United in sorrow: these Belgians and Syrians demonstrate how to conquer war and terrorism


United in sorrow: these Belgians and Syrians demonstrate how to conquer war and terrorism

United in sorrow: these Belgians and Syrians demonstrate how to conquer war and terrorism
United in sorrow: these Belgians and Syrians demonstrate how to conquer war and terrorism

6 years since the Syrian uprising, 1 year since the Brussels attacks, 60 years of European Union. On March 21, all these commemorations coincided in Bozar in Brussels. The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra and the National Orchestra of Belgium led Syrians and Belgians towards a catharsis of the sorrow of these past years. Pieter Stockmans experienced it together with two Syrian families.

© Maxikamera

© Maxikamera​

Roliana en Ariana climb on the red velvet chairs and watch in amazement at the violins, bases, timpani and trumpets. The lights are dimmed, and the murmurs slowly die down. Presenter Greet Samyn greets the packed concert hall of Bozar: ‘Salaam Syria!

‘Syria?’, Roliana whispers, surprised. ‘Do all people here like Syria? Do some people here think Syria is bad?’

The Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra is the first symphonic orchestra for classically educated Syrian musicians in Europe or North America. It is an orchestra in exile. Founder Raed Jazbeh has been a refugee in Germany since 2013. He founded the orchestra in 2015. He tried to reunite exiled Syrian musicians, regardless of their ideological or religious differences. ‘This is what we can do now to protect our music from the great destruction of the centuries-old Syrian civilization.’ 
The entire concert can be seen here.On the stage of the Klarafestival are the 80-year old National Orchestra of Belgium and the 2-year old Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, the crème de la crème of the once flourishing Syrian classical music scene.

This is the most unique commemoration of March 22. Syria and terrorism are usually linked in different ways: Syria, including its refugees, is usually seen as the source of all the terror that hit us in the past years. But here, one thousand Syrians and Belgians establish a deeper connection so rare in this life, when our tears fall into each other’s souls.

On March 22, 2016, our fates were linked to those of the Syrians who were long before us persecuted and murdered by IS and other forms of terror. On this night, the love for one another is stronger than the hatred for the common enemy.

I attend the concert with two Syrian families from Aleppo. War and terrorism totally upended their lives in the last five years, as is the case for their fellow countrymen on the stage. On the eleventh row I sit with Roni Hossein, his parents Ahmed and Nazmia, Delvan Jafar, his wife Rokan and their children Roliana, Ariana and Nouri.

© Maxikamera

© Maxikamera​

My beautiful homeland

Even a seven year-old child experiences the love. A few days ago, Roliana had started crying when she saw that I give lectures about Syria. She is worried that Belgium, the country where she is growing up, harbors prejudice about Syria, her country of origin. In De Jihadkaravaan I analyzed how youth with a migration background isolate themselves when they feel their new homeland does not acknowledge their country of origin. The girl senses perfectly that she is growing up in a society that has low expectations of her people and experiences her origin as a threat. To see Syria greeted rather than feared in this impressive concert venue, is a pleasant surprise for her.

The fact that a child experiences recognition as surprising rather than as obvious, should cause us to worry. Let us be vigilant and avoid that prejudice about Syria starts to weigh down on Syrians living here. Let us acknowledge their identities as carriers of a centuries-old history and culture.

Syria is beautiful, not ugly. That is the message Roliana will carry home tonight.

Jehad Jazbeh adds the action to the word as he kicks off the concert with My beautiful homeland. It kicks off in a melancholy mood, almost like a lamentation – every note of the violins is a tear – but quickly changes into carefully optimistic eastern rhythms and then turns into a wild celebration.

Death can dance

Roni sees the life he has left behind, the man he could have become. For a split second he is back in the Opera of Damascus. His friends Ahmad Mamo and Rezan Abdou, dancers with a well-known ensemble in Damascus, gave him free tickets to an exclusive performance. Roni is a soldier in the army and he does not have any decent costume shoes, but decides to attend the opera anyhow, with his shaved head and army boots. What he sees makes him dream.

The performance is called Dead Can Dance.

Years later, it turns out that Ahmad Mamo was indeed a dead man dancing. For Roni, March 22 is the day terror took his best friend away, two years before it reached Belgium. On that day in 2014 someone informed him that Ahmad Mamo had been killed in an Al-Qaeda attack in Syria. Roni was already in Belgium. Elegance crushed by brute violence.

