Laughing and delirious with relief at having made it across the sea, the group of Syrian men climbed out of their dinghy and strode up the beach of the Greek island of Lesbos. The first thing they did as they reached a startled group of sunbathing tourists was to hand them CDs of their music.
The members of the rock band Khebez Dawle may have fled their war-torn homeland, but they’re still musicians and this was their debut album. So they brought CDs along with them on their perilous passage to Europe.
Since then, they’ve spent four weeks traveling through Europe, telling the same story as they traveled across Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Austria towards their ultimate destination – Berlin.
“Do you think that the asylum authorities can make an exception for us?” asked Hekmat Qassar, the guitarist and keyboardist. “Because it would be terrible if we would now be sent off to different locations and torn apart from each other. It would foil our plans.”
Singer Anas Maghrebi said: “We have so much ahead of us. I know that we are good enough to make it.”
“I know that we are good enough to make it.”
He meant the band is strong enough musically to make it in Berlin, which is why the Syrians have been putting off their asylum registrations. They’ve been a band on the run ever since they came ashore. But the question is whether they will remain a band after they face an overworked German official. They fear legally becoming refugees. Being a band has protected them from that status.
In a trendy café in the Berlin district of Mitte, the musicians disappeared into a back corner. Mr. Maghrebi, 25, a tall, thin man with a black hippie cap, is the most noticeable. His short leather jacket, hooded sweater and corduroy pants are barely enough to keep out the autumn chill. The others have obtained more practical, padded workmen’s jackets.
“We expected that it would be harder,” Mr. Maghrebi said of the long journey. “Everywhere, we found people who helped us. Overwhelming. We went through bushes, through orange groves, over mountains we did not know. But we enjoyed it in the sense that we were taking the same path as all the others.”
The band’s story begins with Anas Maghrebi in Damascus, where he traveled from his village to work at a radio station while playing in rock bands on the side. But then protests against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime flared up. For the first year of the civil war, the conflict lines were recognizable, he said, but soon the war transformed his country into a “battlefield of international forces.” The drummer of his band, a peace activist, was killed. His friends either joined the military or fled the country to avoid conscription. Beset with doubt, Mr. Maghrebi began to publish his own songs on Facebook, titling his page Khebez Dawle, which means “government bread” in Arabic.
The current band began to emerge in April 2013, when Mr. Maghrebi was in Beirut and met Mr. Qassar and Muhammad Bazz, inseparable friends and music fans who had earlier left Syria for Lebanon. Beirut is a good city for Arab rock musicians, he said, adding that it is “expensive, but halfway secure.” Khebez Dawle earned just enough cash to pay their rent, and two non-governmental organizations financed the album. The band produced 500 copies and sold 150 on the evening it debuted. If they could record an album in Beirut, Mr. Maghrebi reasoned, they could survive everywhere.
The band couldn’t remain in Beirut despite its popularity there, however. “It didn’t go any further for us,” Mr. Maghrebi said. “After two years, the city had nothing more to offer us. We hoped that we would find refuge in Europe. But nothing came of it. Visa applications we made for Egypt and Tunisia were rejected. Our Syrian papers were no longer worth anything. So we decided to try on our own.”
What about the guitarist who was left behind? “Bashar deserted the army. He called us one day in Beirut,” Mr. Maghrebi said. “His voice sounded incredibly old, tired and dried up when he asked us to fetch him. He had no papers. We had already looked around for a replacement guitarist because we could not believe he would survive the army. We were desperate to fetch him.”
They sold their equipment to pay for the journey, packed their precious CDs and climbed into the back of a delivery truck that drove them to the Turkish coast. There were 16 people in all, musicians and artists, and they spent days in a forest above the shore from which they could make out the Greek coast.
“We were shit scared,” said Mr. Maghrebi. They knew the stories and the photos of overfilled rubber dinghies that had been caught by coastguards or capsized. One morning, they were shown just such a rubber dinghy. Two Turkish men held it in the surf, and the outboard motor was running. They didn’t trust it but they felt relief at finally getting going, so they climbed aboard.
Halfway to Lesbos, the motor overheated and stopped, forcing the passengers to take turns paddling against the current until the motor cooled enough to be used again. Soon, they could see the hotel beach with people, who by then were used to the sight of seagoing refugees, waving at them. Ordinarily, the refugees waded ashore with crying children in their arms, but these were different. They smiled. They spoke English. And they came bearing gifts in the form of their CDs. “It was wonderful to transform this dangerous trip into a kind of tour,” Mr. Maghrebi said, describing the scene as “surreal.”
Mr. Maghrebi said it was galling how easily the identities of people seeking a new life – among them doctors, engineers, craftsmen and musicians – were swallowed by their status as refugees.
By early September, the exodus to Europe had taken on unimagined dimensions with thousands of refugees protesting in Budapest when their trains to Austria were canceled. On Lesbos alone, 15,000 people waited for papers for the journey to the mainland. The band and its retinue, living in provisional camps, were among the masses seeking to go north. Mr. Maghrebi said it was galling how easily the identities of the people seeking a new life – among them doctors, engineers, craftsmen and musicians – were swallowed by their status as refugees.
“We are going through the same thing as our people,” he said. “We will prove to the world, that we are not just ‘refugees,’ if we only continue our career and can tell the people the story of our country.”
There was a setback in Croatia. After crossing the border from Serbia, they were apprehended and fingerprinted by the border patrol, an ominous development because it might prevent them from seeking asylum elsewhere. They were trapped, but used the delay to perform two concerts including one in a crowded Zagreb club. Press coverage spread the band’s story.
There are many young men like Mr. Maghrebi and his comrades among the refugees, adrift in the world wearing sneakers and sunglasses. But do they have a sound? Khebez Dawle sounds much like an Arab version of U.S. rock band Soundgarden, with their crooked meters and quarter-tone intervals and the constant change between quiet, lyrical passages and heavy riffs, always accompanied by a beautiful melody as Mr. Maghrebi bends low over his guitar, rocking restlessly on one leg.
Band members saw little of Hungary beyond its army, which organized transit to Austria. From Vienna, it was a drive in a private car through heavy rains to the German border with the driver dropping them off south of Munich.
“In Syria, I believed in the message from Bob Marley about one world, peace, blah blah blah. But now that I have experienced it, it is real for me,” Mr. Maghrebi said. His belief in borders and official documents is gone but his faith in people has strengthened. “What is this stupid passport that prevented me from leaving Beirut, but didn’t stop a club owner in Zagreb from organizing a concert for me?”
Berlin is the goal because it is a creative city. Already, some of their artist friends from Damascus are there. Yet, above all, they’ve been driven by a yearning to honor a promise. Their odyssey has turned Mr. Maghrebi into a man with a mission.
“If it were only about performing in clubs and having fun, I would let it go,” he said. “But I have something to share.” He has told his story to numerous television networks including ABC, CNN and BBC as well as Guardian newspaper. He’s coined the phrase that the trip is “sponsored by the universe.” Already, the group has received invitations to perform in southern Germany, Paris and Vienna, which would allow them to pay for their cost of living. The question is whether that will suffice for special treatment from immigration authorities, particularly since only families have the right to be sent to the same city.
For now, the band shares a house about 100 kilometers from Berlin with a pro-refugee activist who has devoted years of his life to helping displaced people. There is a lake near the house where the musicians frequently gather to look at the glimmering water and talk. The setting is beautiful, but the band members long to be somewhere else.
“We have music,” Mr. Qassar said. “We have to bring it to the people.”
Video: Khebez Dawle’s launch video.
This article originally appeared in Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org