The band Khebez Dawle have survived war in Syria, success in Beirut, a perilous journey on dinghy and by foot through the Balkans to seek asylum in Germany. But they insist they are not fleeing, but instead, on tour...
November 2013, Beirut: The First Performance
I travel by taxi to Furn al-Shabbak, a neighbourhood around seven kilometres south of downtown Beirut. Imad, a friendly Syrian artist, has invited me to a concert in his flat, which they have dubbed Kindergarten – a refuge for escaped painters, photographers and musicians. No one knows exactly how many people are living there at the moment. It turns out to be the first performance from Khebez Dawle, a Syrian band that will make headlines worldwide two years later.
Khebez Dawle means ‘state bread’, an allusion to the Syrian regime's food subsidies. The band’s music is about the revolution and the courage of Syrians who do not want to fight on either side of the civil war; it’s a blend of indie and alternative rock that tells of pain and hope.
The five-piece band plays in the living room on the ground floor, where young Syrians, American exchange students and German development workers crowd together. Most of them are under 30. There is red wine in plastic cups, and two women are making out in the kitchen. At the beginning, there is laughter; later, tears. Syrian parties in Beirut with the apocalyptic background music of the civil war next door.
“Everything started in Beirut,” says Anas Maghrebi, singer and band leader, though the musicians had already played together in Damascus. Then their drummer was killed while participating in mass demonstrations against the Syrian regime. Another band member was in the army, he explains. “We had almost forgotten him – I mean, when you went to the army in Syria at this time, then you simply disappeared. You didn't come back, they didn't let you go. Maybe you just died.” But then the guitarist suddenly appeared in Beirut, completely covered in dust, without any papers. Now there were four of them: Anas, Hekmat, Bazz and Bashar. Vocals, keyboard, bass and guitar. Back in Beirut, a young American sits behind the drums.
Anas calls the period between 2013 and 2015 their Beirut phase, when Khebez Dawle became known around Lebanon. They gave over 25 concerts, appearing at festivals and recording their first studio album with the support of Arab NGOs. Beirut is not as free as it seems, however, he says: “Pairs of eyes follow you through the city. Everyone knows exactly which Syrian city is for or against the regime.”
September 2015, Lesbos: A CD for Tourists
Anas Maghrebi posts a group photo on Facebook: 16 Syrian refugees on the beach of the Greek island Lesbos. The men pose in a half circle in front of a radiant blue Mediterranean. Among them are the musicians from Khebez Dawle, who smile at the camera with dark rings around their eyes. Anas, Hekmat and Bazz are suddenly refugees risking their lives on a crossing to Europe in a rubber dinghy. “In Greece” is written above the photo, punctuated by a heart. It has 144 likes. My eyes begin to fill with tears. I write an email to my friend Elina Makri in Athens. She meets the three band members in the Greek capital, finds them a hostel and asks them questions about their arrival in Greece. Bashar, the second guitarist, is still stuck in Turkey. “We landed on a hotel beach and introduced ourselves by saying, ‘Hello, we are musicians, we come from Syria.’” At the same time, they press their CD into the hands of the surprised guests of the Aphrodite Hotel. The world of swimming trunks and all-inclusive drinks meets the misery of global migration. I am lost for words. The guys have a sense of humour, that's for sure: what a PR exercise! The hotel owner writes on Facebook: “As a gift, they gave me a CD called Khebez Dawle. I looked to see if I could find them on YouTube, and I was speechless. They are unbelievable.”
I think this episode is one of my favourite stories from Anas. He hates speaking about difficulties, problems, setbacks or humiliations. He doesn't want to be a refugee, but would rather tell the story of his flight as a great adventure, as the story of a band on tour, rather than on the run, musicians who overcame all the borders of Europe to tell the world their story. A long time later, he describes to me what they had to undergo before their crossing near Izmir: “We had to spend a day and night in the forest, with neither tents nor sleeping bags. The next day, a guy came into the forest and told us that the dinghy was ready. When we got to the beach, we were surprised to find that there were only 16 of us. Normally the smugglers take many more with them.” Anas and his friends were suspicious and asked if the boat was broken. “The smuggler said to us: ‘We're not sending a driver with you – you'll be operating it yourself.’”
