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Syria: ‘Silenced voices’

7 November 2006

In Syria, music is a mirror which shows the soul of the listener. The hedonist youth of Damascus sees fuel for the fun of their parties, fundamentalists suspect moral corruption, the authocratic regime fears the output of subversive minds. And just a few young musicians perceive a magic language of sound which can touch the heart and make new thoughts spark. And this is exactly where their problems start

By Gabriela M. Keller

The rhythm flows calmly through the song. A female voice weaves a frail melody around the steady beat. Its sound is brilliantly pure and dark at the same time, a voice with the slightly shaded shine of old silver.
“Do you hear that monotonous, minimalistic rhythm?,” asks Rasha, the jazz singer, nods her head with the beat and smiles almost serenely, as if briefly dwelving into a dream. She turns the volume of her cd player up a bit.
“That is the influence of Sufi music, which I used for this song” – the tradition of the Muslim mysticists who try to reach God’s proximity by music.

Life in Damascus, it appears, follows the rhythm of music as if it were a heart beat pumping sound through the veins of the city and making each of its cells reverberate. Time seems to be divided into verses rather than hours because the muezzins’ chant is more significant for the structure of the day than the numbers clocks indicate. Five times a day, their calls float out of hundreds of minaretts and fly over the rooftops, uniting for a many-voiced canon. Arabic pop music streams out of car radios like the leitmotiv of everyday life and mixes with the noise of the overbrimming, chaotic traffic, thus weaving a messy but colourful fabric of sound which envelops the city. And even the cars sing: When a taxi driver drives backwards, they bleep a shrill melody through the streets.

But music in Syria is also something threatening, a luring call of temptation which inevitably leads astray from the solid ground of moral certainty. Music can even be lethal. A few months ago, a girl in Syria’s second largest city Aleppo was beaten to death by her parents because she had the habit of bursting into song without any visible reason. Her family concluded that this must mean that the girl was secretely having illicit contact to men.

Singing means shame

When Rasha Risk, the jazz singer with the silvery voice, stood on stage for the first time, she covered her face with a black mask.
“Here, singing means shame for a woman,” says the 30-year-old, soberly and without stress as if she were reading a sentence from some boring university paper. At the time of that performance, Rasha was just 18 years old. She tried to hide behind that mask, she recounts, hide from her family, from her audience, from herself. Just after that performance, she met the young musician Ibrahim Sulaimany. Today, the petite singer with the restless temper and the serious, silent 34-year-old have been married for over ten years. The couple writes its music together and performs it together in their band called Itar Shama’a.
“But til today, I have serious trouble with my mother because of my profession,” says Rasha, who is also a renowned opera singer. Ibrahim adds:
“Our neighbours for example do not know that we are musicians.”
He falls silent briefly, and says, a moment later:
“It just would not be possible to tell them.”

Apart from the Sufis, the dancing monks, the Islamic world is uncertain whether their religion permits them to listen to music.
“Islamic scholars are still doing research and look for passages in the Qur’an, which might offer a solution,” explains Rasha. “But till today, they have not found one.”
Therefore, every region has found a different answer. In Saudi Arabia, for example, sheichs regularly lead young people into parcs, where they make them burn musical instruments. Even though people in Syria do not go to such extremes, the uncertainty remains. Thus, music is perceived as something doubtful, even indecent. Those who choose to make a carreer out of it, find themselves in the moral twilight.
“You never know what music will make people feel,” says Rasha. “This is probably why people are scared of it.”

Islam has come back

A few decades ago, before Syria turned back to religion, the situation was totally different, as Rasha explains:
“Til into the 1970’s, the scene of blues, jazz and rock music was full of vibrance and diversity. There were clubs everywhere in Damascus, and musicians came from all over the world to play there.”
At that time, Syria was a predominently secular, even liberal country. Young women walked the streets in mini skirts and tight dresses. Today, it is estimates that around 80 percent of the Muslim women do not leave their house unveiled – tendency still rising. Many mothers with secular minds are horrified to see their daughters opt for headscarve and arranged marriage. Islam has come back to Syria, stricter and sterner than ever before.

The new piousness has suffocated the variety of music in Syria, says Rasha:
“The clubs changed because decent people would not go there anymore,” she tells and draws quotation marks around the word “decent” into the air.
“Instead, prostitutes came, and now, it is not possible to go there anymore.”
As a female artist, she has to be particularly careful, she says:
“If I perform at certain venues, men might come up to me and ask me to come with them because they take me for a whore.”