Ahmad Mamo was a choreographer and expressive dancer. Together with Roni and Rezan he had founded the first modern dance collective of Aleppo. In the years 2000 they were a part of the growing theatre scene. The last piece they performed together was “The seat”, a symbol for dictators who are glued to the seat of power. On a fatal day in 2008, the Syrian secret service decided to uproot Roni and take away his future as a dancer.

Roni has never been able to find his former artistic self again. His flight led him to Leuven, where he had to start over and get vocational training in order to quickly secure employment. He trained as a hairdresser, even though he had never even held scissors.

Sometimes he tells his story to customers or colleagues at the barbershop: ‘If I had been selfish, I would be a professional dance or actor by now. I could have lived on benefits and studied at an art academy. But I chose to support my family. My income currently helps to support my parents, who fled Syria in 2012. During my first years in Belgium I tried to copy my former self. I still danced; I even danced on the square in front of the station in Leuven. But I became dulled by working as a hair dresser for 10 hours per day.’

Roni’s soul screams art, but nobody listens. Deep down, Roni is still the boy who frisked across the stages of Aleppo in gracious and delicate movement, but over the years he has convinced himself that nostalgia destroys people. Here in Bozar he blows the dust from the pictures of his memories, which he had locked away in a dusty old box. For a moment, it hurts. On the stage he sees the man he could have become.

The next day he will be back to hair dressing in Leuven for 10 hours on end. The dream of a reunion of his dancers’ collective is unattainable. Better than anyone he understands Raed Jazbeh has done the impossible by uniting these classically trained musicians from all over Europe and North America; and by staging this top performance with the National Orchestra of Belgium after a mere two years.

Here is the Syria that could have been: united and inclusive, proud and strong on the foundation of its own culture. There’s a thin line between hope and sorrow for what was lost.

© Xander Stockmans

© Xander Stockmans​

In 2015 Roni saw his friend Rezan in Istanbul, for the first time in seven years, without Ahmad. Rezan, Roni and Ahmad used to be one person in three bodies. Today, Ahmad is dead, Rezan survived as a street vendor in Istanbul and was then resettled to Canada as a refugee.

Rezan is not doing well. He was never able to say goodbye to his former self, he has never closed his dusty old box. The most passionate dancer of the threesome has been wrecked by depression and sleeping pills. The former soul mates cannot talk anymore because Roni reminds Rezan of the old days. If you keep wallowing in nostalgia, if you continue to torment yourself with the question as to why this drama had to happen “to me, of all people”, it will destroy you.

The war has caused them to live on, crumpled like the ruins of Aleppo, as anonymous individuals in different countries that are unknown to them. ‘At times I had to fight back my tears’, Roni will say after the concert. ‘Before the war, the conversations I had with Belgians about Syria were about the beautiful nature and culture. After the war it’s nothing but dark conversations about decapitations, IS, terrorists and bombings. For a moment, in Bozar I saw my beautiful homeland through the eyes of the musicians, instead of through the eyes of the Belgians. For a moment the sun shone again in my heart.’

On March 22nd the families of 32 Belgians were confronted with the depth of loss. They, too, became but a shadow of their former selves. Roni knows the pain of these Belgian better than many among us. Apart from losing his loved ones, this terror also caused him to lose his country, his centuries-old city that had been inhabited since time immemorial, today an empty and lifeless apocalyptic landscape. Syria lives on as an immaterial world.

Jazbeh’s My beautiful homeland calls for reflection, asking each and every one to pause at their own past and their own grief. But it also makes the connection between all these different sorrows. From this day on, we are united in grief. Long-winding and comforting violins. United are the victims of the same enemy, in order to transform their victimization into powerful resistance. Sounds of trumpets and bright cymbals lead to a catharsis. Eyes closed, tears, and in the goose bumps of a mere couple of seconds the film of a lifetime whizzing by.

© Maxikamera

© Maxikamera​


‘Take pictures for grandfather’, whispers Roliana. Grandfather Nouri stayed behind in Istanbul when Roliana and her family crossed the Mediterranean in a rubber dingy. The orchestras commence an iconic composition by Nouri’s namesake Nouri El Ruheibany: Lubana al-Quntar sings Ya Toyour – oh, the birds – a song which has been performed countless times at the Damascus Opera house, and which has almost become a national anthem.

Roliana’s father Delvan is in his taxi, shortly after midnight. He is on the way from Aleppo to Damascus. The darkness rushes by, on the radio he is listening to Ya Toyour sung by Syrian-Egyptian singer Asmahan. Every day after midnight. That night he comes home and watches his children sleep. He feels a sort of happiness, he can provide for them.

