Memories of Syria in the heart of Holland

Utrecht is the center of the Netherlands, the headquarters and crossroads of the national railways. Here you see the Dutch from all provinces and all walks of life changing trains at the central train station on the eve of every weekend. Utrecht is a celebration of the diversity of the local people. At the heart of it lays Rasa, a magical venue in a small alley. Once you walk into Rasa, you never know where you’re taken to. Music and dance of all genres from literally all over the world are featured there. A place where people from very different backgrounds and beliefs get a chance to practice their shared humanity. A good exercise for these times, I would say.

by Hatim Suleiman

On the 27th of August was this special venue [1] in this special city the stage of the one day festival ‘Dreaming of Syria’[2], organized by Iris Loos and Tamer Alloush of the organization New Neighbours. It was a fully booked event. A celebration of the normal life of Syrians in their country before it was torn by war. Beautiful simple memories shared by people from different backgrounds, memories that they carry around in their forced diaspora. It offered movies and scenes from the popular Syrian drama, food traits of the Syrian rich cuisine, Syrian coffee and mate, music, music and more music ending naturally with the dabke dance.

The heavy burden of the war and an unforeseen diaspora hangs over every Syrian. The impact of the last 5 years is too big on the life of everyone regardless of his, or her political views (actually politics were taken out of the equation quite early). It is difficult to organize a positive event in these circumstances. This is a very big challenge for the organizers. One cannot but appreciate and admire the undertaking.

The start of the main show in the big theater did not go down very smoothly. Some – especially young – Syrians in the audience didn’t like nor relate to an exotic tourism-promotional image of Syria as presented in the short film Other side of Syria. Nor could they identify with the story of the life of a simple but naturally charming Bedouin lady, the coffee cup reader Om Raddad and the national TV-channel-choir-kind of song that the musical group started with.

However, it got better when each singer stepped forward and started singing. It was only then when the band launched into the specially “Tarabistic” [3] and nostalgic Fairouz song Ya rait, that I felt all the audience’s ears and hearts tuned in. Four young singers: Rime Dreze, Nour Wahedi, Elie Shammoun and Sherbel Hanna stepped forward on the stage and took turns in singing classics, especially the famous Qudud from Aleppo. Qudud are short traditional songs sung in concession like a medley. These songs capture the spirit and mood of Aleppo and Syria as no other.

Aleppo has one of the richest musical traditions of the Arab world and is where the Arabic version of classical oriental music was resurrected a couple of centuries ago. Even if some of the songs are based on old Egyptian or Iraqi pieces, the lyrics are modified or added to show a celebration of the beautiful things in life. A paradise-like vocabulary of gardens, flowers, fruit, wine, love are so often spelled out next to the beauty of beloved.The musical beats are embellished and livened up, made more rhythmic. A specific combination of tarab and dance sets the mood.

The second female singer Nour Wahedi from Aleppo had a marvelous deep voice.She ended her part with the all-time classic Zourouni kol sana marra (by Egyptian Sayed Darwish ). A sing-along classic for the homesick (“Please visit me , even if once a year… Please don’t forget me”).

After an instrumental musical interlude led by the great nostalgic sound of the nay of Majed Saraydeen accompanied by the mainly Iraqi musicians, the evening’s second part took a turn into a more contemporary mode. Syrian young artists not shy to take and mix their traditions they grew up with, with a global scene they’re now part of, took the stage. These Syrian artists -in their early 20s – notably well educated in their specialties (theater, music etc.) will definitely prosper and enrich the cultural scene in Europe.

Mazen Otobashi for example performed the spoken word act Remember you’re a Syrian set to the music of Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of silence. The charismatic Nawras Altaqi’s ode to Damascus, ‘ud improvisations and flirtation with many genres, ended with his own version of Oum Kolthoum’s Inta Umri. Wasim Arslan improvised on the Qudud of Aleppo, launched into a Capella version of Khaled’s Aisha – excerpt. The audience joined in clapping and doing backing vocals. Then he covered Imagine dragons’ demons. He ended with a suitably selected part of a famous notable poem Mawtini (my homeland) by the Palestinian Ibrahim Toquan. The part that goes “We do not want, an eternal humiliation, nor a miserable life, but we will bring back our storied glory, our storied glory, my homeland, my homeland”[4].

That evening in Rasa the Syrians confirmed –no matter how diverse and different they may be – that they share their passion and love for their homeland in all they do. And of course, as always they  joined hands in the eternal dabke[5].


[1] Rasa theater is threatened to be closed down, petition was in circulation to keep it open. I hope we won’t be “Dreaming of Rasa” one day! Nor of the Netherlands open to all cultures.

[2] ‘Dreaming of Syria’ festival website and complete program
New Neighbours Group Utrecht (organizers) at Facebook

[3] Tarabistic is a word I just made up, meaning having elements of Tarab. Tarab is -according to Dr. Aj.J Racy-: “the merger between music and emotional transformation in Arab culture”. It is an emotional state shared by the performers and the audience. Certain traditional musical and vocal techniques plus interactions occurred between the musicians and the audience. Tarab music often simply refers just to music genres using traditional techniques (instrumental and vocal).

[4] Whole poem is here

[5] The played set the Dutch DJ MPS pilot can be found here