Damascus, however, is a city with many faces. And while one shuts itself away behind veils, another one smiles to the world with red-painted lips. Bright, shiny signs advertise internet cafés on the dusty, crumbling facades of the old city; in the modern center, shopping temples built of glass and steel sell digital pocket Qur’ans. The truth may lie somewhere between the extremes, between the madrassas and the coffee lounges, between the offices of the Hamas leaders and the practices of the cosmetic surgeons, between the cool shadows in the prayer halls of the mosques and the hazy neon light of the strip bars.

Enormous demand for music

70 percent of the Syrian population is younger than 35 years. A gigantic mass of young people is growing up in cities and villages, and a large part of them hungers greedily for music in spite of all suspicions. They want to party, have fun and dance. Thus, they have long ago kicked off an enormous demand, and through the windows of internet and digital television, music has entered Syria as a product of a worldwide industry even though the country is usually efficiently isolated from outside influence. And so, the young Syrians dance to the globalised soundtrack of customer-oriented entertainment, such as catchy American hip-hop and R&B songs as well as Arabic pop music which, in its anti-septic buoyancy, often reminds of advertisement jingles for breakfast cereal. American world market leaders like Beoncé or Usher serve as sound models.

Accordingly, the shop windows of the record stores look as if the owners had all secretly agreed to show the same narrow selection of albums. Dozens of music tv channels all play an identical, sugary-sweet choice of clips in heavy rotation. In recent years, a handful of discotheques has opened in Damascus, upbeat places with polished surfaces for clean, elegant fun – for the happy few which can affort the entry fee of between five and ten euros. The monthly average income in Syria is about 100 euros. In these clubs, too, the music only differs in the order in which the DJ plays the songs.

The Syrian music scene

In Rasha’s opinion, music is perceived as pure entertainment to lessen the moral danger:
“Nobody in Syria sees music as a serious art. Music as a kind of reflection basically does not exist here,” she says. The monotony leaves little room for musicians like her.
“We use different influences,” explains Ibrahim. “First of all, we take the Arabic language and a basis of oriental rhythms. Then, we combine that with elements of swing and jazz.”
Itar Shamar is the best known jazz band in whole Syria. Today, after ten years of feverish work, sometimes a glossy magazine features a title story about the photogenic couple, and sometimes, the two also perform on tv. But still, Rasha and Ibrahim remain unknown to the majority of the Syrian population as their music only reaches a small, closed circle of listeners. Most Syrians, thinks Rasha, have never heard jazz music in their entire life.

The scene for jazz, funk, blues and rock in Syria is so small that all musicians know each other. None of them can cover their costs with the money they earn with concerts and CDs. None of them has a record contract. Rasha and Ibrahim earn their living by composing songs for Syrian children’s tv programmes. Others write jingles for advertisement or produce music for television serials. All of them must somehow get by on what little possibilities they have. Therefore, the artists support each other, so that they can at least work. Bands help each other out with instruments, equipment and musicians – there is a drummer everybody calls “the joker” because he plays percussions in almost every Damascus band.
Without those networks, all musical creativity might have died long ago from exhaustion among the mutitude of obstacles. Not only do the artists have to struggle with the inofficial synchronisation of taste, but also with the official eye of state surveillance. If, for example, a musician wants to give a concert, he needs permissions from the minsitry of culture as well as from the secret service.
“It is very difficult to get those permissions,” says Rasha.
This is why the couple only reaches a stage once or twice a year. In most cases, they only have the chance to perform publicly when a European cultural center, like Goethe-Institut or the Centre Culturel Français, organises a festival or a workshop. In these cases, the institutes take care of the formalities. Also, the authorities give permissions more readily to organisations than to individuals because if culture is centralised in the institution, it is much easier to control. This is why the programms of the institutes present most of what the cultural life in Damascus has to offer.

Distribution problems

At the moment, Rasha and Ibrahim are working on their first CD – which they record at their own expense.
“The main problem is that there is practically no copyright in Syria. So, we know that we don’t have a chance of getting our money back,” explains Rasha and tells the story of a musician colleague from Dubai who once asked her to offer his CD to the record stores in Damascus.
“He was extremely surprised when I answered: It is already there.”

