The Syrian refugee bands who just want to rock
Three exiled Syrian bands, playing three very different types of music, in three different countries. But one thing unites them all — a love for music, rather than politics or war, is their driving passion.
Part 1: Monzer Darwish, The Netherlands
As the bus from Amsterdam to Hoorn trundles through the countryside towards Edam — the Dutch town world famous for its cheese — it passes a flat landscape of green fields, windmills, canals and cows.
A few minutes later it rolls into a small, nondescript village. Here, standing in the spitting rain by the bus stop, is a long-haired Syrian man in a black trench coat.
Monzer Darwish is a long way from home. He arrived in this quiet little province in early 2016, via Turkey, Greece and Amsterdam, where he was granted asylum in the Netherlands and given a modest, one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his wife, Lena. As we trudge past shuttered shops and apartment blocks, Monzer explains that most of the town’s 3,000 residents are retirees. “This is where people come to die,” he says, only half joking.
Except that Monzer and Lena came here to live. They fled Syria for Beirut and then Algeria in the early days of Syria’s bloody civil war, which grew out of the unrest of the 2011 Arab Spring. Monzer then moved to Istanbul. He rented a shabby flat that had no water or electricity, located in a rough part of town where the neighbourhood walls were daubed in anti-Syrian graffiti. Lena joined him in early 2015 but, as refugees, neither of them could legally work, so they began making plans to seek asylum in Europe.
The couple joined tens of thousands of Syrians making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Greece during 2015. They almost drowned in the rough waters off Izmir before reaching Samos, 50km away. Next they made their way to Athens, bought fake Spanish passports and then flew to Holland, where they claimed asylum. A few weeks later they were brought here, to Oosthuizen. “You’re in survivor mode,” Monzer says, recalling that journey a year later. “You have this huge dream in your head. I think this is what moved me.”
Life in Syria had never been easy for Monzer and his tribe, the black-clad, long-haired, guitar-wielding men and women of the country’s heavy metal music scene. He had already been arrested twice before he was out of his teens, and in 2008 was forced out of his hometown of Masyaf over allegations of Satanism.
That same year the Syrian authorities closed down a record store in nearby Hama. It was where the city’s metal-heads would hang out, but the officials put a stop to that by setting the CDs and merchandise alight in the street outside the shop. The crackdown followed a scandal in Lebanon in 2006 when heavy metal fans were rounded up and thrown in prison after media scare stories accused them of worshipping the devil and sacrificing animals.
It was all nonsense, of course, but Syrian metal fans had seen it before: as far back as the late 1990s the authorities had launched regular crackdowns on the scene in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, as did the authorities in Egypt and Lebanon. Syria was ostensibly a secular country, but its population — whether Shia or Sunni — was for the most part devout and sceptical about the perceived vices that come with rock ‘n’ roll.
It was a reaction to this conservatism that led Monzer to feel the pull of heavy metal. He was in seventh grade and took part in a school computer competition in the city of Hama. It was a hot day and he had worn shorts. The attire was deemed inappropriate given the presence of female students and the school officials told him to change. When Monzer refused they disqualified him from the competition. “I was angry, I was crying,” he remembers. “I had a friend who was sitting with me who had brought his stereo. He put the headphones over my head and said, ‘This will make you feel better’.” The song was “Battery”, by Metallica, and it did.
The Syrian metal scene was small but passionate, as it is elsewhere in the Middle East. It was based around three cities: the capital Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, each of which had a smattering of venues and underground recording studios where bands would congregate. There was a friendly rivalry between musicians in Aleppo and Damascus, but always a sense that the bands were ultimately all in it together.
As the crackdown against metalheads intensified between 2008 and 2010, the political situation in the country was deteriorating. Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Syrians took to the streets in 2011 to take part in pro-democracy protests that were brutally put down by President Bashar al-Assad. Those protests became an armed uprising and by 2012 Syria was at war.
