Why you should care
Because a voice from Syria can take us behind its troubled borders.
It’s 7:30 p.m. on a Tuesday night in Berlin, and about 100 concertgoers are lined up outside the Villa Neukölln. Visitors shuffle into the dark venue, here to see a conscious hip-hop group from Syria — the Mazzaj Rap Band. Lead singer Mohammad Abu Hajar (who goes by Abu Hajar) grabs the mic. “Good evening, everyone, our name is Mazzaj,” he intones. His intro is quieter than his fashion: jeans, sneakers and a red T-shirt reading “Save Aleppo.” Then comes the message: “We don’t make music for people to dance to while people are dying,” Hajar says. “I would rather tell you the message of the Syrian people — five years of revolution for freedom and dignity.”
A moment of silence ensues, for the dead in Syria. Then his first song: It’s a rap in Arabic, delivered at furious speed, with the lyrics translated into English on the screen behind him. No one dances.
Originally from Tartus, a Mediterranean coastal town, Hajar is a new, powerful presence on the rap scene at a time when the world faces a dearth of Middle Eastern pop-cultural voices. He’s the subject of two new films, one from the West, another from the East: a musical documentary created by local production company Berliner Moment, and Homeland, by Turkish artist Halil Altindere, which premiered at the Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art in June. He was supposed to tour the U.K. this summer, but was refused a visa. (The U.K. embassy in Berlin didn’t respond to requests for comment.) He’s also helped start a Syrian activist network in Berlin, where he organizes regular music and film events, as well as demonstrations — including one for the five-year anniversary of the uprising. Protesters chanted “Long live Syria, down with Assad.”
He jumped a fence in his pajamas and paid a smuggler $1,000 to get him across the Syrian border.
Hajar’s been in the rap game for 12 years. He was first inspired by the Palestinian rap group DAM, whose music invokes the Israel-Palestine conflict. That led him to Tupac Shakur and other politically conscious hip-hop. Smoking a cigarette before his set, Hajar tells OZY: “I found myself in rap music, I loved it.” His first song, “Two Zones,” protested the American invasion of Iraq. “It was awful to see someone coming to spread democracy and destroying a country,” he says. Ruth Daniel, co-director of a nonprofit called In Place of War, sees Hajar as part of a growing movement of refugee artists who offer an alternative to the media reports, while demonstrating solidarity with those trapped behind borders. “When artists move geographically away from the conflict, they are afforded more freedom … with less risk,” she says.
His first stint in prison lasted one day and came as a result of his activism as a university student in 2007. He was arrested for handing out political pamphlets around Tishreen University in Latakia, Syria, where he was studying physics, and was kicked out of school. He thinks the arrest came because his rap songs criticized the regime; we can’t verify this since the school didn’t reply to requests for comment.
Wafaa Al-Badry, an Egyptian reporter for Deutsche Welle in Berlin, says Hajar’s music has “a revolutionary soul,” echoing the Arab Spring. She adds: “For me, his music is the new way of rebelling.” Al-Badry believes history will study him as an “honest” documentation of the times and points to his lyrics — like this one, from “Down With the Homeland,” which translates to: “We didn’t start a revolution to create a similar tyrant, we’re the ones who give you protection and power. You think your force is enough? When you try to cross the line, we won’t let you.”
Hajar fled to Amman in 2008, joining his father and continuing his studies in politics. Then came jail, part two: In March 2012, while in Syria attending peaceful civil rights protests, the authorities picked him up. He says he was tortured, beaten, whipped and electrically shocked for two months. He kept writing. After his release that May, he escaped Syria just as authorities arrived at his doorstep to arrest him again. “I said, ‘No, I am not going to take it again.’” He jumped a fence in his pajamas and paid a smuggler $1,000 to get him across the Syrian border. He arrived in Lebanon, then Jordan, then Italy, where he started his master’s degree in political economics, in Rome. Berlin gave him political asylum in 2014, and today he lives in the Wedding district with his German fiancée and is applying for a Ph.D. in political economics at Berlin’s Humboldt University. He plans to study political science.
It’s not all good — some of his lyrics could be interpreted as anti-feminist. In his song “Here Is Tartous,” a few lines criticize women wearing lots of makeup and short skirts. We asked Al-Badry how she digests those lyrics as a female listener, but she declined to weigh in.
More recently, to our relief, Hajar’s writing songs about life in Germany and the refugee influx. He says he’s seen guards beating and insulting them and has been called out for his faith on the subway. “That’s Germany, that’s Europe,” he says. “People tell you in German on the streets, ‘You are a shitty refugee.’” It’s not his paranoia speaking: The estimated 300,000 asylum seekers who arrived in the country in the past two years dwell in dangerously close temporary quarters. And it doesn’t take a genius to remember that immigration played a major part in the Brexit vote; continental Europe has its own Nigel Farages, who’d rather keep their borders zipped up.