Syrian refugees are the latest artists to light up Berlin’s creative scene

Abdallah Rahhal, the lead singer of the Syrian refugee band, Musiqana.
Abdallah Rahhal, the lead singer of the Syrian refugee band, Musiqana.
Image: Markus Werner/Konzertfotos Berlin
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“Refugee is not my name, and it’s not my work—it’s my situation,” says Abdallah Rahhal, the lead singer of Musiqana, a Berlin-based band of exiled Syrians.

Rahhal is one of scores of migrant singers, actors, musicians, and writers bringing the culture of their homeland to Germany. From exhibitions and documentaries to plays and poetry readings, Berlin’s supportive and multicultural creative community is welcoming these representatives of Syria’s rich cultural landscape.

Musiqana’s 28-year-old frontperson arrived in Germany from Aleppo in January 2015. Although he is a classically trained signer, Rahhal had no time to practice his passion in Syria. He found his voice again on the grueling journey to Europe across Lebanon, through Turkey, across the dangerous Mediterranean Sea, and along the Balkan route to Germany. He sang traditional tarab songs throughout the journey to help boost the spirits of his fellow refugees.

“I was singing for people, and the music was a help all the way to Germany,” Rahhal says when we sit down in a recording studio in Berlin. The band is currently recording its first CD, El Helwa Di, which means “the beautiful one” in English. “I came by sea and lost everything—but we were singing and laughing a lot. These songs make me happy because every single bar in the song reminds you of something.” The tarab genre translates to “musical ecstasy” in English and has incredibly complex rules and rhythms that singers need to master. Now Rahhal sings not to comfort refugees, but rather to “tell the German people about our culture and our music.”

Once refugees arrive in Europe, the struggle is far from over. Germany’s reception centers are overwhelmed with the huge numbers of arrivals, leaving many migrants waiting in temporary shelters for weeks and months before finding proper accommodation. Refugees also grapple with the challenges of learning the language and starting to rebuild their lives in a foreign context. Of all groups of refugees, Syrians appear to be having the biggest impact on Germany’s creative scene. Not only are they the largest group—out of 476,000 asylum applications in Germany (link in German) in 2015, 162,000 of them were from Syrian people—which proportionally means a huge pool of potential creative talent, but their cultural background is also incredibly rich. “There are a lot of poets and writers in Syria because they grew up with a poetic language,” says Rachel Clarke, Musiqana’s manager. “It’s part of the expression of their daily lives.”

A Scottish storyteller and theater producer who has been living in Berlin for 15 years, Clarke was moved when she first heard Rahhal sing. At the time, she was a volunteer German teacher at his refugee center in Brandenburg. Since the start of 2015 Clarke has been running a themed storytelling event series called the Storytelling Arena, where stories are simultaneously recited in German and English. Clarke thought that the refugees had “amazing stories to tell,” so she began organizing a Syrian storytelling event.

Motivated by a curiosity to find out more about Germany’s “new neighbors,” Clarke set out to have people tell their stories about Syria before the war. “Everyday the newspapers were writing about people’s journeys and the wretched things they’ve been through,” Clarke says. “But there’s all the culture they’re bringing with them as well—they have a whole life and are whole human beings beyond the war and beyond their experiences as refugees.” There was a huge appetite for these stories: 5,000 people signed up to come to the first event, where Syrians told their stories in Arabic with tandem German and English translations. The Syrian storytelling night has since been repeated 10 times, each time with a new theme and stories.

At one of these events, Clarke invited Rahhal to perform on stage—and the audience loved it. “People’s eyes were full of tears, then they started to dance and sing in elation, and the whole place was a living Syria in Berlin,” she says. The idea to form a band took hold, and before long they had recruited oud player Alaa Zaitouna, guitarist Adel Sabawi, Serdar Saydan on percussion, and Bilal Hammour on bass. Clarke offered to be their manager, and Musiqana, which means “our music” in Arabic, began to take off. They’ve already played 25 times together, and are playing at the Berlin Philharmonie in December. “A lot of their gigs were benefit concerts by refugees for refugees at the beginning, but they’re just too good to keep playing only for refugees,” Clarke says. “Artists want to play for everyone.”

Raed Jazbeh, the leader of the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, tells a similar story. Jazbeh was on an orchestra tour in 2013 when friends advised him not to return to his home in Damascus. He decided to stay in Germany and apply for asylum. “When I arrived in Germany, I noted that a lot of Syrian musicians live in Germany and Europe,” Jazbeh said in a PRI interview. It took him months to track down old friends and put together an orchestra, but now it numbers 65 Syrian musicians living all over Europe. “I was quite lucky to be born in Aleppo. It’s a very musical city,” he told CNN. “Everybody has at least one musician in the family, whether it’s an oud player or a singer.”

The cultural life of Damascus was rich and varied before the war shattered it. A Syrian branch of the Goethe-Institut was established in Damascus is 1955, but it was forced to close its doors for security reasons in 2012. In October 2016, the institute launched a 10-day pop up exhibition in Berlin called “Damascus im Exil,” which brought together about 100 Syrian artists who the Institut had lost touch with as a result of the violence. “We could bring the Syrian cultural scene together, and many old acquaintances have met again after many years,” says Goethe-Institut project manager Marina May. “The topics of exile and refugees were important and have been made the subject of many of the Syrian artists’ work, but for us it was important to have a equal-footed exchange and for the individuals not to be seen as refugees first but as artists.”

Berlin has long been an attractive destination for foreign artists seeking refuge, inspiration, or simply a freewheeling and affordable place to temporarily call home: David Bowie wrote some of his best songs there, writers like Christopher Isherwood and Vladimir Nabokov found safety and inspiration within its sprawling boundaries, and now a new generation of Syrians are carving out their own space.

There is a strong urge to integrate and move beyond their refugee status, and Syrian creatives seem especially keen to show that they come from a rich, sophisticated society that deserves to be celebrated. “Music is my message for integration. We have to fight for our culture and our humanity,” Rahhal says.