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The Syrian Nightingale Is Dead, and Soon Other Fighting Poets May Be Silenced

The Arab world is mourning the death of famed soccer player Abdelbaset Sarout, who became an icon of the anti-Assad movement

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Syrians waving rebel flags and portraits of Abdelbaset Sarout during the funeral of the late rebel fighter  in Syria's rebel-held Idlib region, near the border with Turkey, June 9, 2019.
Syrians waving rebel flags and portraits of Abdelbaset Sarout during the funeral of the late rebel fighter in Syria's rebel-held Idlib region, near the border with Turkey, June 9, 2019. Credit: AFP

Toddlers munching on a treat from a plastic bag, a gloomy-looking baby stretching its hand toward a small plate of food, two kids leaning on the side of a tent, a young woman wearing a hijab looking at her demolished house in despair, a homeless woman slicing vegetables for her children, immediately followed by pictures of the people responsible for all this – Bashar Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Gadhafi, Omar al-Bashir, as well as palms on which the words “victory to the revolution” have been drawn.

This is the last video filmed by 27-year-old Abdelbaset Sarout one week before he was killed last Saturday in battle against Assad’s forces. Sarout, who was a promising goalkeeper in a youth soccer team in Homs, became a soldier in the ranks of the rebels at the age of 19. Within a short period, he became known for his pleasant voice and for revolutionary songs he composed for the cause. He was called “the revolution’s nightingale”, “the voice of the insurrection” and “the revolution’s goalie” by his admirers.

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During the eight years of fighting he set up his own militia, which he commanded. On three occasions, Syrian security forces tried to assassinate him after placing a $35,000 reward for his head. He was accused of collaborating with ISIS, and he was even arrested by the Jabhat al-Nusra militia, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida. Throughout the entire period he continued composing songs, even appearing alongside Syrian actress Fadwa Souleimane, who was also killed. In doing so, he symbolized the unity of the insurrection, since he was Sunni and she was Shi’ite, and together they opposed the Assad regime.

In 2013, a documentary called “The Return to Homs” was made about Sarout. It won an award at the Sundance Festival, becoming the first documentary to show the atrocities of the Syrian war, using Sarout’s personal story. When news broke out of his death at a Turkish hospital following injuries he sustained from battle, social media was inundated with condolences from across the Arab world. “He was the son of all Syrian mothers” wrote Suhaib Ayoub on the Raseef22 website. “My mother mourned for him as if he were her own son…my 70-year-old mother, who may never see Homs again, today lost the voice of the revolution, as all sons of Syria did.”

Syrians wave rebel flags and portraits of fighter Abdelbaset Sarout, northwestern Syria, June 9, 2019. Credit: AFP

The poets and songwriters of the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria, who rose out of the violent demonstrations and clashes, some dying and some managing to escape persecution from their regimes, created a cultural legacy which holds among the notes and simple lyrics the war albums of these revolutions. Many of them made their mark in the towns and cities they were born in, where they grew up and where they fought. A few managed to move beyond local stages, succeeding in their countries, some of them even internationally.

Sarout was one of those. He was a handsome young man, with long unkempt hair, dressed like any other young man of his age in the West. But he exchanged this for battle fatigues and a vest holding grenades and ammunition clips, looking like a Hollywood hero in a war movie. Except this movie has more than 600,000 or 700,000 fatalities, and the war isn’t over yet.

Tens of thousands of fighters, the same age as Sarout, are part of dozens of militias that are gathered in Idlib province, waiting for the big battle which has only just begun. The Assad regime intends to destroy the remnants of the forces opposing him. Each of these militias has its own heroes and songs composed for it. These are songs of freedom and yearning for victory, talking of a struggle that will not cease until the regime falls. One of these songs could become the anthem of a new Syria one day.

“Do we really need national songs?” wondered publicist Mustafa Fadel in a pointed article published on the Raseef22 website. He published his article on June 6, the commemoration day of the 1967 Six-Day War, called the “Naksa” in Arab countries. With bitter scorn he notes a famous song by Egyptian singer Abdel Halim Hafez, who sang about a day that ends, followed by evening darkness. The words were written by poet Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi right after the resignation of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser following the terrible results of that war.

“But after Nasser retracted his resignation two days later, Hafez sang a new song called ‘The Rifle Spoke,’ even though the rifle hadn’t yet spoken”, wrote Fadel. We only know how to sing dirges, he complained. More seriously, he said, our national songs have been exploited by our leaders for recruiting people to pointless purposes, such as “national” songs calling on the public to come and vote for the incumbent president.

FILE Photo: Abdelbaset Sarout sings during a rally y to commemorate the beginning of the Syrian revolution, Idlib province, March 15, 2019. Credit: AFP

“There is no politically unstable country that can change its situation through songs and anthems. If you want change, you need songs that face reality, that call for change and defend it…a society that thrived on songs of praise for socialism [fostered by Nasser – Z.B.], such as those of Abdel Halim al-Hafez, became the capitalist society of Sadat. Such a society cannot discuss its problems,” Fadel added. 

In Egypt there are no more revolutionary songs or paeans to freedom. They are prohibited from being played in public by the Abdel Fattah al-Sissi regime. In Syria, such songs still fuel the morale of some rebels. Fighting poets still play some role but it seems soon, they too will be silenced. Their revolutionary songs will disappear or, like in Egypt, they will serve the regime which will take possession and turn them into its own songs.