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Playing an Oud, a Bard of the Revolution

BASRA AL-SHAM, DARAA — Maan, a Syrian musician, was turned back at the Jordanian border in April 2011 after an arduous journey from his hometown of Basra al-Sham.

Written by Celine Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

He left behind his oud, a guitar-like string instrument, for the first time in his life, choosing instead to carry an exhausted refugee child on his back.

The oud, Maan’s constant companion since the start of the Syrian revolution, has, like its owner, endured jail and exile. When Maan fled the southern province of Daraa along with a half million other refugees, he took only his oud on the long trek to the border.

Maan never forgot the hour-long journey. He and hundreds of other refugees walked in the cold through rugged terrain to reach their destination. After spending 15 hours waiting at the Jordanian border, he had high hopes he would be granted a visa. But, for what he says are unknown reasons, he discovered he was blacklisted and forced to turn back.

At the start of the uprising in March 2011, Maan, then 28, was one of the original protest organizers in Daraa. He was arrested that December while sitting for an English-language exam at Damascus University.

For five months, Maan and his oud were transferred between prisons in Damascus and Daraa on the charge of “defaming the Syrian army.” He hoped to teach at the music center at the Adra prison in Damascus, but says the head of the music center found Maan’s “political crimes” too threatening.

After his release, Maan returned to his hometown of Basra al-Sham, which constant shelling by the regime and a civilian exodus had decimated from a village of 15,000 people to one of only 3,000. Without his oud for the first time, he was determined to stay and be a witness to the events in his town.

A New Note

Maan says he was destined to return to his music, after one of his well-off relatives bought him a new oud. During lulls in fighting, he began playing for the local Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters.

After that, he became a kind of bard of the revolution. He played his oud for wounded civilians and sang songs about the revolution at funerals or when rebels captured new areas of Daraa. He wrote a song about 12 of his friends who had volunteered with the FSA and who were all killed during a failed attack on an army checkpoint in Daraa.

“I insist on carrying on my professional art for the Syrian revolution, even if I have to play at a street corner to convince the world that the Syrian people are oppressed,” he says.

But he admits to moments of despair. He is disheartened by the droves of foreign Islamist fighters entering the country and the recruitment of Syrians into extremist factions like Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). He says he fears the increasing Islamization of the revolution and the creation of new Salafi generations.

“I have turned from a rebellious man to a desperate man with everything [that’s] happening around us,” he says. “Until now, the presence of al-Nusra is weak in Daraa when compared to the other provinces. Most brigades in Daraa are moderate Islamists, such as the Fallujah Houran brigade and the Yarmouk brigade that are fighting with the FSA to liberate areas without a [different] agenda.”

Like others in Daraa, Maan fears that al-Nusra is more focused on its own goals of expansion than it is in fighting the regime.

He says his faith in the revolution itself has been weakened, and that, once again, he is trying to find a way out of Syria, which has entered a “long and dark tunnel.”

In the meantime, he continues to organize protests in Basra al-Sham every Friday. Today, it is one of the only towns in Syria that still hosts peaceful protests. Maan plays the oud as the crowds sing to songs he has written about the revolution.

“My dream was to protest at the Umayyad Square in Damascus and play my oud there,” Maan says. But he knows this is a far-fetched idea.

“In reality, those with the guns have the last word.”

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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