Damascus Opera House offers respite to war-weary Syrians

Friday 04/09/2015
The National Orchestra for Arabic Music

Damascus - Nearly five years of a dev­astating conflict did not stop Syrians from en­joying the music at the Damascus Opera House, which opened in August as part of the Arab Music Festival, defying mortars and bombs that occasion­ally rain down on the city.
The event brought a small respite to war-weary Syrians, who flocked to the opera house to take in con­certs and performances by leading Syrian artists.
The first Arab Music Festival came after several years of war had largely muzzled the opera. “We wanted for this edition to be special and varied. That’s why we have invited Syrian artists from different genera­tions performing different musical genres,” Opera House Director Juan Karajoli said in an interview with The Arab Weekly.
The event was supposed to fea­ture Arab artists from different na­tionalities but participation was limited to Syrian performers for se­curity reasons.
The festival showcased popular local singers, including Shadi Jamil, famous for his traditional Aleppo-style songs, Mayada Bselis and op­era singer Bushra Mahfoud.
Organisers and artists said they were amazed and touched by the size of the audiences that packed the main hall of the opera house on opening night and for subsequent concerts.
“The Aleppo music genre is ex­tremely popular among Syrians at large. That is why I was not really surprised by the big crowd, which was essentially made up of residents of Aleppo who had to flee their homes because of the war,” Jamil said.
“When I saw how immersed they were in the music, which made them forget, just even for a while, the calamity that befell on their city and their livelihood, I felt that I should be more generous in my performance in order to bring some happiness to their hearts.”
The opening featured the National Orchestra for Arabic Music, under conductor Adnan Fathallah, which accompanied Bselis. “I can certify that the enthusiasm that the large audience showed that night was exceptional and even better than what I have witnessed during peace time,” Fathallah said.
“This proves that, despite its ugli­ness, the war has a positive impact as it makes people even more at­tached to life and the wave of ex­tremism that swept many regions in the country, was an additional incentive for Syrians to show open­ness and reject fanaticism.”
Fathallah, a native of Yabroud in the war-devastated Qalamoun area north of Damascus, was not the only performing maestro in the festival, which also featured the Tarab Zahab group under Aleppo musician Bar­rak Tannari, and two music groups from Homs.
Inaugurated in 2004 as a show­piece cultural centre, the Opera House, located on Umayyad Square in a posh section of Damascus, was hit by dozens of mortars shells in the past few years.
However, despite security haz­ards, music lovers were keen on tak­ing advantage of the cultural respite the festival was offering.
Dozens of mortars and rockets were fired on Damascus neighbour­hoods on August 23rd but that did not prevent fans of Syrian singer Mais Harb from filling the Opera House that evening.
Reina Hammoud said she was de­termined to attend that performance after travelling a long distance from Sweida in southern Syria.
“Mais is a friend of mine and we share the same passion for music, which I have studied at the mu­sic academy of Farid al-Atrash in Sweida,” Hammoud said. “Mais is also my idol and I would not miss an opportunity to watch her sing live, even if it meant to expose myself to dangers.” On his part, Bashar Atrash, a worker with the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, said he had booked his ticket to Harb’s concert a week ahead and would not miss it for any­thing. “Mortars falling on people’s heads have become part of the daily life of Damascus residents. We have adapted to such a situation and we will not stop living.
We just got used to the hardships of war,” Atrash said.
The Arab Music Festival was not the only cultural event in war-torn Syria this summer. The Wadi Festi­val in rural Homs was revived three years after it had been suspended due to the conflict.
Syrian Tourism Minister Bisher Yazigi described the five-day event as “proof that the Syrian people are determined to have a life, in spite of the five years of war, which largely destroyed the country’s cultural and touristic sites”.
During the festival, Yazigi an­nounced the reopening of the cru­saders’ castle, Krak des Chevaliers, in Homs, after its rehabilitation. The UNESCO World Heritage site was damaged during battles that ended when regime forces recaptured the place from rebel groups in March 2014.
The Wadi Festival, an annual tra­dition organised by the Ministry of Tourism, was suspended in 2012 when rebels seized a cluster of vil­lages in the province, 50 kilometres west of Homs.
“Culture Against All Odds” is the motto of Karajoli, who took office in summer 2014. Amid the chaos of war, he said his ambition is “to raise Damascus Opera House to the high­est international standards”.