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Story Publication logo December 8, 2016

The Incredible Story Behind the Syrian Protest Singer Everyone Thought Was Dead


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James Harkin reports from Syria, in an exploration of human and cultural loss.

A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic courtesty Creative Commons. Syria, 2016.
A Free Syrian Army fighter takes cover during clashes with Syrian Army in the Salaheddine neighbourhood of central Aleppo August 7, 2012. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic courtesty Creative Commons. Syria, 2016.

Every protest movement needs a singer, and in the spring of 2011 it was the turn of a courageous street poet from Hama. It was the Arab Spring, and Syria's young, mostly leaderless revolt was spinning around like a record on a turntable. What it needed was a soundtrack and at nightly demos, while locals careered around in the Arabic dance known as the dabke, he was the one writing it. Fear was falling away; one of his first songs was called "How Sweet Is Freedom".

As the movement gathered momentum and the nightly protests converged on central Hama's Assi Square, so did his ambition. "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar", or "Come On Bashar, Leave" was inspired by the corruption and brutality of Syria's flagging regime and Hama's bloody history of fighting against it, and would come to define Syria's early revolt. Its acid lyrics - it appeared to call President Bashar al-Assad an "ass" and dismissed his powerful brother, Maher, as a "coward" - were, in a country in which independent politics had been banned for decades, breathtaking in their cheek. Sung over an insistent, jaunty drumbeat, however, it was also as funny as a schoolyard chant. It accused the president of creating "new thieves everyday"; no simple hymn to the West, it dismissed his brother as an "agent of the US". Much as the rousing folk music of Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Víctor Jara had for previous generations, the effect was to give Syria's brand new rebels something to sing along to. On public demos the song added to the carnivalesque atmosphere. On the internet it went around the country like a private joke, taking news of the uprising to beleaguered young protesters elsewhere in Syria and around the world.

When the poet and performer was reported dead in the Orontes River in early July, and a video of his neck almost cut away from a bloody, gruesomely lolling head appeared on YouTube, that too delivered a powerful propaganda punch - that the cruelty of Syria's Ba'athist regime knew no bounds. Now, he also had a name - Ibrahim Qashoush. Everyone from the BBC to CNN reported the death of Syria's revolutionary poet laureate. Those who murdered him, wrote the Guardian's man in Damascus, "cut his throat and carved out his vocal cords". The Telegraph's "special correspondent" in Hama (it wasn't clear how they'd got a correspondent into Hama, given that most foreign journalists were banned by the Syrian regime) confirmed that "The singer paid the price for his fleeting fame" when Assad's troops had "found and dealt with him". The most complete account was filed from nearby Beirut. A reporter from the Associated Press, presumably with the help of sources he'd reached over the phone or via new media, had located a "close friend" of the singer who revealed Qashoush as a 42-year-old fireman and the father of three boys. "All the poems and songs he wrote were by instinct," remembered Abu Yaman. "He used to be sitting with his friends and then start reciting a poem." He'd been walking to work one morning when a white vehicle had stopped and simply bundled him into a car. Qashoush's slaying had become a "rallying point for protesters" in Hama; thousands attended his funeral. "He was the nightingale of the revolution," mourned Yaman.

As the story made its way around the world, the posthumous tributes began to flood in. A Syrian-American pianist, Malek Jandali, was moved to write a powerful orchestral work called the "Freedom Qashoush Symphony"; an Amsterdam art exhibition featured a pen-and-ink portrait of the dead singer, accompanied by some of his songs. In a headline interview with President Assad on ABC in November 2011, Barbara Walters confronted him with the story of the "singer with his throat cut", rendering the Syrian president momentarily silent. Syria's secret policemen had heard the story, too. In February 2012, while interviewing Syria's young revolutionaries and attending their demonstrations incognito, I met one young man who'd spent 16 days in one of the city's most infamous prisons and told me that his biggest mistake was to leave the song "How Sweet Is Freedom" on his mobile on his way to the opposition demo. When his interrogator, a heavily built man with the carriage of a prizefighter, found the song, he'd gone ballistic. Even before he'd asked anything the interrogator made him hold out his hand and brought down a lit cigarette on the middle of his palm, making him clench his fist around it. Then he began playing the song over and over from the mobile, beating him across the head and the body in time to its rhythm.