But as the country descended into bitter conflict the Syrian metal scene thrived. The authorities were far too busy worrying about the war to bother musicians and for the first time Syrian metalheads in Aleppo not only put on shows but advertised them to the public. “It wasn’t because people [thought] that it was okay, but because they were too busy, what with not having electricity or water. Nobody cared,” says Monzer.
The revival in the scene wasn’t just opportunistic. Syrian metalheads were proud of the fact that their scene had never been divided along sectarian lines. Though the rest of the country was descending into bitter violence they stayed together. Holed up in their apartments as the shelling and gunfire rang out in the streets outside, Syria’s metalheads became even more determined to pursue their dreams.
Monzer organised a heavy metal show in Aleppo at the end of 2013, billed as “Life Under Siege”. This was a period of intense fighting and the venue was just metres from the frontline clashes between Assad’s army and the rebels. But with the help of scene stalwart Bashar Haroun – who ran U-Ground Studio and played in one of Syria’s best-known bands, Orion – he persuaded over 100 fans to show up, rigging up generators and risking sniper and artillery fire in the streets outside the club.
“I think the message was clear from the beginning — that we were away from all this [violence and sectarianism]. We were living our own lives, which were different from war. We didn’t care about the problem of ethnicity or politics. We didn’t even talk politics. It was just about metal; we were just one happy family,” says Bashar Haroun when I talk to him about that night.
Monzer recorded the show and the events that led up to it, interviewing the metalheads who had remained in Syria even as the war forced millions to leave. This footage has found its way into a documentary he has made entitled Syrian Metal is War, which tells the story of Syria’s music scene amidst a country descending from peace into conflict. It features rough footage of live shows in Homs and Aleppo along with interviews with bands. This is interspersed with apocalyptic scenes of destruction: mosques collapsing into the streets, the empty shells of buildings, mountains of rubble and overturned buses and cars. One scene shows Bashar Haroun’s house in downtown Aleppo. It is partially destroyed and neighbours have hung white sheets in the middle of the streets to prevent sniper fire. In his concrete backyard an unexploded mortar shell sits amid the rubble.
As we watch rough edits of the film, from the safety of exile in rural Netherlands, Monzer and Lena point out the people they knew and the streets they once walked together before the war. Lena grew up in Homs, and as the footage shows Monzer and three other long-haired musicians picking their way through the rubble-strewn streets she points out that the area used to be the city’s bustling financial district.
There is a finality to these scenes, along with a hopelessness. By staying during the darkest days of the war, playing shows and making music, Syria’s metal fans tried to fight the tide of hate and destruction as it embroiled and then destroyed their country. Now, like Lena and Monzer, those men and women are scattered, thousands of miles from home, with nothing to go back to.
But still they dream of one day returning. They talk about all the places they want to see and all the things they want to do. Sometimes they’ll call friends back in Latakia or Beirut to see if things are getting better and ask whether it’s time to go home. “Whenever we call someone and tell ask them, they’re like, ‘No, you’re crazy, why would you leave to come back to this?’” Monzer says.
The problem is that, although Monzer and Lena risked their lives getting to safety in Holland, they are strangers here. To the Europeans, they are Syrians, and to the other Syrians, they are metalheads, often scorned for their long hair, tattoos and Western-style heavy metal fashion sense. Over the past few months they have spent more and more time here in their flat, talking about the old days, watching TV and studying Dutch.
As the footage of the “Life Under Siege” show from Aleppo in 2013 plays, Monzer reflects on how important metal was during those dark days; how it gave meaning to a life surrounded by such meaningless violence. “I think it is hard for other people to see it like this, but for people who were in the middle of it, during the worst times, it was something that kept us alive,” he says.
Part 2: Tanjaret Daghet, Lebanon
On the bustling bar streets of Gemmayzeh, Beirut, a steady stream of refugees congregate among the local and expatriate crowds to sell flowers, shine shoes or beg. Over 4.5 million Syrians have fled their country since 2012 and Lebanon now hosts an estimated 1.5 million of them.
As far back as 2011 and 2012, Syrian musicians had already made the move to Beirut, and there was a thriving Syrian rock and metal scene in Lebanon. These included Khebez Dawle (now in Berlin) and Syrian metal groups The Hourglass and Tanjaret Daghet, whose members I meet in June 2016 in al-Hamra.
