Ex-Syrian Prisoners Reunite With Music as Their Balm

Now in Germany, they perform songs that are freighted with memories of isolation and torture

Ex-Syrian Prisoners Reunite With Music as Their Balm
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

On a sunny morning in late June, somewhere in the German countryside, a group of men sit at a wooden table underneath a large linden tree, nestled between red brick barns overgrown with vines. One of them taps his hand on the table in a slow beat while the others sing a song in Arabic: “Oh river running with blame, do not add fire to my fire. Not even the sugar cane wailed as I did, nor did the pomegranate bleed like me.”

The last time these men sang together was about 30 years ago, and the setting could not have been more different. Instead of an idyllic artists’ retreat in the rural area of Brandenburg near Berlin, they were gathered between the cold walls of a prison on the outskirts of Damascus. And not any prison: Sednaya has become notorious in recent decades through reports of torture and mass executions. In a 2017 report, Amnesty International described Sednaya as a “human slaughterhouse.”

In such an environment, it is hard to imagine the presence of music, much less oud lessons, concerts and soirees with theater and dance. But during the 1980s and ’90s, that is just what a group of political prisoners in Sednaya did. Numerous songs emerged from the darkness of their cells: love songs, protest songs and mainstream pop songs. They were sung or whispered and accompanied by makeshift instruments, some of them built out of cardboard and bread. Now, a group of former inmates has gathered to remember and record the songs of Sednaya. Their experience shows how humans strive to preserve their humanity through creativity and self-expression, even under the most inhumane conditions.

For the past five decades, political imprisonment has become endemic in Syria, something many Syrians expect to experience at some point in their lives. Tens of thousands have been detained since the military coup of Hafez al-Assad in 1970, with more than 100,000 arrested since the 2011 uprising alone. In a country where a large part of the population lives or has lived in prison, imprisonment becomes part of the country’s national history and identity, says Eylaf Bader Eddin, a researcher at the SYRASP project in Berlin that studies the narratives and cultural practices of incarceration under the Assad regime. The 37-year-old wrote his doctoral thesis on translating the language of the Syrian uprising and has been working on prison songs for the past three years. According to him, prison culture has become a part of Syria’s cultural heritage, worthy of being preserved.

“If we don’t document it, it will be forgotten, and this is what the regime wants,” Bader Eddin says. “Since 2011 the metaphorical war of the regime is erasing the past and creating new narratives to describe what happened in the last 10 years.”

This is why Bader Eddin has started documenting the musical practices in Syrian prisons from the ’80s until today. Unlike other countries that have a well-known tradition of prison songs like Tunisia, Turkey or Egypt, this documentation of the Syria story is new. Bader Eddin sees several reasons why Syrian prison music has not yet been recognized: “Released prisoners are warned not to talk about what happened, or else they might be rearrested. And the people outside are afraid to talk to them, fearing that they could be arrested themselves.” Documenting prison cultural practices becomes possible mostly in exile, especially in regimes that last for a long period of time without any interruptions. With the massive growth of the Syrian diaspora since 2011, an unprecedented space for the production and documentation of Syrian culture has opened up, particularly the oppositional culture that has barely survived more than half a century of Assad rule.

Like almost 1 million other Syrians today, Bader Eddin lives in Germany, in the capital Berlin. The former inmates that participate in his research all live in different parts of Europe. At the invitation of Bader Eddin, SYRASP and the MENA Prison Forum, seven of them gathered for a five-day workshop in Brandenburg in late June, to remember one of the most painful chapters of their lives and bring back the songs they used to play to endure it.

“When we talk about Syrian prisons now we usually talk about torture methods and numbers of deaths,” Bader Eddin explains. “I am very careful not to romanticize prison, but I believe it is important to focus on the human beings, the individuals that lived inside this gloomy place.” His research, he says, is about how they resisted.

On the first day of the workshop, the seven men climb the iron staircase that leads directly from the garden into the first floor of one of the barns. They range in age from their late 50s to early 70s and are wearing short-sleeved shirts and comfortable sandals. All of them were politically active in the 1970s and ’80s, all of them were imprisoned for their membership in the Communist Party, some for seven years, others for 10. In the spacious room that transforms into a stage, they form a circle out of vintage armchairs. There is Hassaan Abdelrahman, a wiry 61-year-old with a youthful nonchalance. He is one of the group’s five oud players and acts as leader when it comes to organizing the order of the songs they practice during the workshop. In Sednaya, he learned how to read notation and play the different scales and styles of classical oriental music.