The songs were inspiring to Syria's young revolutionaries, but there was also something odd about the story. For one thing, the reports of who Qashoush was, where he'd been killed - even the age he was when he died - were wildly different. There was the fact that no one had managed to speak to his family. As time passed, the rumour mill among Syrian oppositionists in exile quickened. "He is alive, and living here in Istanbul," one assured me over lunch in 2014. Another Syrian politico insisted that he was working as a gardener; another told me he'd left for Qatar; yet another that he'd left for Europe. One savvy young activist rolled his eyes when I asked the question, weary of what he took to be another propaganda fiction propagated by the rebel media.

One Syrian human rights investigator was more specific, and a little indignant. The singer was not really Qashoush at all, he insisted, but another man called Abdul Rahman Farhood. "Some of the opposition were telling lies because they thought it would be helpful. It was because of this that I fell out with them." Finally, in January of this year, I phoned a contact on Skype and heard a young Syrian speaking broken English at the other end. Was he Qashoush? "Yes, yes, my friend," he replied, with an amiable giggle. Where the hell was he? "It is a long story. I don't know where I should begin."

The way Abdul Rahman Farhood explained it, his career as a protest singer happened almost by accident. The demonstrations had started small in Hama in March 2011, advancing street by tiny street. Farhood, who was studying economics at university elsewhere in Syria and working in construction to pay the bills, came back to join them. It was Friday 10 June 2011, the same day the demonstrators arrived in any numbers in Assi Square, that he first sang in public. They'd bought the sound system two days earlier and people were getting bored of mouthing the same few political slogans. "They were looking for a leader," he told me. "Everyone was afraid and we needed someone who could sing." Farhood - he was known locally as Rahmani - decided to have a go. Encouraged by the response, he wrote more songs on the hoof, trying them out at the nightly demos. "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" got its first daylight airing three Fridays later, on 1 July. After attacking and killing some protesters several weeks earlier, the security forces were keeping a low profile, so huge numbers of people, many of them women and children, turned up to sing it. The impressive footage is still there on YouTube.

A few days after that came the news of his death. "The singer is dead, the singer is dead. I heard my voice on the television, and another name, and I was very afraid." Friends of his told him to say something, but going against such a powerful propaganda machine seemed like an uphill struggle. "After about ten or 15 minutes, 100 channels, Al Jazeera, BBC, CNN... I was listening to all this." Nor did he want to meet any journalists now. "It is not effective. I think it will cause me trouble with the revolution." Afterwards he'd heard that regime supporters were watching all this too, happy that the singer who'd so insulted their president appeared to have received his comeuppance. The fact was that both sides wanted him dead and it was better to leave it at that. In any case the original nonviolence of the protesters had given way to "fiery voices" like the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis; there were much more important things going on. He wasn't even sure he'd been any good, and he hadn't sung in public since. "I'm not a singer. I never sung anything in my life before the revolution. It was for the street, not for the studio."

But if Farhood was both the songwriter and performer, then who was Ibrahim Qashoush? "A totally unknown person," he told me. "He didn't do anything. Nobody knows his story or why anyone killed him." The Syrian human rights investigator's verdict was more damning: Ibrahim Qashoush was a local security guard and "the rebels killed him because they thought he was an informer for the regime". It was possible. The Syrian security state has traditionally managed a vast informal network of informants and when the revolt broke out some rebels began quietly exacting revenge. But the only way to find out more was to go to Hama. At the end of March, armed with a rare journalist visa to the country, I did just that. Official permission and the accompaniment of a government translator is required for any travel outside Damascus now, which seriously curtails independent reporting. The city itself is protected by a heavy security cordon and is quite safe, but much of the countryside around it is in the hands of Isis and Jabhat al-Nusra. On the final stretch of the journey the driver sank his foot hard on the accelerator; every time we hit a pothole our heads hit the roof. As we sailed into the city we circled around Assi Square - where rebel songs atop huge demonstrations had shaken the Syrian regime to its core five years previously - on our way to the mayoral building, which sits beside it. A solitary plain-clothed Mukhabarat (intelligence officer) loitered outside, scanning both us and the square.

