Exile, Music, Hope & Nostalgia Among Berlin’s Arab Immigrants

15 September, 2022
Fest­saal venue in Kreuzberg hosts the annu­al Al.Berlin Al.Music fes­ti­val.


Exile becomes a dou­ble loss: loss of ori­gin and real­i­ty, tor­ment­ed by the nev­er-end­ing desire for return, an unre­al­iz­able return…


Diana Abbani


In her essay “Voy­age, War and Exile,” the Lebanese Amer­i­can poet and visu­al artist, Etel Adnan, described her expe­ri­ence before leav­ing Beirut at the out­break of the 1975 civ­il war as an exile. She was not the one leav­ing Beirut, she assert­ed, it was Beirut leav­ing her: “What is exile, she wrote, if not the vio­lent and invol­un­tary loss of all the liv­ing sym­bols of one’s iden­ti­ty?”[1]

Until today, many in the Ara­bic-speak­ing region find them­selves, like Etel Adnan, exiled in their home­land. This exile is “total and absolute,” as she marked. Being exiled in your own home­land is “the most des­per­ate of all forms of exile. It is liv­ing in hell,” or as the Lebanese rap­per Bu Nass­er Touf­far sings in his song Hexa­pho­bia, “Alf ghor­ba, w la amout bi blade mar­ra [A thou­sands times in exile, and not one minute dying in my coun­try].” But unlike Etel Adnan, many feel today that they are not wit­ness­ing the mean­ing of “Par­adise Lost.” Their home was no longer con­sid­ered a par­adise, and this for a very long time. 

Con­front­ed by wars, repres­sion and author­i­tar­i­an regimes, many young com­ing from the Arab world have had to leave their home­land in the last ten years, and seek refuge in Europe. When Ger­man Chan­cel­lor Angela Merkel offered tem­po­rary res­i­den­cy to asy­lum seek­ers in 2015, Berlin became a major des­ti­na­tion. This city has a long his­to­ry in attract­ing for­eign intel­lec­tu­als and artists look­ing for an afford­able and cul­tur­al­ly open place. Prof­it­ing from the pres­ence of ear­li­er Arab com­mu­ni­ties that immi­grat­ed since the eight­ies, it is turn­ing into an Arab exile cap­i­tal and an Arab cul­tur­al hub, par­tic­u­lar­ly due to the insti­tu­tion­al and com­mu­nal sup­ports giv­en to intel­lec­tu­als and artists.

Pales­tin­ian vocal artist in Berlin, Rasha Nahas.


A Taste of Home

 Born and raised in the Arab-speak­ing world and amidst its dif­fi­cul­ties, Berlin’s new com­ers brought the prob­lems, the music, the tastes and the dis­cours­es cir­cu­lat­ing across the Mid­dle East and North Africa. They found them­selves in a new alien­ation. Their grow­ing pres­ence in Berlin is slow­ly shap­ing a musi­cal scene that reflects their needs and aspi­ra­tions. This emer­gent musi­cal and cul­tur­al scene is still on the mar­gins of Berlin’s main­stream Ger­man life. It isn’t always man­ag­ing to attract mem­bers of Berlin’s old Arab com­mu­ni­ty. Like the emer­gent Arab intel­lec­tu­al com­mu­ni­ty in the city, it still needs to shape its iden­ti­ty to become an “Arab exiled body” as the Egypt­ian soci­ol­o­gist Amro Ali described it.[2] But it is turn­ing into an impor­tant place for new com­ers to express their feel­ings of pain and exile, and a means to main­tain a com­mon sense of iden­ti­ty and belonging.

