Monday, February 13, 2012

Of Refugees, Dreams and Music: Hamid El Shari

Once upon a time I worked with refugees who had fled Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and other troubled messes masquerading as countries.  My job was to find a ‘durable solution’ for them, which 999 times out of a 1000 meant resettling them in a third, usually North American or European, country.

My job was to convince the immigration hard cases of the USA, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands and Scandinavia to accept ever bigger numbers of refugees.  Their job was to find ways to turn down my requests with slippery conceits.  Like Moses on Mt Sinai they would pull heavy books of ‘regulations’ off the shelves and piously point out why so and so did not meet the strict (but very humanitarian, of course) criteria for entry into Norway, Canada, USA or Australia.

I could spend years telling you stories of the dance I did with these idiots but will not indulge myself. Or bore you.

But given tonight’s post I will allow myself one short tale.

His name was H.  He was an Iraqi Christian about my age. He came to the UN office in Islamabad to seek protection after escaping from Iraq in the final days of its horrendously awful and brutal war with Iran.  In his youth he had lived for a while with relatives in Detroit but had had a few run-ins with the law and been dispatched back home by a frustrated uncle.

In Iraq the war was raging. Both sides were up to their nostrils in chemical gas and Khomeni was sending waves of young kids into the Iraqi guns. H’s father, in a pique, volunteered his son into Sadaam’s army.  H found himself a few weeks later sitting in a tank in the desert with orders to lob shells into the oncoming hordes of Persian youth.  “I freaked out,” H told me when I interviewed him.  “I refused. I put Dire Straits into my Walkman and refused to shoot.”  Needless to say, this did not go down well his superiors.  He was ordered to report to the Military Police a few days later, but knowing this meant imprisonment if not summary execution, he escaped in the dead of night across the desert and enemy lines into Iran.  Several weeks later he arrived in Islamabad, desperate, broke and still freaked out.

H loved music. Not just Dire Straits but he fancied his own ability at strumming the guitar and writing songs.  He often came to my office to check on how his application for resettlement in the States was going  (not well). He frequently came with a cheap guitar he’d traded some cassettes for and we would talk about music for a few minutes.  I tried to get him interested in country music but he couldn’t stand the stuff. It was Dire Straits, Clapton and the Stones all the way.

As the months passed and the US and every other country refused my pleas to accept him, H became despondent.  He started to smoke hash heavily and took to sleeping in the rough in one of Islambad’s many parks.  Weeks went by without him coming round to talk about music.  One day I got the good news that a Scandinavian country had agreed to accept him as an extreme humanitarian case.   H was by now psychologically unstable.  I found him stoned and cold in a park and told him the good news. He cried and hugged me. “I can get a start in the music business, at last,” he said weakly.

To get him accepted I had to massage the truth about H a fair bit.  But I saw in H a reflection of myself.  Though he had no political reason for escaping Iraq, he would surely have been killed or imprisoned for years for refusing to fight.  Sure he was a bit of a con and fast talker but he was my age. He loved music and all he wanted was a second chance to live in peace and pursue his dream.   What, I thought, would I want of the UN if I was had been in H’s situation? Would not I deserve a break? I would want desperately for someone to bend the rules and give me that break.

What happened to H in his new home will have to wait another telling. But the point of this story is this.  The right and freedom to live your life is something we should never take for granted. It is a very precious gift.  Even if that right is only the right to listen to Dire Straits and not kill others.

Hamid el Shari is the subject of tonight’s post. Like H he was a refugee from his country (Libya). He loved music and when Qadafi’s regime began burning western instruments in the streets as a demonstration of his anti West credentials, Hamid fled to Egypt.  
Hamid El Shari

Over the years he became identified as the originator of a popular form of dance music known as jeel. Meaning something similar to ‘new wave’ jeel music snubbed its nose at the classical maqam of Arabic culture and the more ‘westernised’ genres of music like shaabi. Jeel was scorned by the critics but its sweet sounds, romantic lyrics and melodic vocals were immediately embraced by the young set.  Indeed, in the same way that Elvis created rock n roll (arguably), Hamid has influenced every contemporary Arabic pop start since.  Not bad for a refugee eh?

This set is wonderful. I can’t stop listening to it. The imminently danceable Hely Mely with its car horn, bouncing bass lines and call and response between girl and boys chorus is the best known song on the record. But other standouts are the 16 minute Shafeqa Wa Metwaly with a drum beat that surely has been lifted by Michael Jackson (ref. They Don’t Care About Us) and the folk song Esh Ala Esh. The instrumentation is fantastic with accordion, trumpets and harmonium all sharing the stage with rapid oud picking and distinctly Arabic hand claps.

As the Revolutions in Hamid’s native and adopted countries teeter at the brink of failure, it is a good time to pause and pay our respect to the spirit and freedom and creativity that resides in that part of the world.

            Track Listing:
01.  Leyl Yabo El Layali
02.  Hely Mely
03.  Esh Ala Esh
04.  Raqset El Magnouna
05.  Shafeqa Wa Metwaly
Listen here.


Holly said...

Excellent post.

I do hope H has expanded his musical horizons! ;-)

kokolo said...

Didn't hear it jet, but ejnoyed reading, thank you.