Pirated CDs and tapes are being offered for less than one euro everywhere in the streets of Damascus, and even the record stores sell almost exclusively illegal copies. The government does nothing to prevent piracy.
“They turn a blind eye because they know that nobody in Syria can pay the regular prices,” says Rasha. “It is either this way, or no cultural production at all. In the latter case, people might actually start to complain about their low living standards.“
Better, the population has some music for its distraction than that it starts to think about politics.

Subcultures

This benevolence, however, stops exactly at that point where music itself might give food for thoughts or fuel a desire to step outside of the silent majority. Syria, a state which monitors each movement of its citizens closely, is deeply suspicious of any individual deviation from the masses. Therefore, the young generation dresses elegantly, cleanly and decently. No youngster makes bold fashion statement; no garishly coloured hair, no studded belts, not even torn jeans can be seen in the streets of Damascus. The young men plaster their hair with a lot of gel tight to their heads, and those girls who go unveiled bleach subtle highlights into their manes and walk on rhinestone-encrusted stiletto heels. Subcultures do not exist, and what the word “Punk” means is widely unknown. The Syrian youth does not want to stand out or strike the eye because in their dictatorically ruled home country, provocation is no cool rebel’s gesture, but a serious risk.

In the case of Heavy Metal, for example, the paranoia of the security apparatus goes so far as to prosecute the style like a criminal offense. In the year 2002, police stormed the campus of the university of Damascus. They arrested a handful of longhaired students in leather jackets. This summer, some young men were also taken into prison for a few days just because of their Rocker’s style. Likewise, the police from time to time raids private Hard Rock parties and takes the guests under arrest for a short while.
“The police men did not beat me”, says a slim 21-year-old who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject. “They just let me sit for hours in the light of a lamp. And after a while, I really got scared.”
When they saw that intimidation had worked successfully, they let him go home. However, they kept his passport and said that the musical dissident would only get it back if he presented himself with a decent cut. Since then, the student wears his hair shortly and only listens to his favourite music at home.
“It is really difficult to be always on a confrontational course with society,” he says. “Nobody stands that for a long time.”

The distrust of people who visibly oppose that unrelenting, authoritarian power called normality can be traced into the Heavy Metal scene itself.
“I never had the wish to be tattooed or pierced,” says Anas al-Moummin, guitarrist of the Damascene Heavy Metal band Zodiac. “Because I think that such an outfit does not mean that people like Heavy Metal, but that they have problems.”
The 26-year-old’s hairs are as short as match sticks, he wears jeans in a faded blue and a figure-hugging grey pullover – not exactly what one would imagine a typical rocker to look like.
“I don’t want to be judged like I myself judge such people,“ he explains. “And in my opinion, people dressed like that take drugs and have no control over their lives.”

For a wider audience, the Ramadan TV serial ‘Hajez al Samat’ (‘The Barrier of Silence’) painted a garishly coloured picture about what kind of grave damage the consumption of Heavy Metal might cause: One of the protagonists gets into the Heavy Metal scene, starts drinking alcohol shortly afterwards and, after a long and tragic descent, commits suicide. The message was unmistakably clear: Rock inevitably leads to the loss of all good manners and finally to death.

Outlawed

Heavy Metal is an outlawed form of music, but that is, so says Anas, not the fault of the oppressing ignorance of society and the arbitrariness of the state.
“The fans are the problem,” says the 26-year-old, presses his lips together till they are nothing more than a thin line and dedicatedly starts to press buttons on his cell phone. Because he would rather not talk about the last concert of his band Zodiac. In order to illustrate his theories, however, he still does it after some hesitation.
“After the first few riffs, people began to freak out. They started headbanging, then continued to hit each other, and finally they smashed the toilets.”
The audience, eager to make use of this one rare possibility to play wild, got completely out of control.
“The next day, Syrian media reported on what happened at the concert,” the musician remembers.
“They did not even spell the name of our band correctly, but they called us satanists.”
Since then, no Heavy Metal concert has taken place in Damascus.
“We would really be glad if we could obtain a permission once a year,” says Anas. But at the moment, there is no possibility that that might happen.

