The Aleppo electronic artists using music to heal in Gaziantep | Arts and Culture

Gaziantep, Turkey – Amr Helwani’s fingers swiftly moved the knobs of a DJ mixer up and down while coloured neon lights and white smoke began to swamp the tiled garden of the old Ottoman house where he had set up his console.

The 33-year-old DJ’s techno music energised partygoers on a cold late January night in Gaziantep, a city in southeastern Turkey on the border with Syria. Amr has been in the city since 2013. He, like many of those dancing, fled the Syrian war from Aleppo, less than a two-hour drive away.

“We break the sound barrier tonight,” joked Amr, a tall, unassuming man dressed in a black T-shirt, referring to the deafening music. “But no, really, we’re simply trying to break down language and cultural barriers here. Turkish [people] and Syrians … we have very similar traditions but the language is different. Techno is all about the beats, not words. It makes it easier to dance together.”

Amr is one of the resident DJs of Room41, an itinerant techno and electronic music club started by a Syrian refugee that has entertained Gaziantep locals for years. It has also provided an outlet for Syrians to come together to let off steam and meet like-minded people passionate about music.

Little did Amr know, however, that January 28 would signal the last of his shows for a while. “See you all in two weeks!”, he said as he wrapped up the night at 3am.

Just a little more than a week later, catastrophic earthquakes struck southeastern Turkey and northwest Syria, changing the lives of Turks and Syrians forever. More than 50,000 people were killed. In Gaziantep, about 3,000 died, while thousands remain displaced. With continuous aftershocks for weeks and an entire city coping with the trauma of loss and devastation, the lights of Syrian techno nightlife switched off – just as they had during the war.

“It’s scary how much it reminded us of the war days: The screams, the sorrow, the displacement… but we promised our audience that music would be back stronger than ever to cheer us up,” Amr said in May from Sakulta, a crowded café in central Gaziantep that sells tickets to Room41. His apartment was spared significant damage but he relocated temporarily further west to the Mediterranean city of Mersin to escape the stress of the constant aftershocks.

A photo of a concert with a large audience standing.
The last Room41 party where Amr Helwani played before the earthquakes [Abdulsalam Jarroud/Al Jazeera]

Fleeing with cultural heritage

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, some 3.7 million refugees have settled in Turkey. The majority of them now live along its southeastern borders, geographically and culturally closer to the motherland.

From old 19th-century Ottoman houses with large domes and black-and-white striped horseshoe-shaped arches to the towering citadel in Gaziantep’s city centre – partly destroyed by the quakes – and narrow cobblestone streets filled with blacksmiths’ workshops and the food smells from eateries, many corners of the city conjure images of pre-war Aleppo for Syrians.

Today, more than half a million Syrians live in this city – a crossroads between Turkish, Kurdish and Arab cultures. Although more than a decade of Syrian presence has led to some friction, it has also reshaped the social and urban face of Gaziantep.

Syrian shops, as well as restaurants and cafés offering traditional live music, are found in abundance in the city centre’s main streets. Since the earthquakes in February, the majority of these have reopened with minor damages.

“Among the few things we were able to bring with us while running away from the conflict, our cultural heritage was definitely part of our basic baggage,” said Rami Magharbeh who comes from Aleppo. He is the founder of Douzan Art and Culture, a Gaziantep-based organisation working to preserve Syrian arts in exile.

“And that includes the potential of new forms of artistic expressions, such as electronic music, which our youth had just begun to discover until the war came,” the 38-year-old with his grey, curly hair tied into a ponytail, added. He was speaking from the rooftop of Douzan’s base – an imposing, well-kept Ottoman house in Gaziantep’s Armenian district.

Through the efforts of cultural organisations and enterprising individuals, Aleppo’s nightlife has moved about 100 kilometres (62 miles) across the border. In what was once a sleepy city, Syrian DJs and electronic music aficionados have recreated the forgotten atmosphere of the nascent scene they left behind.

Focus on the present

Secret raves and underground parties had just started to take off in Aleppo when the war erupted, said Batoul Mohammad, a tall charismatic electronic-music producer with long black hair who divides her time between Gaziantep and Istanbul.

“That abruptly stopped its development, just as our generation was ready to show what we are capable of,” explained the deep-voiced, 36-year-old. “I was a listener at those parties and I spontaneously brought those lessons here in Gaziantep where I realised there was no nightlife. That’s one of the things I missed the most about home.”

Originally from the Syrian city of Homs, she loved what Aleppo had to offer when she could afford to visit on weekends – from spoken word events to rock music concerts. The flourishing cultural atmosphere there was what inspired her to work in the performing arts.

