Everyone in Between
by Linnea Bennett
This work appears in Khabar Keslan Issue 2. PASSAGE
Folk songs share a stage, but can they build a bridge?
When I first met Bashar Balleh on a smoky patio above Istanbul in the early hours of 2016, it was by accident.
A New Year’s Eve snowstorm had turned the city into a picturesque postcard for New Year’s Day, but by January 2, the soft powder had melted and frozen into alternating streets of slush and ice. Well into the evening, with soaking socks and a thin winter coat, I – and most of the city – were looking for something or someplace warm.
That hunt had led me to a café on Istkilal Caddessi, Istanbul’s most lively street, where I tagged along with a group of American ex-pats that happened to be meeting up with friends of Balleh. After a long day out in the cold, we were all eager for glasses of hot çay and – depending on which language you spoke – hookah, shisha, or nargile.
As we nestled in to our crowded table, I was introduced to Balleh, seated directly to my left. With an infectious smile and comical disdain for his engineering classes, he reminded me of the Turkish students I taught at a university six hours away.
As we continued to talk, however, it became clear Balleh’s story was quite different from those of my students. He had come to Turkey by way of Syria, he told me, and was now stuck in Istanbul after two failed attempts to escape to Europe. He was attending university classes out of necessity, but what he really preferred was music.
“I used to teach flamenco, and I play guitar,” Balleh said, pausing for a sip of çay. “And I’m in a band that plays country music.”
I stared at him blankly. “Like, American country music?” I asked.
“Yeah, exactly. Like American country,” he said, nodding toward my phone. “You should check us out on Facebook.”
Ten months later, in a packed bar in Washington, D.C., I saw Balleh again. He and his eight bandmates were wrapping up their first tour of the United States, and I had hurried across the city to catch their final show. The night’s set list ranged from “Deep in the Heart of Texas” to a popular Arabic song about a Mediterranean Girl, and featured guitar, accordion, ukulele, violin, trumpet, saxophone, and drums. As the song ended, Balleh came to the front of the stage.
“Thank you for coming out,” he said to the crowd, flashing the same smile from the café months before.
“We are Country for Syria!”
A Fitting Home
Country for Syria is a musical collective in almost every sense of the word.
Onstage, it is hard to see exactly where the band begins and ends. Some musicians contribute vocals to nearly every song; others focus on instrumentals. Some hop on and off of the stage when a song changes, a new instrument is needed, or a drink has been poured at the bar. Most of the time, though, their stage is a unified chaos.
“We have nine musicians who we would consider the full Country for Syria,” Owen Harris, the band’s accordionist, told me in an interview over Skype last summer. “But most of the time venues can’t afford all nine of us, or our musicians are playing in other bands.”
At various points in time, the group has housed members who identify as American, Syrian, Turkish, Czech, Kurdish, Spanish, and French. Their songs are performed in a mix of languages, though English is their only universal tongue. A large portion of the songs they play are American country, but Syrian and Turkish songs are played, too.
If the range of musicians in Country for Syria is surprising, the band’s home base is not. Istanbul is renowned for its centuries-long tradition of hosting international guests. While the Bosphorus divides the city into European and Asian continents, Istanbul’s inhabitants seem to bridge them. Country for Syria’s diversity of nationalities, instruments, and languages is a testament to Istanbul’s power to provide common ground for cultures to come together and collaborate upon. The band’s focus on Syria also speaks to Turkey’s unique geographical position – in recent years, Turkey has absorbed more than three million refugees from Syria and other neighboring countries.
Country for Syria started in 2015, after Harris encountered Balleh busking on a street corner in Beyoğlu – a neighborhood just next to Taksim square, where Balleh and I met.
As the band’s two front men, Balleh and Harris make an unlikely musical duo. Balleh is a gentle lion of a human with a wide, easy grin and a mane of untamed curly hair. Some days, his curls are pulled back into a bun or covered with a beanie. Other days, he wears his hair loose so that it falls in every direction around him. Originally from Latakia, Syria, he brings an impassioned and joyous presence not just to the stage, but in every conversation around him.
Harris is more reserved than Balleh. He’s from Sarasota, Florida, spent his college years in Asheville, North Carolina, and wears thin wire-framed glasses you’d expect to find on an esteemed professor twice his age. After an initial move to Turkey, followed by a stint teaching English in Eastern Europe, Harris made his way back to Istanbul to see if he could gather willing musicians to play what he envisioned as “Middle Eastern tango.”
Tango was not what Harris ended up playing, however – at least not in this story. One night during a show, he and Balleh ran out of songs, so Harris suggested they try some country songs he knew by heart.
It was after this show that Harris began to wonder if country music might be an unexpected but fitting genre for connecting to Syrian and American audiences. Country music, he said, was born of the American Civil War as a mode for telling stories and for exploring themes of migration, loss, and longing in a region ravaged by conflict. This made it a good fit for a pair of musicians who hoped to shed light on similar stories from another country torn apart by war.
Playing songs that spoke to the Syrian experience was important to Balleh, but he had a complicated relationship with the way the world used the word “refugee.”
“Syrians were being made out like a ‘huddled mass,’ or a desperate group, or something shapeless and de-individualized,” he said of news coverage of refugees at the time. This narrative stripped refugees of their own agency, Balleh said, and ignored the various religions, ethnicities, and individual lives of the millions of people who had fled.
By playing songs alongside Syrians and for audiences of Syrians, and by using music born in the American South to empathize with the plight of millions in the Middle East, Harris and Balleh hoped their project would deconstruct the stereotypes associated with the word “refugee.”
More importantly, they hoped to build a band that could become home to all sorts of identities – country music fans, refugees, Turks, Americans, Syrians, and everyone in between.