The Syrian three-piece recorded their debut album in 2016 and featured in newspapers and magazines throughout the world, largely alongside headlines relating to the Syrian conflict and the disbelief that a group of musicians from such a troubled part of the world could make a success of themselves. It is an angle that Tarek Ziad Khuluki, the band’s guitarist, clearly resents, as he makes clear when we speak.
“It’s a way for the media to reach more people. It’s opportunistic,” complains Tarek. Putting on a mock sympathetic voice he continues: “The media is going, ‘Syrians, they are f***ed up, blah, blah...’” The other members of the band nod. “It should be about us and our music,” Khaled Omran, the band’s bassist, adds.
Dani Shukri was the vocalist in a death metal band before meeting Khaled and Tarek in 2008. They founded Tanjaret Daghet and played their first gig the following year.
The band has a mishmash of influences, from Danny’s background in death metal to Khaled’s passion for orchestral music. When asked about who has inspired them, the three young men throw in everything from Jack White to Shostakovich, and their own songs fuse together elements of rock, grunge, indie and Arabic music.
The desire to play original compositions in Damascus led to them running up against similar issues to those faced by the metal crowd, in that most fans wanted to hear covers. “The young generation expected the local bands to give them the opportunity to listen to their favourite songs. If you play a Metallica song you have to play it as Metallica played it,” Dani says. “Then you had to play the solo exactly as it was played. If you put your own take on it, you would be seen as not being good enough to play it the right way,” adds Tarek.
A small group of bands in Damascus would rent small cafes and cinemas to organise gigs, but the crowds remained small.
“I don’t want to say this type of music was not welcome, but it was not something that people really wanted to hear,” says Tarek. It was more our generation and the s*** that we used to listen to.”
When Tarek first talked about leaving Syria his brother encouraged him to take a job washing dishes at a friend’s restaurant in Belarus. He gave Tarek an ultimatum: he could move to Eastern Europe with the promise of a steady job and security, or he could go to Beirut with the band – but without his family’s support. Tarek chose the latter.
This was 2011, when many Syrians who could afford to do so were already looking overseas for opportunities as the country began its descent into civil war. But for the members of Tanjaret Daghet there was nothing political about their move to Beirut: it was practical. “If you want to write your own material in Syria, there were only one or two studios nearby; here in Hamra you can find four or five studios. This is what is good about Beirut — it has this pulse,” he says.
Even though they are already a success in Beirut, the band members are all thinking bigger. They say that while the crowds are better in Lebanon, they really want to play in Europe where the opportunities exist to perform in front of 5,000 or 10,000 people at festivals and the competition is more intense. “As soon as we left Syria we knew it might take a long time to go back and we didn’t have a comfort zone,” says Dani of their desire to progress. “It put us in this situation where we want to keep moving and not consider any place to be like home.”
But above all, they want to surpass their current status as a ‘Syrian band’. All three are sick of being asked about the conflict and whether it has changed them or their music. Tarek gets angry when asked about politics. “If you want to know the news in Syria I can give you ten TV channels and you can see for yourself what is happening to my country,” he says.
Tarek is sceptical of musicians from Syria who have made the war and the revolution so central to their message. He wants Tanjaret Daghet to transcend the ideas of the bands who he says only sing about war and conflict. “I wonder what kind of ideas they will come up with after the war is over. What are they going to talk about then?” he asks.
Part 3: Refugees of Rap, France
It is close to midnight when Yasser Jamous and I find somewhere relatively quiet to eat amid the bright lights and packed cafes of Montmartre, Paris. Hunkered down in the corner of an Indian restaurant, with Bollywood music blaring over the speakers, the Syrian rapper describes his teenage years growing up in Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus and his discovery of Eminem.
