The Aleppo record store silenced by the war


In the fall of 2020, when the lockdown in Paris was briefly eased, I went to the majestic Palais Garnier opera house to hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It was the first time I had heard them play live, yet the instruments produced a sort of Proustian effect that transported me to the place where I had first heard them: Shadows, a tiny record store in Aleppo. , in Syria.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Aleppo, where my family still lives. Shadows established itself as a unique institution for those who loved classical music – an admittedly thin slice of the population – and the charismatic man at its helm, Bashir Kwefati, taught me everything I know about the genre during countless visits in the years before 2012. It was then that the first sounds of bombardment heralded the arrival of the Syrian conflict in Aleppo, and I embarked on a journey into exile that included stops in Damascus, Khartoum, Beirut and finally Paris.

Bashir rarely uses social media, only occasionally popping up on Facebook to write a biographical piece about a composer. Earlier this year, however, he went online to deliver some devastating news.

“This is what Shadows looked like just before handing it over to its new owner,” he captioned a photo from the store. For the first time since Bashir founded the store in 1977, the shelves were empty: one of Syria’s biggest record stores had become another victim of the war and its fallout.

As the world watches innocent Ukrainian civilians forced to flee war and seek refuge elsewhere, I can’t help but think of the little things they will have to part with.

Being myself a refugee and having covered the plight of other refugees as a journalist, I know that people often remember the little everyday things that the wars deprived them of: the local pub that no longer exists, the neighborhood gossip told by the hairdresser, the personal collection of books that was not deemed essential enough to be carried away while rushing out of a town in danger.

I find it hard to think of Syria, the country I had to flee, without deconstructing what I miss about it: objects, places, individuals. As the years pass and wars continue to drive us away from home, many of the people and places that make up our notion of home also begin to disappear.

The Story of Shadows mirrors that of Aleppo: a place once famous for the joy of living of its inhabitants today evokes above all the horrors of the Syrian civil war, which saw whole sections of the country’s largest city destroyed, its inhabitants displaced, those who remained struggling to make ends meet.

What is known in the Western tradition as classical music is not one of the best-known genres in Syria, with the exception of some pieces that have taken hold in popular culture — Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. But the city has a long history of producing and appreciating music. Unesco last year added Qudud, a form of traditional music that developed in Aleppo, to the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

My family loved classical music. During their travels, my grandparents visited opera houses all over the world and my uncle used to organize concerts in small halls in Aleppo, featuring local chamber orchestras and opera singers budding. My parents enrolled me in music theory and piano lessons; unfortunately, I did not stay with them.

As a 13-year-old boy who only listened to classical music, I didn’t have the easiest time finding friends who shared my interest. But when I walked into Shadows, it was like finding a 16 square meter slice of heaven.

Once I was introduced to Bashir, I started asking some of the many questions I had, starting with the basics: Was Beethoven really deaf? Did Verdi compose Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal? Was Wagner a Nazi? And I’ve never had to struggle to identify a piece of classical music. Even if I could only whistle or hum a tune, Bashir’s smile would widen and within seconds he would be handing me a CD. “Ah, Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major. . . a beautiful !

The Azizieh district, where Shadows is located, is known for its sandwich shops, liquor stores, and some of the best restaurants and cafes in town. Buying a CD from Shadows—which sold high-quality original discs in a pirate-ridden market—was more expensive than stopping at each of those discs combined, but it was worth it.

Eventually, in the face of my countless questions, Bashir handed me a paper full of concise information about classical music, a document I would cling to for years to come. He explained the different types of musical forms, including sonata, concerto, and symphony; the durations and main characteristics of the three periods of current practice: Baroque, Classical and Romantic; as well as some of the common tempos, including allegro, andante, and presto. He also highlighted a selection of classical music icons, whose biographies Bashir has always found subject to his curiosity.

This same document came up when I spoke to Wanes Moubayed, a former concert master of a chamber orchestra in Aleppo, who now lives in Canada. “Everything I know about music, and all the music records I own, come from this store. . . the joy of buying a Bashir Kwefati record is unparalleled,” Moubayed said. “It was the only store that added to the cassettes a brief explanation of the music and the text of the operas in the original language as well as an Arabic translation.”

Mohammad Ali Sheikhmous, who studied piano for five years at the Sabah Fakhri Institute of Music in Aleppo, also considered Shadows unique. “This was no ordinary store; it was the go-to hub for any student or music enthusiast in Aleppo,” said Sheikhmous, now based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “You come out of there not just with a new CD, but with a deeper appreciation for the music that Bashir Kwefati passes on to you.”

When Bashir opened Shadows as a young man, he sold what was popular at the time, mostly rock music. This approach changed after a Jesuit priest gave him a copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. “I started asking all my friends who go abroad to bring me classical music tapes with them,” Bashir said in a phone interview. “Little by little, the store began to attract the attention of anyone who was interested in classical music and had nowhere to go to buy cassette tapes.”

Bashir comes from a family of musicians. His father was one of the first inhabitants of Aleppo to acquire a cassette recorder. His brother Samir is a renowned composer; her late sister-in-law Mayada Bseliss was one of the most successful Arab singers of her time. Nevertheless, Bashir did not receive a formal education in music. “I scoured bookstores in Aleppo and found only two books on classical music,” he said. “These, in addition to the French magazine Diapason and the Jesuit father, were my first sources of knowledge.”

i know i will be back in Syria one day, if only to visit. What I fear, however, is that I won’t recognize it when I do.

The golden age of Shadows had already passed before war broke out in 2011, thanks to the rise of digital streaming. Then came the war. It became physically dangerous for Bashir to open his store, as mortar shells landed in the street outside. Even when this ceased to be the case, the value of the Syrian currency continued to plummet and people’s access to their most basic needs remained limited. He could no longer obtain CDs from overseas, and customers could no longer afford to buy them if he did.

“Music, especially classical music, needs a relaxing environment; it’s a privilege that people here no longer have,” Bashir added. “People aren’t able to pursue their interest in music when all they can think about is how to afford the next meal.”

It saddens me to know that Shadows has become another victim of this merciless war. But as for Bashir, he is delighted with his retirement. He donated most of the CDs he had in stock to a local nonprofit that helps the visually impaired and to a local library. He spends his time at home, listening to music and watching operas on Mezzo, a French classical music television channel. “Our appreciation of classical music metamorphoses as we change and grow,” he explains. “It never lets you down if you strive to explore it deeply enough.”

Asser Khattab is a writer based in Paris

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