Syrian rapper shines light on Idlib's troubles


Syrian rapper Amir al-Muarri records his performance in his room in Maaret al-Numan. He says he chose rap 'because the genre is political'. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Al-Muarri works on his computer in his room in Maaret al-Numan. In addition to old-school rap, he says he likes classical composers like Beethoven and Vivaldi. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP] 

As he works at his father's shop in Maaret al-Numan, Syrian rapper Amir al-Muarri listens to his favourite artists on his telephone. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP] 

Al-Muarri parks his motorcycle in front of his father's shop in Maaret al-Numan. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

Bombed-out buildings form the backdrop of al-Muarri's life. Here he rides his motorcycle through a damaged street in Maaret al-Numan. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP] 

Between the blighted buildings of war-torn northwest Syria, 20-year-old rapper Amir al-Muarri rails against regime bombs, but also shuttered universities and extremist domination.

"I chose rap because the genre is political," al-Muarri said. "It speaks out against dictatorship, tyranny, government corruption and social issues."

Al-Muarri's Idlib province home is the last major opposition bastion, and has in recent years seen a massive influx of internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Now home to some three million people, Idlib has been pummelled by Syrian regime and Russian bombardment in recent months, with around 1,000 civilians killed since late April.


Syrian rapper Amir al-Muarri works with earphones on at a microphone-equipped booth in his room in the Idlib province city of Maaret al-Numan on September 26th. [Omar Haj Kadour/AFP]

While a Russian-backed ceasefire has largely held since August 31st, there have been sporadic strikes.

With the help of friends and the internet, al-Muarri last month put out his first music video, titled "On all fronts".

"It conveys what is in the hearts of people here," he said.

It tackles not just Syria's war, but also day-to-day complaints in the bastion dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, an extremist alliance dominated by al-Nusra Front that controls much of the area.

The video, posted on YouTube, shows Idlib residents from all walks of life bobbing their heads in slow-motion to the beat.

There is a rescue worker in a hard hat, a member of the White Helmets who have been pulling bodies and survivors from bombed-out buildings.

But it also features some of the ordinary people who live in Idlib: a man watering his plants, a barber, and two young boys on a balcony playing chess.

Tupac and Beethoven

In the room where al-Muarri lives, at the top of a high building, a guitar he one day hopes to play hangs on the wall.

Standing in a corner with earphones on, the young rapper spits rhymes into a tiny microphone booth attached to the wall, padded with soft foam and egg cartons.

Al-Muarri said he returned to his hometown of Maaret al-Numan from Istanbul last year, equipped with a single microphone, after his brother was shot dead by Turkish border guards while trying to illegally cross the border.

He had been living intermittently between Turkey and Syria since 2015.

He had little experience mixing tracks, but he soon learned with the help of friends found on the internet, including many based in neighbouring Lebanon.

"Sometimes I send them tracks and they do the mixing," he said.

When he is not making music, al-Muarri works in his father's small shop selling cleaning detergent and other household supplies.

Between customers, he whips out a phone and listens to his favourite artists: El Rass, but also fellow Syrian rapper Bu Kolthoum, and Shiboba from Saudi Arabia.

From the West, he said he likes Tupac and old school rap that denounces racism and oppression -- but also Beethoven and Vivaldi.

For his next tracks, he said he might write about the tens of thousands made homeless in recent fighting, or even the endless conferences that have failed to end the conflict.

Above all, he just wants to be heard.

"I wish my lyrics to be understood as words, not just music to shake your head to," he said.

'War and blood'

In his new song, al-Muarri denounces "systems that feed on war and blood" eight years into a war that has killed 370,000 people and displaced millions.

Half of Idlib's population are Syrians who have been displaced by fighting in other parts of the country, many living in camps.

Tahrir al-Sham has been criticised for shutting down universities in a bid to bring them under its control.

"They closed the entrances of schools... they are closing the door to our livelihoods," the rap continues, in a jab at the extremist alliance.

"Throw away the curriculum, the university has been sealed with red wax."

Despite his critical lyrics, the young musician said he has so far escaped any reprisals from armed groups still present in the area.

Last year, vocal activist, cartoonist and radio presenter Raed al-Faris was shot dead by Tahrir al-Sham gunmen.

"I get warnings from journalists linked to opposition groups or organisations that I should tone it down or not talk about such and such organisation or group," al-Muarri said.

But he largely ignores them.

"I want to express what I am seeing," he said. "The people all support me."

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