An Interview with Nabil Arbaain
In February of 2011, 15 children were arrested in Darʿā, Syria. They were accused of painting slogans criticizing the regime on the school walls: “Down with the President” and “Your turn, Doctor,” an allusion to Bashar al-Assad’s degree in opthalmology. The children were beaten up and tortured in prison. In response, a protest against police brutality built up on the streets. The violence with which the Syrian army crushed the protests gave rise to the civil war.
The divisions between ethnic and religious identities became inflamed. Diverse, violent actors formed a diffuse mix of threats. Terror turned against civilians, a fight for resources flared up; for some, the war became an opportunity for profit. The line between oppressor and victim, fighter and civilian, became blurred. An information war was waged using the power of photographs and video. The cultural inheritance in Palmyra and the old city of Aleppo was destroyed, diplomacy failed, and the war expanded to a broader geopolitical conflict from which a new order in the Near and Middle East is now emerging. Researchers like Mary Kaldor coined the term “New Wars” in the 1990s with respect to the First Gulf War, the Balkan wars and the wars in Somalia and Rwanda: a form of hybrid conflicts that have replaced the classic wars between states and are fueled by the disintegration of the East-West conflicts, globalization, and progressive use of digital media.
What’s not new in Syria is the suffering. The war has resulted in approximately 400,000 deaths from the use of poisonous gas and carpet bombing, barrel bombs, from hunger, massacres, diseases. One does not need to be a prophet to predict that these numbers will continue to grow. About 12 million people became refugees; a few hundred thousand out of 4.8 million Syrians who, according to the UNHCR, have fled their country, have now settled in Germany. They are victims but also people who want to build their lives as new members of society, people who want to find their place and make a difference in this country. One such person is the 35-year-old musician Nabil Arbaain from Damascus. He came to Germany in May 2015. I met him at the Berlin University of the Arts, where he was attending a training course for refugee artists and other creative professionals organized by the Career College of the University.
VAN: you play the oud. How did you choose this instrument?
Nabil Arbaain: I started with piano lessons as a child. I was told at music school later that I had to switch from piano to oud.
Playing piano is a privilege of the upper class in Syria, you need to have good connections. So instead I started taking private lessons with some of the best oud players in Damascus. At the conservatory they taught only classical music, unfortunately, but I was more interested in Eastern music. Since I went to a commercial school, I didn’t have much choice but to study business later on, too. After a couple of years I decided to drop out and only do what I wanted to do. But it’s hard to survive as a musician and composer. I founded a music production company and opened a small music store in the center of Damascus.
Were you aware of the protests when they first began, in 2011?
We knew, of course, what was happening around us, and we were affected by the same issues as everybody else. But it was very dangerous to speak up. Many influential, well-respected people spoke up and then disappeared or had to leave the country. When the protests in Tunisia and Egypt started to have some initial success, we became gradually more hopeful that there would be reforms. In the beginning it was not about overthrowing the government. But when blood began to flow it became about something more, because we could not accept someone who murders his own people just to stay in power. The more crimes Bashar al-Assad committed, the more radical the demands became.
can you remember a particular moment that made you optimistic?
When we saw many thousands on the streets of Damascus who openly called for more freedom, even thought it was being denied on TV and described as rumors or lies, we thought that there was no way back and we would succeed.
was there a turning point?
It was when the bloodshed started and the protesters began to arm themselves in retaliation, which I thought was wrong, and when more and more groups from outside joined the conflict, whether for or against Assad. It’s never good when foreign forces enter a country. I remember walking out of my house and seeing, right there in the city center, soldiers with weapons. I assumed that the world would never accept murder and would not allow the war to escalate, even if only because of Syria’s geographic situation and its consequences for the whole region, the whole world. Now we have arrived at the point where many think that Assad is a lesser evil, despite the fact that the majority of Syrians aren’t satisfied by the government, not even those who support him now. His game is over. Instead of fighting against the hateful radical groups, he suppressed the potential for reforms. Now Syria and the world have two options: either the Islamic extremists or Bashar al-Assad.
the violent suppression of the protests and the resulting escalation to civil war had already begun in 2011. you stayed in Syria up until march 2014. how did you live and survive those two years? did you keep working up until you left?
No, I closed my store in the beginning of 2012. It was in a touristy area of Damascus, but there weren’t any tourists there. Besides, people have priorities other than listening to music when there is no electricity, no gas, and no work. The situation became more dangerous for me personally as well, because I never held back my opinions and even wrote some songs against the regime. Some people wrote complaints about me. My friends warned me that the secret police was making inquiries. It became clear that I would get arrested sooner or later if I stay there. So, I bought a big car, packed my things, and closed the store without further notice. I moved to my parents’ place, started to work at an optometrist’s store, persevered in this manner. There were no jobs around—I do not know how I would have survived if I did not have my savings.
when did you decide to leave syria?
I resolved to leave at the beginning of 2013. The situation was becoming more and more precarious, because my name appeared on a black list of people wanted by the secret police. Somebody sold this list to the news channel Al Jazeera and they published it. A friend from outside of Syria called and told me that my name was on this list. My “crime” was mentioned, too: I said in public that the Syrian regime was murdering Syrians. But at that time I did not have enough money to afford leaving. And I did not want to leave my girlfriend behind, with whom I had been together for six years. We worked very hard for half a year to accumulate some savings. We got married during this time, too. When my wife managed to get a stipend from Portugal, we left for Lebanon in March of 2014 and never returned.
so you lived for a whole year knowing that your name was on this list?