“Here, people think that those who listen to Heavy Metal will also celebrate orgies and sacrifice newborn babies,“ says Obeida Habal. Roughly one year ago, the 28-year-old stopped working in his parents’ factory so that he can dedicate his full energy to making music. Obeida, a heavy man with a permanently grumpy facial expression, wears inconspicuous clothes, too. Only a short goatee hints to his favourite music style. When he was younger, he says, he used to put on black nail polish and dark eye liner.
“But it is better not to stand out at a Heavy Metal musician,“ he says. “This way, I am left alone and can concentrate on my music. And that is what counts.”

Surely, the 28-year-old admits, it is even more difficult to make Heavy Metal pass state control than any other music genre. But for him, there is no alternative.
“Heavy Metal is like theater,” he says. “It is tragic, cruel, sometimes funny. But the play which is performed is always life.” Tender melodies can, in Obeidas opinion, not properly express extreme feelings, like rage, anger or sadness.
“It is a music which takes its listeners seriously, unlike the commercial stuff which only makes people dance like puppets. ‘I love you, you love me,’ that is everything pop music has to say.”
Obeida lights a new cigarette, a strong Syrian brand, and takes three or four pulls after each other.
“People here say that Heavy Metal sounds as if a donkey screams. But they don’t understand that this is how it sounds when you’re desperate.”

And this is exactly the manner in which the guitarrist wants to make himself heard, directly, loudly and mercilessly.
“When I watched tv and saw the images of Abu Ghureib and Guantanamo, I got the idea that I want to speak about this,” says Obeida. And Heavy Metal seemed to him like the perfect expression, a cry of desperation against the world’s unspeakable madness. And so, he got down to work on a Rock opera about the way in which 9/11 changed the world. Alongside with his music, he wants to show pictures, cartoons, documentary bits and scenes from movies.
“There was for example a video tape which was found a couple of months ago. It showed how British soldiers beat up a boy in Iraq.“
Obeida briefly falls silent, heavily frowning his forehead. With a loud and aggressive voice, he says then:
“And I would really like to know why. Was this boy maybe the director of the Iraqi nuclear weapons factory? Or does he not have a right to feel anger against the occupation?“
Again, he falls silent for a few seconds, and says, now faintly and quietly. “I think he has.“

However, the 28-year-old composes and rehearses behind the closed doors of his small room in an Old-Damascene house he shares with other young people. In to all likelihood, his messages will never get any closer to the ears of an audience. It is hardly conceivable that the Syrian security will tolerate a political statement on stage, even more so when it is uttered in a musical genre which is effectively banned.

Censorship of the Secret Service

“When a musician wants to release a CD, the secret service checks every single line,” says Anas, the guitarrist of Zodiac who is currently working on an album.
“They even check between the lines.”
Subjects such as sex, drugs and politics are forbidden, and those who even dare to go near these topics have forfeited their chances of a legal release. Still, Obeida remains optimistic.
“I really don’t know how they are going to react“, he says. “But I hope that it will somehow be possible.”

One thing, however, is certain in Syria. The state’s tight net of surveillance and control cuts the speech of all those who might have something to say. Censorship smothers the artists as soon as thy take breath for a statement. The masses, meanwhile, stay quiet whithout being told so: The Syrian internal security, like a diligent anasthetist of the mind, puts most thoughts to sleep long before they can be voiced.
According to estimates, there is one secret service agent in each 150 adult Syrians. The secret service patrols the streets, observes the ways pedestrians take and listen to the conversations in the coffee houses. Some of the agents even pose as taxi drivers or vegetable sellers. The members of the opposition joke that the mouqhabarat, the secret service, is the only thing which properly works in Syria, an invisible, ubiquitous power. As soon as three people sit together, one of them is from the mouqhabarat, whisper the Damascenes. Under these circumstances, free speech is a cursory illusion, and the unsaid is an integral part of any conversation. The regime has tied this tight net of observation as its own life insurance. An incapacitated, intimidated people which can hardly imagine what it would be like to live in democratic liberty serves as the firmest support of their power even though corruption and misrule has let the country sink into dramatic poverty.

Lyrics in English language

However, Basel Obaid, frontman of the HipHop band Area 51, has found a gap in the claustrophobic system of controls, a secret escape which appears ridiculously simple to take: He raps in English.
“If I performed my songs in Arabic, I would be in prison about one hour later,” says the slender 23-year-old with the open, friendly face. “And I don’t mind the foreign language because English is quite suitable for Rap, with all the short syllables and the large number of words which rhyme.”