Sitting next to him is Asaad Shlash, the one who taught him. The small and quiet 69-year-old organized oud classes, sometimes daily, for up to 40 people in Sednaya. Before prison, he had studied music. At his first concert after graduation he was arrested, oud still in hand. Among his pupils in prison was Kisra Kurdi, who was just 18 when he was arrested, and Ibrahim Bayraqdar, an engineer who had never played an instrument before he was detained. In Sednaya, he read sheet music for two to three hours every day, then picked up the makeshift oud constructed clandestinely from random prison material and refuse, and practiced. Others in the group described him as the most diligent pupil, the only one of them who knew all the songs by heart. With him in Sednaya was his brother, the famous poet Faraj Bayraqdar. He, too, was a member of the musical sessions of Sednaya that took place at the dead end of a 75-yard corridor where the guards seldom passed. Faraj Bayraqdar wrote the lyrics to many prison songs. His fellow inmates would hum a melody and he would write the words to accompany it. One of them was the song about the river of blame that he sang with his comrades that morning in Brandenburg.

A second nonmusical member of the group is Badr Zakariya, a beaming, eccentric theater man, who uses any opportunity to break into a little dance. In Sednaya he organized satirical dance and theater performances. Once he irritated the guards by starting a barking concert with his fellow inmates. In the middle of a dark night, when he felt distressed, he pressed his mouth to the opening between his cell door and the floor and started howling. Gradually, other inmates joined in until it became what he calls a barking symphony with more than 50 participants. In his theatrical work, Zakariya was supported by Haytham Qatrib, a singer from a family of singers. Qatrib is the only participant who did not know most of the group before meeting them in the retreat in Brandenburg. He was in a different wing of Sednaya, where he spent hours each day practicing the oud by himself. But even though he had no fellow musicians to play with, he had many fellow inmates who helped him build the instruments. There were engineers, craftsmen and guys who just wanted to join in a creative project.

“It was almost like a factory, where every person was specialized on building one part of the oud,” Qatrib remembers.

Questions like “Who else was there?” “What was that guy’s name again?” and “Which year was that?” fill the room, as the group sets out to remember what happened in Sednaya more than 30 years ago. It soon becomes clear that the individual memory tends to be incomplete and prone to mistakes, while the process of remembering as a group can set the record straight and fill in the missing pieces. The group agrees that “the musical wave happened in the third floor on the left” between 1988 and 1992. After that, they were separated, one by one the members were released. Inmates started dreaming of their lives in freedom rather than focusing on how to make life bearable in captivity.

It has been said that a person can endure prison only if they completely blur out their life on the outside and instead build a new one on the inside. The Syrian author Yassin Haj Saleh coined the Arabic term “istihbas,” which could be translated to “prisonification” and describes the process of a prisoner settling into prison, relaxing into the environment, treating it as his home, with time no longer a consideration. For Eylaf Bader Eddin, the early years of Sednaya, which opened in 1987, saw a cultural istihbas. Not only did the inmates create habits about food, hygiene and social life, but “they also started building instruments and establishing a cultural routine inside prison.”

The first ouds in Sednaya were built from a sticky mixture of soaked bread and cardboard boxes, assembled in layers until it formed the round hollow body needed to resonate the vibration of the strings. There were no strings, however, so the men broke up the elastic bands of their socks and bedsheets and wove them back together the way they needed them. The tuning keys were made from the stems of fruit. “Imagine you are very, very hungry, the hungriest that anyone could ever be. In that moment, someone offers you a piece of cake. It is old and rotten but to you it is the most delicious thing you can imagine. That is exactly how those instruments were for us in prison,” explains Badr Zakariya. Later on, the group started hiding parts of the wooden boxes in which the guards brought them food. They could not keep a whole box without being caught but collected the best pieces of wood and used them to build instruments. Finally, Asaad Shlash managed to build an oud with a rectangular body — an unusual shape, but the sound was just right. So much so that he reconstructed the instrument much later, when he had left Syria and was living in Europe. During the workshop, he played it with his eyes closed.

The songs the seven men played during their years in Sednaya and again during the workshop can be divided into three categories: popular songs the inmates knew from before their arrest; familiar songs whose lyrics or tunes were partly changed to create something new; and songs that were written and composed from scratch inside prison. For researcher Bader Eddin, they all belong to one genre he calls “sijniya,” derived from the Arabic word “sijn” for prison.

