Uprooted by war, this refugee is rebuilding his life in Canada through music
Radwan Altaleb's prized collection of ouds is a reminder of life in Syria, from happiness to heartbreak
Originally published in January 2019.
During his first six months in Canada, Radwan Altaleb couldn't bear to play an oud.
The 44-year-old began playing the stringed instrument, which he characterizes as "the grandfather" of the lute, mandolin and guitar, when he was eight years old in his native Syria.
But here, he didn't have his vast collection — some 60 instruments before the height of Syria's civil war — and for the first time in his life, he didn't have the passion to play.
Then, he started to feel a "tickle" in his fingers. A Hamilton, Ont., restaurant owner who had heard of his talent urged him to play. Altaleb finally agreed. The first song he played was about Damascus, the capital city of Syria in which he was born.
"I felt every word in that song," Altaleb told The Doc Project. "It felt different for me. I don't know — it's something magic."
Before the war uprooted his life, Altaleb played in the Eastern Syrian National Orchestra, taught at his music institute and sourced ouds from the finest makers in the Middle East.
But amid the intense conflict, Altaleb was forced to abandon much of his oud collection. And upon arrival in Canada in 2012, he had to quickly navigate paperwork to bring and keep some of his instruments here, narrowly meeting the deadline.
"I wish I could bring back whatever passed in my life and relive it again," Altaleb said. "But this is impossible, you know? This is heartbreaking when I talk about it."
'Everything was destroyed'
First came the evacuation of Altaleb's neighbourhood in Damascus in July 2012. He hoped it would be temporary and moved dozens of ouds to his uncle's house, except for two that he played regularly.
It's not about the ouds as a wood. It holds all the culture, the people who make the ouds, the people who play on these ouds.- Radwan Altaleb
Altaleb and his family then moved to his sister's place outside of Damascus.
Still, he thought of returning home to retrieve the two remaining ouds, despite the presence of snipers in his neighbourhood, he says.
"When you have something valuable or somebody valuable — I call the oud as like somebody, you know, as a human being. You might say this guy is crazy. But this is a type of craziness — I don't know — I was thinking to go and get those ouds," Altaleb said.
"Whatever is going to happen to me, it's OK, but my brother-in-law said, 'Are you crazy? You'll be shooted for sure.'"
The music of Syria is built around a set of melodic modes called maqams, which are unique to Arabic music. Maqams are a bit like scales. But they're more than that — Altaleb says each maqam evokes a feeling, time and place. And each chapter in his life can be represented by one of four of them: Rast, Saba, Kurd and Sica.
'Rast' evokes happiness and is the sound of Altaleb's life before the war.
'Saba' Altaleb's life when the war broke out in Damascus.
'Kurd' evokes nostalgia and is the sound of Altaleb's life when he left Syria and first arrived in Canada.
'Sica' evokes mixed feelings and is the sound of Altaleb's life in Canada now.
Altaleb never went back to his neighbourhood.
"Everything was destroyed," Altaleb said. "It's not about the ouds as a wood. It holds all the culture, the people who make the ouds, the people who play on these ouds."
"It's a history. You are destroying a history."
Altaleb, his wife and two children had to get to safety, and fled to Lebanon before arriving in Canada in 2012.
"I was feeling like, 'You are going to a land. There is nobody there.' Because they don't know the oud. They don't know my culture. But it's safe."
The 39th day
After his first performance at the restaurant in Hamilton, Ont., Altaleb was ready to play again but he still didn't have his ouds.
When he finally got some of them to Canada in 2016, Altaleb says he was told the instruments didn't qualify under regulations outlining what could be shipped from Syria.
The customs agent at Toronto Pearson International Airport told him he had 40 days to get a one-time permit from the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Otherwise, the ouds would be sent back to Syria, where Altaleb knew they would be destroyed.
"I was very scared," Altaleb said. "That represents my culture, my music, my instrument, my career — my everything. I don't know how to explain it. But it looks like you are destroying a castle — a castle of ouds."
Finally, on the 39th day, Altaleb secured the permit and got his ouds.
To Altaleb, each oud is alive, with its own voice, its own personality and its own history.
"It's not like any other instrument," Altaleb said. "It's [a] very lovely, deep sound; very close to the human voice, which makes it very close to your heart."
He now has 24 instruments from his collection in Canada, including some that were given to him by others who were unable to leave Syria.
'We will do it'
Altaleb wants to build a community here. He is teaching again on weekends and has a number of projects in the works.
"Once I left [Syria] — that brings up many things that was hidden inside me actually. One of them was that I had to show my art, my music, my culture, through my instrument," he said.
"Show to other cultures, to whoever I'm going to meet in the future, what we are and show exactly the reality of where I came from."
Currently, Altaleb plays in a band he put together called AraBest with other newcomers to Canada. It's a project he does in his free time when he isn't working his other job to support his young family.
"It's like a rotation job. I have night shift, morning shift. But I'm OK," Altaleb said. "I'm happy as long as I'm doing things that I love and working on a project. Maybe it takes years, you never know. Maybe my kids will finish it. But we will do it."
Altaleb's music is deeply rooted to his country. When he was forced to leave Syria, his music, his life, fell silent. But slowly, a new song is emerging.
"Doesn't matter where you're from or what's your culture. As long as you have your own music that really comes out from heart — that's really powerful. That changes things around you and makes people stick to each other, love each other. Believe me, music, it's binding people together," Altaleb said.
"Whatever your language is, whatever your culture is, the music is the summary of all you have."
To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page.
John McGill is an associate producer with As It Happens on CBC Radio. He caught the radio bug volunteering at his campus station in Montreal, where he worked on a handful of music programs and hosted an overnight film-noir style show about the curious encounters people have on online classifieds. A thoughtful listener, John has a passion for human interest stories and sound-rich production. You can follow him on Twitter @johndmcgill
This documentary was edited by Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Project Mentorship Program.