to receive baptismal drops of water from the ornately adorned masked figure who has been wandering in the same space as she has been playing for the entirety of the film. Technically, it was a small miracle. “We had only one chance to get it right,” says Shalhoub, “and thankfully, it worked out!” While visually, it is a moment of cleansing, the high desert sun shining down to illuminate the peace on Shalhoub’s face. “For me,” she concludes, “‘Two’ is ultimately a prayer.”