“We are drowning in shit,” Amir sings while standing in a half-destroyed classroom. In his rap video released this week, “On All Fronts,” he takes aim at virtually every party in the Syrian conflict while walking around Idlib, the rubble-strewn streets and children standing in the ruins of their schools striking proof of collective failure.
In private, his frustration is plain to see. Unsmiling and speaking in terse sentences, Amir tells Syria Direct reporters William Christou and Walid al-Nofal about the war that has engulfed Syria for the past eight years, killing his brother, stopping his studies and eliminating any sense of normalcy in his life.
Amir al-Maari, 20-year-old, lives in Maarat al-Numan, a city sitting at the southern edge of Idlib province which has been the subject of intense aerial bombardment. The bombing in Amir’s hometown is part of a greater military campaign by Russian and Syrian government forces to retake the last rebel stronghold in the country. Since it began in April, the campaign killed over 1000 civilians and displaced over 630,000.
“I’m telling the factions to disappear; I’m telling the countries to just leave us alone,” Amir told Syria Direct.
In his video, Amir offers no solution to the Syrian conflict. Instead, he displays raw anger at seeing his community destroyed by the political machinations of actors and forces he has no control over.
Rap is central to Amir’s narrative and he sees himself within a long history of rappers who use the art form as a means of protest. “You resist in any way you can and rap is my means of resistance,” Amir says, listing several Russian rappers who were censored for their music.
His verses are a matter of fact and direct, addressing Putin by name and complaining of “liars who talk as if religion is on their side—” a thinly veiled reference to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the extremist group who controls Idlib province.
He also takes care to show the ordinary residents of his hometown, juxtaposing scenes of destruction with people trying to make the best of a horrific situation: friends enjoying a picnic, a salesman in his shop, a surgeon in scrubs.
He is aware of the danger that the video puts him in. Friends have cautioned him—wary of an HTS which is increasingly intolerant of dissent—but he is unfazed, saying: “As long as what I’m saying is true, I’m not afraid.”
What is the goal of the video? What was its inspiration?
I’ve been a rap singer for about a year now and I’ve made multiple political tracks. The most recent track is called “On all Fronts,” and that was the first clip I did in the liberated areas [controlled by the Syrian opposition militant groups]. I had been planning it for around six months.
The idea came as a result of the conferences that were going on. I know that in the conferences held by the regime and its Russian allies, they only plan how to kill people, nothing else. I wanted to show the international community that what the regime and Russia are saying about the people in Idlib, that they’re terrorists, is false. They’re not terrorists. They are ordinary civilians and the picture that the media is showing is not correct.
We filmed in different places and filmed people from different societal backgrounds: children, teachers and students who are studying despite being bombed.
You resist in any way that you can and rap is my means of resistance. There is a graffiti artist named Aziz al-Asmar. He’s very talented in what he does. Any time something happens in the world, he draws it on Idlib’s walls. In my video you see him standing in front of his drawings.
I can express anything I see around me in my writing. On my [Youtube] channel, I have a track named “Mura’.” I talked about a lot of factions and their excesses, their stealing and their hypocrisy.
After, two journalists thought it was too bold, that it would [end up] harming me. Several of my friends told me to watch out; they cautioned me. I told them that as long as what I was saying is true, I’m not scared of anything.
What were the local and international reactions to your video? What kind of difficulties did you face while making it?
There have been many reports about the song in Russian, French and German press, and there might still be more reports coming. I’m confident that they will talk about the video in international conferences since it is the first professionally recorded rap video that talks about the suffering of four million people in Idlib and was recorded from within the liberated areas. It also talks about the conflicts between four countries [Russia, Syria, Iran and Turkey] inside Syria.
Of course, there is a danger. Some of the factions think that all music is haram [forbidden] and those factions will not understand anything from my work except that music is haram. And that kind of thinking is the epitome of ignorance.
We, especially journalists and [civil-society] organizations, are scared of the armed factions. Journalists here are taken for a month at a time because of a mistake in the news or because of a post on Facebook or a video report.
It was difficult to find a person in Idlib who could film a music video. The videographers in Idlib are used to filming still images and journalistic reports. As such, it took us time to film.
We found a director, Ghaeth Ayoub, who wrote the ‘scenario,’ while I filmed for two or three days. I needed to evacuate after the bombing intensified here in Maarat al-Numan, so I told the director that the film crew should come the next day [before I evacuated].
We filmed for two days and then I evacuated to north Aleppo while the crew finished by itself.
They began filming residents. At that point, all that remained was the editing, which was being done by Ghayath Ayoub and Omar Kokash. The Syrian director [Ghaeth Ayoub] lives in Lebanon, so we talked with him through the internet. He talked with the film crew about the scenes and wrote the scenario for them.
The other difficulty we faced was that many of the residents didn’t want to be filmed in light of the ongoing situation and prospect of death from above or below. Wanting to do a video clip in that situation, no one wanted to accept in the beginning. But when we explained the video’s story many people agreed.
As for working in media here, there is something called a “permit,” and all the videographers in the liberated areas need to have one. We got this permit and filmed people from all walks of life in Idlib, from doctors to Civil Defense employees, civilians and students.
My work is in rap and there is no one else in my field here, I work by myself. I might be the first person to make a song in Idlib. I have a microphone and a laptop and I worked hard to find someone in Idlib who works in sound engineering. I talked with my friends who are rappers in Europe and learned from them: now I record by myself and do the sound engineering by myself. I also learned graphic design and received a certificate in the field, as well as learned production from my professor.
In your opinion, what is the role of rap as a form of resistance? Why did you choose rap specifically, rather than a form of music more familiar to Syrians?
I chose rap because it is a political art which emerged to speak out against racism, government corruption and political excess. If I wanted to come out and talk, for example, in a form of folk art like Abdel Bassat al-Sarout, I wouldn’t be able to express everything I want to in my lyrics. I’m able to summarize everything I’m thinking and feeling in one rap song. Rap might use a chorus, it might not. However, with folk art, you have to speak in lines with a chorus.
I love rap because it is a bold political art, but if you were to look at it as just an art form, then you’re looking at it ignorantly. If you want to ignore all of the words, the meaning of the words and look at the videography and those sorts of things [and ignore them], then you are being ignorant. I spoke about the suffering of all the people who have been liberated [in my song].
Rap is not very well known in our society and is fundamentally misunderstood here. It is thought that rappers are supported by the Syrian regime and use curse words and insults in their songs, and the [community] thinks that rap is only made up of these things.
These things are used to discredit rap as a political tool. [However,] if you talk to the new generation about rap, they understand what it is. Rap is a political tool.
[In the song] I said that “protests won’t work if they’re close-minded” and this is about the moves taken against Idlib. I was a university student when we went out on protests against HTS because they wanted to close the university due to a dispute with the Syrian Coalition [for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces]. We protested against the closure, but despite our protests, they closed the university.
If you were sitting in a room with the leadership of the Syrian government, the different factions, Russia, Turkey and the U.S., what would you say to them?
I would tell the factions to disappear. And I would tell the countries to just leave us alone. I mean Turkey took a part of Aleppo, Russia took [the rest] of Aleppo, Iran took Damascus, America took the Kurdish areas. It’s all about the states’ political and economic interests. Now Turkey took north Aleppo and part of Idlib.
All of them negotiate while the people bleed.