Concerts and festivals: Incomplete image of war-torn Syria
Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud
“Wallah (I swear), I do not want a homeland other than Syria. I just want to return to my homeland, I do not want freedom”. In two sentences from a ‘‘Mawwal’’ performed at his first concert in Syria in years, Syrian singer Omar Souleyman summarized his view on the tax to return and the exchange of freedom for the homeland without explaining the mechanism by which a place or a country becomes a homeland in the absence of basic rights for its citizens, such as freedom.
The singer of the song “Warni Warni” who toured much of the world and sang in Europe in a language that Europeans do not understand and in words that even a segment of Syrians may not understand, relying on the speed of the musical rhythm and its transcendence over the lyrics to the point of cancellation, is one of many singers who have flocked clearly since last June to sing and throw concerts in scattered regime-held areas.
In light of the loud music that is dominated by the speed of the tempo to suit an atmosphere of festivities, certain regime-controlled areas frequently host concerts with the names of local festivals as a façade while passing messages through the timing of said festivals and the talk of attendees to the media, in addition to mobilizing people via music to serve purposes that may be beyond art as pure value.
The moderate climate on concert nights is inconsistent with the economic, political, and security “extremism” in the same regions. The fast pace of the music does not negate the slow life, even in the venues that host such concerts and festivals.
Also, for days, Homs governorate has been witnessing a series of Eid al-Sayyida concerts in the Wadi al-Nasara region of Homs, with singers of Syrian and other Arab nationalities participating and tickets at prices that are not commensurate with the normal income level of the Syrian citizen, making them necessarily biased to one social or economic class at the expense of others.
On 18 August, the Lebanese singer Najwa Karam gave a concert in the Citadel of Damascus that lasted for about two hours, after being away from singing in Syria for about 12 years. She expressed her “gratitude” to Syria, which had been a prominent stop in her artistic beginnings.
Najwa Karam then told the media, “When I entered the hotel, I smelled victory, joy, and success.”
Moreover, according to the Q-Media art website, at least nine parties were held, and the rest will be held as part of Eid al-Sayyida concerts in Wadi al-Nasara. Tickets for the ceremony range from 150,000 to 500,000 Syrian pounds, as the figure varies according to the artist and his mass reach. It also varies with the seats that come under two or three different cost categories.
These concerts are divided into time categories as well. There is a concert performed by one singer, another by two singers, while there are other concerts in which three singers would participate. This is taking place in conjunction with the capital’s concerts. Four concerts were held as part of the Damascus Citadel Nights festival in late June, with the participation of Syrian singers Nassif Zeytoun and Hussein al-Deek, the Lebanese Joseph Attieh, and the Iraqi Saif Nabil.
Prelude to a class relapse
In the absence of any political development pushing the Syrian file out of the state of stagnation, some events, festivals, and parties come to convey the image of regime-held areas through the lens of the official media, which sheds light on activities of this kind, in view of the absence of other destroyed, empty, lifeless parts of the same cities.
The social researcher, Safwan Moushli, explained to Enab Baladi that the most prominent message that the regime seeks to convey is that it is not a transitional and “temporary” phase; it tries to act with the logic of a recovering state that is also rebuilding itself.
Moushli explained that concerts, festivals, and other events in which participation requires tickets that are not cheap, depict the state of the division of Syrian society between beneficiaries of the “war economy” (i.e., some of the organizers of these parties and their audience) and another group standing in queues to obtain their livelihood’s basic necessities as evidence of the state of poverty within regime-held areas.
Over the past years, the economic and living conditions in Syria have provided a different form of life in the regime-controlled areas, during which queues and crowding situations have maintained a frequent presence due to crises and untreated problems, particularly in terms of electricity, fuels, price hikes, low wages, and the decline of the value of the local currency against the US dollar. This has kept Syria one of the “hunger hotspots” due to “acute food insecurity,” according to a joint UN report issued on 6 June.
The social researcher pointed out that phenomena of this kind divide people into two teams. It is a gateway to a class relapse that makes people wonder: “Who are they? Who are we?”
Despite the perception that some Syrians have of the category in which it participates, these concerts present a conflicting image to Syrians abroad. When refugees and expatriates send money and remittances back home, they are grateful for the payment and spending in this direction, which they consider a revolutionary contribution. If refugees and expatriates felt that those living in regime-held areas lived a more beautiful life than theirs, it could cause social polarization; if it exceeded certain limits, it could perhaps reach the point of a social revolution, according to Moushli.
Conducting any artistic concert, whether it is private, by inviting the artist or singer to participate in a wedding or any party that takes place in a restaurant, or public to participate in a festival or an event organized by a government agency, requires a lot of preparation and equipment that includes agreeing on the wage (which is of variable value according to the artistic size and popularity of the singer), the number of attendees, whether there are tickets for their attendance, the place of residence of the artist and his band if any, and the artist’s movements during the stay in the host country in which the concert will take place.
Enab Baladi reached out to Abu Bahr, a party organizer who has declined to disclose his explicit name for practical considerations regarding the nature of the work and its relations within the field. By voice call, the organizer ruled out any financial benefit from private sector concerts, such as restaurant parties. At the public sector level and government-organized concerts, many top-tier artists are paid at least 70,000 USD, including the band’s wages, free of air tickets and accommodation costs.
According to the organizer, the number varies according to the artist and the market value and according to the number of attendees and ticket prices as well.
Art for politics
In the same context, the Syrian writer and scenarist Hafez Karkout focused, in an interview with Enab Baladi, on the political messages conveyed by the regime through activities of this kind.
Karkout asserted that any festivals, artistic, or sporting events organized by a government entity have political ends that serve the survival of the regime, its propaganda, and the messages it seeks to send to the inside or outside through obfuscating internal and political crises.
He also deemed festivals and parties a way to distort and polish reality and create an unrealistic image of regime-controlled areas by harnessing art for political purposes.
Regarding the value or economic gains that can be achieved from these concerts when organized by government agencies, Karkout ruled out that the regime cares about the financial gains of events of this kind, explaining that the regime can pay a lot for political and security propaganda portraying its areas of control as safe, stable, event-rich areas, which would suggest that the war and all the suffering that Syrians have experienced, and still are, have become a thing of the past.
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