A concert in Lattakia, Syria

One of the most culturally interesting experiences we had during our time in Syria was attending a concert. Kazim As-Saher, an Iraqi-born musician whose musical style blends traditional lyrics with a modern-ish Middle Eastern sound, came to Lattakia, Syria in August 2004. If you’re American, it’s possible you’ve heard his duet with Sarah Brightman, The War is Over (a bit cheesy in my opinion, but there it is).

We took a Qadmous bus up to Lattakia the morning of the concert. We paid all of three dollars each ticket for the 4.5-hour bus ride on a pretty cushy luxury coach. Before we bought the tickets, though, we made sure to confirm that the bus was non-smoking. Besides wanting to prevent unnecessary damage to my health from breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke, I also wanted to avoid puking on my husband or other fellow passengers (I have an incredibly low tolerance for the smell of cigarette smoke). The last thing I wanted was to spend several hours in a closed environment while passengers puffed away at will. The Qadmous employee swore up and down that the bus ride would be strictly non-smoking.

For the next 4.5 hours, I choked on cigarette smoke from the driver, who chain-smoked the entire drive up to Lattakia. Apparently, the driver is exempt from Qadmous’ stringent non-smoking policy. *Sigh.*

Regardless, we arrived in Lattakia safe and sound. It was very, very hot and very, very humid. The nice thing, though, is that the Mediterranean Sea is available to cool off in. My only previous experience with swimming in large natural bodies of water had been the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Oregon. The water there is freezing and barely tolerable without a wetsuit, even in the middle of summer. But the Mediterranean is deliciously warm, and very salty. This makes it a lot of fun to swim in, since you’re so buoyant and can float with relatively little effort.

The concert was scheduled to start at 7pm, on the private beach of the Le Meridien hotel. We showed up at the gates at about 6.30 to try to get a good seat (our tickets indicated that seating was open). There was a huge crowd gathering outside the gates, which were closed. It was also very dark. We heard through the grapevine that they were having trouble getting the lights to work, and that’s what was delaying our entrance. It gradually became uncomfortably crowded in the small area in front of the gates, with more and more people arriving, anxious to be let in. The darkness didn’t help the air of confusion. Eventually, my husband carved a small space out of the crowd for me, holding people back with his body so that I could have some room to breathe. At one point, someone official opened the gates to let another official in. Bad idea: immediately, the crowd started to stampede through the small opening, pushing the gates (and the officials) aside. It was dark, crowded, and all of a sudden very dangerous. I never understood how people could be trampled to death before, but it quickly became very clear. Luckily, Jeremy managed to preserve the small buffer of space around me, and we made it through the gates safely.

From there, it was a mad dash (literally) down a path in the sand to the small stadium/stage they had set up. The “open seating” was nothing more than row after row of those ubiquitous white lawn chairs. We found a good seat in the second row and settled in for the show, which by the clock was due to start any minute. There were still no lights working on the stage.

As the seating area filled up, I witnessed something very interesting. The resourceful Syrians were going to the seats in the back rows, picking them up, and setting them up in front of the front rows. They also were filling in the aisles. I watched in a kind of horrified amusement as our second-row seat bordering the center aisle quickly turned into a 10th- or 11th-row seat in an aisle-less mass of white plastic lawn chairs occupied by seat-usurping concertgoers. Whoever thought of using unsecured lawn chairs for seating was probably kicking themselves at this moment.

After accepting the fact that our second-row seats were gone forever, we settled back to wait for Kazim to appear. The band was on the stage, practicing in the dark, but Kazim had yet to arrive. We took turns guessing what he would be wearing when he finally did come (I thought he would come out in all black; Jeremy guessed a tux-like outfit, and he was right). About two hours later, he finally showed up. But the lights still weren’t working.

He sang several songs in the dark, which I thought was nice of him. Eventually, they got a spotlight working, which helped. I haven’t been to a ton of concerts in America, but there were some key cultural differences that quickly became apparent (besides those that had already made themselves known). First of all, everybody sang along with every song. It was fascinating. A lot of people also had their cell phones out and were calling friends to vicariously listen to the live music over what I’m sure was a poor connection. After every song, at least a couple of people went up to the stage to offer bouquets of flowers, which Kazim generously accepted. The crowd also had fun yelling certain cheers between songs. The only one I could really catch the words to was “Buss, shoof, Kazim yamel eh!” The ladies behind us were huge Kazim fans. They had scooted their chairs up as close to the stage as possible, which meant that they were practically sitting on our laps, and felt the need to stand up every time he glanced over in our direction, wave their arms wildly, and yell “Kaaaaaaaaaaazim!” in a sing-songy voice. My husband still shudders when I say his name like that.

These same ladies also asked if they could have a drink of my water, which I had thoughtfully planned ahead to bring. This is another cultural difference between the West and Syria, which happened several times during our stay in Syria. If you’re carrying a bottle of water, it’s fair game. Sometimes, they’ll ask for a drink and then hand the water bottle back to you. Other times, it’s not clear, and they may just take the whole bottle and leave. I (grudgingly, I’ll admit) handed back my precious water but stipulated that only the girls could drink out of it. It was passed around a bit and then handed back (they’re usually careful not to touch the bottle with their mouths).

After a few hours of fantastic music, I found that I needed to visit the ladies’ room. We left our seats and waded awkwardly through the mass of lawn chairs that were now arranged so haphazardly as to be entirely without any aisle of any kind. Once out of the crowd, we asked an employee where the bathrooms were, only to find out that there weren’t any. Who would have thought that an officially organized, paid-ticket event attended by hundreds of people would have bathroom facilities? At least that’s the look the employee gave us. We managed to return to our seats, only to find that my water bottle had been commandeered by the ladies sitting behind us. My mistake to leave it behind, I guess.

We enjoyed the music for a little longer and then headed out. I had already immensely enjoyed the music, and it was getting late anyway. We could hear the concert music playing for most of the walk back to our hotel.

At the time of the concert, I had only been in the country for about a month. I often wonder if my impressions of the experience would have been any different if I had gone to the same concert near the end of our stay in Syria. Many of the things that I found to be a little shocking at the time have now become quite normal and even expected of others – or even myself. I’m not sure whether to feel ashamed or proud of that…

Plastic lawn chair seating

Two additions