At first, the crowds that showed up at Country for Syria’s shows were puzzled. Was this band for Syrians, Americans, or someone else?
Initial crowds were often composed of one group of people, all Syrians or all Turks, said Harris. After they played a show, the band would tweak their songs to fit what it seemed the audience expected, only to find their next gig was for a bar full of Europeans. Striking the right balance of English, Turkish, and Arabic was hard.
Eventually, however, the group’s complicated identity became less cumbersome. People liked their energy, their menagerie of instruments and languages, and their funky renditions of familiar songs. Language, it seemed, mattered less than spirit. Rhythms and tones could be felt even if lyrics were not fully understood. Soon enough, the crowds at their shows began to mirror the members on stage: people from all over the world, united in a common curiosity and cause.
“Now there’s a community of people who all come to our shows and sing all the songs, not just the one in their own language,” Balleh wrote in an email. This community has brought Country for Syria new friendships and bandmates – and even love. Last year, Balleh married an American woman he had met at one of their shows.
Harris is also married, to fellow bandmate and ukulele player Başak Oktay (now Harris). Much like the city and band they love, their marriage is a celebration of more than one culture; Oktay Harris is a Muslim Turk and Harris is Jewish American. In photos of their wedding ceremony this past summer, there is both a henna ceremony and a chuppah – all with a hint of country western flair.
Building on Difference
While all of the members of Country for Syria call Istanbul home, their reasons for staying vary widely.
Harris and his Czech bandmate could live almost anywhere, but choose freely to live in Istanbul, says Oktay Harris. Oktay Harris says she came to Istanbul herself for better education opportunities within Turkey. For Balleh, Turkey is the only country he can currently reside in without risking his life. His other options would be to return to Syria, or try a third time for a boat bound for Europe.
The bandmates’ perceptions of their host country vary as well. In a Skype interview with Harris and Balleh this summer, Harris said discrimination can make Turkey an unsafe place for refugees – an idea to which Balleh sharply objected.
“Turkey is the ideal place for refugees,” Balleh said, turning to Harris. “If I go to Europe and spend three years in a camp – this is bullshit. I'll spend three years of my life doing nothing.”
The way the two pass through Turkey also speaks to their differences. Since learning Turkish, Balleh say he mostly passes as a Turk. But for Harris, even perfect Turkish wouldn’t hide the fact that he is a yabancı.
These experiences might make it easy to put the bandmates into one-dimensional boxes of “Western” or “Middle Eastern” – but Harris says making music together has allowed the members of Country for Syria to breakdown stereotypes about one another’s cultures.
“There’s no stereotype about East or West that has rung true 100%, because so much is personal and depends on the way that culture makes itself manifest in ourselves,” Harris wrote in an e-mail. “Working, living, and playing together has oddly taught us that those differences are both fundamental but also not as consequential as we might have thought before.”
The band members’ different backgrounds also influence their travel and the music they make. Last year, in an effort to highlight different marginalized communities living in Turkey, the band visited several refugee camps along Turkey’s southern border. This included a trip to a camp that is now home to thousands of Yazidi Kurds who fled the Islamic State in Iraq. Talking with Yazidi children, and bearing witness to their profound trauma and resilience, inspired the title track of the band’s new album, “Brave as a Pigeon,” says Harris.
Earlier this year, the band penned a song called “In the States” in response to the Trump Administration’s travel ban on seven majority-Muslim countries. The accompanying video opens with stories from band members and friends of the band discussing how the ban has impacted them, their families, and their spouses.
Though their original music has taken on more political themes, Oktay Harris says the band’s goals have never been political. Their purpose is to shed light on the crisis in Syria and to give a voice to Syrian musicians and audiences.
“This is a humanitarian issue we want to point out,” she said. “We don’t want to lose that.”
An Uncertain Future
Despite the band’s success, rising tensions in the bandmates’ home and host countries pose questions about the future of Country for Syria.
This time last year, the band was finishing their first American tour. But in 2017, post-election of Donald Trump and several iterations of a travel ban, at least five band members would no longer be allowed back into the United States. Balleh and his wife hope to relocate to America one day pending approval of a spousal visa.
Turkey has also undergone immense change. Even before last summer’s attempted coup, the country was mourning its worst terrorist attack in modern history and grappling with the results of an election that closely followed. Tensions between Turkey and the United States have reached an all-time high, as both countries have banned nearly all visas to the other. Harris says he no longer outwardly identifies as American to strangers. He and Oktay Harris had plans to travel to the States for the holidays but, in light of visa restrictions, will stay in Turkey for now.
Last but not least, Istanbul is changing rapidly, too. Neighborhoods are growing more crowded, Taksim has been torn up by developers, and activity on Istiklal—the street where Balleh and I met nearly two years ago now—has been dampened by multiple terrorist attacks.
But even in the midst of all this tension, Country for Syria continues to play shows and draw crowds. On any given Friday night, the band members’ Instagrams are lit up with scenes from a Beyoğlu bar, a wedding near the Black Sea, or the Ambassador’s residence in Ankara.
Last summer when I asked Harris if he was worried about the band’s future, he shook his head. The band’s members have always come and gone; change has never been a challenge but a norm. As long as there are people willing to come together and play, he said, Country for Syria will still exist.
Linnea Bennett is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. Her work has been published in state and national outlets, including Forbes and The Hill. Originally from Phoenix, Arizona, Bennett spent a year teaching in Karabük, Turkey on a Fulbright scholarship. She is an avid fan and ardent critic of country music.
Correction: December 4, 2017
An earlier version of this essay misstated Bashar and Kat's visa situation from being 'continuously denied' to 'waiting for approval.'