When a young man performed “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” in Hama’s Al-Assi square in front of hundreds of thousands of demonstrators waving a gigantic Syrian flag and forming its colors with what they were wearing, in that moment, he gave the Syrian revolution a powerful and enduring anthem. The crowd raised banners demanding freedom for detainees and calling for the ouster Assad regime. The singer was killed by the regime only a few days there but his audacity turned him into an unforgettable icon. It was a pivotal moment in the early days of the Syrian revolution, a courageous performance staged in the very city that decades earlier, in 1982, had experienced the full brunt of the Assad regime’s destructive force.
This anthem was a declaration of the rebels’ complete estrangement with Bashar al-Assad's regime. The song cast the Syrian president as a despot who was sustaining the decades’ long regime of oppression and corruption which the house of Assad had imposed on Syrians and others. Bashar is presented in the song as the spitting image of his father, Hafez. By inheriting power, Bashar likewise inherited the hatred of many Syrians, a reality he did not even try to remedy. Instead, Bashar added fuel to the fire by his rapid economic reformations and starting his era with a new wave of political detention.
Anthems or collective songs have always been an integral part of any war and Syria is no exception. Songs and anthems serve to document these moments of history and define the identity of the conflicting parties. Each warring side develops its own art and literature to set itself apart from others. We are talking here about a collection of symbols and signs distinguishing each party. The Palestinian revolution, with its different players over the decades, is full of examples that helped shaping the Palestinian identity, Ishad ya alam for example, that was performed by Palestinians while besieged in Beirut in 1982 lies at the center of the Palestinian spirit today.
The rallying cry of the Italian resistance movement, which opposed German occupation and the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini, was Bella Ciao [Goodbye Beautiful]. The song was translated into multiple languages and has served as an anti-fascism anthem all over the world.Perhaps “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” is the Syrian equivalent of Bella Ciao, as it was pivotal for Syrian revolution. No other Syrian song has achieved the same level of fame and recognition in the past two decades.
Although Ibrahim al-Qashoush is the one to whom the song lyrics and performance were attributed, there is conflicting information about whether he actually wrote it and performed it or only wrote it while somebody else sang it. The important matter here is that collective memory in that moment attributed the song to Qashoush. He was killed only a few days after performing the song for the first time in Al-Assi square by the 11th of July 2011.
Smooth on the ears, “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” proved a chant impossible to ignore or pretend to ignore. Everybody knew it. It crystallised an absolute revolt against the regime. Even supporters of the regime started having it as an earworm and chanting it secretly. The reaction of the authorities and their advocates was inevitable. The song had to be replicated and changed to “Nihna Rjalak Ya Bashar” [Bashar, we are your men] as a supportive anthem to counter the rebel song “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar”. Later, Malek Jandali took the main theme in the song and turned it into a huge symphonic work named “Qashoush al-Horriya” [Qashoush of Freedom].
But the battle of anthems and songs did not start with “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” in Syria. It began immediately there when the revolution began, with “Ya Hayf” [Oh Shame] by Samih Shukair. This song aimed at shaming “the traitor who kills his people” and was a declaration of the clear and open presence of the Syrian revolution and the first artwork to publically criticize the regime.
It was not long before the regime supporters released several cheap and weak versions of the original Ya Hayf to make a “national” version of it — shaming the original version as an act of betrayal to the nation, because tyrants tend to monopolize patriotism. The regime advocates sang “Ya Hayf” against the Arab leaders who had dubious relations with Israel. It was not clear then how a song condemning the performance of authority figures and their oppression could be countered with a song addressing Arab leaders and their treachery.
“Ya Hayf-the national version” became popular among advocates, and one cannot really fathom how pro-regime individuals could play the role of victims, when their army was savagely murdering people daily. This sense of injustice that regime advocates felt was not only directed against Arab rulers, but also against the “unfairness” of protesters and the popular movement, in general. From that same position, they released Nawar Haidar’s version of “Ya Hayf.”
Ana Wiyak - different performances and themes
The song that was heard the most among regime supporters was definitely “Ana Wiyak” [You and I]. Finding the original version is difficult. Even if it appears to be initially a pre-revolution Iraqi folk song , it was not particularly famous in Syria before the uprising. Search results for a song on digital research engines give a large number of versions whose owners excelled in creating different content aligned with a certain faction. Although the most famous version was the pro-regime one in its symbolism, there were clearer subsequent versions in terms of sectarian content or calls for killing.
You sing, I sing
We will terminate Harasta
You with a bullet, me with a bullet
We will terminate residents of Ghouta
I call him herectic, whom they call Saddik
[Saddik is one of the Muslim prophet’s companions, a Sunni figure]
The desire for shelling and massacres appears unequivocally, just like in the version which a child (10) performed. The song then turned into an icon of art defending Assad’s Syria and part of the identity of those advocating it. The song even reached Hezbollah fighters who wrote their own lyrics, threatening to trample the inhabitants of rebelling Syrian cities.
I am a falcon, you are a sparrow.
We will smash al-Araier [derogatory term used in reference to revolutionar supporters]Who am I, who are you?
We will smash the residents of Sarmin [city]You sleep, I watch.
We will terminate people of Saraqeb.
You with a mortar, me with a canon.
Lions of Shi’a would not bow.
Another version of the song can be attributed to Assad’s soldiers who were trying to describe the lifestyle of regime soldiers and were complaining somehow about their living conditions, within the limits of “politeness” which the “nation” imposes.
