April 29, 2013 12:09 pm

Talent show sheds tears over Syrian’s sad song

The most telling commentary on the Syrian civil war in the past month appeared not in a newspaper or current affairs programme, but in a talent show contest.

Ratings hit Arab Idol is better known for spats between its celebrity judges than insights into armed conflict, but Syrian contestant Abdul Kareem Hamdan dragged the real world into its glitzy studio this month with a piercingly sad song about his native Aleppo, much of which lies in rubble.

Rebels and government forces have been fighting for control of the city since last summer, and last week clashes destroyed the minaret of its ancient Umayyad Mosque, a world heritage site.

Adapting an old standard, Hamdan sang just a few lilting, heartsick phrases about his country, its bloodshed and “spring of pain”, but each one drew wild applause and sobs from the audience.

Video of his emotional performance was enthusiastically shared on Facebook and Twitter and has received more than 4m hits on YouTube. Syrians abroad, especially those from Aleppo, describe breaking down in tears over it.

“I felt like I didn’t have control of my body – I had to cry, the words were speaking to your heart,” explained one student from the city now living in Turkey. “His [Hamdan’s] face looked like he needed to cry, but was controlling himself.”

Syria is deeply polarised between supporters and opponents of the regime, and inevitably there has been speculation over which “side” Hamdan is on. According to an interview with the singer in Lebanon’s Daily Star newspaper, people have even made threats against him on Facebook.

But what is striking about the lyrics now being replayed in sitting rooms and internet cafés across the Arab world is their absence of politics.

At an earlier stage of the Syrian uprising against president Bashar al-Assad, the songs most associated with its turmoil were crude but effective anthems such as the Hama protesters’ Yalla Irhal Ya Bashar (Come on Bashar, leave).

After two years of shortages, arrests and intense violence in which at least 70,000 people are estimated to have been killed, suffering has eclipsed politics for many ordinary Syrians.

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What began as resistance to a savage regime is, meanwhile, starting to evolve into something much messier, with infighting, criminality and sectarianism becoming increasingly prominent.

In contrast to the more activist chants that went viral in 2011, Hamdan’s song is simply a lament for his country, and that seems to be the reason for its popularity – which is not limited to either supporters or opponents of the Syrian regime.

Indeed, the Hamdan phenomenon underscores how much Syria’s suffering has started to transcend its political context, at least in Arab popular culture, and taken on a kind of mythic status.

Before Syria it was Iraq burning in civil strife, and before that Lebanon. Each produced their own cathartic ballads, such as Fairuz’s Li Beirut, a paean to the ashes of the war-ravaged Lebanese capital.

The response to Hamdan’s performance shows the extent to which Syria has joined the Arab world’s canon of tragedies, alongside Palestine and lost love.

Only two and a half years ago Syria was primarily associated with Baathism and soap operas. Now a mere reference to the country in Hamdan’s anguished song has Lebanese pop star and Arab Idol judge Nancy Ajram plunging her head into her hands.

Audiences have voted Hamdan through to the next stage of the Arab Idol contest, and he may well be carried through to victory on the strength of this feeling.

Inside Syria, meanwhile, the government is escalating its methods of destruction day by day, while merciless kidnappers maraud the highways, sectarian killings pile up and foreign interests tangle. Cultural apotheosis is cold comfort.

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