I hadn't mentioned my reasons for visiting Hama to the Syrian government. Supporters of the regime are often suspicious of the motives of western journalists and I didn't want to give anyone time to lay a propaganda trail of their own. After a few minutes drinking tea in an office full of media workers, however, I popped the question: "Does anyone know anything about this guy Qashoush?" Right away, a grave-looking man with a bulbous nose piped up. Ibrahim Qashoush's father and his sister were siblings, he said, and he'd be happy to give him a call and arrange an interview. The conversation didn't go well; after a good deal of badgering in Arabic, Qashoush's father refused to speak to me. Instead the man claiming to be his relative, who only gave his name as Abu Zaher, promised "to tell me everything" and we sloped off, accompanied by one of the city administration's media people, to a nearby coffee bar.

It was a glorious spring afternoon and the outdoor diner we chose looked directly onto the Orontes River, where Qashoush's mutilated body is said to have been dumped. In the background some of the water wheels, or noria, for which Hama is famous were still tilting; the rustic riverside scene was marred only by the presence of a half-submerged car. Over the sound of the muezzin's call to prayer, and in the presence of a media officer from the Syrian government, I produced the two images of Qashoush's corpse on my iPhone and he recognised them immediately. Ibrahim was in his mid-twenties, he said, when he left for work one morning and never came home; he'd turned up dead in an area of the city called Dawar al-Bahra. He wasn't a fireman but a security guard at the fire station; he was also illiterate, according to Abu Zaher, and certainly not a poet or a singer. "Ibrahim didn't sing ever. He didn't know how to write or read and he'd had a problem with his hand since birth [he mimicked a clubbed or deformed hand]. How can people believe this?"

Neither, for much the same reason, was he impressed with the theory that Ibrahim could have been an informer for the Syrian regime. But the man who brutally killed him, the family discovered later, was working with rebel groups and had fled two weeks afterwards to Turkey. All this attention from the foreign media had added immeasurably to their grief. Unidentified opposition groups, according to Abu Zaher, had threatened his relatives "to tell lies about the killing or they'd make problems for everyone in the family". Ibrahim's three brothers had fled Hama as a result. Since his mother was long dead, the upshot was that Ibrahim's father was now living on his own. "He is very confused; he has lost his mind. It is a bad situation. No one from his family is around." Had any journalists asked to speak to him? "Never, nobody. I don't know why. But he is still afraid."

Abu Zaher works as a freelance photographer for Syria's government-controlled news agency and could hardly have blabbed anything critical of the Syrian Army or regime. But the basic contours of his story - that Ibrahim was killed either as the result of some private dispute or because he'd fallen foul of some rebels - seemed both plausible and convincing. If he'd wanted to tell a pro-regime propaganda fib, moreover, he'd surely have focused on the real rebel singer and not a relative who he insisted had never sung a word. But no one around the table claimed any knowledge of the singer and I didn't mention Abdul Rahman Farhood.

After half an hour of pummelling him for information and assuring him I only wanted the truth, I thanked Abu Zaher for his time and walked with Hama city's burly, limping media officer back towards Assi Square. Until then I'd only seen it on YouTube, full to bursting with protesters; now there was only a steady trickle of taxis and passers by. "They made propaganda saying close to half a million people or even a million people participated here," he pointed as we walked. "But you can see the square - you can imagine the number of people who were here. Twenty- or 30,000, maximum." On the YouTube videos it looked as if the there were more people than that. It was difficult to tell.

One evening two weeks later, on the tenth floor of a high-rise overlooking a provincial European city, I was watching the videos again. This time my host was Abdul Rahman Farhood, who'd reluctantly agreed to meet. The clip he wanted me to see was of that huge demo in Assi Square on 1 July 2011, the one where "Come On Bashar, Leave" had made its daytime debut and its mocking lyrics had driven the crowds wild. "It had a powerful effect on the people," he said, with the residue of revolutionary pride. "We were writing history." In the bleached-looking footage demonstrators filled the entire screen, the noise a deep stadium roar; some had even clambered into the mayor's building where I'd been and rolled out revolutionary flags from its balconies. But it wasn't just Assi Square they'd occupied, he wanted me to know; it was the entire area. "Look, my friend, at the streets around it. I know there wasn't one million people. But I think there was not less than 300- or 400,000."