In 2013, at the age of 25, she crossed the border alone into Turkey. Her parents, although they wanted her to stay, supported her decision to pursue her ambitions. She found an apartment in Gaziantep where – determined to work in music – she would spend an average of seven hours a day teaching herself to use music mixing software and watching videos to study DJ sets.

“Focusing on such complicated tasks helped my mind focus on the present moment, rather than fidgeting about my past,” Batoul explained, referring to the pain of leaving her family behind and coming to a country where she often felt unwelcome and experienced verbal abuse just for being Syrian.

For seven years, she worked odd jobs and put her music on the platform SoundCloud. She struggled to find a community of like-minded artists until 2020, when Room41’s founder Nashwan Jamali reached out via Instagram and invited her to perform at one of his events.

A photo of a street with people at the end of it and a mosaic with geometric patterns on one of the buildings.
A corner of Gaziantep that resembles Aleppo is seen before the earthquakes [Abdulsalam Jarroud/Al Jazeera]

Aleppo 2.0: The renaissance of Syrian nightlife

When the war began, Nashwan was a university business student in Aleppo and had just gotten into organising music events. In the early days of the war, he was beaten and arrested by the Syrian police for participating in anti-government protests.

In 2012, Nashwan found himself hiding in underground bunkers – once used as rave venues – to shelter from air raids.

“It’s there I learned how to manage emergency situations at parties [such as fire and earthquake evacuations], like when in case of air strikes at night I had to learn how to evacuate large numbers of people,” he said in a bittersweet tone.

A year later, he crossed the border into Turkey with his older brother in search of a better future, while their parents and older sister stayed in Aleppo. Over time, the memories of police violence, air raids and the fraught illegal crossing into Turkey – when he was terrified Syrian border police would fire on him and his brother – gave way to nostalgic memories of home. He started thinking of creating a place where Syrians of his generation could come together, have fun and remember a better past.

Then, one night in 2016, while inside a Turkish hamam set to 41 degrees Celsius (106F), the 32-year-old entrepreneur got the idea to create an electro-music club the location of which changed for every party.

Electronic artists such as Hello Psychaleppo and Boshoco, both from Aleppo, were conquering European stages. But Nashwan felt it would be meaningful to try to revive Syria’s nightlife in Gaziantep – a city with more in common with his native Aleppo when it comes to food, religion and history – to help Syrians better settle.

“Gaziantep and Aleppo are very similar in terms of people and culture, so this was the right location to try bringing our long-lost nightlife back to life,” Nashwan explained, while sipping a coffee at Sakulta, dressed in his usual T-shirt and sneakers, just before a meeting to organise the next Room41 event.

“It was clear that the majority of us were meant to stay and never go back to Syria – that we needed to integrate,” he added. “And music is often that winning tool.”

Nashwan initially thought it would just be something unique if the club travelled but then he decided that bringing it to different neighbourhoods could overturn the conception that Syrians stick to themselves, promoting integration.

The concept was new and Syrians face extra paperwork when starting businesses so it took took about a year for Nashwan to register Room41. Initially, as he waited for the registration, he could not properly advertise the inaugural parties and the turnout was low. Drug dealers tried to infiltrate the parties, too. So Nashwan hired security staff and pushed ahead with his project. “We knew we were doing something for the community, filling a gap,” Nashwan reflected.

Today, Nashwan has 19 staff, both Syrians and Turks. Room41 ticket prices are affordable compared with the same type of parties in bigger cities – like the capital Istanbul or Izmir on the Aegean coast – and an average of 300 people attend their events held twice a month on a Saturday night. In its six years of parties, Room41 has also provided a platform for many up-and-coming Syrian DJs.

A photo of Nashwan Jamali sitting in front of a window with a blackboard behind him.
Nashwan Jamali, founder of Room 41 at the coffee shop Sakulta [Abdulsalam Jarroud/Al Jazeera]

Processing trauma

Amr, a resident DJ with Room41 for the past three years, is one of those artists.

Like Nashwan, he was arrested and beaten in Aleppo for taking part in anti-government protests. Fearing that he could end up in jail or disappear, Amr crossed illegally into Turkey in 2013. His family stayed behind. Although he remains in contact with and misses them, he has not been able to see them since leaving.

While growing up in Aleppo, Amr was an avid metal and rock concertgoer. When he came to Turkey he deeply missed live music that went beyond old folk songs played inside cafés.

Amr, who is by day an employee with a humanitarian NGO, taught himself to mix and produce music to distract himself from the memories of air strikes in Aleppo and focus on something other than not being with his family. “It started as a hobby but then I felt the need to show the people what I’m doing,” Amr explained, as he scratched back tapes at the party in January.

