Feature story: Celebrating the universal language of music

In one of Istanbul’s oldest settlements on the Bosporus, in Emirgan district, lively chats and laughter of women are resonating across the rooms of the old mansion’s second floor. Women of different ethnical backgrounds, meticulously rehearsing and making final preparations for the evening’s performance, are all but naturally emanating their strength through the universal language of music.

These women first crossed paths in Istanbul as refugees of Syria’s now 7-year conflict and then as enthusiastic and talented members of the Syrian Women’s Choir. The choir, born in 2016 upon a joint initiative of a few refugee women attending activities in a community centre funded by the UN Refugee Agency, has blossomed into an exemplary platform acting as a messenger between cultures. Showing no sign of intimidation and inspiring only pure confidence ahead of their third live concert in front of a large audience, 19 women of the choir are ready to perform songs from the Middle East alongside renowned Syrian saxophonist Basel Rajoub in what will mark the final concert of 24th Istanbul Jazz Festival organized by Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts and hosted by Sakıp Sabancı Museum.

Sitting in the balcony overlooking the waters of the Bosporus strait embracing two continents, one of the members of the choir, Hanan, a mother of four and a grandmother of five, is telling the story of a separated family. Hanan arrived in Turkey 20 months ago together with her two children, leaving behind a son and a daughter. “I was living in the countryside of Damascus. I used to run my own business, a jewellery design atelier, and I had a house of my own. Then, I lost all in the conflict and I was left with no other choice but to flee,” says Hanan who currently lives with her son in İstanbul.

She tells her story with a strong longing in her eyes for the beloved ones left behind but also with the just pride of a mother seeing her children and grandchildren maintain their perseverance and pursue their dreams even in the hardest of times against the backdrop of a conflict. His youngest son is continuing his higher education in the field of computer science in Germany while one of her grandchildren has few years ahead to graduate as a dentist in Damascus.

Her eyes are windows to the emotions behind her words, revealing as she speaks the wounds inflicted by the past and the curiosity and hope for what the future has in store. When talking about her life in Syria and what she had to leave behind, her eyes have the power to be so telling that she would be eloquent without ever saying a word.

Eagerly telling how she was introduced to the choir, Hanan says: “Coping with the trauma brought by conflict and displacement, I have found comfort in the community centre, meeting new people and getting the opportunity to share my feelings and ideas in the course of various activities and ateliers offered by the centre. The idea of a music atelier greatly appealed to many of us. We have then discovered the comforting and healing power of music.”