“I believe singing a Britney Spears song in a club is totally different from singing it while passing the border as a migrant trying to get to Europe. The words are different when they are performed in a different context. If a song is performed in the prison context it becomes a prison song,” he says, pointing out that even today, in the vast and remote Brandenburg countryside, the group from Sednaya was not able to perform their songs loudly. Their voices were hushed, their hands tender on their instruments — a reminder of a time when they had to hide their music from the prison guards.

Sednaya in the ’80s was not the human slaughterhouse it is today. It was a new, comparatively modern prison that allowed inmates more amenities than the dungeons of Tadmor or the secret service detention centers. They were permitted pens, paper, books and musical scores. During the day they were able to move around with relative freedom outside their cells. They were even allowed visitors. Still, the experience of being deprived of their freedom for years, just for having a political opinion, was traumatic for many of the prisoners.

“And if you did not follow the rules you were punished,” says Faraj Bayraqdar. He remembers what happened to his little brother Ibrahim when he got caught playing his oud in Sednaya: After breaking the precious instrument, “the guards put Ibrahim in an isolation cell six floors underground, in total darkness and so humid his clothes fell apart.” For a whole month he had no human interaction. Twice a day the guards would push a plate of food under his door. But even there, Ibrahim remembers, he was dancing “dabke” (a regional folk dance) on his own, singing and screaming the whole time, resisting the silence and isolation that was supposed to be his punishment.

“Music really was a strong shield that protected us and kept us going throughout the years,” he says. Playing music made him feel proud and optimistic, says Hassaan Abdelrahman. “We had a purpose that we could achieve in prison.” There were phases, though. Sometimes he became depressed and did not pick up the oud for months. Then he returned and started again.

During lunch, Badr Zakariya tells me about his arrest in 1987. It wasn’t his first, but it was the one that would last the longest. Gesturing intensely, he describes how the soldiers surrounded his house and brought him down from his fifth-floor apartment. Ever the performer, he imitates the dialect of the soldiers who asked about his “red books”: Marx, Lenin and such, he explains with a mischievous look in his eyes.

“The commander told one of the soldiers to take this ‘little donkey’ — meaning me — upstairs and get the books from my apartment,” says Zakariya, and his smile suggests that there will be a punchline waiting at the top of the stairs. But when his story arrives there he suddenly remembers something else: how his wife stood in the doorway, with the big belly of a woman seven months pregnant and tears streaming down her face. He would not see his child in freedom until seven years later. At that moment of the story, Zakariya hesitates, then falls silent. He seems surprised about the memory he just encountered. Tears fill his eyes as he continues eating.

Remembering prison is not an easy thing to do. That is why Islam Al-Aqeel, a Jordanian trauma therapist, was present during the five days of the workshop with breathing exercises and therapeutic guidance. Her job was to make sure that the memories of Sednaya could surface without anyone getting hurt. Al-Aqeel specializes in working with survivors of torture, and usually works with groups.

“Just being with people who understand you, whom you understand, who speak your language, that can help,” she explains. Sometimes, she adds, the language of former inmates can resemble the chattering of birds in the trees: a conversation they are all in on because they shared a traumatic experience — for outsiders it can be hard to follow.

For the former inmates of Sednaya, reconnecting and playing music together once again feels like a form of therapy. “We have a very special connection that you will not find anywhere else,” says Hassaan Abdelrahman. “We shared good and bad times in prison, and we shared the years of our youth.” On the last day of the workshop, the men hardly take breaks between their music sessions. They have selected and practiced 12 songs for an album. On the last evening, they perform them for the staff and other artists at the retreat. It is a special moment: Never before have they played for an audience that was free. Now their plan is to record an album and play a concert in Berlin in December. And they have been inspired to do much more: to meet more often, play more songs and perform all over Europe.

Bader Eddin’s research also continues. He started with the prison music of the 1980s, because that era was the beginning of Sednaya. But he wants to find out more about the generations of prison songs that came after — especially since 2011. Before working for SYRASP, he had already conducted a case study with women prisoners from the secret service’s so-called death branch in Damascus that showed some surprising results.

They were detained for several months in 2014 and 2015, and contrary to Bader Eddin’s expectations they did not sing any revolutionary or protest songs.

“They were very conservative about singing anything against the regime,” he recalls. “They were not sentenced yet, so they were still trying to show that they are falsely accused of any political activity.” However, they used highly symbolic works, one of them the famous love song “Me and Leyla” that talks of painful love and struggle. One line says: “Strangers came to my homeland and they stole all the beautiful things.” In prison, the women sang the seemingly innocent love song.

“But they repeated that line several times,” Bader Eddin says. “And they were screaming when they were singing it.”

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