Be­ing old is (fi­nally) the new cool

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MAR­SHA LEDERMAN VIC­TO­RIA

Formed in Syria, the Orontes Gui­tar Quar­tet has reunited in Vic­to­ria, liv­ing proof of the in­domitable and heal­ing power of art

He felt the bomb be­fore he heard it. Nazir Salameh’s right arm, the one he played gui­tar with, had been hit. Salameh ran to the near­est car, which hap­pened to be a taxi. “To the hos­pi­tal, to the hos­pi­tal! Hurry up!” he told the driver, who set off through the streets of Da­m­as­cus to­ward help. The pain was ex­cru­ci­at­ing; Salameh had to hold his right arm up with his left hand. When the shelling be­gan, he had been wait­ing for two of his band­mates on their way to a re­hearsal for their quar­tet; he had to leave his gui­tar be­hind.

Salameh says he had one thought on his way to the hos­pi­tal: “If I will not play [gui­tar] again, I prefer to die.”

Telling the story three years later dur­ing an in­ter­view from the safety of the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, the 26-year-old Syr­ian rolls up his shirt sleeve. “There was a mor­tar shell that en­tered from here,” he points to the scar on the top of his arm near his bi­cep, “and out­side from here,” he says, lift­ing his arm to show an­other scar on its un­der­side.

De­spite the sever­ity of his in­jury, Salameh was able to play gui­tar again. This skill even­tu­ally brought him here, to the School of Mu­sic build­ing on UVic’s forested cam­pus, along with the three other mem­bers of the Orontes Gui­tar Quar­tet. Gaby Al-Botros, Mo­hammed Mir Mah­moud, Orwa Al-Shara’a – all 25 – and Salameh ar­rived two weeks ear­lier.

The men are spend­ing the year in the B.C. cap- ital on fel­low­ships or­ga­nized by the Artist Pro­tec­tion Fund (APF). Based in New York and funded by the An­drew W. Mellon Foun­da­tion, the APF sup­ports threat­ened artists around the world by pro­vid­ing fel­low­ship grants and de­sign­ing res­i­dency pro­grams at aca­demic or cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions in safe coun­tries, fol­low­ing a rig­or­ous ap­pli­ca­tion process.

The APF, in its three years of op­er­a­tion, has placed more than 30 fel­lows at host in­sti­tu­tions around the world, in­clud­ing Har­vard, Brown, NYU and the Lon­don Col­lege of Com­mu­ni­ca­tion. UVic’s par­tic­i­pa­tion marks the first time the APF has placed fel­lows in Canada – an un­ex­pected con­se­quence, in part, of the po­lit­i­cal cli­mate in the United States.

It’s also the first time the APF has placed a group to­gether, which was an enor­mous en­deav­our.

“You can imag­ine how hard it is to bring one artist to a host in­sti­tu­tion; this was times four. So we were re­ally down to the wire. And it was deeply grat­i­fy­ing when they were all al­lowed visas,” APF ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Ali­son Russo ex­plains.

“Fi­nally, and af­ter ev­ery­thing we’ve been through, the dream has come true!” Orontes posted on their Face­book page from Vic­to­ria on Nov. 11, Re­mem­brance Day. “Many thanks to APF … for do­ing the im­pos­si­ble.”

Al-Botros, Al-Shara’a, Mir Mah­moud and Salameh met while study­ing at the Higher In­sti­tute of Mu­sic in Da­m­as­cus back in 2012 and 2013. Their peace­ful mid­dle­class Syr­ian lives had been dis­rupted by the civil war, which broke out in 2011. Vi­o­lence and ter­ror be­came com­mon­place; AlBotros men­tions 15 car ex­plo­sions in his neigh­bour­hood alone.

In 2015, three of the men were study­ing in Beirut when they met world-renowned U.S. clas­si­cal gui­tarist and com­poser Su­san McDon­ald, who teaches in con­flict zones. At her sug­ges­tion, they se­lected a fourth mem­ber back in Da­m­as­cus and formed a quar­tet.

Their first pub­lic per­for­mance was held on Syr­ian Mother’s Day in March, 2016, at a lit­tle church in Da­m­as­cus.

The con­duc­tor of the Syr­ian Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra was in the au­di­ence. Im­pressed, Mis­sak Bagh­boudar­ian in­vited Orontes to play with the orches­tra. The men were ec­static.

A few months later, with a few more per­for­mances un­der their belts, the mem­bers of Orontes were back­stage at the Da­m­as­cus Opera House, wait­ing to make their de­but with the sym­phony.

Then a bomb ex­ploded out­side. “When I heard the sound, I [ran] like crazy,” says Salameh, who wanted to en­sure any­one he knew out­side was okay.

They were, but many oth­ers were wounded. Salameh – who had al­ready sur­vived the pre­vi­ous at­tack that had in­jured his arm – and the three oth­ers were shaken and con­fused. Do they can­cel or con­tinue? Amaz­ingly, some au­di­ence mem­bers re­mained in the concert hall; they wanted to hear some mu­sic. Bagh­boudar­ian de­cided the show would go on.

“[When] we started to play, we for­got ev­ery­thing be­cause we just fo­cused on what we are do­ing,” Mir Mah­moud says.

“Ac­tu­ally, also that wasn’t the first time we [wit­nessed] a mor­tar shell and some­thing like this,” Al-Botros adds. “I’m sorry to say, but we got used to that.”