Then, he smirks like somebody who got away with the stolen cake and leans back in a cool posture.
“Of course, the secret service comes to all of my regular performances,“ he says. “But non of them understands any English, and so I can say whatever I want.“
His smile gets even a little broader. One of the few liberties Syria left to its citizens is to joke with a muffled voice about the mouqhabarat’s stupidity.
“You should see the difficulties they have spelling our band name each time they try to fill it in some form. They always write something like: R-Ria Faftiuan,“ says the rapper and laughs heavily, but almost soundlessly.

And it is not as if Basel would slander the president, demand free elections or wanted to rap for the overthrow of the regime.
“I’m talking ’bout life here in Syria, I’m talking ’bout respect, I’m talking ’bout the people, I’m talking ’bout Damascus“ – even when Basel speaks, he sometimes starts rapping the words while he beats his hand against the table in the rhythm. However, even the tender social criticism of the 23-year-old is already against the rules.

Strategy of intimidation

Last year, Area 51 performed on an open air festival in the Damascene Tishreen Parc. A few dozens of policemen in uniform stood among several hundred listeners in the audience. Additionally, there were a number of middle-aged men in the crowd whose face muscles twitched painfully to the louder beats. The obvious presence of the secret service is part of their strategy of intimidation: Everybody should know that any movement will be observed and registered. This way, censorship develops an independent life of its own in people’s heads: Most Syrians instinctively follow the rules of the authoritarian state closely without the police even lifting a finger.

At that concert, Basel directed some words to the audience after his last song. “We have nothing in Damascus,” he said in English.
“We may buy a felafel sandwich at the weekend, then, we can go to the city center and watch girls passing by. That was it. We have no money to do anything else.”
All of a sudden, electricity was switched off. The lights went out and the sound from the loud speakers faded. “That was the sound engineer,” he remembers tiredly shrugging his shoulders. “He got scared.“

Practically speaking, the medium Basel picked to deliver his messages should work fine in Syria. In contrast to rock or jazz, rap is popular and reaches the masses. All the Damascus discotheques play a few songs from artists like 50 Cent or Snoop Doggy Dogg on each party night. The DJs may only choose the smoothest and most well-known tracks, but Area 51’s music fits the pattern well.
“When we talk about the rhythm, I don’t think that my music has anything typically oriental or Syrian about it,“ says Basel. “It is the texts which are the important thing. If you listen to 50 Cent, you might learn what it’s like in America. If you want to know what’s going on in my country, you have to listen to my songs.”
Basel yearns to make his thoughts heard, and this is why he started to make music in the first place, he stresses again and again, with flickering eyes. It is an almost maniac drive which neither lets him rest nor make any progress.

The foreign language may provide a way for him out of the cage of the dictatorship, but at the same time, it bars his way into the consciousness of his audience.
“When I perform, I see people dance. Great beat, they say afterwards. But nobody understands the lyrics.”
Knowledge of the English language is rare in Syria and mostly limited to the upper class. Basel briefly stops talking and absent-mindedly stirs the tea in his glass.
“That is a problem for which there is no solution,” he concludes. Sometimes, he adds, he even softens his rough rhythms a little bit, and makes his beats catchier – just because he wants more people to listen to what he has to say. In vain. Even the smart rapper with all his tricks has not yet found a way past the language barrier.

“You know,” he says then, “I have been making music for seven years now. If we were in America, I certainly could have released ten albums in that time. Here, we have only managed to get one together. And that one was released illegally.” Still, he did not get into trouble with the police.
“The whole CD is in English, too. If they find it somewhere in the streets, they will think it is an album from abroad.”

Likewise, Basel organises his concerts clandestinely.
“It is just too difficult to get the permissions,“ he says.
“When you apply, the secret service asks a lot of questions, like: Why do you rap? Are you a drug addict? I mean – what sort of answers do they expect to such questions?”
The rapper escapes the harrassment by simply not asking for permission and just performs a few songs in some bar or club.
“Of course this means that I can’t announce my concerts. I can’t distribute flyers or put up posters.”
Hence, only Basel’s friends come, and those who incidently heard about the gig. Basel presses his lips together.
“Surely, it’s extremely difficult here in Syria,” he says. “But that is how it is, and so I must keep on trying.”

 

 
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