This feature / review was originally published on Syrian Memory Collective, which you can read here.
One of the most striking aspects of the Syrian revolution, not sufficiently commented on, let alone documented, is its profuse eruption of cultural creativity and other forms of humanistic expression that, on the popular, rural, and suburban levels at least, had largely remained dormant under a severely repressive political, economic, and social climate lasting over 40 years. These cultural avenues and their expressionistic features constitute some of the most enduring, idiosyncratic, and downright unique features of an uprising triggering a cataclysmic effusion in Syrian society that remains absolutely unparalleled, manifesting as it does in the form of graffiti, song, banners, lyricisms, journalistic / literary projects, slogans, online video series, theatrical forms of direct action and civil disobedience, and myriad, seemingly innumerable forms of art. In particular, these socially transmitted expressions of art, identity, and all manner of collaborative projects are authentic, spontaneous, and deeply intertwined within the nation’s revolutionary zeitgeist and simultaneously emanate forth from it. They are attributes of a Syrian society that had not overtly articulated its voice – until now, that is. As a result, one gets the sense that the rich character of Syria’s rural and working class communities prior to the uprising was largely unknown or relegated purely to the subterranean spheres of social life. However, it is precisely these seminal components of the current waves that make for such exciting discovery for anyone fascinated by the post-revolutionary cultural renewal of Syria.
Originally released in 2004 on Sublime Frequencies, a record label based in Seattle, Washington (they are most notable for having helped propel Syrian dabke vocalist Omar Souleyman to worldwide exposure) devoted to releasing pop/folk musics, visual material, field recordings, radio fragments, theatrical expressions and other forms of left-field sound art from marginalised communities across South-East Asia, and what is commonly parsed as the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, I Remember Syria is a double-album anthology of sounds recorded in Syria over two trips made across the country in the late 90s and again at the turn of the millennium. This collection is startling in that it gives global listeners an extremely rare, perhaps unprecedented, chance to hear an eclectic, sprawling, and multifaceted first-hand representation of the daily lives, activities, and unique artistic creations of ordinary Syrians prior to the revolution.
I Remember Syria is essentially composed of two parts; the first contains recordings derived from Damascus, the second peregrinates further afield and comprises pieces from various places all across the country, most notably Lattakia, Aleppo, and Hama. This heterodox compilation chiefly documents street sounds of daily activity, radio broadcasts, impromptu musical performances, the researcher’s interviews of locals in market places, restaurants, stalls, hotels, and places of labour as well as various outdoor recordings of rural life, chatter, and mechanical / human ambience in the interiors of mosques, factories, workshops, and other frequented locales. This list is far from comprehensive, however; I Remember Syria transcends the travelogue blueprint in order to portray aspects of Syrian culture so interstitial and interwoven into the underground Syrian cultural milieu that even frequent visitors to Syria would have failed to apprehend, for instance, the tendency of competing cassette kiosk owners in marketplaces to blast music at one another, the country’s theatrical-musical folk traditions, and even Aleppo’s underground queer community.
The content in Sublime Frequencies’ I Remember Syria collection determinedly opens up a no-holds-barred representation to unfiltered textures of Syrian life as it is lived in its many spaces, both literal and figurative. It is dotted with many exceptional, unorthodox, and illustrative moments of the personalities of all the people captured in these recordings. Across this odyssey, one is treated to the sounds of a wedding in the one of the narrow haras (alleys) of the Old City, inaugurated in a flurry of zalghoutas (celebratory ululations for festive occasions such as the announcement of an engagement): the cheers and yelping of young Bedouin children as they boisterously sing folkloric tunes, perceptibly thrilled at the prospect of another day revealing its petals in full blossom; dense sounds of bustling evening traffic as a petrol salesman cries out ‘Mahzot! Mahzot!’ (diesel); and the insouciant, banshee-wailing from a woman singing a scathing song about Saddam Hussein, US Imperialism, and Arabism, giggling diffidently as her interviewer goads her on to sing some more.