The act of creating music, listening to it and sharing it with others who give him feedback empties his mind and makes him focus on building something for others, Amr says. It is the most healing activity he has found.

In his music, he mixes traditional Arab music sounds like the oud – a stringed instrument – or Syrian folk songs – like the iconic track Ayni Tsofia – with more Western tracks he found in YouTube videos of Berlin raves he dreams of playing at one day. Obtaining a tourist visa to participate in one of these is extremely hard for a Syrian, he says.

His goal is to create a kind of futuristic Syrian sound with an eye to the past. “I love combining oriental sounds from our own tradition with more Western beats,” he reflected. “I think it brings something new.”

Keeping memory alive

There have been efforts to encourage this form of cultural expression by organisations like Douzan. In late 2022, Rami of Douzan launched a three-month programme called Notah (“music note” in Arabic) with seven young Syrian artists.

“Electro music is something very new in our region but very attractive for our youth,” Rami said. “We wanted to combine it with an opportunity to know more about their history and music because when they left Syria, they were too young and they’re losing the connection to their roots.”

The artists were mentored by DJs such as Amsterdam-based Hello Psychaleppo. They did workshops on folk music – learning how to blend traditional and contemporary tracks – and published a collective album.

“It’s a way to show we are not stuck in the past, that we are proud of our tradition but that we can also express [ourselves] in modern terms,” Rami explained.

“Before the city turned into rubble, our generation had a bright future ahead,” Nashwan said.

Joudy al-Ahmad, a humanitarian worker and an avid Room41 participant also from Aleppo, feels transported when she hears snippets of Arab and Syrian folk melodies, or bits of songs by the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum or the Lebanese vocalist Fayrouz – who her parents would play when she was a child – mixed with electro sounds. “I suddenly perceive a piece of Syria,” said the 30-year-old, adding that this music “overwhelms me with emotions every time”.

Room41’s locations – Ottoman-style houses present in both Aleppo and Gaziantep, which were both under the same empire, or underground parking lots like the ones that held secret parties in Syria – are also selected to awaken memories of home and help guests connect to happier times, according to Nashwan.

Amr says he often feels like he is doing much more than just scratching and mixing. “At the end of the night, people come by the console to thank me for reminding them joyful memories of Syria,” he said. “So you feel like you did something good for others. That makes you care about your music, it makes it more meaningful, especially after what happened to Syrians displaced for a second time in a decade after the earthquake.”

A photo of rubble in the middle of the street.
The venue Bayazhan, which was damaged by the earthquakes [Abdulsalam Jarroud/Al Jazeera]

Flashbacks

When the ground shook that early February morning, life in Gaziantep came to a standstill.

“In the days following the earthquake, the images we would see walking around the streets of Gaziantep looked like what our eyes were used to see every day walking around war rubbles,” said Joudy.

Nashwan had similar flashbacks when the first earthquake hit – he thought for a moment he was back in Syria and there was an air strike. “It took me entire minutes to realise this was another type of disaster,” he said.

His family in Aleppo was fine. Both his family’s home and the one in Gaziantep sustained some cracks but were not badly damaged. For several days, he slept in a temporary shelter so he could be around other people until the aftershocks subsided. The shock of the disaster reminded him of the unease he felt during the conflict in his homeland.

Many of Room41’s former dozen or so venues no longer exist, or are not safe enough to host hundreds of people. Old Ottoman houses, especially, are out of the equation for security reasons – at least until they are made earthquake-proof. One of their most iconic venues, Bayazhan, a crumbling building in the heart of the city that houses a restaurant and museum no longer has a roof. The live music venue Lebowski Blues, Room 41’s summer outpost was turned into a refuge for people displaced after the quake.

“After a period of mourning”, Nashwan said, the staff at Room41 felt it was time to host a party to test the waters. “Coming back was our resilient response and offer of peace to our wounded community,” he said.

Joudy is one of the many people displaced in the city. Her home was damaged but fortunately, she can afford to pay for a temporary apartment, unlike the thousands of people living in tented settlements across the city in parks and underground shelters.

Her family, still in Aleppo, is also safe. The natural disaster reminded her of the war but she thinks the tragedy may have brought Gaziantep and Aleppo even closer, in a sense, as the people had now endured similar devastation and displacement.

“I didn’t go to the first party after the earthquake, though I wanted and needed to, after so much grief,” Joudy reflected. “But I was busy with more important tasks, such as trying to fix my house.”

Amr believes the parties – once they are up and running again – can offer a form of stress relief after the quakes and help people realise “that everything can and will go back to normality”.

After learning to handle trauma “through the war, we’ll apply the same skills to cheer up the city’s mood”, he said.

