In the fall of 2020, when the lockdown in Paris was eased for a while, I went to the majestic Palais Garnier opera house to hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It was the first time I heard them play live, but the instruments produced a kind of Proustian effect that took me back to where I first heard them: Shadows, a small record store in Aleppo, Syria.
I spent the first 18 years of my life in Aleppo, where my family still lives. Shadows stood out as a unique institution for classical music lovers – 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 prior 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 into exile with stops in Damascus, Khartoum, Beirut and finally Paris.
Bashir rarely uses social media, but occasionally pops up on Facebook to write a biographical post about a composer. However, at the beginning of this year, he logged in to deliver devastating news.
As Ukrainian citizens are forced to flee, I can’t help but think about the little things they will have to say goodbye to
“This is what Shadows looked like right before handing it over to its new owner,” he wrote in a caption accompanying a photo of the store. The shelves were empty for the first time since Bashir founded the store in 1977: one of Syria’s largest record stores had once again fallen victim to 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 will have to say goodbye to.
Being a refugee myself and having covered the fate of other refugees as a journalist, I know how often people reminisce about the small, everyday things that wars have taken from them: the local pub that is no longer there, the gossip in the neighborhood telling the barber, the personal collection of books deemed not essential enough to take with them as they rushed out of 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, individuals. As the years go by, and wars still keep us away from home, so do many of the people and places that make up our idea of home.
Shadows’ story mirrors that of Aleppo: a place once famous for the joie de vivre of its people, is now especially reminiscent of the horrors of the Syrian Civil War, which destroyed parts of the country’s largest city, displaced people and those who still struggled to make ends meet.
What is known in the Western tradition as classical music is not one of the best-known genres in Syria, apart from certain pieces that have 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 appreciation. Last year UNESCO added Qudud, a traditional music form that developed in Aleppo, to the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
My family revered classical music. On their travels, my grandparents visited opera houses all over the world and my uncle organized concerts in small halls in Aleppo, featuring local chamber orchestras and aspiring opera singers. My parents enrolled me in music theory and piano lessons; unfortunately I did not stay with them.
As a 13-year-old boy who only listened to classical music, I didn’t have the easiest time finding friends who shared my interest. But when I entered Shadows, it was like entering a 16-square-foot paradise.
Once I was introduced to Bashir, I asked some of the many questions I had, starting with the basics: Was Beethoven really deaf? Did Verdi compose Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal? Was Wagner a Nazi? And I’ve never had to struggle to identify a classical piece of music. Even if I could only whistle or hum a tune, Bashir’s smile would widen and in seconds he would hand me a CD. “Ah, Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major . † † a great one!”
The Shadows neighborhood of Azizieh 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 original, high-quality discs in a market plagued by piracy – cost more than stopping at each of these combined, but it was worth it.
Finally, despite my countless questions, Bashir handed me a paper full of brief information about classical music, a document I would keep for years to come. It explained the different types of musical forms including the sonata, concert and symphony; the time periods and main characteristics of the three common periods: Baroque, Classical and Romantic; as well as some of the usual tempos, including the allegro, the andante, and the presto. It also featured a spotlight on a selection of the icons of classical music, in whose biographies Bashir always found food for his curiosity.
That same document came up when I spoke with Wanes Moubayed, former concertmaster of a chamber orchestra in Aleppo, who now lives in Canada. “Everything I know about music and all the music records I own has come from this store . . . the pleasure of buying a Bashir Kwefati record is unparalleled,” Moubayed said. explanation of the music and text of operas in the original language plus a translation in Arabic.”
Mohammad Ali Sheikhmous, who studied piano for five years at the Sabah Fakhri Institute of Music in Aleppo, also saw Shadows as one of a kind. “It was no ordinary store; it was the go-to hub for any music student or enthusiast in Aleppo,” said Sheikhmous, now based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. “You don’t just walk away with a new CD, but with a deeper appreciation for the music Bashir Kwefati channels to you.”
Music, especially classical music, needs a relaxing environment; that is a privilege that the people of Aleppo no longer have
When Bashir opened Shadows as a young man, he was selling what was popular at the time, mainly rock music. That approach changed after he received a copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from a Jesuit priest. “I started asking all my friends who go abroad to bring me classical music cassettes,” Bashir said in a telephone interview. “Little by little, the store started to attract the attention of everyone who was interested in classical music and had nowhere else to go to buy cassettes.”
Bashir comes from a musical family. His father was one of the first in Aleppo to buy a tape recorder. His brother Samir is a renowned composer; his late sister-in-law Mayada Bseliss was one of the most successful Arab singers of her time. Nevertheless, Bashir received no formal music education. “I scoured Aleppo’s bookstores and found only two books on classical music,” he said. “These were, in addition to the French magazine Diapason and the Jesuit father, my first sources of knowledge.”
I know that one day I will return to Syria, if only to visit. What I’m afraid of, though, is that I won’t recognize it if I do it.
The golden age of Shadows was already over before the 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 as mortar shells landed on the street outside. Even when that was no longer the case, the value of the Syrian currency remained in free fall, limiting people’s access to their most basic needs. He couldn’t get CDs from abroad anymore, and if he did, customers couldn’t afford to buy them.
“Music, especially classical music, needs a relaxing environment; that is a privilege that the people here no longer have,” added Bashir. “People can’t pursue their interest in music if they can only figure out how to pay for the next meal.”
It saddens me to know that Shadows has once again fallen victim to this merciless war. But as for Bashir, he is excited about his retirement. He donated most of the CDs he stocked to a local nonprofit that helps the visually impaired and a local library. He spends his time at home, listening to music and watching operas on Mezzo, a French classical music TV channel. “Our appreciation for classical music changes as we change and grow,” he explains. “It never lets you down if you strive to research it thoroughly enough.”
Asser Khattab is a writer from Paris
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