Yes, it was pretty dangerous, because there were checkpoints on every corner in Damascus. Walking was less dangerous than driving or using public transportation. I would either walk three and a half kilometers to work or take the bus and step out before each checkpoint, then walk, then get on the bus again.
your wife received a stipend for a master’s program in Portugal, but you had to stay in Lebanon because you couldn't get a visa.
Yes, I tried to go the legal way, first for seven months in Beirut, then for another seven months in Istanbul. The Portuguese embassy promised to help me but nothing happened, even though I had an invitation from a Spanish friend and from my wife. My passport lay for five months in the Portuguese embassy in Ankara without me ever hearing a word from them. That’s why I decided to take the illegal route. In May 2015 I took a boat from Turkey to Greece.
Was it hard to find a boat?
It wasn’t hard at all, Syrians have developed a large and effective network. If something happens, laws or routes change, we all learn about it. All possible outcomes were clear to me: I knew about the situation in each European country; how long the procedure for receiving the refugee status is; what kind of opportunities there are; I knew about the weather, culture, chances of employment.
How much did you pay for the boat trip?
$1,000. We were 37 people in a rubber boat.
where in Greece did you arrive?
It was an uninhabited island, I don’t remember its name. We called [emergency services] from there. Three hours later they picked us up. I believe they were soldiers. The first words I heard were: “Are you from Syria? Don’t worry, from this moment there is no dying anymore.” I was overwhelmed to hear something like this from soldiers. The Greek people were so friendly. They themselves are suffering now from a difficult economical situation, but they want to help, one notices it on the streets, in supermarkets—despite the high number of refugees.
Did you know at that time where you wanted to go?
Germany, the Netherlands, or Sweden. My first choice was the Netherlands because I had friends there. I decided to go to Germany because higher education is free here. I was thinking about my wife, who wanted to enter a graduate school after finishing her program in Portugal. I didn’t have a chance to study what I wanted in Syria, so I hope at least my wife and children will have this chance.
how did you get from greece to germany?
By plane, with a fake passport. I was insanely lucky to get through document control. First I stayed at a place in Eisenhüttenstadt [a city near Berlin—Ed.]. There I learned, too, how it feels to be unwelcome. I was happy about having succeeded and finally felt safe; I smiled at people on the street and was expecting them to be happy, too, but they wouldn’t look me in the eye. After that I stayed in Frankfurt-Oder for two months and then in Rathenow. When I received my residence permit, I immediately came to Berlin.
what do you want to do here?
I want to re-open my music company, “The Tent” (al-Khaimeh in Arabic). My plan is to support newly arrived musicians. I was lucky to get my instrument back after two months, because a friend brought it to me from Turkey. But many musicians come here without their instruments, speak no English, live in small camps somewhere in the provinces. I can understand why people are placed away from the large centers, because otherwise everyone would go to the big cities. But it’s hard for musicians in the provinces, it’s easy to lose your energy and potential there. My plan is to support these musicians so that they can practice their art again as soon as possible. I also would like to bring together local and newly-arrived musicians. Beside all this I want to give concerts and teach, preferably at a music school, but this is complicated because I don’t have the necessary certificates.
does a culture scene still exist in damascus?
Hardly. Almost everyone has left—and those who stayed are either silent or support the regime.
berlin has become a cultural center of the syrian diaspora. do you think it will continue to develop?
There are many chances to become visible here, not only for the musicians. It’s harder for theater actors, for example. The language barrier isn’t that much of a problem for musicians. With all the support we receive here we will be able, I believe, to come up with wonderful art projects that will make a difference.
There are many projects where refugees form a part of the “scenery.” do you feel represented in them?
I often dislike that in these projects the refugees stand on one side, the locals on the other. I am an artist, in the first place. Refugee is my legal status but it doesn’t define me.
do you think that the support you’re getting flows into the right channels? is there any room for improvement?
I very much appreciate all the support, it’s wonderful. But it’s always a challenge to find the right people for the right tasks. I know many German organizations which can’t find the right people and start to think that we don’t want their support. There should be more Syrians working in these organizations.
how do you deal with the feeling of powerlessness, helplessness?
These feelings were stronger when I was still in Syria. I had the feeling of being unable to do anything, I was very pessimistic in general. You’re fighting against great power, there are no organizations, no significant possibilities of stirring things up.
when you think about your country, what gives you hope?
Only the people, the culture. Nothing else. There is no hope in systems. The political situation is hopeless, nationally and internationally. I have zero optimism in this respect; perhaps the situation will get even worse. Because of its geographical location, Syria is one of the richest and most multi-faceted cultural melting pots in the world, it’s a very old culture. We were one of the first countries to have a female minister, we had the first universities where men and women could study together, we had a functional democratic system. There was a strong sense of community in the society, you didn’t feel alone. When I look at my trajectory on the way to Germany and how other Syrians helped me, these were people I had met maybe two times in my life before! This old gene of commonality will resist all the hate the war has brought. History in its entirety won’t be destroyed over five or 10 years. One day we’ll be able to use our cultural heritage to rebuild our country. Right now, weapons are what we hear loudest, it’s not the time, none of us will be able to speak loud enough to be heard. But there is hope in the images we carry with us, in our visions of Syria. In our minds and in our hearts. ¶