Tra­di­tion­al and mod­ern Arab musi­cians, clas­si­cal artists and those into hip-hop, met­al, elec­tron­ics and jazz are ani­mat­ing jam ses­sions, musi­cal per­for­mances and dance par­ties in the city. Some of the singers who vis­it­ed the city are among the most pop­u­lar artists on the Arab inde­pen­dent scene like Bu Kolthoum, Cairo­kee, Lekhfa, Mas­sar Egbari, Mashrou3 Leila, El Rass, 47 Soul… The afford­able city also attract­ed var­i­ous estab­lished artists look­ing for an eas­i­er access to the Euro­pean musi­cal scene from Berlin, like the Pales­tin­ian singer Rasha Nah­has, the Lebanese jazz play­er Tarek Yamani, or the Lebanese video, sound and visu­al artist Raed Yassin. Oth­ers artists had to leave their coun­try and even­tu­al­ly found them­selves in Berlin, like the Syr­i­an rap­pers Enana, Abu Hajar and his band Maz­zaj Rap or the Syr­i­an trum­pet play­er Milad Khawam, among oth­ers. These young artists are try­ing to cre­ate their own space here. Although the city offers them a place to meet and con­nect with var­i­ous artists from dif­fer­ent places, their work is still more indi­vid­ual than col­lec­tive. They are look­ing for their voice in the city and in rela­tion to the places they left. Their musi­cal pro­duc­tions are in the midst of find­ing its lan­guage, iden­ti­ty and def­i­n­i­tion. But they all have to nav­i­gate Germany’s polit­i­cal and social lim­its, such as the Euro­cen­tric view on the region, racism, Islam­o­pho­bia and Germany’s stance on Israel-Pales­tine. (See Abir Kopty’s Unapolo­getic Pales­tini­ans, Reac­tionary Germans.)

At the same time, many musi­cal spaces and events are becom­ing meet­ing points for the new­com­ers and mar­gin­al­ized groups, like the elec­tron­ic Hafla/Party “Arabs do it bet­ter,” the Arab Songs Jam, the Ara­bic Music Insti­tute Berlin, the Berlin-based col­lec­tive Queer Arab Bar­ty, Oyoun cul­tur­al cen­ter, or Al.Berlin bar and café and its music fes­ti­vals. Deeply con­nect­ed to the Arab world in its artists, sub­jects and music, this musi­cal scene is cre­at­ing a feel­ing of home, like Wael Alkak’s con­cert in Berlin.



Find­ing Home in Exile

 On a cold Berlin­er Octo­ber night, peo­ple com­ing from dif­fer­ent places gath­ered last autumn at the Fest­saal venue in Kreuzberg to attend the Al.Festival. Many refugees and exiled sang and danced over the music of var­i­ous Arab artists, among them the Syr­i­an musi­cian based in Paris, Wael Alkak. Dur­ing that night an entan­gle­ment engaged the per­former with the audi­ence. Wael Alkak’s re-appro­pri­a­tion of Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion songs and his mul­ti-lay­ered and emo­tion­al­ly charged elec­tron­ic music marked the audi­ence deeply, bring­ing a famil­iar lan­guage into their cold exiled nights.[3] It broke their escape from the past and their feel­ing of alien­ation bring­ing them back to the heart of their tur­moil. Danc­ing to the rhythm of the drum and the flute accom­pa­nied by the rabab, the lute and the elec­tron­ic, the audi­ence swayed as they sang, “‘Ayni ‘Ali­ha [My Eyes on Her]”, “Jan­na Jan­na [Par­adise Par­adise]” and “‘Endak Bahriyya [You Have a Marine].” They for­get for a while where they were and what brought them to this city.

Wael Alkak fea­tured its musi­cal project Neshama, which is inspired by folk Syr­i­an songs and rev­o­lu­tion­ary songs pop­u­lar at the out­break of the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion. Dur­ing that time of peace­ful demon­stra­tions, pop­u­lar musi­cians com­posed new songs and sang with the rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies rev­o­lu­tion­ary slo­gans that were com­bined with well-known folk tunes.

Lis­ten­ing to Wael Alkak’s songs in Berlin con­front­ed the audi­ence with dif­fer­ent feel­ings of sad­ness, hope and love around his music: on the one hand, sad­ness over the revolution’s found­ing moments and the begin­ning of the protests; on the oth­er, a gen­er­al sad­ness over the out­come of the rev­o­lu­tion and war; and final­ly sad­ness over the real­i­ty of exile and asy­lum while leav­ing the coun­try, the fam­i­ly and the friends. These feel­ings were com­bined to the joy of tak­ing part in this col­lec­tive moment. Alkak’s per­for­mance formed a place where all these dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tives inter­twined and jux­ta­posed cre­at­ing shift­ing real­i­ties. The soli­tary indi­vid­ual voic­es and the music of rev­o­lu­tion and lamen­ta­tion craft­ed new, yet famil­iar, sounds. Tran­scend­ing bar­ri­ers of words and bor­ders, they cap­ti­vat­ed the audi­ence, and engaged the lis­ten­ers in a dia­logue with the city, the future’s dreams, the afflict­ed coun­try, the long­ing for it and the grief over los­ing it.