In terms of the audio-transmitted arts, we are treated here to a consummate goldmine of gems which, when they are not utterly captivating musically and aurally, are at least overtly instructive of the stultifying nature of a national state that brooked nothing less than total prostration to the odious cult of the Al-Assad dynasty. This is particularly glaring in a radio presentation in English entitled ‘Arab Women In Focus’, which propagandistically features a female newscaster describing in sordid detail how the purportedly gracious, cosmopolitan minded Hafez Al-Assad single-handedly paved the way for women’s liberation in society’s public spheres, opening up opportunities for women in all areas of life, from occupational spaces to the military. Its duplicitous narrative brings to mind the more contemporary phenomenon of pinkwashing, a tactic used by Israel to promote the ‘Jewish state’ as a liberal, open-minded haven that is accepting of people with deviant, commonly marginalised lifestyles, pulling the wool over the eyes of naive outside observers as to the state’s systematic economic, sectarian, and social oppression of the Palestinians who live there. Excerpts such as the aforementioned portray how Syria under Hafez Al-Assad exhibited much of the same traits. Musically, we are treated to styles that run the gamut from an independent, jaunty pop-folk outfit from Aleppo (the Gomidas Band), an utterly invaluable ditty from an Assyrian singer known as Jermain Tamraz, crooning a song here entitled ‘Moumita’ and sung in that language, as well as myriad cuts from radio children’s musicals, commemorative Ramadan-themed songs, and synth-laden, incidental soundtracks to talk-show segments. It is difficult to sufficiently emphasise how beguiling and immersive these sounds are and virtually impossible to overstate!
Beyond all this, however, and as remarkable and exhilarating as this entire package is, there are two pieces in I Remember Syria that give us such phenomenal albeit fleeting insights through a penetrating cultural lens from this pre-Arab Spring era which one would be hard-pressed to find depicted anywhere else. One of these is a record of a dialogue called Kazib City, which features a staged theatrical in-joke in the form of a dialogue between the staff of a Syrian hotel and cheekily presented to the revolving door of hapless tourists passing through there. Together they concoct an (apparently) fictitious Arab state called ‘Kazib City’, which is cryptically presented as a sovereign state that lies beneath the desert somewhere between Oman and Yemen, and for which only two-day visas are available for visitors, who for some inexplicable reason have to go through the immigration offices in Oman in order to obtain them. At one point in the exchange between Syrian hotel staff members and one of the American researchers, a Sudanese clerk who works at the reception desk indignantly intervenes, complaining about how the government of Kazib (incidentally derived from the Arabic term for ‘lie’) City favours handing out visas to the ‘bullshit Americans’ at the expense of the Sudanese people. Without giving too much else away, this deadpan comedic performance taking place with such verve, extempore, and witty imagination and in such a mundane locus as a hotel in broken Syrian English is one of the most revealing paragons of this entire collection. The second is the harrowing closer of this marvellous volume, ‘The Norias of Hama (Blood Irrigation on the Orontes)’ clocks in at 8 minutes and consists of the droning, rhythmic noise of the water-wheels as they turn slowly in the stately river and with all the weight of their dissonant splendour; they are harsh and abrasive in their sonic density, and fill the air with an ambient sense of haunting (and very physical) nostalgia of a city that was the first to experience mass martyrdom after an unspeakable genocidal bloodbath in 1982 that served as a precursor to the sort of state-sanctioned behaviour Syrians have been experiencing daily after March 2011. It is a fitting end to a piece that closes one chapter in the modern Syrian story and that portentously lays the ground for the next.
Far from being an exotic, romanticised, and fetish-filled archive artificially constructed for outside consumption, I Remember Syria’s web of audio-fragments is as raw as it gets, and boasts little editing and mastering beyond perhaps some basic production arrangements of the wide array of radio and television excerpts. It was captured on very basic equipment and it shows; its presentation is totally decentralised, choppy, and unpredictable, as radio white noise erratically intervenes in vying receptions from different sources of audio. It is absolutely essential listening, and if pre-revolutionary Syria was this much of an intricate vortex of creative webs, one can but anticipate with sheer awe just how prospective compilations of Syrian society’s revolutionary creations will appear before us. Suffice it to say, a few two-hour audio compilations of eclectic mash-ups will scarcely be enough in capturing them!
I Remember Syria, originally released on Sublime Frequencies in 2004, was re-issued digitally in April 2013 as a purchasable download, available here (where you can also stream full tracks) and here, all proceeds of which go to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to directly aid the humanitarian crisis facing those living in Syria under the constant threat of violence, starvation, and homelessness.