He was there then, now he is here. ‘No more taxi rides for Roliana and Ariana. Only the music can express my feelings. Oh, why have our lives changed so much in just four years? What am I doing here, in this country? In Syria we had land, olive trees, a job. I was free; I could go wherever I wanted. But we sold it all to come to Belgium. I sold my soul for the future of my children. This song reminds me of the past.’

When Roni’s parents were still young lovebirds going to the movies in Aleppo, they used to listen to Asmahan together. It was the soundtrack to the most beautiful times of their lives.

Screaming women

In the former life of Damascus, Kinan Azmeh was a clarinet player in the jazz band Hewar. These days, his star shines far beyond the horizons of Syria. His clarinet inhales and exhales deeply.

Delvan’s wife Rokan is in doubt whether to board the rubber dingy. What if they don’t? No future for their children. What if they do? Maybe death. Her thoughts dart to and fro, worrying, moving up and down, from low to high, just like the clarinet. And in the background, the sounds of war: monotonous, repetitive. No, things will not get better. We have to create our very own symphony of our lives.

Suddenly Azmeh’s hesitant improvisation changes into a melody. A new harmony arises. But in the next part the clarinet starts off again like a hurricane – shrill, screeching, restless. The sound of all the women screaming during the war.

During the interval Roni walks up to Kinan Azmeh: ‘I want you to know that we are really proud of you. You don’t know how happy I am’, he says. ‘I am grateful because you, as a Syrian, came to see this concert’, Azmeh replies.

© Maxikamera

© Maxikamera​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​​

Revolution and disillusion

Dmitri Shostakovitch’s menacing drums form the soundtrack to the 37th anniversary of the Russian October revolution of 1917. The trot of horses. The horsemen of the revolution. The euphoria of the beginning. Cymbals as explosions of light and hope.

Only a few days ago: March 15, 2017, sixth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. Playful, naïve, hopping rhythms, like dancing couples twirling, as the Syrians did six years ago in the streets of Homs, Aleppo and Damascus. Not always naïve but also determined and marching towards a new future with their heads held high, apparently unstoppable.

Little did they know that they were starting a chain of events that, five years later, on March 22, 2016 would tear apart lives in a Belgian airport and metro station. Their euphoria of the beginning is not to be blamed, but history is like a horse running wild. Once out of control, it thunders on and on, unstoppable, like Shostakovitch’s music.

Then the disillusion: Syrians at the end of their strength, just like Manon Lescaut, from thirst and fatigue. Lubana al-Quntar sings Manon Lescaut by Puccini. The euphoric community has been dispersed, beaten apart. Sola, perduta, abbandonata.

‘Why is she crying?’, Roliana asks when she hears Al-Quntar sing.

The activist who once fought a battle for justice in his country, the cellist who once played in the most sumptuous concert venues of Aleppo and Damascus, the men and women staring blankly at Brussels airport: they are all facing the struggle of becoming themselves again, to collect the shattered fragments of their soul in order to put them together into a new composition.


Tonight, Syrians and Belgians enter this struggle together, in a therapeutic outburst of anger. This is Kareem Roustom’s Dabke, named after the energetic Arabic folk dance. Work of Kareem Roustom has already been conducted by the Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Two peoples dance to expel sorrow, all brakes loose, until they are dripping with sweat in that proud Arabic dance led by the great Belgian conductor Ivan Meylemans. It’s a descent into madness, a drug to escape the horrors. And after the climax, there is the disillusionment, the panting breath, the cold turkey, the intoxication suddenly shattered, the return to reality, the destruction that remains.

The calm build-up that follows embodies the immense vitality that reunited families in Europe, the strength that Raed Jazbeh displayed in uniting Syrian musicians into this exiled orchestra in a mere one and a half years. It is the same force that made Eddy Van Calster after March 22, 2016 and Ali Akyil after December 31, 2016 , rise again and support their families in spite of their own grief, and speak words of reconciliation in spite of everything.

This is therapy for both Belgium and Syria.

© Maxikamera

© Maxikamera​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​​

‘We have experienced the same’, says Delvan. ‘There are a thousand people in this hall, and I feel that everybody feels the same pain. That they feel my pain, and I feel theirs’.

‘The images of the terrorist attack in Brussels were terrible to watch’, says Rokan. ‘We fled from IS. Four months later bombs exploded in Belgium, the country where we are trying to build a new life. We have taken so many risks in order to be safe. I felt fear for my children, that they had to see that kind of violence again. Or just hear about it.”

