How Syrians defied Assad through music

Music has played a significant role in the Syrian uprising, allowing people to express what they’ve bottled up under the Assad regime’s 40-year-rule

Leila Alwan - Al Arabiya English
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What can be more dangerous than a gun? Arguably words have always been one of the most powerful weapons used throughout history to create change.

One example of many was during the French revolution. Leaders found music a key tool for influencing the way people thought and felt. Laws were created as a result of the revolution that allowed the audience to shout and sing republican slogans in theaters, they inspired composers to write revolutionary music.

Very quickly France’s modern day national anthem - Le Marseillaise - was the revolution’s most famous song.

Moving forward to the present day, music has played a vastly significant role in the Syrian uprising, allowing people to express and empty what they’ve bottled up under the Assad regime’s 40-year-rule.

During the protests, the drum beats and humming intermingled with the chants, which appeared to cause people to unite - projecting a strong aura which seemed to draw even more people to join the demonstrations.

Many Syrians were afraid to speak out publically after years of oppression under Assad’s rule. People who dared to were often detained without charge - some disappearing for great lengths of time, others were never seen again.

But the music being sung at the protests stimulated people’s minds and seemed to encourage them to demand and criticize - something foreign to Syrians living in the country.

In March 2011, Syrians across the country took to the streets after the children of Daraa, the province in southwestern Syria, were detained and tortured after writing anti-regime graffiti on a wall that read: “It’s your turn doctor [referring to President Bashar al-Assad]”.

The Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS) says guns were used to fire on unarmed civilians protesting in Daraa during the first 10 days of the uprising, which came to be named the “10 day Massacre.”

Samih Chokeir, a respected musician, composer, and singer from the city of Sweida, in south western Syria took the first courageous step to criticize the regime with his song “Ya Hayf” which translated means “Oh shame”. He published the song on YouTube 10 days after the massacre in Daraa, and is now considered an anthem of the Syrian revolution.

In other parts of the world it might be normal for one to sing a song criticizing the president, but in Syria it’s like signing your own death certificate.

Chokeir’s song opens with:

“O shame.. O shame
[you] unjustly shower bullets at the unarmed people, o shame
How can you detain children so young?
And you, the son of my homeland is killing my children
And you turn your back on the real enemy, attacking me with your sword”

Known as the “Revolutionary Icon”, Abdul-Baset Saroot, the goal keeper of the Syrian national youth football team and of Homs city’s local club, ignited the crowds in demonstrations with his improvised words sung over traditional Syrian melodies, immediately making him a target of the regime.

His response to the regime’s tanks and bullets, was through his words and music, which seemed to threaten the regime – rousing the demonstrators – something that seemed far more powerful than any loaded weapon.

Among his many famous pieces was “our dear homeland” where he salutes every city, and province in Syria, depicting the courage and strength of very diverse groups of people.

This song served as a tool to unite all the provinces, building respect among communities, painting a vision of creating a homeland for all Syrians, free of sectarianism and oppression.

In the middle of the song he says:

“We don’t have sedition, sabotage, or sectarianism … O dear homeland
We demand for freedom, our demands are peaceful…O dear homeland”

Ibrahim Qashoush, also known as the "Nightingale of the Revolution", paid the ultimate price in July for his unforgettable voice that echoed over the crowds in the center of the province of Hama, leading a chorus of thousands of demonstrators to sing “Come on, Bashar, time to leave”.

He was found dead in the Orontes River, with his throat cut and his vocal cords ripped out.

This was a clear message and threat from Assad to those who dared to raise their voice in defiance.

Wasfi Massarani, a young singer, who originated from Hama, became famous for transforming Syrian traditional folklore music into revolutionary songs.

His rousing, yet soft vocals which were close to the heart, have left an imprint in the history of the revolution.

The young singer said that the first weapon the people used against the regime was art such as music, poetry, chants, cartoons, and banners.

“We the musicians, created our music using the chants during demonstrations, to show our support the popular mobilization, after many artists and musicians had chosen to side with the regime against the people,” he told Al Arabiya English.

“The importance of music during the revolution is more important than its affect after victory, because the music enthuses the people and transfers the news from one province to another,” he said.

His highly emotive song, that left many weeping for those lost in Syria was, “tears fall from the eyes” which was originally a folk song.

Massarani told Al Arabiya English that this song was requested by the revolutionaries in Harasta, a town in the suburbs of Damascus, because they were chanting it during the protests.

He started the song with a dedication to Syrian Kurdish civil rights activist, Meshaal Temmo, who was killed by soldiers loyal to Assad for joining the revolution, and also used the voices from real demonstrations as backing vocals.

“Before the Syrian revolution, we never had a national song, we just had music that talked about love and relationships; unlike Lebanon where their renowned artists also sing about the country; I believe after the revolution, the people will have a different understanding about music, and it will become instilled in them, something they take pride in,” he added.

In March 2013, a friend of mine attended a protest in Syria for the first time – an event which she still vividly remembers.

It was a cold, crisp Friday, when a group of activists from the US had gathered in the square in Kafranbel - a town in the province of Idlib - and waited for Friday prayers to end.

The group were surrounded by grey derelict buildings that blended in with the gloomy weather.

By 1.30pm, about 100 people had gathered in the area to begin the protest. Present were doctors, businessmen, artists, women, children and teenagers, waiting in anticipation for the protest leader to begin chanting.

“We won’t bow down to anyone but God,” the protestors recited, a reference to the many occasions where Assad’s soldiers forced people to bow down to his portrait.

As the crowd began chanting,she felt shivers down her spine, and the blood flowing to her face. She could hear her own voice becoming louder, stronger, and more resilient.

They continued to chant, repeating the songs the protest leader was singing. She thought that everyone chanting believed every word said: “We want freedom, peace, and dignity.”

A man turned to her and said: “See, after a taste of freedom like this, we can never go back?”

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