We were sitting in the tiny studio flat belonging to a Syrian friend of his, where Farhood comes to pass the time while his application for political asylum is processed. In the corner was a sink full of unwashed plates; on the table by the window lay the cigarette-rolling machine, scattered with loose tobacco that he and his friend use to save money. Five years later he's 28, with the easy, streetwise charm of a movie star. He's not comfortable discussing his own story, but loves reminiscing about the glory days of Syria's largely peaceful revolt and how he can't help being drawn back to it by new media. Sitting on the edge of the beaten-up sofa bed, he let his eyes wander over the footage on the screen on his phone. "The revolution was on the right road, everything was perfect," he said.

A few days later Ibrahim Qashoush was dead. The episode unnerved Farhood - he had no idea what it meant or who might be behind it - but before long he had other things on his mind. On 29 July the Syrian Army, which had been stationed outside Hama to avoid inflaming the situation, launched a major assault to take back control of the city centre. Tanks rolled through the streets and the demonstrators scattered; on the same day Farhood's younger brother Ahmed, a part-time DJ and another revolutionary, was killed by a sniper. He showed me another video on his phone, this one of Ahmed on a stretcher and haemorrhaging blood; he died shortly afterwards. The security forces were looking for the singer, too; the confusion over his identity might have bought Farhood a little time, but not much. "They started arresting people and asking, asking, asking for information," and soon they worked out the truth. "I was safe, but only for one month."

By then, he was safely in Lebanon. Missing Hama and home, however, he ventured back in December of that year, staying in areas of the city where the fledgling Free Syrian Army had established a presence. He organised demos and even sang some new songs, staying there until the summer of 2012 before heading north towards rebel-held territory and Turkey. For a long time he worked for an NGO, distributing food and other supplies to rebel-held areas of northern Syria. In November 2013, however, disaster struck. Doing relief work in a town called Salqin in Idlib, he and six friends were ambushed on the road by 150 masked, mostly foreign, fighters from Isis. It may have been a case of mistaken identity - they seemed to be looking for someone else - but it was terrifying all the same. The seven activists were blindfolded and whisked away to a holding cell in a nearby engineering college, then taken out one by one to be brutally interrogated.

Farhood didn't want to talk about what happened next; it was his friend who'd let the episode slip. Instead he called one of the other activists who'd been abducted alongside him and put him on tinny speakerphone. The activist had been badly tortured; they'd invited him to dig his own grave, he told us, and announced that they were going to cut off his head with a knife - "and not even a very sharp one". Soon Farhood and everyone else was in stitches at the surreal awfulness of it all. "It was a bad dream. One of them said to me, 'What are you doing here?' I said, 'I am in my own country. What the f*** are you doing here?'" Farhood, who'd been interrogated by their leader and not beaten very much, had been luckier. Countless young Syrian politicos have perished in Isis jails; if they'd found out he was the revolutionary singer known as Qashoush they'd surely have made an example of him. After six days, however, all seven were released without explanation. "They started with the educated people, the activists," concluded his former comrade. "They called us f***ing kaffir (unbelievers). They wanted to send a message."

It was his last day in Syria, more or less. From then on Farhood lived quietly in Istanbul, working in import and export as the commercial agent for an ironmonger. In October 2015 he joined the epic exodus of thousands of Syrians racing across borders and against all obstacles through Greece to Macedonia towards safety in western Europe. "Nobody helped me." He'd dearly like to go home but knows it's not going to happen any time soon: he remains an implacable enemy of the Syrian regime, and for the force with which it put down the initial demonstrations he holds it responsible for everything that's happened since. "Revolution is in my blood," he told me and like many from Hama his animus runs deep. In an earlier assault by the army on the city, in 1982, to crush a Muslim Brotherhood rebellion there, his grandfather had been shot dead in front of his mother. "He was involved in nothing, just staying in his house." An uncle of his was killed too and other members of his extended family. Back then the population of the city was only about 300,000, and Farhood estimates that 40,000 perished. "You can't find a house or family in Hama who hasn't lost someone."

