The record store in Aleppo was silenced by the war

In autumn 2020, when Paris’ lockdown was briefly eased, I visited the majestic Palais Garnier opera house to hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It was my first time hearing them live, but the instruments created a kind of Proustian effect that took me back to the place I first heard them: Shadows, a tiny record store in Aleppo, Syria.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Aleppo, where my family still lives. Shadows was a unique institution for those who loved classical music – an admittedly small segment of the population – and the charismatic man at the helm, Bashir Kwefati, taught me everything I know about the genre on numerous visits in the years leading up to 2012 . It was then that the first sounds of bombing heralded the arrival of the Syrian conflict in Aleppo, and I embarked on a journey of exile that included stops in Damascus, Khartoum, Beirut and finally Paris.

Bashir rarely uses social media, only occasionally popping onto Facebook to write a biographical post about a composer. However, earlier this year he came forward to deliver some devastating news.

“This is what Shadows looked like just before it was handed over to its new owner,” he wrote in a caption for a picture of the store. For the first time since Bashir founded the store in 1977, the shelves were empty: one of Syria’s largest record stores had become another casualty of the war and its aftermath.

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

As a refugee myself and as a journalist I have reported on the plight of other refugees, I know how often people remember the small, everyday things that wars took away from them: the local pub that no longer exists, the neighborhood gossip , the barber tells, the personal collection of books deemed not essential enough to take with them while rushing from an endangered city.

It’s hard for me to think about Syria, the country I had to flee from, without deconstructing what I miss about it: objects, places, people. As the years pass and wars continue to keep us far from home, many of the people and places that define our concept of home are also beginning to disappear.

The Story of the Shadows reflects that of Aleppo: a place that was once famous for its people’s joie de vivre now reminds above all of the horrors of the Syrian civil war, in which large parts of the country’s largest city were destroyed, people displaced and those struggling to survive fought, stayed behind.

What is known in the Western tradition as classical music is not among the most well-known genres in Syria, apart from certain pieces that have found a foothold 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 music production and promotion. Unesco last year inscribed Qudud, a traditional form of music that developed in Aleppo, on its list of intangible cultural heritage.

My family adored classical music. During their travels, my grandparents visited opera houses around the world and my uncle organized concerts in small venues in Aleppo, with local chamber orchestras and aspiring opera singers. My parents signed me up for music theory and piano lessons; unfortunately I didn’t stick to them.

As a 13-year-old boy who only listened to classical music, it was not easy for me to find friends who shared my interests. But stepping into Shadows was like finding a 16 square meter slice of paradise.

When I was introduced to Bashir, I asked some of the many questions I had, starting with the basics: Was Beethoven really deaf? Composed by Verdi 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 just whistle or hum a tune, Bashir’s smile would widen and within seconds he would hand me a CD. “Ah, Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major. . . A fine one!”

The Azizieh neighborhood, where Shadows is located, is known for its sandwich makers, liquor stores and some of the city’s best restaurants and cafes. Buying a CD from Shadows – which sold high-quality original discs in a piracy-plagued market – cost more than checking out each of those products together, but it was worth it.

In the face of my countless questions, Bashir finally handed me a paper full of concise information about classical music, one that I would hold onto for years. It explained the various musical forms, including the sonata, concerto, and symphony; the periods and main features of the three genre epochs: Baroque, Classical and Romantic; as well as some of the usual tempi including the Allegro, the Andante and the Presto. It also put spotlights on a selection of classical music icons in whose biographies Bashir consistently found fuel for his curiosity.

The same document surfaced when I spoke to Wanes Moubayed, a former concertmaster of a chamber orchestra in Aleppo who now lives in Canada. “Everything I know about music and all the records I own come from this store . . . The joy of buying a Bashir Kwefati record is unparalleled,” said Moubayed. “It was the only shop that included with the cassettes a brief explanation of the music and the texts of the operas in the original language, as well as a translation into Arabic.”

Mohammad Ali Sheikhmous, who studied piano at the Sabah Fakhri Institute of Music in Aleppo for five years, also saw Shadows as unique. “It wasn’t an ordinary store; It was the go-to place for any music student or enthusiast in Aleppo,” said Sheikhmous, who now resides in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “You walk out not only with a new CD, but with a deeper appreciation of the music that Bashir Kwefati is passing on to you.”

When Bashir opened Shadows as a young man, he was selling 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 cassettes,” Bashir said in a phone interview. “Gradually, the store caught the attention of all those who were interested in classical music and didn’t have to go anywhere else to buy cassettes.”

Bashir comes from a musical family. His father was one of the first people in Aleppo to buy a tape recorder. His brother Samir is a well-known composer; his late sister-in-law Mayada Bseliss was one of the most successful Arab singers of her time. Despite this, Bashir received no formal training in music. “I scoured the bookstores of Aleppo and only found two books on classical music,” he said. “These were my first sources of knowledge, along with the French magazine Diapason and the Jesuit Father.”

I know I will return one day to Syria, if only for a visit. What I fear, however, is that if I do, I won’t realize it.

Shadows’ golden age was already over 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 shop when mortar shells fell on the street outside. Even after this ceased to be the case, the value of the Syrian currency continued its free fall and people’s access to their most basic needs remained limited. He could no longer get CDs from abroad, and customers couldn’t 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,” added Bashir. “People can’t pursue their interest in music just by thinking about how to afford their next meal.”

It saddens me to know that Shadows has become another victim of this merciless war. But Bashir is looking forward to his retirement. He has donated most of the CDs he stockpiled 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 for classical music changes as we change and grow,” he explains. “It never fails you if you try to research it thoroughly enough.”

Asser Khattab is a Paris-based writer

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