A photo of a group of people standing around a DJ.
Batoul Mohammadi plays music at one of Room41’s parties last winter [Abdulsalam Jarroud/Al Jazeera]

Challenging stereotypes, bridging gaps

For Batoul, one of the key values of Room41 and the music she makes is to show that Syrian refugees bring something that can benefit locals. “In countries where large numbers of Syrians arrived, there’s this stereotype that we’re poor and simply come to steal jobs or make a mess. But we have personalities, dreams and passions. We’re not just numbers,” she explained.

Today, she is the only female Syrian DJ in Turkey. She plays under the moniker Umm el-Beat – an homage to older Arab, female singers named Umm, Arabic for “mother”. Her tracks are recognisable because of melodies from the darbouka – a typical Arab percussion, drum-like instrument, which reminds her of her childhood in Syria – as well as the oud (an ancestor of the lute), intertwined with electronic sounds.

She says she is grateful to have eventually found in Gaziantep a safe space to showcase her music, especially as a Syrian woman. She hopes to see more women in this field.

“As electronic music is often a man’s world, it can be scary to be both a woman and a migrant in this field,” she reflected. “People weren’t taking me seriously at first. But I wanted so badly to challenge the stereotype that women cannot do this because we wouldn’t even know where to put the cables.”

Through her music, she says she wants to “bring together many types of audiences, not just Syrians”.

Back in January, Nashwan, who wore sunglasses in the darkness as the techno beats filled a room of the Ottoman building, said: “It is great to see people mixing in peace and enjoying the music and vibes.”

Many of Room41’s regulars are humanitarian workers, largely from Western countries, Syrian refugees and Turkish university students.

During the early days of the war in Syria, when Gaziantep was overwhelmed by an unprecedented number of refugees, social tensions pushed Turkish and Syrians to live in separate bubbles. But at Room41, these walls seem to come down, at least for a night. People dance and chat and there is a feeling of openness.

“We’re bringing the idea of bridging a cultural gap through such events that can be replicated anywhere in Turkey,” Nashwan said.

“I witnessed a lot of prejudice towards Syrians, such as thoughts about them bringing violence and economic crisis to our country,” said Ayse ​​Yılmaz, a humanitarian worker and regular at these events. “But I feel that these tensions disappear in this place. It might seem like a utopian paradise but those who come here are people with a really open mind willing to go beyond.”

Ayse said that before attending these events, she never had any Syrian friends, despite living in a city where about one-fourth of its inhabitants are from Syria. She is happy to have met Joudy there. “They’re like us and just want to forget about the war. They’re not coming to harm us,” Yılmaz added, referring to the Syrians she has met. “We have this beautiful thing in common, this passion for electronic music. They simply want to have fun like us so why not [be] doing it together?”

“It is great to find new people you share something with that doesn’t necessarily have to be your language or culture,” Joudy said. “With those coming to every party, we’ve basically become a family that fills the gap of those blood relatives we’ve left behind in Syria.”

Gaziantep’s Room41 has become the birthplace of bonds between Syrian and Turkish DJs, too. Amr met Ali Cin, a local Turkish producer, with whom he now collaborates on mixing Turkish and Syrian sounds.

“I made a lot of Turkish friends. Maybe now I even have more Turkish friends than Syrians,” Amr said smiling. “Electro music has been a great way to bond and meet new people who just want to have fun.”

Beyond Gaziantep

Electronic music events in Gaziantep may have started with the Syrian exiles behind Room41 but today, Turkish entrepreneurs are also joining the industry, helping the city’s nightlife flourish little by little.

Nashwan hopes to get Room41 back on track as a form of healing for everyone who endured the collective trauma. More parties are set to take place after this weekend’s Turkish election reruns to help people unwind.

The April party, the only post-earthquake one so far, was a test of the city’s mood and to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It had a good turnout but lower than what it was previously as life slowly gets back to normal. Before the earthquakes, people from quieter areas in nearby provinces joined Room41. Many have not yet returned.

Nashwan wants to grow Room41’s musical offerings while keeping the atmosphere intimate as he focuses on his next goal: taking the concept of an itinerant party back to the Aleppo he left so many years ago.

He realises the type of challenge this might entail security-wise. With the city under government control, it would be too dangerous for him to travel, yet he is willing to invest efforts into coordinating this from abroad and rely on a vast network of up-and-coming DJs waiting for normal life to return to Aleppo. His father, on the other side of the border, has offered to print flyers when the time comes.

“People get depressed because they can’t speak or don’t feel like speaking about Syria, but [Gaziantep’s nightlife] gives good memories of back home,” Nashwan said. “This is our resistance to war and disaster, the beauty of music and genuine, wild fun.”