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Fleeing Syria With His Violin

As part of 2011's uprising against Assad regime, Alaa Arsheed fought for his country's freedom before he was forced to flee to Beirut. Now safely in Italy, he plays to forget.

Alaa Arsheed playing in Florence, Italy
Alaa Arsheed playing in Florence, Italy
Francesca Paci

TREVISO — Arsheed Alaa, 29, has a violin and a passport from a country that effectively no longer exists. When he left Syria a few months after the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad, he dreamed of returning home to play and give music lessons to children. Now, he says while smoking a cigarette in the garden of Italy's Fabrica Communication Research Center, he feels like Orpheus trying futilely to rescue his past from the underworld.

Alaa's story is that of a generation of Syrians who, four years ago, had the temerity to imagine themselves as revolutionaries: young, educated, liberal, bourgeois and bold enough to challenge the silence of their parents terrorized by the regime.

But this wasn't enough to survive the crossfire between Damascus and the Islamist madness. Today, Syria is a ghost state, a country buried by a war that has caused at least 250,000 deaths and created more than five million refugees.

"I was born in Suwayda, in the Daraa province, where our short spring began in February 2011," Alaa says during a break at Fabrica, where he has recorded a CD that includes eight songs.

In 2011, he had been running a cafe-gallery called Alpha for five years, a cultural space in which — dodging censorship — they were able to organize 140 exhibitions and almost 50 events. It seems like a century ago for Alaa. "My friends and I knew what was happening in Egypt and Tunisia," he says. "We thought it was up to us, but we had to be more careful than others. We protested with art. I remember there was one graphic that reworked some of Voltaire's sentences."

But, he says, the regime's thugs were rough. "And those stationed at the gallery didn't understand anything," he says. "But people came, so many of them, and the police called my father to warn him. They arrested him for a while. I was champing at the bit, but on the other hand I was getting warnings like dents on my car. I didn't like that the protests had become increasingly focused around mosques because democracy has nothing to do with faith. So I went to Beirut."

He didn't really want to go, though. "I wanted to free my country, but that summer the energy was too negative," he says. "Shortly after I left, they destroyed the gallery, burning books and paintings, singing hymns to Assad. They're blind barbarians, full of ignorance and hate."

Lebanese exile

Alaa speaks slowly, listening as if he were playing. But the music, he says, doesn't hurt like the memories do. "In Beirut, I survived. At first I lived in a garage," he recalls. "Today I have three jobs, of which the best is playing at weddings, and I'm able to pay for an apartment that I share with my brother Ayan and my two sisters Maruka and Kinda."

They're all musicians, and they play instead of talking about a Syria that isn't there anymore. "It's less painful," he says. "We would like to form a quartet."

Their parents insisted on staying in Suwayda, Alaa says. "Even now that they are surrounded by the government and by ISIS. In the area there are also the al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army. Sooner or later the war will arrive there, but we are Druze and the local Druze community is starting to distribute weapons to defend itself from both sides. Maybe they will try to cross the border and ally with the Israeli Druze."

Playing for survival

The past is behind him and turning back isn't an option. But the future, he reasons, isn't in Lebanon. "My friends have begun taking the boats to Europe, but I am afraid. They have nothing, but I have music and I dream of fleeing but playing …"

He knows Radu Mihileanu's film The Concert. He knows and loves Tarkovsky, Dostoyevsky and, obviously, Schubert, Chopin and Beethoven.

He would like to stay in Italy, to request refugee status and start from here. "I met Alessandro Gassman in Beirut by accident one day when it was raining," Alaa says. "He was filming a documentary on Syrian refugees for the UN Refugee Agency called Torn and wanted me in the cast. Then Gassman tweeted my name with such great compliments that Fabrica offered me two months of workshops with music composers. Now I'm here, but I don't want to leave, I don't want to pay rent in Beirut. I don't want to be consumed by the hate from my country that is affecting the whole region."

Alaa holds his violin, one of his few possessions along with a hard drive that has photos of his previous life. Knowing what he knows now, he considers whether he still would have challenged Assad. He cries, but straightens up again. "Yes, I would have," he says. "We had the right to try and get away from half a century of slavery, even though the price was our country."

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