He recounts how, back in the early 2000s in Syria, the only way to buy music was to visit a music vendor and have him copy the songs you wanted onto a blank cassette. On one occasion Yasser was sent to the store to make a mixtape for his uncle, who was an aspiring breakdancer. When the vendor had finished the track listing he still had 30 minutes of space on the tape. To fill the gap, he recorded half of a newly released album, The Eminem Show. “I loved his music,” Yasser says. “It was commercial but it was my doorway into hip hop.”
Yasser and his brother Mohammed became obsessed with hip hop and sought out the material that had inspired Eminem: Dre, Tupac and Biggie Smalls. They began recording their own songs on the family computer and — after Googling ‘Arabic hip hop’ at an internet cafe — found out that there were two other rappers in the camp, Muhammed Jawad and Ahmad Razouk.
They decided to form a band and, given that Mohammed and Yasser are Palestinian and Ahmad Razouk is Algerian, decided on the name Refugees of Rap. “All of us are refugees to rap music,” he says of the inspiration for their title. “This was our place to be free, to find asylum. It was not political, it was more a way for us as teenagers to be released,” Yasser says.
Prior to the war, Syria’s Yarmouk camp was home to around 160,000 people, most of them Palestinian refugees who were forced from or fled their homes after the foundation of Israel in 1948. Unlike the refugee camps of Turkey or Jordan today, Yarmouk was not a sprawling tent city but a shabby suburb of Damascus that developed over 60 years, with shops, restaurants, roads and businesses.
It was in these streets that Refugees of Rap began to make a name for themselves. Facebook and YouTube were both blocked in Syria and the only way to share music was on MySpace or via Bluetooth, spread from user to user and mobile to mobile. Soon after the band began writing songs, they began to hear their songs in the streets of the camp, playing in cars or on strangers’ phones. “We’d be walking along and we’d hear our song being played in a car and I was like, This is me! But nobody knew who we were,” Yasser says.
That soon changed, as Refugees of Rap’s message of life in Yarmouk and Palestinian exile spread among both fellow Palestinians in Yarmouk and Syrians in Damascus. The band appeared regularly on television and played in clubs in Damascus and elsewhere. In 2010 they recorded their first album, Face to Face, and in 2011 managed to get their own recording studio down the street from their home.
Attitudes to the uprising were complicated in Yarmouk. While many Palestinians were sympathetic to the anti-Assad movement, many Palestinian factions supported the Syrian leader because of his perceived solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Many also cast their eyes towards the chaos engulfing Libya and feared the same would happen in Syria. “People were confused. There was not really one opinion; there were many, even in one family,” Yasser says.
But the protests that had begun in Dera’a, Hama and Homs soon spread to Yarmouk. In 2012, the rebel Free Syrian Army entered the camp. Within weeks, Yasser and Mohammed’s neighbourhood had become the frontline between Assad, the FSA and Palestinian factions. In December the brothers made the decision to leave for Beirut. But first Yasser had to go to the studio. “It was ten minutes from home but it was in a place where there were no civilians. I didn’t tell my parents; I took my bicycle and I rode there,” he says.
When Yasser walked through the door he saw all the equipment that the band had spent many months slowly accumulating and knew he couldn’t save it all. He ripped open the computers and took out the hard drives. Six weeks later the studio was completely destroyed.
Yasser and Mohammed managed to get to Beirut and then obtained visas for France, where they arrived in early 2013. They have lived in Paris ever since. By the time we meet in 2016, Refugees of Rap are rising stars, touring all over Europe and being interviewed regularly in the international media. Their name, chosen long before Syria’s civil war began, has become all the more pertinent. But for Yasser it wasn’t the conflict that had made him a refugee, he had always been one. As a Palestinian he will be a refugee until the day he can return to his true homeland.
“I was born as a refugee. Syria was a refugee camp for me; it was my country but I didn’t have nationality, I had a permit. Coming to France has taught me that my soul is my country. The rest is just memories. The place where I am, this is my country for the moment until I go back to Palestine. Maybe not me, maybe my children, my children’s children… But Palestine is what I feel.”
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Orlando Crowcroft’s book, Rock in a Hard Place: Music and Mayhem in the Middle East, is out in June this year, published by Zed books.