This cre­at­ed a dynam­ic inter­ac­tion between the singer, his songs and his audi­ence by engag­ing the lat­ter in an expres­sion of emo­tion­al con­flict. In this tur­moil of music, pas­sion, and griev­ances, a safe space was drawn for a few moments. Although the songs spoke the lan­guage of the Syr­i­an rev­o­lu­tion that devel­oped in a spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal and polit­i­cal con­text, they were remark­ably sim­i­lar in their emo­tion­al expres­sion of per­son­al, polit­i­cal, and social strug­gles in var­i­ous Arab-speak­ing regions. This made it easy for the non-Syr­i­an audi­ence in the city to engage with it. The lament became both a per­son­al and a col­lec­tive expe­ri­ence, express­ing a com­mon grief, which has no spe­cif­ic home­land or iden­ti­ty, an ele­gy that does not seek to explain or make sense of the ordeal. Instead, it pro­vides a way to deal with it and the pain it cre­at­ed by talk­ing about it and about people’s per­son­al sto­ries in a repeat­ed attempt to move past their despair and defeat.

Music as a Cul­tur­al Reminder

In a con­text of rev­o­lu­tions, pan­dem­ic, polit­i­cal fail­ures, wars, exile and the search for a refuge and soci­etal engage­ment, those who left their home coun­try are in a con­stant search for a musi­cal lan­guage and sound that speak and talk to their iden­ti­ty, home and aspi­ra­tions. Music has always been used as a cul­tur­al reminder through which exiles try to trans­mit the voic­es of the past, the voic­es of home through nos­tal­gia and mourn­ing. For some, it can also be a way for cul­tur­al and eth­nic dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion (from the places they are liv­ing in) and a con­ti­nu­ity with the ide­al­ized past and homeland.

In her work on nos­tal­gia, the Amer­i­can anthro­pol­o­gist Kath­leen Stew­art writes that, in today’s world where neo­colo­nial­ism, post-moder­ni­ty, and transna­tion­al cap­i­tal push more peo­ple and cul­ture to move and cir­cu­late between places, nos­tal­gia as a fea­ture of exile has become a “cul­tur­al prac­tice” and a “mode of rep­re­sen­ta­tion[4]. The notion of time has changed and we expe­ri­ence the present as a loss, as a phe­nom­e­non that has no ori­gin or real­i­ty. Exile becomes a dou­ble loss: loss of ori­gin and real­i­ty, tor­ment­ed by the nev­er-end­ing desire for return, an unre­al­iz­able return…

Find­ing home through music is nei­ther new nor unique. The songs of Fairuz and the Rah­bani broth­ers, Wadi al-Safi, Sabah Fakhri and oth­ers were reclaimed by var­i­ous Arabs exiled dur­ing the 20th cen­tu­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly nation­al­ist and patri­ot­ic songs. Most of these songs focused on nos­tal­gic images of the nation and the country’s nature, its moun­tains, land, sea, or its his­tor­i­cal mon­u­ments that gained a nation­al sta­tus. Love and sep­a­ra­tion in songs became uni­ver­sal love, one that can be under­stood as long­ing to the lost land, the home, the fam­i­ly and the ori­gins. These nos­tal­gic images con­nect­ed the exiled to their child­hood, past, and to a cer­tain imag­ined “gold­en age” of the home “nation.” Most of the dis­course around exile in songs was thus framed as a state of faith­ful­ness to the true spir­it of the nation.

Today also, nos­tal­gia is staged metaphor­i­cal­ly and musi­cal­ly in a lot of music pro­duced in exile, or cap­tured by the exiled. For exam­ple, the Berlin-based orches­tra of clas­si­cal and tra­di­tion­al Syr­i­an music, the Orn­i­na Syr­i­an Orches­tra, presents a music that speaks of loss and sep­a­ra­tion, and re-cre­ate images of home. This nos­tal­gic past is ide­o­log­i­cal, as Stew­art empha­sizes, an “imag­i­nary geog­ra­phy” — a con­struc­tion cre­at­ed by exil­ic nar­ra­tives. The nos­tal­gic images of the past have a dual role: to authen­ti­cate a past and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly to dis­cred­it the present, a present full of loss­es, mourn­ing, pow­er­less­ness and defeats.

There is a grow­ing desire to be lib­er­at­ed from the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives, specif­i­cal­ly its con­trol over writ­ing the present, the past and the future.