Later, due to the simple music composition and compelling tune, the song went beyond the regime fans and gained popularity among the rebels and opposition. Many listened to it in secret, and some Free Syrian Army (FSA) members created their own versions calling it “Ana Wiyak Jaish Hourr” [You and I are the Free Army], in a direct response to the regime’s version. The first version was a direct response to the bloodstained anthem that the child sang. The singer expressed his solidarity with the inhabitants of all cities and towns, and even with factions and groups that the child expressed desire to eliminate. Not much time passed before the same singer, an FSA fighter it seems, released another version that was the real equivalent of the child’s version. This version was filled with calls for sectarian killing and annihilation.
You heal, I heal.
Fuck every Alawi.
You eat apple, I eat apple.
Fuck people of Qerdaha [hometown of Assad].
Later, FSA militants in Aleppo created a version of the song attacking the Islamic State (IS) following the battle to liberate their areas from the grip of IS. In another version of the song entitled “Ana Wiyak-Difaa Watani” [You and I, National Defense], the lyrics describe the behavior of the army in looting and robbing furniture and home appliances. This version ends with the performer singing, “Don’t let my words upset you, O Syrian, but Aroor is driving me crazy.” [Aroor is a Salafi sheikh and his name is invoked here as a derogatory term in reference to pro-revolution Syrians]. It seems the lyricist was honest enough with himself to describe how washing machines and fridges were stolen and gold was snatched from the hands of the elderly.
In the war raging between the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and IS, some YPG fighters created their own version of the anthem to support the units and challenge IS. A group of youths from Ghouta released a version of the anthem following the internal fights between the brigades, urging them to unite their ranks after a reprimanding session for all factions that took place in the fights that ripped Ghouta apart and made it an easy target. Ghouta’s fall led to the displacement of many, and on the forced displacement buses, the latest version of the anthem emerged. A group of young men created the lyrics “Ana Wiyak-Walla Rajeen” [You and I we shall return]. They sang it while crossing the coastal towns on their way to exile.
The search for versions of “Ana Wiyak” in that war seems endless. Some are attributed to local brigades or citizens of a certain neighborhood, where time and space have no role. But, these versions added an element of folklore to the heated war on the ground. The war might seem absurd and pointless,not absurd in the goals of each party that are clear: remaining in power, reaching power, establishing an Islamic state, establishing a civil state for all Syrians, reaching freedom or reintroducing slavery. Absurdity in this war lies in howit is winding up in an absurd irrationality, irrationality that expressed itself in another version of “Ana Wiyak” called “Ana Wiyak-Min Souria” [You and I from Syria] which Batoul Ahmad performed mocking all the aimless absurd death in a sarcastic way.
The revolution saved rap music
The bloody war which preoccupied a large group of young citizens, whether in favor of the opposition or regime, revealed its true, violent colors in rap music, which can be dubbed the music of the revolutionary era in Syria. After 2011, no alternative art was spared except for rap music. Other types were either paralyzed or monopolized by the elite. Rap music grew quickly in Syria before the revolution, but with the outbreak of the war, it spread like wild fire.
The disputing parties used it also for their own ends. The song “Daess Aal Qardaha” [Stepping on Qardaha] is one of the most famous made by young Syrian rappers. It reached unprecedented popularity, and only “Ya Hayf” and the songs of Abdulbaset-Sarout and Firas Al-Maasarani competed with it. Several songs followed, voicing clearly their support for the Syrian revolution, like “Ana Muared” [I am an opponent] and “Laano Haj” [Because It’s Enough] by rapper MC Revo and Syria by rapper Omar Offendum.
Meanwhile, regime supporters released their own songs, which described protests as strife, and Syrian security as a blessing from God. Such songs included “Ana Soureh Qommeh” [I am Syrian Top] by rapper Murder Eyez, and a song by Volcano MC featuring Colonist Rap called “Bi Esmikoum” [In Your Name] which praised the Syrian army’s victories. Ismail Tamer released several songs, which do not explicitly voice support for the regime. However, he adopts the regime’s rhetoric which pits sectarianism and foreigners as the ultimate problem in Syria, a rhetoric that ignores corruption and dictatorship. Lyrics such as (nations were stocked against us, they send bombers to kill us in name of religion) signal his support for the regime by adopting the same rhetoric. In general, the regime advocates and institutions used rap as an easy-to-produce and popular way to incite the youths. The battle between MC Volcano from Homs and Dee Kay from Damascus was the most heated on the Syrian rap scene since the beginning of the revolution. MC Volcano supported the regime, while Dee Kay was pro-revolution.
Generally speaking, one can say that regime propaganda was transmitted more via folkloric and Dabka songs “traditional Levantine genre of music accompanied with a circular dance” which was also making its way to become Syria’s official dance in the last 20 years, while musicians on the side of the revolution paved a new evolutionary stage in the production of alternative music in the country where alternative music was just an infant scene before the uprising. This war of anthems which occurred in social gatherings, demonstrations and sometimes concerts and was reflected and magnified by views on Youtube. Online and offline, one could notice two distinct realities , which can add to the analytical level of the Syrian dilemma.
The war of anthems covers a broad spectrum of contradictory dualisms which played out in social gatherings, demonstrations and sometimes concerts. The war was also fuelled by views on Youtube, which provided two distinct realities, adding another complex layer to the analysis of the Syrian dilemma. First, despite it being a war of songs, there was always a creative dialogue underway between different actors, with song transcending frontlines and being adapted by players on different sides. Second, there is a type of collective consciousness flowing around Syrian contents that reduces questions to a clear binary: heroic anti-imperialism of Assad regime versus proxy-war-opposition; the righteous steadfastness of the Syrian people versus a malicious-criminal regime; sectarianism of Assad family versus non-violence of the civil movement, and vice versa. The 'Me and You' song illustrates how different interlinked but conflicted networks of interest can dismantle the binaries underpinning mainstream analysis on Syria and the wider region. Such analysis views the Syrian conflict through the lens of clearly defined binaries. This one song alone is proof that such a lens is incapable of elucidating a realm as diverse and complex as Syria.