Athens, Greece — December 2016
The anthem of the night was Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar or Come on Bashar, Leave, a song written during the 2011 Syrian revolution. The song, which I had heard from tents in refugee camps before and critiques President Bashar Al Assad— ‘Free, free, freedom against you Bashar, we will fight to get our freedom despite your power and your control.’
A teenager grabbed me and pulled me toward a group of his friends singing their Syrian anthem of freedom and active resistance. I recognized most of the men, and like every other night, they were organized around a bonfire that burned wooden pallets and cardboard boxes taken from the square. It was December and it was cold outside, but this group of men were here to protest on the day the Assad regime retook the remaining rebel territory in Aleppo. In solidarity with the 250,000 civilians under immediate attack in Eastern Aleppo and in wider commemoration of those that lost their lives during the war, the usual group of Syrians that hung out in one of the main squares in Athens planned a demonstration.
The group supported the opposition forces, as signaled by the hand-painted red, green, and white Free Syrian Army flag held up by the hands of men singing the street anthem from the early peaceful protests. Each person later held a paper with a letter on it to spell out SAVE ALEPPO. The demonstration continued unapologetically towards the Greek parliamentary building, where police officers and security personnel watched while we linked arms and danced to beats coming from the speaker strapped to wheels that followed us that night.
Come on Bashar, Leave was popularized by an activist from the town of Hama named Ibrahim Qashoush who wished to topple the regime through continual peaceful protest, like millions of other people around Syria did in 2011. However, multiple investigative reports credit the song to Abdul Rahman Farhood. The town of Hama has a history of protests against the Assad’s—thirty years ago the Syrian people sang in opposition to Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The song is carefree and festive—it’s snare drums are upbeat and intentional like the sound of national anthem. The unity of male voices expanded to their full volume, passion, and spirit articulate the mood and political wishes of Syrian protestors living in Assad’s dictatorship. At times, the song even takes a satirical turn, calling Assad supporters donkey’s that need to be fed bags of grains.
In this intoxicating and poetic rendition of their humanity and rights, a proud and nationalist chant in their mother tongue emerges. The song aspired, but not expected, to bring about action, but when sung by 500 protestors, it inspired a violent revolution—Syria will be liberated from the oppression, and he who killed his people is an animal, not a man. This vernacular but powerful message allowed it to replace the Syrian National Anthem for anti-Assad protestors living in a deeply divided nation.
Defaming Assad, however, is a death sentence in Syria. The song was so successful in its message to the regime and the Syrian people that Qashoush, the “nightingale of the revolution”, was found shot to death with his throat slashed wide open and his vocal chords ripped out of his limp body floating in a river. After the demonstration, a friend of mine reminded me of how dangerous the song is in Syria. To put this in perspective, he told me that when he was attending University of Aleppo where many of these protests erupted, he always checked his phone before leaving the house to make sure that all messages defaming Assad were deleted in the case that he was stopped by regime soldiers. For Europeans, it is difficult to comprehend how impossible it was for these refugees to vocally express their political dissatisfaction without violent or deadly consequences from the Assad regime. Therefore, these Syrians in the demonstration are proudly reclaiming a freedom that was not available to them in their own country.
Come On Bashar, Leave is a radical collective message for refugees fighting against the struggles of their past while calling for change in the present. Singing against the government in Europe, where laws of freedom and speech protect citizens, is a platform for these young men to announce themselves—they are Syrian, they do not support Assad, and their country was ravaged by a civil war that forced them to flee to Greece. Some of these demonstrators escaped Assad’s slaughterhouses where 17,000 people were imprisoned until they perished from starvation or violent torture.
The morning after the demonstration, I asked my friend from Aleppo why he did not march with us. He said he did not feel that protesting was appropriate action for the horrors endured by his family, neighbors, city, and country. He later elaborated that he was uncomfortable participating in the protest because somebody might take a photo of him and his family living in Assad-controlled part of Aleppo will have a problem. He would rather stay in the middle and out of trouble after his father was killed by a sniper between East and West Aleppo last year, where the Free Syrian Army and Assad security forces fight for territory. Many Syrians who fled their country are unsure about what side of the civil conflict they align with to foment and sustain peace in their country considering the rebels’ violent tactics targeting and imprisoning of civilians in Assad-controlled areas.
Trauma will not leave them, not even in Europe. Those that choose to protest in Europe are not free of consequences, when it triggers traumatic memories from participation in protests in their own country. Also, walking around the capital of Greece announcing your refugee-hood exposes the group to yelling comments from far-right fascists or skeptical police officers who feel threatened by a loud group of Muslims and they do not understand the Arabic lyrics are saying. But the Syrians that demonstrated that night in Athens are confident in their alliances, and Come on Bashar, Leave is dedicated to their friends and family members who remain in Syria or died before having the opportunity to leave. Just like in Syria, their collective song is their largest weapon.