Omar Souleyman arrest: Syrian singer's manager suspects rival's hand

Turkish officials confirm singer's detention in southern Turkey on Wednesday, but give no reasons

Syrian singer Omar Souleyman escorted by Turkish policemen as he leaves a hospital in Sanliurfa on November 18, 2021.  AFP
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The manager of Syrian singer Omar Souleyman on Thursday said she feared his arrest a day earlier may have been sparked by a jealous rival.

Souleyman, whose mix of folk and electronic music accompanied by Arabic and Kurdish lyrics have won him a cult following around the world, was detained on Wednesday at his home in Sanliurfa, southern Turkey.

Turkish media reported that he was arrested on suspicion of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which has waged a 37-year conflict in Turkey and is considered to be a terrorist organisation by Ankara and most western states.

“He has many enemies and people who envy him who would do this,” said Mina Tosti, the 55-year-old singer’s manager and producer since 2010. “This is probably a similar scenario now – that someone has made a tip-off.”

Souleyman, a former wedding singer from Hassakeh, a Kurdish-majority region of north-east Syria, has lived in Turkey since Syrian civil war began 10 years ago.

He was arrested at his home in Karakopru, a district to the north-west of Sanliurfa city, which lies close to the Syrian border. Although a local official confirmed his detention, there has been no official word on the reason or circumstances.

With his trademark red and white kaffiyeh and sunglasses, Souleyman broke on to the international scene in 2011 and has since appeared at festivals around the world, including Glastonbury in the UK and the Nobel Peace Prize concert in Norway.

He has collaborated with artists including Bjork, Four Tet and Blur’s Damon Albarn while his YouTube videos have received tens of millions of views. He is believed to have recorded more than 500 albums.

Ms Tosti, who has been in touch with Souleyman’s family in Turkey since his arrest, said he was previously arrested two years ago by the Turkish police.

“When he was arrested in 2019, he came out [of custody] the next day,” she said. “That time they had suspected him because of a YouTube entry that was a song without video. It was a nationalistic Kurdish song and someone had written that it was Omar Souleyman singing and because of this they detained him.”

Ms Tosti said she spoke to Souleyman on Tuesday, the day before his arrest, and he did not mention being under pressure from the authorities.

The family is hoping his current detention will prove to be as short as previously, she said, and that his release may have been delayed by the need to find a translator for Souleyman, who does not speak Turkish.

She expressed bemusement at media reports in the immediate aftermath of his arrest, with a Syrian news agency claiming it had spoken to his son and others citing comments by an unidentified manager.

“They stated his son named Muhammad said so-and-so but he doesn’t have a son called Muhammad,” Ms Tosti said. “They quote a manager and agent but he doesn’t have a manager or agent apart from me ... his family would not ever pick up the phone or talk to the media.

“When this happened to him in 2019, we were all together and would never tell anyone something like this. He would not want that.”

An Arab and a Sunni Muslim, Souleyman has previously spoken out on behalf of all Syrians, regardless of ethnicity or religion.

Turkish media suggested he was arrested over ties to the PKK or its Syrian offshoot, known as the YPG.

Although the YPG is not labelled a terrorist organisation by the West, Turkey considers it to be inextricably linked to the PKK.

Beginning in 2016, Ankara has launched three military campaigns in northern Syria against the YPG, while also fighting the PKK in Turkey and northern Iraq.

In recent years, tens of thousands of people have been detained on terrorism charges in Turkey, including members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, or HDP, which is Turkey’s third-largest political party. It evolved out of the Kurdish movement and has been accused of links to the PKK – a charge it denies.

Updated: November 18, 2021, 3:10 PM