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This Syrian Composer Is Now a Refugee Writing Music on the Street

With little hope of working with an orchestra, Mouataz Arian is using his computer to create compositions about the refugee crisis while in exile in Turkey.

Mouataz Arian busks with his lute on the famous Istiklal Street in Istanbul's trendy tourist district. Photos by Cody Punter

It's a bustling Friday night on Istiklal Street in Istanbul's trendy tourist district. With his hair parted to one and side and sporting a freshly pressed blue dress shirt Mouataz Arian slings an oddly shaped bag over his shoulder as he pushes through the crowds looking for somewhere where he can set up shop. After scouting several locations the 32-year-old refugee from Syria stoops down in front of a metal shutter with a small ledge and unsheathes his instrument from its case—a lute, which he bought a year ago to replace one that was smashed during his escape from his hometown of Qamishli. After playing a few traditional Arabic songs, Arian decides to play a rendition of Beethoven's magnum opus, Ode To Joy.


"I love classical music," he told VICE in a McDonald's on the main drag later on that evening. "It takes me a to a beautiful world."

Three years ago, Arian was in Syria, heading into his fifth year of studying music at the University of Damascus. But after being threatened with conscription into Assad's army, he decided to flee the country.

"It is a very hard life there," he said. "The regime wants everyone in the army."

Ever since then he has been surviving by working occasional odd jobs and busking on the streets of Istanbul where he makes $20 to $25 a day. While it has been hard for him to make ends meet he says he prefers the financial uncertainty to fighting a war he doesn't believe in.

Arian, who fled his home three years ago, recently recorded a composition entitled Migrants, that evokes the suffering of the refugees who have been displaced by the war.

Arian is a Syrian Kurd, an ethnic minority that has traditionally been discriminated against by the Shiite majority in the country. Growing up, he said he wasn't allowed to speak his own language or learn about his own culture due to the fact that the publication of books or other materials in Kurdish is illegal. He is also an atheist, who believes that religion is the root of many of the problems in Syria and throughout the world. One of the reasons why Arian loves to compose music is because it allows him to express himself in a way that transcends the barriers created by language and religion.

"Music is the message—an expression of what is happening in our world and a way [to] deliver the message to humanity to love each other," he told VICE. "This is a language that does not need a translation."


Arian may not have had access to a live symphony since he left Syria but he has kept writing compositions while in exile. Thanks to computer software called Finale, he has been able to transcribe and record them. In the last few years he has written several pieces with names such as "Syrian Revolution" and "Freedom." As the refugee crisis began to spiral out of control he felt inspired to write a composition dedicated to those who have been affected by it. The final piece, which took him six months to complete, is a five-minute melancholy dirge entitled Migrants. Led by a solemn clarinet, which plods along amidst a steady drum beat and the soaring horn and string sections of the orchestra, Arian explained the song is supposed to be an expression of the physical and intellectual suffering experienced by refugees uprooted by war.

"It's about the pain an immigrant perceives because he left his home," he said.

Mouataz Arian looks for somewhere to busk on Istiklal Street in Istanbul.

Over the past few years Arian has been looking for a way to leave Turkey so that he can get back to working with an orchestra. He said he attempted to apply for a visa to Germany a year ago but was denied. After hearing an announcement that Canada was accepting 25,000 refugees he decided wanted to apply but has so far had no luck figuring out how. He said he won't consider taking the boat to Greece but in the end decided it would be too dangerous.

Wherever he ends up, Arian says he hopes to be able continuing studying music so he can one day conduct an orchestra in front of an international audience in a concert hall.

"I want to make music not just for Kurds or Arabs, but for the whole world."