Upstairs at a community centre in Majdal Anjar, a small town in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, a group of children are learning to sing a Bollywood song. Around 25 children are gathered here, aged anything from eight to 16. They’re all Syrian refugees, displaced from their homes by conflict, and they all love Bollywood movies. Many of them hail from conservative religious families; to these communities, the chaste romances of Indian cinema are more palatable than the overtly sexual storylines often seen in western films. The children laugh as they trip over the unfamiliar words, forgetting the troubles of their home lives as they stand up, puff out their chests and blast out the song at full volume.
The choir is run by a small organisation called Seenaryo which focuses on bringing good quality theatre and music teaching to refugees in Lebanon. This is one of five songs the choir is learning; some of the others are more traditional, as Yasmine, one of the facilitators at the choir, explains. Yasmine, who is in her 20s, fled her home in Daraya, due to the war. She was trained as a dentist in Syria, but in addition to music teaching, is now undertaking a degree in psychology. (Many Syrians who have the means enroll in university courses—even if they are already graduates—as a way to legally remain in Lebanon). She has a beautiful singing voice, and is passionate about music and its ability to transform.
As the children file out after the session, which took place at Syrian organisation Women Now's centre, Yasmine explains that because of the cultural conservatism of the families living around Majdal Anjar, the choir avoids romantic topics altogether so that parents don’t pull their kids out. That’s why the modified version of the Bollywood song worked. Sometimes they choose traditional songs about Syrian culture. “Once the families know that these are the songs we’re singing, they are okay with sending their kids—otherwise they might have reservations,” she says.
In common with folk traditions across the Arab world, many traditional Syrian songs focus on themes of longing for home, of migration, land, soil, and displacement. The children learned one of these songs in the choir. The lyrics in English roughly translate to: “I’m going to say one or two sweet words about my country; my country was beautiful, all my past memories were in my country, my first love was in my country”—and so on.
“The first time we sang this with the children, many of them were crying,” says Yasmine. “I was shocked to see that. I didn’t realise that even children felt so patriotic, that they had this longing for their country, for belonging.”
Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, over five million people have left the country, and a further six million have been internally displaced. In this context, traditional music about peoples’ relationship to the land takes on a new, poignant meaning. In the same way that cooking familiar food can be a way of evoking the feeling and sensation of home, singing familiar music can be a way of viscerally connecting with what it is like to be at home. The Refugee Music Project, for instance, has recorded songs composed by refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp. They are based mostly around grief and longing: “Our home became very far, very far”.
As Syrian populations scatter across the world, they have taken their musical traditions with them, sometimes explicitly reimagining them. The Istanbul-based band Country for Syria, for example, blends Arab music with American country, saying that both musical traditions “share themes of migration, love, loneliness, longing for home, patriotism, faith, and relationship to place. Both tell stories through narrative ballads, through pastoral meditations, by praising folk heroes and through the idealisation of a lost way of life.”
At Dama, a school for Syrian refugees, also in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, some of the youngest children are reimagining these folk traditions themselves. When visited it was a hot day in early summer. The sun was beating down, and in an outdoor area covered by a canopy, children were practicing for a performance that afternoon, which their parents were coming to watch.
The performance had all the joy and chaos of any show put on by seven-year-olds; they stood on stage in groups, singing enthusiastically and looking around to check if they were throwing their hands in the air at the right time. The play, which they’d devised themselves with the help of teachers trained by Seenaryo, was about a family who had relocated because of a bombardment, and the difficulty of fitting into a new place. I stopped to watch as they sang a song which they had also composed themselves.
The tune was cheerful, but the lyrics less so: “Mummy, mummy, I need you to warm me. They stole my dreams and my land. I love to draw my land and colour it. I want to sleep and wake up, and see my land again.”
Many of these children might have been toddlers when they left Syria, yet the lofty tone of the words was entirely in keeping with the Arab folk tradition; the passion for and deep connection to home. Just listen to the songs of Lebanese singer Fairouz, an icon across the region and enormously popular in Syria. Steeped in love and patriotism, they describe an bucolic, idealised country life. If not consciously, the children at Dama school were reinterpreting this tradition, articulating their feelings about displacement through a familiar set of cultural reference points.
Although Seenaryo’s music programmes aren’t intended as therapy, it is perhaps inevitable that people—both children and adults—in a traumatic and stressful situation will explore that trauma when they have the opportunity to do so. And there have been unexpected benefits.
“These kids have so much tension inside of them, so much venom from the war atrocities they have been witness to,” says Yasmine. “Since they started learning these songs, they’re changing. The games they used to play were killing, running, hitting, and now they’re singing and dancing. That’s why I love music—because singing gathers us and brings us together.”