BEATS OUT OF ALEPPO

Syr­ian hip-hop per­former Mur­der Eyez ex­plains to Ju­lian Tomp­kin why it took him a while to find his groove af­ter re­lo­cat­ing to Cologne

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

It be­gins with a dis­turbingly wonted mon­tage: a bomb con­demn­ing a build­ing to ash and mem­ory. Then, emerg­ing from the rub­ble and bil­low­ing cinders, the me­thod­i­cal ex­o­dus of the dis­pos­sessed be­gins — each solemn face ren­dered with the va­cant gaze of an Ed­vard Munch sketch. Then the beat snaps in, like buck­shot. An Ara­bian ney, or flute, wa­vers enig­mat­i­cally, fi­nally surg­ing to a dis­cor­dant crescendo. The screen shud­ders vi­o­lently, as if reel­ing from mor­tar fire: “The gates of hell have opened up,” the rap­per spits caus­ti­cally in Ara­bic to a back­drop of freshly smok­ing ro­manesque ru­ins, cou­pled with a bar­rage of text­book hip-hop hand ges­tures. “The laugh­ter of the chil­dren is dead.”

Ab­dul Rah­man Masri — bet­ter known by the some­what sin­is­ter mu­si­cal nom de guerre Mur­der Eyez — is both Syria’s pro­gen­i­tor and reign­ing maven of hip hop. At least he was un­til the beats were muf­fled by mor­tar fire. “There comes a point you gotta stop and just run for your life,” he says, star­ring deep into his cof­fee cup. “You ask your­self, ‘ What’s the point of all this? What’s the point of mu­sic? Am I will­ing to die for it? Or is it worth stay­ing alive for?’ ”

Un­til the war ar­rived on his doorstep (and through his roof) Masri was a seem­ingly tena­cious force in Syr­ian cul­tural life — the son of a govern­ment clerk who had built up a mod­est em­pire that spanned a record la­bel and stu­dio (Big Change Recordz), plus a cou­ple of fash­ion stores in his home­town of Aleppo. “Life was good,” he ex­plains. “I had it all. And now I got noth­ing … just a few euro in my pocket.”

Briefly im­pris­oned twice ear­lier in his ca­reer for pros­e­lytis­ing “the devil’s mu­sic”, Masri learned to keep his ruf­fian al­ter ego in check and his flows clean, and was soon em­braced as the sound­track of con­tem­po­rary Syria. In 2010 Mur­der Eyez even went on to be­come a panAra­bian star, ap­pear­ing in the some­what salu­bri­ous Mid­dle East­ern tele­vi­sion tal­ent quest House of Hip-Hop — fin­ish­ing third as the tin­der of the Arab Spring be­gan to smoul­der in Tunisia. In the words of an­other Syr­ian asy­lum­seeker I meet at a gig in Ber­lin: “He was Jay Z in a kef­fiyeh,”

The Syr­ian civil war came late to Aleppo, but when it fi­nally ar­rived in July 2012 it showed no mercy — as though the seven-headed ser­pent slain by Nin­urta in Sume­rian mythol­ogy had re­turned to set­tle the score once and for all. The war had by then dis­in­te­grated into a Faus­tian in­ferno of creed, tribe, power and ret­ri­bu­tion, pitched be­tween the govern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad, the Free Syr­ian Army, Hezbol­lah, Is­lamic State, al-Nusra and a rag­tag as­sort­ment of Sunni and Shia mili­tias — and their in­ter­na­tional pay­mas­ters. No one was safe.

To­day there is scant left of the fa­bled Lev­an­tine city, renowned for its elab­o­rate po­etic and mu­si­cal tra­di­tion known as Qudud Hal­abiya — a folk form Mur­der Eyez bor­rows heav­ily from, mashed up with swaths of South Bronx brouha- ha. “I was in the record­ing stu­dio,” Masri re­mem­bers of what the his­tory books now re­fer to as the cat­a­clysmic Bat­tle of Aleppo.

“I al­most lived in the record­ing stu­dio in those days. We would record all night and then go out un­til dawn and then record again. My mum used to call just to check I was alive, as I never came home. But then one day she called say­ing, ‘ Don’t come home — the war is here.’ I could hear the shelling in the back­ground down the phone, like a Bruce Wil­lis ac­tion movie, you know?” He laughs ner­vously at his anal­ogy and then wipes the smile from his face. “And that was it — we started run­ning and never stopped.”

Masri’s flight took him to Dubai, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and fi­nally Ger­many, where he ar­rived in early 2013. He im­plores that the de­tails of his trau­matic jour­ney from Egypt to Italy not be printed: “It was be­yond hell, man, that’s all that needs to be said.” From Italy he set out over­land for Swe­den (“I’d been told we had a good chance to work there”) but was stopped by po­lice while trav­el­ling on a lo­cal bus near the north­east­ern Ger­man city of Ro­s­tock.

Granted po­lit­i­cal asy­lum, his next two years in Ro­s­tock would prove ex­cru­ci­at­ingly silent: “I couldn’t find my power within,” Masri ex­plains of his time in the gritty port city, which was the cen­tral stage for Ger­many’s 1992 anti-im­mi­grant ri­ots.

“I’d lost my home. I’d lost fam­ily and friends. I was de­pressed and alone. I lost my voice.”

Masri is a stag­ger­ing statis­tic: one of the more than nearly 2.5 mil­lion refugees who have sought asy­lum in the EU in the past three years, the largest pro­por­tion in Ger­many. In 2013 the coun­try of­fi­cially over­took the US in refugee ap­pli­ca­tions — fu­elled by the Syr­ian ex­o­dus — even­tu­ally prompt­ing Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel last year to tem­po­rar­ily waive the Dublin Reg­u­la­tion and ef­fec­tively open the coun­try’s doors to more than one mil­lion asy­lum­seek­ers, largely from war-torn Mid­dle East­ern and African na­tions. It would prove an act of mass com­pas­sion that, while wound­ing her do­mes­ti­cally with the rise of the anti-im­mi­grant Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many party in re­cent state elec­tions, has none­the­less rewired the coun­try’s cul­tural land­scape for good.

I meet 34-year-old Masri at a cafe in cen­tral Cologne — his home since late last year, and the city where he hopes to re­build his life and ca­reer. He barely re­sem­bles the in­tim­i­dat­ing char­ac­ter in the press pho­to­graphs — a stocky and unas­sum­ing man, con­stantly and need­lessly apol­o­gis­ing for both his nos­tal­gic anec­dotes of life in Aleppo (“There was no city like it any­where in the world”) and his English (“I learnt it from Ice Cube”).

In Jan­uary he re­leased his first Mur­der Eyez sin­gle in years, Syr­ian Speech — a vit­ri­olic ri­poste de­nounc­ing Arab lead­ers and in­ter­na­tional agents with self-serv­ing agen­das in Syria: “They are all trad­ing our souls,” he ad­mon­ishes

Ira­nian-born pub­lisher Mad­jid Mohit

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