Silencing the Singer

By Elie Chalala
Illustration by Mike Sharp for Al Jadid Magazine

A day after he had sang in protest in the square of his hometown, Ibrahim Kashoush was found dead, floating in the Orontes (Al Asi) River. The fate of Ibrahim Kashoush reflects the anger that has been driving Syrians in almost every corner of the country onto the streets and in front of the bullets of the security forces.  Kashoush was a popular Syrian singer-- and by popular I mean that he sang the songs of the people, as opposed to having been a pop star.  However, after publicly singing folk songs that were subsequently repeated by half a million demonstrators in the city of Hama, Ibrahim Kashoush was murdered by Assad’s Shabiha, or thugs, who and deliberately removed his vocal chords both to make a political statement and to prevent him from ever being able to utter Irhal ya Bashar (Bashar Get Out) again. 

Kashoush was a folk singer known for his performances at weddings. He chanted traditional Aradah tunes as protest songs, and added new lyrics that he wrote himself to the old wedding and celebration melodies, according to Freemuse, a respected website whose specialty is monitoring music censorship. His voice was deep and sad as he sang slogans that he either wrote, borrowed from other songwriters, or compiled from what protestors chanted in Hama, Homs, Dara and other cities.

Kashoush’s murder is a hideous reminder that the situations in which protest music is most urgent and potent are usually those in which playing it carries the greatest risk. The courage necessary to sing out in an environment so brutally intolerant of dissent is hard to imagine.  According to the Freemuse website: “Ibrahim Kashoush’s lyrics were too dangerous and offensive,  a reminder that you can lose your life in Syria for being armed with strong will and a vocal spirit.”

Ibrahim Kashoush’s Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar (Bashar Get Out) has become a rallying cry for the opposition not in only in Hama but throughout Syria:

Bashar, depart from here

You lost all your legitimacy

Depart depart, Bashar

Bashar, you are not one of us

Take Mahir (Basher’s brother) and depart from here

Depart depart, Bashar

Bashar, you are lying

You had bad speech

Freedom is very near

Depart depart, Bashar

 

While very few can recall such ugly crimes, even in the darkest of ages, there are in fact some recent parallels to be found with Kashoush’s murder. Consider the Chilean musician Victor Jara (1932-1973), who suffered severe punishment due to his criticism of the Pinochet government that overthrew the democratically elected Salvador Allende in early 1973. Shortly after the Chilean coup of September 11, 1973, Jara was arrested, tortured and finally shot to death with 44 bullets. His body was later thrown out into the street of a shanty-town in Santiago. Similarly, Kashoush’s somewhat mutilated body was thrown into the Orontes River. The contrast between the themes of love, peace and social justice in Jara’s songs, and the brutal way in which he was murdered transformed him into a symbol of struggle for human rights and justice across Latin America. Likewise, the chants of Kashoush have also become a symbol of struggle, and they are repeated by protesters not only in Hama but also in other Syrian cities. In fact, his words have even been chanted in other parts of the world as demonstrators have gathered to denounce the atrocities of the Syrian regime.

Few observers captured the personality of this simple working class man better than Hussam Itani in his column in Al Hayat newspaper. The article’s title is fitting: “The Voice of Hama.”

Itani describes Kashoush's voice as having been raw, blunt, and untrained by musical schooling or instruction. His voice resembled those of construction workers and peddlers in poor neighborhoods. He was not an academic, a philosopher, or an ideologue, which was evident in the lyrics he seems to have thrived on chanting. As Itani put it, Kashoush's "words simplify complex political positions." Consider slogans like "Freedom to all, down with despotism, end corruption." 

The hundreds of thousands who chanted along with Kashoush did so laughing and clapping for his lyrics as if they were their own. When history mentions Syria and Hama, the voice of Kashoush will be recalled as the unifier of the people of Hama, Syria and other Syrian cities protesting repression, torture, and incarcerations. The killers were well aware of the danger inherent in what "Ibrahim did," namely in denouncing the symbols of fear and terror, and also, as Itani adds, in showing that mockery of the state can roll off the lips as easily as the words of love or Ataba (a popular form of song, mainly among workers and peasants).

With respect to brutal crimes, the Syrian regime has an almost unmatched record, and its cruelty has constituted a sort of dark age for its people, as well as for some of its neighbors.  One need only recall what happened in Lebanon 31 years ago. On March 4, 1980, a terrible crime was committed that brimmed with a symbolism akin to the one perpetrated against Ibrahim Kashoush. Just as Hamad (a Hama resident) found the tortured body of Ibrahim Kashoush in the Orontes River, a Lebanese shepherd similarly found the body of a middle-aged man with a mangled hand. This story is recounted in Al-Nahar newspaper by journalist and TV news talk-show host, Ali Hamadeh. The body was that of the eminent Lebanese journalist Salim al-Lowzi, then publisher of the London-based Al Hawadeth Magazine. After having spent some time in Lebanon following the death of his mother, the journalist was kidnapped en route to the airport for his return trip to London and held captive for eight days. According to Hamade’s account, there was no doubt that the Syrians were behind the killing, and the decision was taken at the highest level in Damascus. He was killed by one of the Syrian-supported Palestinian armed groups, Al Saiqa (ironically a member of the PLO at the time and therefore supposedly committed to liberation of Palestine!).

Al-Lowzi had expressed disapproval of the Syrian regime. His brother, Mustafa al-Lowzi, had previously been the victim of a political assassination in the city of Tripoli. In eulogizing the brother, Salim wrote as if he knew that it was only a matter of time before he would meet a similar fate. “And tomorrow if the military intelligence succeeded in implementing its order to assassinate me--and it is capable of this because of its many different tools--I would have deserved my fate, and it would be my wife’s and daughters’ consolation, as well as my brother’s nine children, that I loved my country and remained loyal to my profession,” wrote al-Lowzi back then.

The journalist’s body was discovered with a mostly dissolved hand, which resulted from dousing it in acid. The symbolism could not be lost on many people in Lebanon at the time -- dissolution of an offending hand was appropriate punishment for anyone who dared use the pen to protest.

Al-Lowzi was killed under the father, Hafez, while Kashoush was killed under the son, Bashar. Hamade references the ironic slogans used by Hama demonstrators, such as “Hafez killed my grandfather in 1982, and Bashar killed my father in 2011.”

 

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 16, no. 63

 

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