One is the grandson of an Armenian troubadour who fled to Syria in 1915. The other is a descendant of a Syrian army chief who died fighting the French in 1920. One hails from Aleppo, the other from Damascus. Both Syrian artists call New York, where they met 17 years ago, home.
For one night on stage in Beirut on Monday, Kevork Mourad’s live sketches combined with Kinan Azmeh’s clarinet to create a whirlwind of images to mirror the seven years of war that have made their country unrecognisable. Syria’s conflict began in 2011 with a popular uprising and has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced 11 million more. A generation of young children has grown up without proper education, with 180,000 youths forced into child labour, the UN children’s fund UNICEF says.
Kinan Azmeh at a performance in Beirut, Lebanon. (REUTERS)
Azmeh, 41, says the numbers are enough to make him think Syrians may never recover but it is important to keep working. “The art I do doesn’t stop a bullet, doesn’t bring a free democratic secular Syria, it doesn’t bring back people who died … (but) it gives us a reason to live,” he said. Azmeh and Mourad launched their project six years ago under the title Home Within and the show has evolved with the war. They describe their performance as a sort of dialogue. “Kinan gives me a line and I gave him a picture,” Mourad said.
In one sketch on screen, with the shadow of Azmeh playing, Mourad’s silhouettes rise from darkness to reveal a group huddled in a small boat. Mourad says the image symbolises Syrian refugees who have crossed to Europe and the flight of his ancestors from Armenia. “When I draw, it becomes a single story, it becomes about a family, a boat and people are in it. And then when I zoom out, it is about … an entire country,” Mourad said. Many Syrian artists, both those who left and those who stayed, seek to document their nation’s suffering and say their art is a necessity rather than a luxury. “We are going through the darkest of times,” said Azmeh, a graduate of New York’s Julliard music school and a member of acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road ensemble. “The question is what do you do?”
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