For this leg of the journey, the musicians had to pay $1,200 per person to Turkish smugglers, having sold their instruments and studio equipment in Beirut. But the guys are musicians in their mid-twenties who want to conquer the world with their music, even if they are refugees. As Anas, Hekmat, Bazz and five musicians they had befriended were leaving Athens, Angela Merkel's statement “We can do it!” caused great excitement, and Germany shone as a role model for Europe. At the same time, a state of emergency was declared in Macedonia and barbed wire was being rolled out in Hungary. When the Syrian musicians reached the Hungarian border, the way forward was blocked by a fence.
September 2015, Zagreb: Police Officers Become Fans
We were the first eight Syrians in Croatia; the newspapers spoke of these eight Syrians who had come into the country as if we were an exceptional case.
Greece, Macedonia, Serbia. The musicians have been fleeing for two weeks, and have covered over a thousand kilometres of the Balkan route, sometimes in a convoy, sometimes on foot. When they hear the news from Hungary, three members of Khebez Dawle are sitting in a flat in Belgrade, together with five musician friends. “That's when we decided to improvise,” reports Anas. They looked for a way to Croatia on a map. When they arrived there, they quickly became famous, he recounts. “We were the first eight Syrians in Croatia; the newspapers spoke of these eight Syrians who had come into the country as if we were an exceptional case. Many newspapers and TV stations reported on us. On the street, we introduced ourselves by saying, ‘We are the eight!' and people knew what we meant.”
Sometimes the optimism with which Anas frames the most difficult moments of the journey as comical or absurd is jarring. He describes a three-hour hike through no man’s land between Serbia and Croatia, on foot over the ‘green border', in pouring rain, on the darkest of nights. Suddenly I see the scene in front of me: bright light slices through the darkness, and commands in a foreign language echo through the air. Croatian police rush towards them. The end of the line.
For the next 36 hours, the musicians are stuck in a police station. Their guards were friendly, Anas reports: “We started to speak about our band and our message. At some point, one of the policemen opened his browser, typed in ‘Khebez Dawle’.” He then played ‘Bitamr’, a song about freedom, prisons and the imprisoned, on his phone. “This policeman has detained you, and has the power to keep you,” says Anas, “but you get him to listen to your song. That is perhaps even more important than playing at festivals.”
The dream of festivals, however, also came true: when the musicians from Khabez Dawle were allowed to leave the police station, they performed twice in Croatia. Their concert in Zagreb, the capital, was a triumph. Arabic news channel Al Jazeera released a video with the caption “This Syrian rock band has transformed fleeing to Europe into a music tour!” Band leader Anas loves this headline, behind which their fears, uncertainty and status as refugees fade.
Al Jazeera released a video with the caption 'This Syrian rock band has transformed fleeing to Europe into a music tour!'Bazz, the bassist, says that after the performance a man from the crowd came up to him. “He asked, is that your bass? I said no, it belongs to the organiser. Then he asked me if I could wait for half an hour.” A short time later, the man came back with a bass in his hand, without a case or cable. “Take this bass with you – it belongs to me, but I want you to take it with you on your journey.” The Syrian bassist says he initially didn't want to accept it – too much to carry – but the man insisted on it. Bazz shows me the instrument: “No cable and no bag – that's how I took it with me.” With the bass over his shoulder, they continued on to their next destination, Vienna.
