BUKAREVAC, Serbia — On a cool September night in the Serbian border town of Bukarevac, members of the Syrian post-rock band Khebez Dawle stretched out on a patch of grass next to a bus station full of refugees from the world’s worst conflicts. People clamoring for any ride that could get them closer to the European Union swarmed the buses pulling in.
It was a long way from the harsh stage lights of Beirut’s trendy clubs, where the band was a central fixture of a burgeoning local indy rock scene in the neighborhoods of Hamra and Mar Mikhael. It is farther still from the horrors of the Syrian civil war that the band fled in 2013 and the Damascus underground rock scene that brought them together.
Waiting for the delayed midnight bus to Belgrade after crossing the Macedonian border, they made a snap decision to avoid the Hungarian police crackdown on asylum seekers entering from Serbia, and tried to reroute through Croatia.
Lead singer Anas Maghrebi, bass player Muhammad Bazz, and keyboardist Hikmat Qassar were in the middle of the arduous journey that half a million Syrians have taken this year.
Two months later, Maghrebi admitted that, as some of the first asylum seekers to reach Croatia, they unknowingly walked through border areas full of land mines just prior to the arrival of masses of refugees rerouted by Hungary’s border closure.
The band left Turkey on a volatile ride in a rubber dinghy to Greece, before starting a long trek through Europe that combined hiking, public transport, and smugglers’ cars. And in the grittiest form of rock and roll tradition, they turned their odyssey in search of freedom into a European tour, playing shows to hundreds of new fans in Zagreb and Vienna along the way.
Maghrebi likes to say he leaped from an inflatable raft to hand out free copies of the group’s just-released album to sunbathing tourists on the beach of the Greek island of Lesbos. He calls the impromptu CD release party, amidst the euphoria of reaching Europe, a statement to the world about Syria’s refugees.
“This trip is not about being victims, the poor people. It’s about being free,” says the lanky, bearded vocalist as he lights a hand-rolled cigarette. “We are some of the most cultured people in the Middle East, and we can bring that to people here.”
The band’s name is Arabic for “bread of the nation,” a phrase that Maghrebi adapts to define collectively those fleeing to Europe in numbers not seen since the Second World War. “We are the khebez of the dawle,” he said there on the grass in Serbia, stretching out as Radiohead’s OK Computer album blared from portable speakers connected to his smartphone.
On Khebez Dawle’s own recording, the Arabic lyrics tell a story of the shattering of revolutionary dreams and the grueling trauma of civil war set to intense post-rock instrumental crescendos mixed with the sampled sounds of the conflict. Maghrebi calls it a witness’s account of the war.
The album leads you through Syria’s spiraling descent; from the optimism and hope of the revolution into anger at a regime that drowned protests in blood and finally the alienation of being lost amid a fractured sectarian civil war. Songs about self-discovery and euphoria in the streets carry a longing for the hopes of a world that has been shattered. Maghrebi’s vocals plead with his country to reject rule through victimization and torment.
“They’ve killed me! And then they blame me for telling,” he sings in the track “Beta’ammer.” “In the darkness, there is no life but for a victim and their tormentor,” his voice reverberates in Arabic over screaming guitars.
Magrehbi hopes that, while the lyrics confront Arabic listeners with the search for meaning in Syria’s madness, the music conveys the same experience to an international audience through its sound.
“We want the music itself to be a language, so you hear it and understand what we are understanding,” he says.
There on the patch of grass, as the guys sipped cans of beer and took turns strumming on a guitar they picked up in Athens, it would be easy to mistake them for hipsters hanging out in a New York park. But here, among hundreds of asylum seekers bustling around the town, cloaked in the shadow of towering Tito-era socialist apartment blocks, there was no question these huddled masses were a long, long way from Lady Liberty.
I first met Maghrebi last June at a house party in Beirut’s Christian neighborhood of Geitawi. The band was preparing to release its first album, but after two years in Beirut, the institutional and social discrimination against Syrians had worn Maghrebi down. Leaning on the kitchen counter while activists, artists, and journalists swirled about, he noted the contrast between the strong support that the band received from the local artistic community and the debilitating government restrictions that discriminate against Syrian refugees.
Band members had difficulty finding stable income and because of restrictions on Syrians working in Lebanon, earning a living from their music was unstable and under the table. Two months later their album was released to local fanfare, their drummer split from the group, and most of them were heading to Turkey after selling their equipment to pay for the journey.
Maghrebi, reflecting on his journey form Beirut from Bukarevac, called it “the hardest rehearsal for Europe.”