A Whiff of Hope in Exile

But oth­er images in today’s Arab music pro­duc­tions are also engag­ing with Arab exiles here or there. These images occur through a cri­tique of the repres­sion and the cur­rent state in home coun­tries, a depic­tion of people’s dai­ly strug­gles and the exile expe­ri­ence inside or out­side their home coun­try. Giv­ing voice to the mar­gin­al­ized, these songs are most­ly hip-hop and rap songs cre­at­ed by artists still liv­ing in home coun­tries or left it recent­ly, like El Rass, Bu Kolthoum, Bu Nass­er Touf­far, El Far3i or Wael Alkak among oth­ers… Through a rec­ol­lec­tion of the past or the cri­tique of the present, their songs tend to break with the offi­cial nar­ra­tives, par­tic­u­lar­ly the one linked to the Nation­al State build­ing and the mid twen­ti­eth century’s “social­ism.” Among the tri­umph of author­i­tar­i­an regimes and lib­er­al pol­i­tics, and in the midst of wars and insta­bil­i­ties dev­as­tat­ing the region over the last cou­ple of years, they hope of find­ing new sto­ries and con­struct­ing new polit­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ties. They thus res­onate with a large group of new­ly exiled youth and present a new way of expe­ri­enc­ing the city, exile and home.

These music pro­duc­tions aim to look for new exis­tences for the “indi­vid­ual” who was often mar­gin­al­ized in a col­lec­tive “us,” to cre­ate a space for a beau­ti­ful and bet­ter life after all the endured pains and loss­es. A space that can rec­ol­lect the past and today’s defeats, talks about it, cries over it, or smiles to it, just like in Wael Alkak’s con­cert. Many of these songs reflect the mag­ni­tude of the changes that occurred in the Arab world when home became our exile.

The imag­ined “Arab home­land,” which was depict­ed in the mid 20th century’s songs and cen­tered on the nation-state and Ara­bism, crushed its peo­ples. It is no longer desir­able in their imag­i­na­tion. This ide­al image has been shat­tered in so many places, as the repres­sion increased over the cities, their peo­ple, and the var­i­ous minori­ties. The calls of cities that we heard on the streets of Dam­as­cus, Bagh­dad or even Beirut expressed a grow­ing desire for new encoun­ters that do not come from above, nor are drawn by author­i­tar­i­an regimes, but are woven from below through per­son­al and inti­mate rela­tion­ships between cities and their inhabitants.

There is a grow­ing desire to be lib­er­at­ed from the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives, specif­i­cal­ly its con­trol over writ­ing the present, the past and the future. Due to their porta­bil­i­ty, these songs and the mean­ings they car­ry become a means of lamen­ta­tion and weep­ing over the past and cur­rent defeat accom­pa­nied by a whiff of hope. They por­tray the images and the sto­ries of the peo­ple and their desire to take con­trol over their past, present and future. It can thus be read as a moment that pro­vides an alter­na­tive win­dow for read­ing the spir­it of rev­o­lu­tions and hopes in exile as expressed in pop­u­lar music, whether in home coun­tries or elsewhere.

Echoes of Home in Exile

As many have turned today into Berlin, the echoes of these songs still res­onate with them. Being exiled first in their own coun­tries then in Berlin becomes an addi­tion­al mourn­ing added to the his­tor­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion of sor­row and pain. Lis­ten­ing, play­ing and mak­ing these songs in exile become a way to share sor­row, resis­tance and dreams. They offer shared expe­ri­ences of emo­tions that work as a pol­i­tics of belong­ing by cre­at­ing a sense of belong­ing and a shared his­to­ry. Music turns into a tool to re-appro­pri­ate the past and the present. It rec­ol­lects its pain, to trans­forms its course, aban­don­ing the Arab nation­al home­land slow­ly and recon­nect­ing with a bet­ter home formed around its cities and their peo­ples that have been par­a­lyzed by pre­vi­ous and present regimes.

Faced by the chal­lenges of exile, some may find their place in nos­tal­gia and the roman­tic images of the coun­try, its his­to­ry and its peo­ple, as well as in love and sep­a­ra­tion sto­ries of folk songs. Oth­ers would turn towards new music and lyrics that recon­nect them with their real­i­ty and their world here and there. In both cas­es, the lis­ten­ers try through music to look at the ruins of the past and the fires that are still burn­ing in their coun­try, to save what can be saved and leave the rest. Music becomes a means to con­nect with the coun­try, to search for sto­ries in which one can self-iden­ti­fy or to build through it new places to call home.