October 2015, Vienna: Refugees as Media Darlings
A shaky handheld camera edges its way towards the stage. In the background, hundreds of small lights shine like a starry night sky. The light is dim, and the walls are painted blood-red. Hekmat sits on a speaker on the left with his guitar. A Syrian musician friend, also a refugee, is behind the drums, while Bazz holds a snow-white bass in his left hand with his right stuffed in a trouser pocket. Anas has withdrawn to the far corner of the stage, where the spotlight cannot find him. The location: The Loft in Vienna.
After a number of sleepless nights and long conversations, I have given up on my plan of bringing them to Germany in the campervan. I'm a journalist, after all, not an escape agent!I follow the flight of the Syrian musicians via a kaleidoscope of media: video clips, photos and status updates. We are in contact every day on Facebook Chat. After a number of sleepless nights and long conversations, I have given up on my plan of bringing them to Germany in the campervan. I'm a journalist, after all, not an escape agent!
At least, that's the theory. I support the musicians with information, call aid organisations and sometimes let colleagues in Athens and Vienna know their whereabouts. But where is the line? While I deal with my moral dilemma, the musicians find the help they need along the way. Regardless of where the young band turns up, they come across supporters, says Anas. “There are many people who want to help, irrespective of whether or not we are musicians. The majority of people that we have met were previously activists. They try to bring attention to and increase awareness of this whole crisis.”
Speaking to Anas about this cross-border network, his eyes light up. It occurs to me once again how passionately he speaks about the positive moments of their journey. “The trip itself was full of hope, adventures and experiences. Your trust in humanity and the possibility that humans see others as human again, independent of nationality or citizenship – this trust becomes much stronger. At the same time, your faith in minor issues such as passports and borders and papers declines.”
I also want to believe in such things. As a journalist, I am in the middle of the struggle for the ‘right’ images. The guys spit so confidently in the face of the victim cliché of destitute refugees that they are celebrated in the international media as a band on tour rather than a band fleeing, from Al Jazeera to the BBC to Chinese media. Put simply, Khebez Dawle are a good story.
On 4 October, 2015 a colleague writes to me. “Do you know anyone who can drive through Germany to Berlin?” This journalist is on the road with the musicians in Austria for a production firm shooting a film about the band. I am completely confused by my behaviour as I type my answer: “I have been supporting the guys since they landed in Lesbos. I am helping them but don't have the desire to suddenly do the logistics for a documentary.” What is going on? Am I jealous that I am not on the road with the band myself?
For the next few days there is complete radio silence. 48 hours without news from the band. Suddenly, my colleague gets in touch: they are near Berlin! My heart races. I pick up the phone to call Anas.
October 2015: Utopia Meets Bureaucracy
Anas leans on the window of a converted top-floor apartment in Fürstenburg in the Oberhavel district of Brandenburg, 90 kilometres north of Berlin. The band has found accommodation in a private house with a couple who campaign for refugees. When I see him for the first time in two years, I am shocked to notice how thin he has become. The journey has left its mark. Across his face the unshakeable optimism remains, but sometimes he seems to first need to remember himself again. This place of refuge could hardly be more idyllic, but despite that he can hardly wait to get to Berlin. “It is a beautiful place to rest, and maybe even heal, after this long journey. But it is only a temporary stay in order to catch our breath, organise ourselves and get ready to make our applications and begin the process.”
The process, beginning with their application for asylum in Germany, will decide their personal futures and the future of the band. The Syrian musicians see those futures in Berlin, the party capital which promises performances and recognition. Berlin, the place artists from all over the world long to move to. One week later, Anas, Hekmat and Bazz make it there – to a refugee home. They are but three of the 68,000 refugees who reached the German capital in 2015. Their utopias have met bureaucratic reality.