And for some it was harder than others. Guitarist Bashar Darwish couldn’t leave with the rest of his band mates because his desertion from Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government forces and an escape from the country organized by a Free Syrian Army left him without a Syrian passport. It wasn’t until November that he was able to leave for Istanbul, after relaxed passport regulations for Syrians outside the country took effect.
Darwish had met the rest of the group while he was playing in a Damascus hard rock band called Ana. These were the days before the uprising and civil war and he was studying music at the conservatory in Damascus. Playing in the underground rock scene was full of hurdles. The regime had a bureaucratic and politicized process for getting permission to play gigs, not an easy task for a metal head who cites Pantera and Slipknot as his influences.
“You had to know someone who knew someone and we couldn’t play the heavy stuff,” he told me on a Skype call from Istanbul in November. “You also had to have a song about either Syria or Palestine… So we did one about Palestine,” he chuckles. A song about Syria wouldn’t endear the group to the regime.
But in 2010 Darwish was conscripted, forced to drop out of the conservatory and serve as an army radio operator. When the mass protests of the Arab Spring reached Damascus in the spring of 2011, he says he was supportive but unable to join. “I’m angry that I couldn’t participate,” he told me.
Magrhebi was in the opposite position, not serving in the military and a vocal supporter of the revolt. He still cites the hope of those early days of protest as inspiration for many of his lyrics.
As revolution turned into a bloody, multifaceted, regional proxy war, the band left for Lebanon. One by one they fled bloodshed, dodging conscription or deserting their army posts. Bazz and Qassar fled the country in 2013, within days of getting their call-up notices. Maghrebi left around the same time.
Darwish was serving in a non-combat unit so he tried at first to keep his head down and sit out the war in a radio bunker. However, in 2012 he got transfer orders to a combat unit and deserted. For six nerve-racking months he hid out in Damascus until the FSA was able to get him out of the city and guide him on foot through the mountains to Lebanon.
Arriving in Beirut without any documents and only the clothes on his back, Darwish found a new life full of harassment and restriction in a country that still doesn’t officially recognize its over 1 million Syrians as refugees. It was in this context that Khebez Dawle was launched and carved out a place for itself in the city’s vibrant nightlife.
“At first I was happy to escape and felt free, but after that I started to face problems,” Darwish says, sitting on the floor of a friend’s Istanbul apartment, surrounded by keyboards and mixers. “I got arrested by the Lebanese authorities because I was illegal and didn’t have papers,” he says. Then he was arrested a second time trying to leave the country on a fake Syrian passport. The pro-Assad Lebanese Shia organizations Hezbollah and Amal, suspecting he was a deserter, targeted him for questioning on several occasions.
The rest of the band reached Berlin in October and are now navigating the immigration process while settling into a new life. They are already planning an official European tour for spring, part of which will have them reverse their migration path, from central Europe back to the Balkans and then onto Greece. Maghrebi contends that while they were originally planning on staying in Vienna, the band was drawn to Berlin’s internationalism, vibrant art scene, and openness to refugees.
“In Berlin I feel like a global citizen, like I can express my fears and hopes and art,” he said on Skype from the German capital shortly after the Paris terrorist attacks. Despite the welcoming cosmopolitan arrival, he says he’s felt an increase in hostility directed at Syrians since the massacre in France, even though none of the known attackers was, in fact, Syrian.
For Maghrebi, like many refugees, the post-Paris-attack climate has not only created fear of a backlash alongside horror at the carnage that ISIS unleashed, but it also conjured up the familiar feeling that the war cannot be escaped.
“I don’t want to see a piece of what’s happened in Syria happen in Europe,” Maghrebi said.
Meanwhile, Darwish remains stranded in Turkey as the rough winter waters of the Mediterranean make crossing to Greece now especially dangerous. He worries that the spiking hostility toward refugees since the attacks and new European Union agreements with Turkey to stop asylum seekers from leaving for Greece will prevent him from rejoining the band.
The UN Refugee Agency reported from Lesbos this week that “despite strong winds and choppy waves, on Dec. 30 dozens of families continued to land.” They were coming in “overstuffed inflatable boats designed to carry just eight people.” Some carried more than 60.
Darwish has applied for an EU visa, but the band has tried and been denied them in the past, despite invitations to play at European festivals. He is torn between the stress of making it to Germany for the tour and waiting for a calmer spring sea. So, living in limbo and distracting himself with solo projects, he prepares for the likely clandestine journey of what the band hopes is the final stage of its rock and refuge tour.