From this per­spec­tive, I read my con­stant quest to rec­ol­lect the past. After spend­ing the last ten years mov­ing from one place to anoth­er between Europe and the Mid­dle East, I also find myself today in Berlin. As I con­tem­plate my work on the musi­cal life of Beirut and the Lev­ant region in the ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry and revis­it the so-called “Lebanese gold­en Age and jet set,” I ask myself how to talk about his­to­ry, enter­tain­ment and music of home in our cur­rent world filled with dis­place­ment, move­ments, war and loss­es? How to read and write the his­to­ry and the present of our cities through their cul­tur­al expres­sion and enter­tain­ment world with­out falling into the trap of nos­tal­gia and the lost gold­en age? And how can songs voice our past, our home and our exile, after being defeat­ed and exiled in our own homeland?

For years now, I have been roam­ing in search of sto­ries of Lebanon’s pre-1950s musi­cal life, which was mar­gin­al­ized from offi­cial nar­ra­tives; sto­ries of women artists who ani­mat­ed the region’s cabarets but were even­tu­al­ly silenced over the years; and sto­ries of for­got­ten places. I have nev­er been in these lost cabarets — or as I like to call them “my cabarets.” Yet, I know all their details. I nev­er saw any pic­ture from the inside. But the smell of cig­ars, the tin­kling noise of glass­es, the laugh­ter of their cus­tomers, and the lone­li­ness of their singers haunt my cold Berlin nights.

As I grad­u­al­ly learned to become a per­son who exca­vates the past in order to under­stand the present, I dug deep in dif­fer­ent archives and places in the hope of under­stand­ing the life, the hopes and the imag­i­nar­ies of ordi­nary peo­ple and their his­to­ry from below. I rec­ol­lect images of “my cabarets” and their songs before the cre­ation of the Lebanese state and its “Lebanese music”… I fol­low their traces like a crazy lunatic pos­sessed by the archive fever in the hope of get­ting a glimpse of their his­to­ry, music, secrets, sto­ries they shaped and wit­nessed, smell, noise and fears…. 

As I dive into my work on this past musi­cal life, while liv­ing in Berlin, the city of Weimar’s cabarets, the city of Arab exile today, a city where I made new fam­i­lies and a new home, I turn to a music that recon­nects me with the past, the present, and the accu­mu­lat­ed sor­rows of our recent his­to­ry of eter­nal col­laps­es. I swing between the his­to­ry I grasp from ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry music records and the shared expe­ri­ences I col­lect from con­tem­po­rary songs. I look at “my cabarets” beyond nos­tal­gia and the ide­al image of “Lebanese myths and gold­en age” to rec­ol­lect sto­ries from the past, sto­ries of my past, sto­ries of my home, sto­ries of for­got­ten peo­ple and places…to reclaim a stolen past and reap­pro­pri­ate the present.


[1] Adnan, Etel, ‘Voy­age, War and Exile’, Al-‘Arabiyya, Vol. 28 (1995): 5–16.
[2] Ali, Amro, ‘On the need to shape the Arab exile body in Berlin’, Dis­ori­ent, 2019.
[3] A longer Ara­bic ver­sion of my review of Wael Alkak’s con­cert in Berlin was first pub­lished in Raseef22 in an arti­cle enti­tled ‘Jan­na Jan­na” and Wael AlKa­k’s con­cert in Berlin… Lament­ing in songs as an act of resis­tance’, Raseef22, 28 Octo­ber 2021.
[4] Stew­art, Kath­leen, ‘Nos­tal­gia- A Polemic’, Cul­tur­al Anthro­pol­o­gy, 3.3 (August 1988): 227–41.

BaghdadBeirutBerlinCairoCultural RepresentationEmotionsexilehip hophomeMusicNostalgiaRap

Diana Abbani is a historian writing on the social and cultural history in the Levant and a EUME fellow of the Fritz Thyssen foundation at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. She received her doctorate in Arabic Studies from Sorbonne University, and holds double masters in History and Political Science from Sorbonne University and the University of Saint Denis in Paris. Her research concentrates on music, memory and language. She is currently preparing a book that examines the impact of the emergence of the music industry and the entertainment world on local societies in the Levant region. She particularly focuses on alternative narratives and women singers, to uncover the forgotten stories of those affected by sound transitions, global encounters, and local struggles. 


1 Comment
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

[…] Diana Abbani med­i­tates on the SWANA music scene in Berlin, in a piece enti­tled Exile, Music, Hope & Nos­tal­gia Among Berlin’s Arab Immi­grants. Also delv­ing into Berlin his­to­ry, Ahmed Farouk, the Ara­bic trans­la­tor of Günter […]