Anas Maghrebi is the 26-year-old lead singer of Syrian indie rock band Khebez Dawle (or “State Bread”). Since the Arab Spring began in late 2010, Anas and his bandmates have been forced out of Syria, traveling from Beirut, Lebanon to Istanbul, Turkey—the group just landed on the Greek Island of Mytilene, where they’ll wait for the proper paperwork to enter other parts of Europe. Anas and his friends are among the thousands of Syrian refugees who have entered Greece this year.
The band has just released their first album, which captures events in Syria between 2010 and 2014. Here, Maghrebi recounts his experience going from an economics student to the lead singer of a band fleeing war. The following has been edited and condensed.
I was born in a small town called Nabek in Syria and grew up in a conservative community. When I was 10 years old, I started singing religious chants such as Tarab (a type of traditional Arabic music) and Sufi poems. I’ve always found it easier to express myself through music. But growing up it was very hard to break free from all the rules and thoughts that limit me—I never thought I would go on an adventure filled with uncertainty and unknown.
In 2010, I was a normal college student at Damascus University studying economics. I joined an indie rock band with friends and practiced in the basement. We never played a gig. At the time, I just wanted to graduate and proceed with the path that was already clear and written.
Then a wave of uprisings broke out the next year, altering the fate of my nation and my own life forever.
My band at the time, called Ana or “I” in Arabic, was torn apart in the most horrifying way. Our drummer and friend, Rabia al-Ghazzi, was in the streets of Damascus protesting along the demonstrators.
One day, he was followed and killed.
Even after, I wanted to keep the band together; music was all we had. But then our guitarist was drafted into the army and the fast turn of events forced me to believe that our days of making music were done. I had already dropped out of college and left my job.
It was a dark period, but looking back, they were also the birthdays of something new, promising, and beautiful.
Soon after Ana, I realized it was time to leave my motherland and join my friends Bazz and Hikmat in Beirut. Some people criticize us for fleeing the country when it needed us. But we didn’t leave until we were exhausted trying our best to stay.
It was the winter of 2012. I went back to Nabek to bid goodbye to my parents. (A year later, they moved to Saudi Arabia.) What I didn’t know was the ceasefire between the opposition and government had ended and there was a lot of fighting.
I didn’t know whether I was going to survive. I went into the nearest internet café to upload a demo song I had written, ironically called, “You’re Still Alive.” Back then, all that mattered to me was the music—I just wanted people to listen to it, because I might not get out alive. Music was all that I could leave behind.
Minutes after the song was uploaded, a bomb hit the building next door and then the computer screen went dark. The song survived and so did I.
So I joined thousands of Syrians to flee across the border to find sanctuary in Lebanon. By now, I was together with two of my old bandmates and we decided to turn my project, Khebez Dawle (or “State Bread” in English) into a band. It’s a metaphor for the foundation of a greater society.
At first I worried about xenophobic sentiments in Beirut, but to my surprise it was just the opposite. Lebanese musicians were so welcoming and willing to help and share the music with us. In the music community, people usually don’t care about what separates humans as much as what unites them.
In relative safety, we made our first album of 11 songs. I wrote nine of them when I was in Syria, an account of what happened in my country from 2010 to 2014. The album tells the story of one man going through an overwhelming experience involving his own inner battles against outside events, specifically the Syrian uprising and Arab Spring.
It starts out with an enthusiastic call to “gather all the bread and build a country” and turns into an outcry for justice as chaos and violence descended:
I had enough lies,
so let's just be clear!
Injustice and oppression don't recognize a color or a religion.
Bashar, our guitarist, wrote a song called “Belsharea” (“Street”) when he was in the army, a hopeful reminder from a peace-loving musician that the street is the place that unites and frees us all.
The last song sounds sad but not without hope. I want it to conjure the image of a tiny candle at the end of the tunnel. In the lyrics, I asked humans to get closer to each other and just think. Think about what we all have in common: we all want a peaceful life to live, we all want to love and be loved, no one wants to be hated, rejected—needless to say murdered.
The next step for Khebez Dawle is to reunite with our bandmate Bashar and settle down to work on new material. Most of the second album is already written. I’m a little worried about how much time it will take us to overcome technicalities (we sold all our gear) before we can get back to proceeding with our career.
I think artists around the world have an important role to play in this situation: We need to try our best to give people hope, positive thoughts, and spread the word of love, not hatred. It’s not easy but it’s absolutely worth it.
—as told to Isabelle Niu
Isabelle Niu is a digital video producer at Fusion.