It was Farhood who'd brought up the horrors of Hama in 1982 to illustrate a point. It was after midnight and we'd been sitting around in the flat; his Syrian friend and I were on red wine while Farhood, who still prays regularly, was nursing a nonalcoholic drink. I'd asked about the role of new media in the Syrian revolt and he answered with an example. "When Assad the father [Bashar's father] was doing this, there was no media and no one knew about it. So we thought that if people knew about it through new media... But we were surprised: even when they knew about it, step by step, no one did anything. It wasn't useful for the governments of other countries. In 1982 there was no social media and no one saw the crimes: now they see the crimes and the result is the same." Farhood didn't really blame new media but foreign governments. After all, the Syrian regime had its own house media and its own propaganda story, which the young revolutionaries were forced to rebut. "They were telling the whole world that they were fighting terrorists and the whole world believed them." The problem, he felt now, was that "the revolution media is weak" and subservient to powerful foreign channels who pick and choose what to show according to their own agendas. "I don't believe in media any more. It wasn't effective."

But neither was it always accurate. He'd heard that Ibrahim Qashoush was a "simple person with a disability" [he performed the same tentative mime of using a clubbed or deformed hand that Abu Zaher had] and that he worked in a fire station. He knew all the people "who were working in the revolution" in Hama, so he also knew that Qashoush couldn't have been involved. And they all knew that he was the singer and that he was still alive. So how come a blatantly false story went around Syria and the world? "I don't know who spread the rumour," Farhood told me, with uncharacteristic irritation. "I hope I find him." But it was someone from the Local Coordinating Committees, the new- media-friendly opposition outfits receiving ad hoc support from the US and other western governments, who was quoted in newspaper articles in support of the story.

The Syrian conflict was the first real YouTube war, where much of what we see comes via the grainy lens of a smartphone. Early on in the uprising some of Syria's activists had put their faith in it to get their message out. They were encouraged to do so by foreign governments and well-meaning NGOs. As the vogue for "media activism" in western capitals developed, scores of young Syrians were invited to Turkey and paid up to ten times the Syrian national wage to make new media against the Syrian regime. None of it did their revolt any good. The resulting wall of made-for-YouTube agitprop compromised many young politicos and distracted them from the hard work of persuading their fellow Syrians away from the devil they knew. And in the end, when faced with the might of the Syrian regime and war-hardened Islamists, it turned out to be a very weak weapon anyway.

None of this, however, had anything to do with Abdul Rahman Farhood. His only crime was one of omission - of choosing to say very little. It was understandable. He was taking enormous risks in a rapidly evolving, deeply combustible situation and managing the international media was the least of his worries. Plus, he was protective of the reputation of his revolution. "It was not important for me," he told me. "The revolution is not a programme for fame and people in Hama knew who was singing. When the revolution finishes we can publish all these stories." Later, he took a couple of trips to Qatar and even did some work on an Al Jazeera documentary about songs of the Syrian revolution. Some people there knew who he was, but he didn't want to tell his story. "I don't need this," he'd say, whenever anyone asked.

He did give an interview at the time, however, and to one of the very few foreign journalists to make it into Hama. He'd brought it up almost immediately on our first telephone conversation, because he suspected I might be the same guy. "I don't remember, the New York Times maybe. His name? I'm not sure." It was Anthony Shadid, the New York Times journalist who, seven months later, would die of an acute asthmatic attack while reporting from rebel-held Syria. The article appeared in the New York Times on 22 July 2011 and it discussed the numerous rumours surrounding Ibrahim Qashoush before cutting to the chase. "Others insisted that the song was actually written by a 23-year-old part-time electrician and student named Abdel-Rahman, also known as Rahmani." Interviewed by Shadid, Farhood patiently explained how and why the songs had come about and about how he and one of his brothers had argued about how far to go with the lyrics. "What I say, everyone feels in their hearts, but can't find words to express," he said. He even agreed to have his photo taken. "Asked if he was afraid," Shadid wrote, "Rahmani answered 'Of what?'"

