BEIRUT: When Abdel Karim Hamdan sung his version of the folkloric Aleppan song, Qadduka al-Mayyas, live on Arab Idol last week, he had no idea of the reaction it would provoke. Having replaced the traditional subject of the song, a woman, with his hometown from whence the song originates, Hamdan spoke of the acute suffering that the people of his country are facing on a daily basis.
“Aleppo, the spring of suffering in my country/ How much blood has been spilled, oh, in my country,” he sang, the heartfelt emotion visible on his face, and soon shared by the crowd. Audience members began to cry and the video of his performance has been viewed over 3 1⁄2 million times in the space of just one week.
Soon after last Saturday’s show, broadcast by MBC, Hamdan’s inbox began filling up with messages from strangers, including those who didn’t even speak Arabic, saying how moved they were by his performance: “I cry, with a burning heart, for my country/ And for my children who, in that country, have become strangers ...You’re the most beautiful of all ... There is nobody else but you, my beautiful.”
But in a conflict as divided as the Syrian civil war, which has thus far claimed at least 70,000 lives and wrought widespread destruction on the country, it was perhaps inevitable he would soon have his critics.
Threats against his life began to circulate on Facebook, and the location of his family home was publicized – his family remains in Aleppo, which is the scene of ongoing battles between the Syrian army and rebels for control over the city. His father and his brother were named.
While complimenting his singing voice, one commenter warned Hamdan that, “if you want to be a star, you have to be unbiased and completely distance yourself from politics, or else you will die wherever you are.”
Visibly shaken, Hamdan spoke exclusively to The Daily Star before Friday night’s live show, insisting that he sang for no one but Syria.
“When I sang, it was only for Syria. I did not sing to any specific religion or affiliation, not to any political opinion,” he says.
“I’m only singing for Syria which has been there before me, which is older than me and my ancestors, and which will remain long after I die, along with my children, grandchildren and so on,” he says.
“I will not be here forever, but Syria will always remain.”
He chose this particular mawwal – a traditional poetic Arabic song – because it is from Syria, but he wanted to make it his own.
It has proved so popular, he believes, because it came from himself, and he spoke so truthfully.
“I tried to write my own lyrics about Syria to convey what I feel, what I want. ... So I thought about the words myself and they came to me before sleeping ‘Aleppo is crying ...’”
And while Hamdan doesn’t believe songwriting or music can bring peace, he does believe it can send out important messages. One compliment he has heard repeatedly since last week’s performance is that in three minutes he conveyed the bonds that join all Syrians.
That fraternity, he says, which shows, “that no matter what happens it is Syria and we should remain loving. At the end of the day, I’m ... all the religions present in Syria. I’m from every governorate. ... I’m from every meter of land of Syria where my ancestors were born, I will die on Syrian land, and regardless of religious affiliation, regardless of political views, I respect every opinion.”
“I care about promoting respect, I do not need to be respected by others. I’m Syrian, Syrian, Syrian,” he says.
And although the song stems from and centers on Aleppo, the message, he says, is universal.
“I wanted to sing something not only about Aleppo, but about everywhere in the Arab world which is going through turmoil,” he says.
“It was necessary for me to start from here. I might sing love songs next, but I wanted something from my native city first.”
Having studied at a music academy in Aleppo since the age of 10, Hamdan, who is now 25, is in the third year of a music degree. Due to graduate next year, he had to put his studies on hold due to the war.
He has specialized in opera singing, which is evident in his stunning voice, but had always been dissuaded from applying to the numerous regional singing competitions as he believed they were all led by wasta – he was once turned down by Star Academy after his first audition.
But when a few months ago he saw an advertisement for Arab Idol auditions in Beirut, he sought his mother’s approval for leaving Aleppo.
“She’s someone whose advice I cherish a lot and she encouraged me, said why not give it a shot, our situation might improve because, you know, we’re not a very well-off family. And I came here, despite some complication along the way, and I succeeded.”
At Friday’s show, 27 contestants were whittled down to eight – four more were saved by the judges on Saturday night’s show – and Hamdan was the first man to go through, to massive applause, rivaling even that awarded to the Lebanese contestants.
Each week one contestant is voted off, and Hamdan seems quietly optimistic about his chances. Of all the regional talent shows – Arab Idol is currently competing with X-Factor Arabia – it has the highest ratings, and Hamdan has clearly won over many supporters with his lyrics and his voice.
If he wins, or with whatever success he achieves, Hamdan is determined to continue spreading a message, even if next week he sings an Egyptian love song and the next week – if he stays – a Turkish ballad.
“God has endowed me with a voice as means to convey a message to people, and I’m someone who tries to give a positive message.”