It be­came too dan­ger­ous to stay in Syria. Even­tu­ally they all made it to Le­banon, where they worked as teach­ing as­sis­tants for McDon­ald, and also taught Syr­ian and Pales­tinian refugees. Want­ing to help them to safety, McDon­ald sought schol­ar­ships that could help them es­cape.

“Chances were great in Syria that they would get killed. Maybe there would be an ISIS check­point, and that would be it, be­cause ISIS kills mu­si­cians; they tar­get them,” says McDon­ald, who runs a small foun­da­tion called Re­mem­ber the River, which sup­ports artists in dan­ger­ous re­gions.

She even­tu­ally stum­bled upon the APF, and con­tacted Russo.

Af­ter a metic­u­lous ap­pli­ca­tion process, the mu­si­cians were ap­proved by the APF. But just as it seemed they were on their way to finding refuge, U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump in­tro­duced a con­tro­ver­sial travel ban af­fect­ing sev­eral coun­tries, most of them with a Mus­lim ma­jor­ity, in­clud­ing Syria. This made it im­pos­si­ble for them to get visas to the United States.

“It has com­pletely shifted the dy­namic, the minute the ban was put into place,” Russo says.

The APF now had to find an in­sti­tu­tion out­side the United States that would ac- cept the quar­tet. McDon­ald con­tacted an old col­league, Alexan­der Dunn, an ac­claimed clas­si­cal gui­tarist who teaches at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria.

Dunn felt UVic was a per­fect host in­sti­tu­tion – a mid-size univer­sity that could of­fer a lot of per­sonal at­ten­tion and has a strong gui­tar cul­ture. And he rec­og­nized what the pres­ence of the quar­tet could ac­com­plish.

“I think these guys rep­re­sent a nar­ra­tive and it’s a story about mu­sic ex­ist­ing un­der stress and art sur­viv­ing in sit­u­a­tions of war and duress,” says Dunn, who cham­pi­oned their cause. It would turn out to be an 18month process.

The univer­sity’s im­mi­gra­tion co-or­di­na­tor, Lori Shaw, worked on ar­rang­ing visas, which took much longer than an­tic­i­pated. Af­ter ini­tial de­nials on the Cana­dian side, the ap­pli­ca­tions were re­sub­mit­ted; all were ap­proved af­ter more than a year of wait­ing.

In Novem­ber, the four guitarists left Beirut and even­tu­ally landed in Van­cou­ver, where they were greeted by Dunn, Shaw – and McDon­ald, who flew in from Texas for the oc­ca­sion. “I some­times think of my­self as their mu­si­cal mother,” she says.

“We were all wait­ing ner­vously at the air­port, as there was no way of know­ing if a border ser­vices of­fi­cer would re­ject their pa­per­work,” Dunn ex­plains. “Thank­fully, they all came through im­mi­gra­tion with smiles and ex­pres­sions of re­lief.”

They took the ferry to Van­cou­ver Is­land and fi­nally ar­rived at the cam­pus. “My first im­pres­sion was wow,” says Al-Shara’a, who says the fresh air and quiet in Vic­to­ria are much more con­ducive to prac­tis­ing gui­tar than the sirens and bomb blasts back in Syria.

“It felt like I’m trav­el­ling not from a coun­try to a coun­try; I felt like I was trav­el­ling from a planet to an­other planet.”

They are here for about a year, and will be men­tored by Dunn. They hope to make an­other record­ing and are also plan­ning a Cana­dian tour, likely in the spring. They can’t, of course, play in the United States.

“Our hope is that it’s not only life-chang- in­g­forthe[quar­tet] go­ing­for­ward, bu­talso the num­ber of peo­ple that they touch across Canada and across the world,” Russo says.

McDon­ald says in her fan­tasy, they have bril­liant concert ca­reers, in­spire peo­ple, do char­ity work and per­haps even ef­fect pol­icy changes. “They have the real po­ten­tial to put a new face on the Syr­ian cri­sis,” McDon­ald says from her home in Austin. “In my coun­try, what we see on the news is throngs of des­per­ate refugees try­ing to climb over fences and mul­ti­tudes of peo­ple. And that’s cer­tainly part of the story. But I think what peo­ple don’t see is the ex­quis­ite art and hu­man­ity that’s still go­ing on in Syria.”

Al-Botros says see­ing four Syr­ian guitarists play, Cana­dian au­di­ences are bound to think of their sto­ries, the lives of the men be­yond their mu­sic.

“Some­times peo­ple have a typ­i­cal im­age for peo­ple from some­where,” Mir Mah­moud says. “When they see them as a mu­si­cian or artist, they will start to think more about them.”

Chances were great in Syria that they would get killed. Maybe there would be an ISIS check­point, and that would be it, be­cause ISIS kills mu­si­cians; they tar­get them. SU­SAN MCDON­ALD



From left: Guitarists Orwa Al-Shara’a, Nazir Salameh, Mo­hammed Mir Mah­moud and Gaby Al-Botros per­form at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria on Nov. 26.


Alexan­der Dunn, mid­dle, an ac­claimed clas­si­cal gui­tarist who teaches at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria, vis­its the Orontes Gui­tar Quar­tet on the UVic cam­pus in Novem­ber.

Nazir Salameh

Mo­hammed Mir Mah­moud

Orwa Al-Shara’a

Gaby Al-Botros

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