Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Syria Disciplines “Vulgar” Singers

Syria Disciplines Vulgar Singers
Members of the audience wave Syrian flags as they attend a music concert. LOUAI BESHARA / AFP

Dana Hourany

“The biggest mistake of my life was elevating a lowlife,” for these words, the Syrian Artists’ Syndicate banned shaabi (popular) singer Rim Al-Sawas from performing in the country.

“We decided to stop whoever brings harm to art and the art of singing, especially those who sing vulgar songs,” the head of the syndicate, Syrian singer Mohsen Ghazi said in a statement, referring to Al-Sawas’ lyrics, deemed “profane.”

The head of the artists’ syndicate in Aleppo, Abdul Halim Hariri said that Al-Sawas’ concert will not be granted permission without receiving the approval of the artists’ syndicate that has requested that Al-Sawas sign a waiver saying “she will not use profane language on the stage nor behave inappropriately.”

As a response, the singer filmed a video during one of her performances belting out the phrase “If they mention my name wrongly, I’ll curse their fathers. Film this and show it to them.” The comments, under the video, are mostly unsupportive. Many people attacked the singer and criticized her “unfeminine and aggressive” attitude.

Although restrictions on art in general and concerts, in particular, are widespread across the MENA region, observers and journalists note that the Syrian’s syndicate’s actions have misogynistic and political underpinnings that go beyond ‘morality’ and ‘the preservation of art.’”

Not new to the MENA

MENA singers have long been subjected to attacks by state institutions. Shaabi artists specifically are faulted for employing caustic and abrasive messaging in their songs.

For instance, the Egyptian Musicians’ Syndicate barred mahraganat singers – a genre that originates from the impoverished neighborhoods of Alexandria and Cairo – from working in Egypt. While the Lebanese rock band Mashrou’ Leila – whose lead singer is openly gay – was banned from performing at the renowned Byblos International Festival in 2019 Lebanon due to concerns from Church officials about the band’s alleged defamation of Christian symbols and the promotion of homosexuality.

That same year, Brazilian heavy metal band Sepultura was banned from entering Lebanon on the pretext of “devil worshipping.”

Lebanese artist Sarah Zakaria is currently suffering the same fate as Al-Sawas as they are both barred from performing in Syria until further notice.

Zakaria’s viral single, “Let’s go get married in secret” made its rounds on social media, particularly on the video app, Tik Tok. The lyrics that presumably got her in trouble were “let’s go get married behind our parents’ backs. We’ll buy a house far away and have small babies,” in addition to “I’ll get drunk and take pills, my head hurts and your love has hardened me.”

Her manager contended that the lyrics did not contain profanity and that he “will contact the syndicate to ratify the situation in any way the syndicate perceives to be in service of the Syrian audience that still embraces all artists, including Sarah Zakaria.”

Empowered women, fragile male egos

Despite the criticism and bans, a growing trend has been emerging in the MENA region which defies traditional gender norms and patriarchal values. These are the songs that include commanding and daring lyrics from women artists who do not shy away from expressing their feelings and thoughts, in a manner that was restricted to male performers.

One of the most trending examples is the 2021 song “Mesaytara” (I’m in control) by Syrian artist Lamis Kan which has racked over 200 million views on YouTube at the time of writing.

The song refutes the norm of the male-dominated industry where men demonstrate their dominance and control over their female partners, while simultaneously objectifying their bodies.

The most popular examples include Lebanese singer Fares Karam’s Tannoura (skirt) in which he scrutinizes a woman for wearing a short skirt, Mohamed Eskandar’s Jamhuriyet Albe (The Republic of My Heart ) in which the Lebanese singer pleads against women’s education, and Syrian singer and member of the artists’ syndicate, Bahaa Al-Youssef’s popular anthem Tale’ Sedr, which roughly translate to, “Your breasts are exposed; conceal your bosom. Curse the person who shortened your dress.”

Kan, on the other hand, challenges the status quo and tells men that she’s “in control and will force them to follow her way.”

According to local media, Kan’s song has resulted in marital disputes and even divorces in some cases.

“This is standard fragile male ego behavior in the Middle East,” freelance music writer Danny Hajjar told Fanack. “It is essential to have more empowering female singers that upend the music industry’s double-standards and ensure this sort of freedom is safeguarded.”

Normalizing the regime

Hajjar says that bans are counterproductive when fostering a creative culture within a country or a region.

“Art is meant to be subjective. If people don’t like it that’s fine but trying to deny it means denying a cultural identity, thus restricting the margin of freedom that allows people to express and advance themselves.”

The writer adds that renowned mainstream singers in the MENA won’t be the ones to breach social taboos through their music. The task, therefore, falls on emerging artists that are more likely to break the mold.

Lebanese-Syrian columnist Alia Mansour contends that the ban was less about the singers’ gender and more about the attempt to appeal to Syrian Islamists.

She adds that the bigger problem at hand is the regime’s use of art to normalize its image despite committing countless proven war crimes. Aside from music, the regime also uses movies to promote its “revamped” image by transforming its war-torn regions into “cheap war-zone sets.”

“Staging a performance under Bashar Al Assad’s administration means normalizing an oppressive government, which I cannot support. It’s difficult to separate art from politics or anything from politics in the context of Syria,” the columnist said.

“Artists who depend on Assad’s institutions for approval can no longer claim that their work is somehow unrelated to the conflict that has killed half a million Syrians, displaced millions more, and imprisoned thousands. It is an effort to make a criminal regime more appealing,” Mansour added.

“They [the regime’s officials] aim to discipline everyone, not only artists. This system cannot change and cannot allow any margin of freedom in the country except for what suits it, as was the custom with the world of Syrian drama before the revolution.”

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