Syrian rock musicians on unexpected 'exile tour' through Europe
By Lajla Vaselica
ZAGREB, Croatia - Like tens of thousands of their fellow countrymen fleeing war, members of a Syrian rock group exiled in Lebanon undertook a perilous journey to reach Europe.
But their trek, which has already taken them through five countries, has led to an unexpected "exile concert tour," on the way to their hoped-for final destination of Germany.
"We are all humans ... Thank you all very much for coming!" Anas Maghrebi, lead singer of Khebez Dawle, told the audience of some 300 at the start of their concert in a Zagreb club late Wednesday.
The alternative rock band from Damascus fled Syria to neighbouring Lebanon in 2013, a year after a fellow band member was killed.
But in August Maghrebi and two other band members decided to try to get to western Europe to continue their careers.
"In Beirut we realised that we have to move on ... but when one holds a Syrian passport it's like holding no passport, it's useless. We were forced to travel illegally," Maghrebi told AFP ahead of the concert "From Syria with Love" in the Mocvara alternative club.
The 25-year-old recalled the uncertain journey squeezed into a van on a Turkish road, floating on a dinghy towards a Greek island and sneaking under heavy rain through bush and vineyards in the Balkans.
They were joined by five other Syrian musicians.
However, the young man with a gentle smile recalled, the most remarkable moments were all defined by music.
They include distributing the band's CDs to friendly tourists at a beach on the Greek island of Lesbos, where they arrived along with 23 other refugees on a dinghy, or making police officers listen to their music while being held at a station in Ilok, a little town in eastern Croatia.
'Getting both older, younger'
"Being detained there, at a police station, and making the officers listen to our songs that talk about freedom and jail was a remarkable moment. It's rather ironic!" said the brown-eyed Maghrebi, wearing a cap and a red and white keffiyeh, or Middle Eastern scarf, around his neck.
"During this journey we grew so much, one gets both older and younger. One gets back that sense of youth, rebellion, freedom, wilderness."
All of that became virtually palpable at the concert. The club resonated with the sounds of indie rock, strong guitar riffs and Maghrebi's emotion-filled voice.
When the journey started the only thing the musicians had on their minds was reaching their final destination - Germany.
But their European debut took place unexpectedly one day in Kutina, a little town some 60 kilometres (37 miles) southeast of Zagreb. Organisers called them to perform at a concert held at a primary school.
"It was perfect," Maghrebi said, although the instruments were not their own as they were travelling without them. He had to sell his equipment to finance his trip.
"Most of the audience were Croatians. They enjoyed, we enjoyed."
One of them, Petar Varat, liked the concert so much that he came to listen to the band again in Zagreb.
"It is important to see these young men, to share the same values," he told AFP.
Ema, a 30-year-old translator, came to lend her support, describing the band as "courageous".
After Zagreb, the next concert is planned for Sunday in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. They were invited there by Bosnian rock band Dubioza Kolektiv.
Maghrebi also saw these unplanned concerts as an opportunity to dispel prejudices about the migrants and his nation.
"Mass media keep promoting the refugees as poor people with sad faces, waiting for food and roofs to sleep under... This is much bigger than that," he said.
"What happened is Syria is much bigger ... It is about a whole nation, a cultural, civilised nation being expelled from the country."
The musicians are heading for Berlin in hopes of continuing their careers and hopefully reuniting with their fellow band member who stayed in Beirut.
Maghrebi described the first album from Khebez Dawle - the Arabic term for Syria's ubiquitous state-subsidised bread - as a story of a young man who witnessed the Syrian uprising.
The next one will be strongly influenced by their current journey.
"There is a lot of inspiration in the whole journey. Too much inspiration actually," Maghrebi said, smiling.