Together with five musician friends, they are housed in one room in an empty town hall in western Berlin. When I visit them, I have to hand in my passport to security. The former administration building, with its long corridors and curved staircases, is a labyrinth. The gap between the reality of the refugee home and the dreams of the young musicians could hardly be bigger. They want to make a new record and go on tour, but waiting, not giving concerts, is now on the itinerary. The musicians lounge around on four rows of bunkbeds, totally lost. They have escaped the war in Syria and uncertainty in Lebanon, but the boredom in Germany is difficult to bear. Hekmat, the guitarist and keyboardist, says he is thankful to be a refugee, but his impatience as a musician is plainly written on his face. “Waiting is hell for everybody. Every time we go past a music shop, we see pedals, guitars and equipment. One cannot simply sit around and wait for everything to happen on its own – we don't want to lose our passion and energy.”
One month later, the guys from Khebez Dawle give their first concert in Berlin, having found an agent to market the band. Bashar, their second guitarist, is still stuck in Turkey.
February 2016, Berlin: Flight, Art and Marketing
Waiting is hell for everybody. One cannot simply sit around and wait for everything to happen on its own – we don't want to lose our passion and energy.A decaying high-rise in Lichtenberg, in the half-industrial no man’s land of the capital. The musicians from Khebez Dawle have had a practice room here for a couple of weeks. The atmosphere reminds me of my first Berlin flat – flea market charms with beer bottles, comfy armchairs and a picture of Jesus with sunglasses drawn on hanging on the wall. Bashar sits behind the drums, though he normally plays guitar. When his bandmates put themselves on a dinghy to Europe last September, Bashar wasn't with them. From Turkey, he followed the same pictures on Facebook that I did in Germany. “We are on tour and not fleeing!”, the guys asserted, challenging the TV stereotypes of helpless refugees. We are people. We have dreams. That gave Bashar hope.
The organisers of the glamorous Berlin Cinema for Peace gala book Khebez Dawle for a live show. But Bashar is still waiting in vain for a German visa, so he takes the same route as his bandmates did: via dinghy and then the Balkan route, he reaches Berlin right on time for the gala.
When Bashar climbs the stairs of the Konzerthaus at the Gendarmenmarkt on 15 February, the classical columns have been covered with 2,000 life jackets from Lesbos, an installation by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. For Bashar, this is an awful case of déjà vu. “From his perspective, it is art. But for others it can be a nightmare to see life jackets again. It is terrible when you've lived through the danger yourself.”
At the gala, prominent guests from Hollywood and Germany bedeck themselves in shining gold and silver emergency blankets. For Bild reporters, this is too much: “The gala was totally tasteless,” the newspaper report is headed. “The Syrian band on stage were completely lost among the stars’ selfie shots.”
In the end, a smashed guitar lies on stage and security is called backstage. The guys from Khebez Dawle initially do not want to talk about this episode. Finally, Bazz says: “It felt really weird to see these people in life jackets sipping champagne, and you know that these jackets once saved your life.”
Khebez Dawle profits from being a Syrian refugee band, but guitarist Hekmat is not happy about this label. “We were already musicians before we became refugees. Musicians are musicians!”
A couple of weeks later. Same band, different location. Under the motto ‘Refugees welcome!’, Khebez Dawle are playing in the legendary SO36 in Kreuzberg in front of a packed crowd, the majority of whom also come from Syria. As the band move away from their songs and begin to improvise, the people dance as if their hearts are going to burst out of their chests.
April–May 2016: On the Road Again
Khebez Dawle are on the road across Germany, performing from Passau to Flensburg as part of the 'Laut gegen Nazis' (Raise Your Voice against Nazis) campaign. The band are booked for festivals and have their own concerts far into the summer. Anas continues to flirt with the idea of a European tour – at the stops on their journey of flight, in reverse order. At the beginning of May, just before their performance in Freital, Saxony, Anas receives his deportation order. He has to go back to Croatia, where he, Bazz and Hekmat first registered in the EU. For now, that means more waiting.
Tabea Grzeszyk is one of the founders of the international journalist network hostwriter. She first reported on the band Khebez Dawle for Deutschlandradio Kultur and will be updating the story of the Syrian musicians there in future episodes.
This article first appeared in German in the 2/2016 edition of zenith. Translation by Ryan Evers.