When Delvan was a taxi driver in Aleppo there were explosions. He brought the fear he experienced back then with him to Belgium. When a bomb explodes in your new country, you feel the same fear. The fear he never wanted to feel again he even felt in Bozar, during this celebration of consolation.

‘IS attacks concerts, just look at the concert in the Bataclan in Paris on November 13, 2015’, Delvan whispers into the ear of Roni’s father Ahmed. ‘Don’t speak those words and quickly pray the Fatiha’, retorts Ahmed. ‘Otherwise it might happen.’

United in sorrow

The day after the concert, on March 22, Delvan returned to Brussels to sympathize with the families of the victims. He had expected lots of people in the streets of Brussels, who would, like in Syria, shout slogans for the martyrs. But he did not see anyone; he did not know where the commemoration would take place.

An idea for next year: the social services accompanying refugees could inform them of the time and the place of the ceremonies. Syrians are involved and feel the pain caused by IS.

Could it be that after March 22, we became so deeply immersed in our own grief that we can no longer speak of the fear of others, the refugees of Syria, for that same terror? There were no mentions anywhere of how March 22 had affected refugees from those countries most affected by IS.

It is a missed opportunity that, apart from the Klarafestival, the authorities and the civil society did not think of involving the first victims of IS in the commemoration activities. During the ceremony at Schuman Square that the King attended, a Syrian could have spoken.

Since March 22, the same enemy has attacked both of us, and we have thus become allies. This could have shone a totally different light on the refugees in our country. Not one of suspicion and rejection, which is the atmosphere in society which refugees eventually experience. But one of solidarity and honor, that we can include these people who reject IS into our ranks. These people who, long before us, had to find the resilience to pick up their lives destroyed by terror.

Luckily the Klarafestival, in organizing this concert, has allowed for the pain experienced by Delvan, Rokan, Roni, Ahmed and Nazmia to be publicly recognized on this day of reflection. For them, the terror never ended. Every day they have to digest news flashes about their villages and cities suffering under Turkish and Syrian bombs.

The harp and the hope have lulled the children to sleep. They are dozing in the red velvet chairs of Bozar. For a moment, hardly a sound can be heard. And then, suddenly, out of the void: loud, deep bangs of the kettledrums, like bombs striking. Symphony no. 1 Leviathan by Wim Henderickx. Ariana is jolted awake. A cacophony of thin sounds accompanies the nightmare in her head. A long, monotonous sound, the insecurity of the journey.

© Pieter Stockmans

© Pieter Stockmans​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​

© Jürgen Augusteyns​​

And then there is November 13, 2015, day of liberation, their arrival in Europe. They are free. And yet it is not a victory over the Leviathan. The monster takes on another form and mutates into European monsters such as inequality, discrimination and racism.

On the same day IS declares war on Europe, with terrorist attacks on Stade de France and the Bataclan in Paris. This is the start of a series of attacks which would strengthen the hold of far right nationalists and extremist Islamists on European populations, and which would even shake the project of the European Union on its foundations.


During ten days between March 15 and March 25, 2017, the last days of winter and the first days of spring, we commemorate three dramatic events which changed the course of history. The Syrians commemorate the sixth anniversary of the uprising of March 15. The Belgians commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks of March 22. The Europeans celebrate 60 years of the European Union on March 25.

None of these commemorations and reflections about the past should be viewed separately, because they have all become intricately interwoven.

Will the Leviathan dominate our future, or are we heading for a rebirth together with the newcomers, by exploring each other’s humanity?

Salaam Syria in Bozar choses rebirth: Maurice Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte sounds like a sun rising over a green mountain landscape filled with flowers, rivers and butterflies. Ravel wrote it as a slow, stately, dignified reflection upon the lost customs and traditions of a people. The pavane depicts melancholia, but also strength and determination, qualities that will help to uphold the culture and traditions of the Syrians.

One of these traditions, Newroz, the feast of light – springtime as a new beginning after the darkness of winter – takes place each year on March 21. From now on, it will be the eve of the Belgian commemoration of the attacks of March 22. The light will be a source of strength to help us through that dark day. The light is each and every one of us, forming a resistance against those who aim to shroud our days in darkness.

© Pieter Stockmans

© Pieter Stockmans​

In the deserted Ravenstein gallery next to Bozar echo the sounds of the Spanish guitar of a Syrian troubadour. Roni recognizes him as an old friend. ‘This young man left Syria five years ago with ten euros in his pocket. By played music, he made his way to Europe. Perhaps he was sitting there like a sort of prophet with a message? It is up to us to stop and really listen to each other.’

Translation: Inge Vanhaeren