Farhood had risked his life to talk to Anthony Shadid, who'd brought back an excellent first draft of the truth. But it just didn't stick; it had been swept away in an avalanche of new-media propaganda. After that he'd simply lain low.

Applying for political asylum is a waiting game. By day Farhood takes language classes, and in the evening he goes to a nearby pitch and plays football alone. Sometimes he writes poetry, but nothing political and only for himself. In between times he pounds the city streets with his friend, wearing sunglasses and singing softly to himself. In the three days and nights I spent with him he did it constantly - mostly Syrian and Iraqi crooners, sometimes just for fun or to punctuate a lull in the conversation. When the three of us sat down to watch a Spanish football match he hummed Real Madrid's anthem for most of the game, just to wind his friend up. But despite all our requests he refused to do his rebel songs. That was only for the revolution, he said, and only for Syria.

One evening while he was playing football a young woman hollered at him from over a wall, inquiring as to who he was. He duly trooped off to meet her for dinner, leaving me behind in the flat, but came back empty-handed. She was very nice but too young, concluded Farhood, and in any case he's holding out for a nice girl from Hama. But did he even tell her who he was? It's unlikely. The affair has taken a toll on him too, forcing him to airbrush his role in Hama's recent history and committing him to a Trappist silence. He feels guilty for starting a revolution and then escaping Syria - guilty, after Ibrahim Qashoush's death, for even being alive. Some Syrian oppositionists know who he is, but elsewhere in Syria many cling to the legend of Qashoush. "I'll give you an example," he told me. "I met this girl and she said, 'I was with the Assad regime but when I heard about Ibrahim Qashoush I joined the revolution.' If I tell people that I'm the one who made these songs, her reason for joining the revolution is fake. You're talking about some hero and he's dead and everyone respects him. Now what do you say?"

In Farhood's world, jarring incidents like this happen all the time. One night, while we were watching TV, a Syrian friend pinged him on WhatsApp. In recent days there had been a pro-revolution demo in the rebel-held city of Maarat al-Nu'man in northern Syria, the message informed him, and one of the chants was, "We will sing after you, Qashoush." Farhood sucked his teeth, as he does when he's anxious, and debated all over again whether it was the right time to tell his story. "Ibrahim Qashoush is the name of a hero for the Syrian people. When I publish this story I'll f*** up all his fame." But lots of Syrians know you're alive, I protested. "I don't talk about it." Agreeing with me, his Syrian friend assured him that no one could blame him for getting out of Hama; he was a hero when the revolt was led by ordinary Syrians and his brother had been killed by the Syrian security forces. It was a good point. Long before Homs became its violent epicentre, Hama was the cradle of a largely peaceful revolt - and it was his untrained voice that had brought it alive. But Farhood was unmoved. "You don't know the Syrian people, my friend," he told me. "Trust me. Now they say he is a hero, but when they hear I'm alive, they will be, 'F***'."

But they're unlikely to want to blame him just for being alive. Martyrdom is overrated, and too many young Syrian men have perished already; a living rebel is surely better than a dead one. On the day I was due to leave I asked whether he was better at writing or singing and he waved the question away with his usual humility. "You need a smooth voice for singing," Farhood replied, whereas his was "very strong" and not good. Would he sing for us now? I'd been begging for him to sing since we first spoke - apart from anything else, and in the absence of much documentary evidence, I needed to be sure that he was who he said he was - and he could see the question coming. "Nooooo. Because I'm not a singer, my voice is not smooth." But you were the nightingale of the revolution, I teased him, and in Hama you needed a strong voice to be heard. "I am ready to sing for every revolution," he replied.

Eventually, goaded by us both, he stood up. It was another sunny afternoon, as warm as Hama in early springtime and the windows of the tenth-floor flat were wide open. "Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar" juddered its way into existence, reverberating through the space as if he'd been carrying around his own internal sound system. He started it at a shy gambol, keeping time with his knee, and then suddenly opened up. It was nothing like a nightingale, more like the roar of a caged animal, and as he launched into the opening bars everyone above and beneath must have heard it too, and wondered what was going on. "It's him. It's the voice," chirruped his friend. And it was.


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