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Forging Unity in Syria with Music

With more than 145,000 people dead and 2.7 million Syrians displaced since the beginning of the crisis, music has, like many aspects of life, become an instrument of resistance and war. But while artists from all circles propagate support for the...

Rabia was the drummer for a Damascene band called Ana, which is the Arabic word for “I.” He was one of five members who dreamed about making an album that mixed Arabic rhythms with post-rock instrumentals.  Yet as civil unrest spread throughout Syria, the band’s aspirations faded away.  

As the mood of Damascus changed and the music scene diminished, Rabia became more active in demonstrations against the regime.  But on May 25, 2012, someone followed him home. He was found dead at the age of 31, with a bullet in his neck inside his sister’s car the next day.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” said Anas, a 25-year-old Syrian songwriter and former vocalist for Ana. “Rabia’s death broke our spirits.”

With the band parting due to the incident, after being together for four years, Anas took a break from music to focus on his work at a radio station. But strict state control on media content pushed him to resign three months after Rabia’s death. Confining himself to his basement in Damascus, Anas began producing music again.

With more than 145,000 people dead and 2.7 million Syrians displaced since the beginning of the crisis, music has, like many aspects of life, become an instrument of resistance and war. But while artists from all circles propagate support for the regime or opposition, Anas has endorsed a more constructive message.

Before uploading his first track in November 2012, Anas, in order to protect his identity from the regime, called himself Khebez Dawle—a title meaning "My Country’s Bread." Anas told me that bread represents the foundation needed to build any project. He hoped his music could build solidarity by connecting listeners from all around the country.

After uploading his music, not only did Khebez Dawle gain relative popularity in the country for a new style of music—reaching more than 5,000 views within the first two weeks—but his old bandmates quickly took notice.  

“I told him to come to Beirut once I heard his music,” said Bazz, a 25-year-old old bassist and former member of Ana.

Bazz joined a cover band called Purple Haze after Ana split up. Yet growing instability in Syria pushed him out to Lebanon in search of new opportunities.  “Beirut had a more advanced music scene and donors willing to help us,”  Bazz told Anas.

While Anas eventually agreed to join he insisted to first return to Nabek—his hometown in Syria—to say goodbye to his family. But upon arriving to Nabek, a ceasefire between the opposition and regime ended and fighting broke out. Without knowing whether he would survive, he chose to enter an internet café to transfer his last song to Bazz. The track was called “Lasatk Aish”—meaning, “You’re Still Alive.”

Instantly after the transfer finished, while still speaking to Bazz online, a bomb landed on the building next to the cafe causing a power outage in the neighborhood.

“I thought he was dead,” Bazz told me in the band’s underground studio in Beirut.

“I don’t think I have ever experienced a more honest moment,” said Hekmat, the 24-year-old guitarist and keyboard player, who had been sitting next to Bazz when Anas suddenly went offline. "'Lasatk Aish' captured life in Syria.”

Although Bazz and Hekmat didn’t receive word until hours later, Anas survived. In March 2013, a week after the fighting in Nabek, he left for Beirut to form the band Khebez Dawle. They have since started to work on a concept album that portrays the events of the Syrian Civil War through their eyes.

After applying for financial support in August 2013 to the Arab Fund for Art and Culture (AFAC) and the Arab Culture Resource (ACR), two agencies committed to empowering cultural production in the Middle East, Khebez Dawle was awarded its first grant from AFAC in November and its second from ACR in January.

Finally, dreams once shattered seemed attainable. But despite their success, the band still wasn’t complete.

While collaborating in their studio one afternoon in May 2013, Hekmat received a call from an unknown number. It was Bashi, a 27-year-old guitarist and the lone remaining member from Ana.

“I never heard from Bashi after Ana split up,” said Anas.

“Damascus became a prison,” said Bashi. “After I heard the band rejoined I fled to Beirut to be a part of it.”

Today, Khebez Dawle is scheduled to perform three shows in Beirut to promote their album release in August, including a performance at the American University of Beirut’s outdoor festival on May 24. And though they intend to perform with a guest drummer, replacing Rabia remains an impossible task.

“He was more than our drummer. He was our friend,” Bashi told me as his hands fidgeted and rubbed his neck, while looking at the vacant drum set in their studio.

While each member reflects upon friends and family living in Syria, the simplest of ambitions pushes their project forward.

“We’re not promoting a political side, but we’re sharing our story, as it is” said Anas. “We just want our people to listen to something different than shelling and bombs every day.”