“When we started singing on the street, some people were touched by the tunes.”
Basel Khalil of Domsek, a Syrian band making music on İstiklal Street, also said: “But now we want to sing fun music because our Syrian brothers are already sad. They are expats in foreign lands, so we want to make them happy.” If you have recently been to İstiklal Street, you must have noticed Domsek. Maybe it is because of the common words between the Turkish and Arabic languages or our familiarity with their tunes, but Domsek appears to be a little bit different from other bands.
The four members of the band had never seen each other before meeting in İstanbul, where they sought refuge because of the ongoing war in Syria. Now they sing songs to make a living. The band members had their own businesses before the war; it was thus hard for them to make street music at first because it is not accepted in Arab culture. Khalil, the guitarist of the band, says that he was reluctant to make music. Khalil, a known musician in his country who had previously produced an album, observed street musicians for a while in İstanbul and even criticized them, not knowing that he would make music on the street.
We used to hide behind our instruments
Khalil has been performing music for 22 years. He briefly stayed in Russia for music training and after returning to Damascus, he worked as a tutor at the Russian Culture Center. He also gave private guitar lessons until the war broke out. He decided to leave Syria. First he went to Egypt, where he experienced serious hardship. Then he moved to İstanbul along with his wife and two sons. Unable to find a job, Khalil decided to sing together with Muhammad Durgan and Khaled al-Khalebi, two new friends he made in İstanbul. Speaking about his initial days as a street musician, he says: “I used to hide behind the instruments. At the beginning, I was really shy. And then I realized that this is a good way to introduce our culture to Turks and other people. Most importantly, I had to do this to take care of my family.”
But they had other problems as well. Durgan, another band member, says that the police do not treat them well. Even though those who walk by the street love them, store owners do not like their presence. But he adds: “Turkey opened its doors to us while all [our] Arab neighbors closed their doors to Syrians. And we admit that some Syrians undermine our image. But we change this perception.”
When the war broke out, Durgan was in a conservatory; he had to interrupt his education. One of Durgan’s brothers is in jail in Syria and his parents are still in Syria. He came to Turkey to make a fresh start and earn a living. The young musician, unable to find a job for a while, first played in a restaurant. Durgan thought street music might be a good idea when this restaurant closed.
He talked to accordionist al-Khalebi about this, a professional musician who has been in this business since 1986. Al-Khalebi played with famous Syrian musicians and was a music teacher before the war, after which he lost everything. First, he traveled to Egypt, but the timing of his trip was unfortunate: “When I left Syria, [President Mohammed] Morsi was in power in Egypt. The government did not require a visa for Syrians. I traveled to Egypt to see my brother, who has been there for 30 years. My family stayed in Aleppo. [President Abdel Fattah Al-] Sisi came to power while I was considering bringing my family. But Sisi imposed a visa. I stayed in Egypt and my family was in Aleppo.” After things got worse in Egypt, he and his family moved to Turkey. He has spent a year in Turkey; al-Khalebi worked in a clothing factory for six months and says that his work was brutal. “I was working 12 hours a day; the monthly salary was TL 900. There were bruises all over my hands.”
He notes that he had to take his son out of school because he was making a small amount of money and was unable to make a living without the support of his son. After quitting his job at the clothing factory, al-Khalebi started to work at a restaurant with Durgan. Then they decided to make street music. Asked about how much they make, he says: “Thank God, I sent my son back to school. But if we do not play, we are strongly affected because the money we make is barely enough for our daily expenditures.” Once, the police did not allow them to make music on the street; during this 10-day break, al-Khalebi recalls that he took out a TL 1,200 loan. In addition to the police, they also have to deal with inclement weather conditions. But despite hardships, they take to the streets because they have to make money.
Fame made on the street
Initially, there were five members of the band. Urok left the band and moved to Europe a while ago. Mealath Moghraby is the other member of the group; he has been to jail two times in Syria. His father was also a musician who taught him music at the age of 7. Moghraby says he was shy playing on the street in the beginning, but he changed his mind after realizing that the approach to street music is different in Turkey.
Once they were hiding behind the instruments on the street; but now the street is what has made them famous. People now know them and appreciate their style. Durgan says, “Those who know us invite us to concerts and events.” Even some famous cafés and hotels send them invitations. Al-Khalebi hopes for support from the Turkish authorities. “There is now a Syrian music band. I wish the local authorities would provide us with the opportunity to play on stage where we would throw a concert for our Syrian brethren. If this happens, Syrians will have a good time and we will have a regular job,” he says.