Turkish and Syrian music school survives Turkey earthquake : NPR
Nicole Tung for NPR
GAZIANTEP, Turkey — When the powerful earthquake shook her home in early February, 18-year-old Sidra Mohammed Ali woke up and thought of one thing: her music school — how was it?
The next day, as survivors across southern Turkey took stock of the destruction and watched over their loved ones, Muhammad Ali rushed to the school, the Nefes Foundation for Arts and Culture, and took a deep breath of relief when she saw he was still standing, with only minor damage.
“This school is my refuge from the stress of life as a Syrian refugee in Turkey,” she said. “I couldn’t bear the thought of something happening to him.”
The Nefes Foundation was created by Syrian and Turkish musicians in the city of Gaziantep in 2016. They have group lessons where they try to revive forgotten Syrian classics and integrate Turkish and Syrian cultures with music that both shared for centuries.
The school also offers private music lessons in piano and Middle Eastern instruments like the oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument), kanun (a plucked zither) and ney (a blown flute) .
But more than six weeks after the February 6 disaster, life in the quake zone is far from back to normal. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed more than 55,000 people in Turkey and neighboring Syria. It damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings and left 1.5 million people homeless in Turkey alone, according to the United Nations.
The school had not been able to resume lessons until last weekend, when only three pupils, out of several dozen, showed up to sing and play.
A comfort zone for refugees with an integration mission
Before the earthquake, the school was crowded on weekday evenings, with pupils aged 6 to 50, mostly Syrians, but some Turks also attending.
Classes are bilingual – in Turkish and Arabic. And that was particularly important, according to Ibrahim Muslimani, a Syrian classical musician from Aleppo, who is the brains of the organization.
“Because some of the young Syrian children have spent most of their lives here in Turkey and are more fluent in Turkish,” he told NPR in November 2022. “We try to preserve our Syrian cultural identity, but also to get to know Turkish identity through art.”
Turkey hosts 4 million refugees, the most of any country, according to the UN refugee agency. The vast majority are Syrians who fled the civil war.
In the early years of the Syrian Civil War, which started in 2011, Turkey had a generous open door policy towards Syrian refugees. But without extensive integration initiatives by the Turkish government, life for many refugees has been difficult.
More recently, Turkish politicians opposed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have scapegoated refugees for the country’s economic problems, leading to increased discrimination and hate attacks.
“Racism is now, unfortunately, part of our daily life,” Muslimani said.
But he tried to promote integration through the school and its activities, such as concerts. “We believe that the activities we carry out here will reduce social tensions and underline the richness of our presence together as Turks and Syrians.”
Mohammed Ali, who is studying medicine at university and kanun at music school, said last weekend that the school was a lifeline for her. She has a gloomy view of her future and does not believe that the Turks will ever accept her existence in the country.
“But whenever I have an upsetting encounter, my Turkish teachers and my friends here comfort me,” she said.
A serious study of music
What makes the school so special for students here is that the classes delve deeper into music appreciation and theory.
Rafeef Saffaf Oflazoglu fled Aleppo in 2013 after a near-death encounter. She comes from a family passionate about classical Arabic music. Being able to continue exploring her love of music in Gaziantep is priceless, she said.
The school also introduced him to centuries-old Turkish songs from the Ottoman archives and ancient tunes that traveled from Istanbul to Aleppo. Studying these shared melodies brought her closer to the culture of her new home.
Nicole Tung for NPR
Having to skip school after the earthquake was harder than expected.
“After maybe 10 days, I just realized that what I miss the most is art,” she said, even though she was living in her car at the time. “Traumatized people react in different ways. It’s not just about singing, you know? It’s spiritual.”
For Muslimani, the earthquake was a triggering reminder of how he had lost everything ten years ago in Aleppo.
The tremor was so violent that he feared for a moment that he might not survive. He thought of his two small children and of the old musical poems of Aleppo which he says he is the only one to know, those which he learned from his maestro in Aleppo and which have been transmitted by generations of classical musicians from Aleppo.
The civil war in Syria has destroyed much of the country’s cultural production, as well as the lives of millions of Syrians. Muslimani is on a mission to keep Aleppo’s traditional form of music, al-Qudud al-Halabiya, living from Gaziantep.
He and other Syrian artists also record music in Nefes.
“I promised my teacher that I would immortalize these precious pieces in the best possible form,” he said. “With the right orchestra and the glory they deserve.”
The future of the Nefes Foundation is in danger
The earthquake has deeply disrupted life in Gaziantep, although the city has less damage than others in the region.
The Nefes Foundation, which survived on donations and private tuition fees, is now at serious risk of closing, Muslimani said. They don’t have the funds to pay next month’s rent.
The shock and fear of disaster remains here, as earthquakes and aftershocks continue. Many families who fled the city have still not returned, nor have the students of Nefes.
The loss of thousands of homes has also created a housing crisis in the area, with rental prices more than doubling. in many cities. And demand for basic necessities like shelter, food and water remains high.
“Think of the decade of work we’ve put into this and how far we still have to go in integrating and preserving our Syrian heritage,” he said, pausing and wiping his tears.
“The mere thought of losing this place…it’s unbearable.”