Protest singer brings his music to Jordan, fleeing both regime and hardline Islamists ‘who only know the language of violence’

Seven wooden chairs illuminated by a single floodlight crowd the platform at Maestro Restaurant in Amman, Jordan. It’s a Friday night, and Alaa al-Hassoun, 34, takes the stage just after 10pm in a striped robe and multicolored vest, holding a string of black, metallic prayer beads.

For most of the evening, the tenor remains seated in his chair, feet planted firmly on the ground. Without a hint of pageantry, it is al-Hassoun’s voice—accompanied by a bass and baritone singer—that carries the performance.

Salateen a-Tarab, al-Hassoun’s all-Syrian band, performed two hours of classic Arabic songs—from the Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish to the Aleppan artist Sabah Fakhri.

Audience members recognize each song within a few bars, springing from their seats to dance and sing along. Al-Hassoun would turn back to the musicians seated behind him, gesturing for them to drop off for a chorus to let the crowd belt out the lyrics.

 Salateen a-Tarab performs at Maestro Restaurant on May 19.

Just a few years ago, al-Hassoun was singing before massive protests in Maarat a-Numan, his hometown in Syria’s northwest Idlib province.

Trained as a musician and singer before the war, al-Hassoun tells Syria Direct’s Eyad Mohammad Madhar and Tariq Adely that each singer eventually finds his voice. “I found mine as a revolutionary among crowds crying out for freedom against the tyrants and thieves in their homeland.”

But his political activism and protest songs angered regime security forces as well as the hardline Islamic factions that largely control Idlib. Al-Hassoun fled to Jordan in April 2016.

Today in Amman, al-Hassoun’s lyrics and venues are different. But his ability to draw an audience into his performance, with the familiarity of his songs, clarity and vocal range, remains the same.

The fact that the band is Syrian—that they fled the country—sends a powerful message,” Ibrahim al-Houti, a 28-year-old Amman resident who was in the audience, told a reporter as concertgoers began to stream out of the venue.

Al-Hassoun and his bandmates, said al-Houti, “carry a message of peace and humanity that the entire world should emulate.”

Q: Could you talk about your decision to leave Syria in April 2016? You had been persecuted for your political activism since 2011. What finally pushed you to flee to Jordan?

Many pro-revolution activists and civilians have reached the point of hopelessness. Islamist factions tore down what honest people built.

We first went to the streets to protest the regime’s persecution. Then, we found ourselves persecuted by someone new.

Jabhat a-Nusra doesn’t treat protestors any differently than the regime’s security forces.

[Ed.: Jabhat a-Nusra, now known as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham (JFS), is a member of the Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham. JFS largely dominates al-Hassoun’s hometown of Maarat a-Numan in the southern Idlib countryside.]

Even though our protests against a-Nusra were completely peaceful, they confronted us with bullets. These factions don’t acknowledge anyone who doesn’t support them. To them, you’re a traitor and a target.

During the last few months I was in Syria, my life was fear, anxiety and immobility. We were terrified of the oppressive Islamist factions, even during the few hours we [al-Hassoun and his fellow activists] slept each night. They haunted us.

We would sleep in the orchards of nearby villages, fearing that the extremist factions would murder us in the night. That was reason enough to leave Syria.

I just wanted to be able to put food on my table in a safe country. So, in April 2016, I traveled to Turkey and continued from there to Jordan. It was a difficult journey, and I prefer not to speak about in detail.

Q: You’ve lent your voice to protests in Syria since 2011, leading chants against Assad’s regime, as well as Islamist factions in Idlib such as Jabhat Fatah a-Sham. How has the artist’s role in the revolution changed? Is the relationship between music and revolution the same now as it was in 2011?

Art cannot be a solution in the face of the militarization. Music, theater and creativity are just ways through which we ease pressure and heal wounds.

Music can send a message to the countries of the world, though, that these people are peaceful and progressive. It’s not a given that the revolution must be tied to shelling, rockets and violence. The revolution is soul, thought, art and creativity.

But the authorities and extremist factions that rule our country don’t know a language other than violence. As a result, the ultimate goal of art is difficult to achieve.

Alaa al-Hassoun at a Maarat a-Numan protest in March 2012. “We’ll fight those who represent us, without weapons,” he sings in one verse. Video courtesy of Alaa al-Hassoun

Q: Could you speak to some of the dangers you have faced because of your participation in protests against the Syrian regime?

I’ve been wanted [by the regime] since the beginning of the movement. I had to take every precaution to avoid being arrested.

There’ve been several attempts on my life. The first was in May 2011 while I was performing at a wedding. I just barely got away. There was another attempt at one of the checkpoints in Maarat a-Numan.

Q: How does the experience performing in a theater compare with singing a chant, or nasheed, at a protest?

Each art form has a place, and each artist has their specialty. I found mine as a revolutionary, packed between protestors in my hometown, among crowds crying out for freedom against the tyrants and thieves in their homeland.

I don’t mean to say that I’ve given up on art as a form of education. Every art form has a time and a place.

Q: You are from Maarat a-Numan and lived there until 2016. Has Jabhat Fatah a-Sham’s control of the region and persecution of activists such as yourself dampened your idealism for the revolution? Can you imagine a Syrian state under the control of anyone other than Bashar al-Assad or JFS?

I left my country because these [hardline Islamist] factions spread throughout my region. These people don’t acknowledge art and its value. They don’t understand its importance. Their line of thinking does not support creativity.  

A Syrian state without Assad or extremist organizations would enable artists, thinkers, and inventors to present their ideas freely and impartially. I hope that day is close.

 Alaa al-Hassoun. Photo courtesy of Zaman al-Wasl.

Q: Tell me about your life in Jordan. How has it felt to be away from Syria for more than a year?

I am satisfied with my work and life here in Jordan. I have friends in Amman. I perform with a musical group, Salateen a-Tarab, and I have an audience.

The only thing missing is my wife and daughter, who I am trying to get resettled in Jordan. I’m all alone at home, and I’m doing all I can right now to see them again.

[Ed.: Al-Hassoun’s wife and daughter are currently living in Turkey. They have not been able to obtain a visa to relocate to Jordan.]

Q: Now that you are in Jordan, do you feel that you’ve left the revolution or are you still a part of it?

One can’t just give up on the demand for popular democracy. The revolution is an integral part of us. I cannot cast the revolution aside, even though I am far away from it.

Q: You contribution to the revolution was your art. Do you think the revolution would have been more successful if it remained peaceful?

Absolutely. We are facing a dictatorship and the criminal institutions of the regime, but I’m completely convinced that the word is stronger than any weapon or faction. 

Eyad mohammed Madhar

Eyad is from Outer Damascus and graduated with a BA in Philosophy from Damascus University. He worked as teacher in Syria before moving to Jordan in 2012. Eyad was also active in the theater community in Syria.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.