Story of the Saz.


saz3 (3)This story begins on a precarious stage, improvised in a refugee camp in Grande Synthe – in the North of France – where some Kurdish musicians celebrate Newroz, the Persian new year, by playing music with some French musicians who came with a sound system. From the little wooden shacks, the musicians had brought incredibly precious objects : their instruments, and the most important of all : a Saz.

A saz is a stringed instrument which looks like an oud or a lute but is elongated, with a long fretboard. It is made of tender wood, certainly too tender for the harsh life in a refugee camp. This saz didn’t escape the violence and had been damaged in a fight. But here it was, repaired by Beshwar Hassan, played for the exilees on Newroz day. This particularly important celebration for Kurdish people is a way of building and enacting a diaspora of exile and a way of claiming a musical and cultural singularity and autonomy even here in the camp, where their rights as refugees and human beings are contested. The moment makes sense as a strong connection between the individual routes of migration and a collective history of exile, spoliation and struggle.

The first time Beshwar played this saz was in January 2016, in a Jungle named « The Baroch » in Grande Synthe, a place of despair and mud. The weather was freezing, and everyone was sad. A group of men he didn’t know, with grey hair, came by the tent he shared with other members of his family and gave him a powerful present : the saz. They had heard he knew how to play. Then they vanished, maybe to England, the promised land. As soon as he had the saz, Beshwar organized musical moments in what was called « the tea tent ». In those moments, everyone sang and smiled. Beshwar and his saz had the power to remove sad looks from the faces of the other exilees and this had no price. But one night, the mafias, who cannot accept that life has no price, began a fight and broke the Saz.

Luckily it could be repaired, a little, not entirely, the sound was not as good as it used to be, but Beshwar could still play. The mayor of Grande Synthe, with Doctors Without Borders, a French NGO, decided to open a new camp with better conditions, and the old Baroch camp was closed. In the new camp, called la Linière, the exilees had little shacks and Besh and his brothers improved their own, building a big kitchen for their mother. The kitchen was the place where Beshwar could play for the other exilees, but also for the volunteers. Music could make people feel better or helped them to heal their pain, and their traumatic past. But music also allows for the sharing of moments with volunteers, without speaking, beyond mutual understanding.

The saz had the power to make people curious. Each time Beshwar pulled out the saz from its protective case, a volunteer would come asking questions about the instrument, and Beshwar would explain how music plays a great role in Kurdish life. Beshwar would explain that the saz is a traditionnal Kurdish instrument, but that it has been difficult for Kurdish people to obtain recognition and to claim their musical and cultural heritage. Beshwar used his music to open a door to understanding the situation of the Kurdish exilees, to create more awareness. And indeed, the music that people could listen to was Beshwar’s pain. If Saz sounds like sadness, it’s because Beshwar performed the sadness of the long history of Kurdistan, a story his fight and exile made him part of.

Having the saz, and knowing how to play, reinforced Beshwar’s power in the camp. But on the other hand it felt strange for him that people seemed sometimes more interested in the saz than in his rights as a human being.

After Newroz, the members of a cultural association who came with the French musicians to the camp, asked the renowned trumpet player Ibrahim Maalouf if he would agree to share the stage with Beshwar. He had a concert planned in the big venue in Grande Synthe, the Palais du littoral. He agreed, and invited twenty exilees from the camp to attend the concert. Beshwar was excited, but at the same time he felt uncomfortable playing on his old broken saz with such a musician. Jules, a member of the association, tried to get a new saz, and finally brought his own. A saz he bought during a journey to Istambul. But this one was made for left handers, and Beshwar had no time to inverse all the strings. When you put new strings on a saz it takes hours of playing to tune it correctly. So finally, Beshwar decided to play his old saz. He had no choice… After the rehearsal, Yael Naim who was opening the concert asked Beshwar if she could come to the camp with him. She and her partner were very keen to understand the issues of the so-called « refugee crisis ». Beshwar took her around and they stopped by Beshwar’s mother’s kitchen. There, Beshwar began to play his saz, his brother Dindar played his daf, and Yael Naim, very moved, began to sing in Hebrew. The Saz had touched her heart. Her clear voice filled the place and Roonak, Beshwar’s mother, smiled and began to sing with her. She hadn’t sung since they had left Kurdistan.

Back at the Palais du Littoral, the pressure mounted. 3000 people were there, attending the concert. And Beshwar had to climb onto that huge stage. His first real professional concert in front of 3000, with one of the major jazz players of the moment ! Ibrahim Maalouf let him begin, and he played the melody he wrote for his mother during his journey, during the hard days through a hostile Europe, the trumpet of Ibrahim Maalouf behind him, supporting the delicate and fragile saz.

Beshwar was no longer only a refugee living in precarious conditions, but a musician, playing for the audience. They could share his sensitivity and see him : a man of culture. The saz in that precise situation opened a space for the recognition of a common humanity : an oppositional space to the politics of enmities that are gaining traction in our world today. The audience could feel that, and it felt good.

After that, in the camp everyone wanted to hear Beshwar play. The Youtube video of the concert went viral in the refugee’s communities, including among the volunteers of the camp, and in their social networks. Other musicians, ethnomusicologists came to the camp to meet Beshwar and to rehearse and create with him. Of course it was great, but it was still strange being in that camp, without freedom, with people coming from England to play with him. How is it that they could they listen to his music but not to his voice?

One day, one of them brought a new Saz… Beshwar kept playing on the stages of Lille, of Belgium, and in the camp, and one day his new saz made the journey to England. The saz went first and a few days later it was Beshwar’s turn. Since then he continues to play for refugees, he even recorded an album in England.


Beshwar Hassan playing saz.

Beshwar Hassan & Emilie Da Lage