ALEPPO: It’s more of an incantation than a song but it’s as ubiquitous as the sound of gunfire on Syria’s front lines and has become the undisputed anthem of the revolution.
“Yalla erhal ya Bashar” (It’s time to leave, Bashar). In Syria’s rebel-held areas, the words are spray-painted on walls, blared on minibus radios and exchanged as mobile phone ringtones.
Huddled fighters intone the song-cum-slogan as a battle cry before mounting military operations against Syrian army forces.
In the liturgy of Syria’s street protests, demonstrators chant it to open and close marches against the regime of President Bashar Assad.
“Get out Bashar!” demands the song, a rageful drumroll of attacks calling the Syrian president a “liar,” an “ass” and his brother Maher a “coward.”
Its creator paid dearly. Ibrahim Qashush, a singer from the city of Hama, was little known before the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.
A few months later, a shaky recording of the nagging mantra performed by Qashush and echoed by a chorus of demonstrators at a night protest in Hama went viral on the Internet.
“You have lost your legitimacy ... Freedom is within reach ... The martyrs’ blood doesn’t come cheap,” says the song, whose unlikely rhymes never fail to trigger laughter. It even pokes fun at Assad’s lisp.
Qashush was soon arrested and his body was reported to have been found in a river in July last year.
The man nicknamed “the mocking bird of the revolution” had had his throat slit and vocal chords ripped out.
In many Syrian towns where anti-regime protests continue, organizers call themselves Qashush in an homage to the slain activist.
“His song gives us courage ... Ibrahim Qashush holds a special place in people’s hearts,” said one of the organizers of a recent rally in the town of Marea, north of Aleppo in northwestern Syria.
“The Free Syrian Army is made up of normal people like me, who have families and jobs. There are not many heroes but we have our guardian angel: Ibrahim Qashush,” said the young man, who gave his name as Mohammad Qashush.
In the disputed Aleppo neighborhood of Jdeideh, Abu Mohammad, a veteran commander who defected from the army three years ago and returned from exile to join the rebellion last year, likes to tease regime soldiers with the song.
In the ancient district’s maze of narrow streets enemy positions are sometimes 30 yards apart – literally within shouting distance.
After checking the soldiers’ position by using a small mirror to peek around the street corner, Abu Mohamed wheeled out a speaker, stuck his mobile against the microphone and played the rebel anthem full blast.
“Maybe they’re afraid or maybe they cannot defect, but I’m sure they enjoy listening to this,” he said, raising his eyebrows and turning an ear towards the army checkpoint as if he expected a sign of appreciation.
“The words are very simple. I think every Syrian can relate to them. The regime has tanks, helicopters and lots of weapons that we don’t have. But we have this music ... that’s why I like to play it during the fighting.”
If the Syrian revolution had a soundtrack, “Yalla erhal ya Bashar” would be the theme song but anti-regime music has flourished over the past year.
“This is my favorite time of the day,” said Abadllah, a Free Syrian Army fighter, as he flicked his laptop open and sprawled on a foam mattress in his brother’s empty home in Aleppo.
“This one always makes me cry,” he said, putting on a song entitled “Ya Hef” (Oh Shame), another revolution favorite written by Samih Shuqeir, a well-known Syrian singer exiled in Paris.
The anti-regime repertoire flooding the Internet includes everything from a rap remix of Qashush’s song to heart-wrenching tales of bereavement mixing in sound bites from orphaned children backed by Arab orchestras heavy on whining violins.
The revolt has forced Syria’s celebrities to take a public stand, and some of the Arab world’s best loved artists who chose to extoll the virtues of Bashar and his regime, such as actress Raghda, are now hate figures in rebel strongholds.
Conversely, singer Asala unexpectedly announced she was siding with the rebels and has since been touring the world to raise funds for the revolution.
One of the most popular figures among Syrian rebels is footballer Abdelbaset Saroot, the goalkeeper of Syria’s international youth team who joined the armed struggle.
An injury sustained during clashes might jeopardize his future in sport but his song “Have you no pity?” is a hit and a new career beckons.
“You know, when your lips have been sewn shut for so long, people want to sing,” Abdallah said. “They want to shout.”