In October, I found myself sitting in the waiting room of the Syrian Orthodox cathedral in Amman with a young family: a man named Nasser Alhamdani. his wife Rana Nasser, and their young son. Nasser was visibly tired, with dark circles under his eyes. Like tens of thousands of others, the family had fled the village of Qaraqosh in Iraq on the 6th of August, 2014, escaping the onslaught of the Islamic State, and had been displaced ever since.
“We fled only with our passports and the clothes on our backs,” Rana told me. “We told ourselves that in four or five days we would come back, but those days have turned into years.”
They lived for two years as refugees in Erbil in Kurdistan, not knowing what the future would bring. But as word slowly filtered through that much of their city had been destroyed, they had finally decided to fly to Amman before the winter settled in, with the hope of being resettled in Australia. They were waiting to hear about a visa.
“For two years we cried,” Rana said. “Now we have no tears left to cry.”
I asked them if they would sing something for me in Syriac, their native language, and one now in danger of disappearing. Rana motioned to her husband, who smiled. He leaned in with confidence to the camera and began to sing, and for a moment his anxiety disappeared, and we were transported.
I later learned that Nasser Alhamdani was a well-known professional singer in Iraq, performing often in Mosul, his videos on Youtube sometimes gathering tens of thousands of views. He began singing when he was only thirteen years old, and at the age of sixteen he traveled to Baghdad, where he won first prize in a national singing contest. Later, he studied at the College of Fine Arts in Mosul, before finding steady work performing at weddings and parties in Mosul and Qaraqosh. Soon, he began traveling to perform and film videos in Dubai, Syria and Lebanon. He was at the height of his career in 2014 when he, along with his entire city, were thrown into exile by the coming of ISIS.
His music embodies the complex identity of Syriac Christians in Qaraqosh, who spoke Syriac to one another but needed Arabic to work in nearby Mosul. A deacon in his Syrian Orthodox Church when he was young, he learned to sing for the Syriac liturgy. But in Arabic he also trained in the mawwal, the much beloved traditional form meant to show of a singer’s vocal range, and his professional music is all in Arabic.
For the moment, his parents and siblings are resettled in Australia, while he, his wife and two children wait in Jordan for news about the future. But his beautiful voice contains the memories of the diverse worlds he left behind.
For more on Nasser alhamdani, and to learn how Syrian and Iraqi refugees are saving their heritage, read this article in the New York Times on Mosaic Stories.