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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 3 March 2021

Syrian refugee Ameen Khayer makes splash in Germany's music scene

In our series of inspiring life stories across continents, the singer with the band Shkoon talks about his holy connection with water

The light shimmering off the Elbe brought an unexpected end to Ameen Khayer’s long and arduous journey from his Syrian birthplace.

Hamburg, known as the German "gateway to the world", quickly became home after he fled the war 4,000 kilometres away.

For Germans, the city may be a portal but it is the river running into the port that held an irresistible pull for Khayer.

The allure was simple. Raised by the Euphrates in Deir Ezzor, a city in eastern Syria, he had an idyllic childhood spent splashing around and eating al fresco on the sandy island between the banks.

“I always lived close to water,” Khayer, now 30, tells The National. “I think there's a holy connection.”

As he looked out the window of the train gliding through Hamburg, the harbour stole his heart and he was soon to make friendships and find success.

Within days of arriving, he met Thorben Beeken, one of the 10 people in the share house in which he had been invited to live.

An impromptu jam session on his first Saturday in the flat was to spark their partnership in Shkoon, the popular electro-folk band.

Shkoon, meaning “What” in the Arabic dialect spoken in Deir Ezzor, came as a spontaneous result of audience members repeatedly coming up after sets to ask what their music was. The name stuck and unites his past and present.

The young Ameen Khayer with his mother and father. 'I always lived close to water,' he says. 'I think there's a holy connection.' Courtesy Ameen Khayer
The young Ameen Khayer with his mother and father. 'I always lived close to water,' he says. 'I think there's a holy connection.' Courtesy Ameen Khayer

Khayer grew up in the city’s old district, where the narrow cobbled lanes feature traditional Arabic houses with internal courtyards. It was, he says, “not a small town and not a big town”, where everyone knew everyone.

“If you say a word at the east end of the city, you can hear it on the other side of the city in one hour," he says.

"The people love each other, they respect each other, they live next to each other, no matter what kind of religions or beliefs.”

Khayer and his friends would regularly grab a car tyre and set off to the banks.

“We loved to chill next to the water. We’d go there and just spend time with our friends. We drink, we eat, you know, picnic lifestyle,” he says.

“We’d jump from the bridge into the water and swim. We’d spend the whole day there, floating and following the flow of the river until we reached the point where it’s close to the city.”

Khayer and his friends would regularly grab a rubber tyre and set off with the flow of the longest river in Western Asia until reaching the point where the Euphrates came close to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Leber/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Khayer and his friends would regularly grab a rubber tyre and set off with the flow of the longest river in Western Asia until reaching the point where the Euphrates came close to the city of Deir ez-Zor. Leber/ullstein bild via Getty Images

A similar freedom afforded by his natural environment extended into the family home.

Khayer describes his father, who studied art in Sarajevo in the 1960s, as liberal and open-minded.

“He let us be free to do and to think … to go with our minds more free. He didn't limit us,” he says.

“I grew up in a family where my father talked to me not like father and son but, you know, like a friend.”

His father would later be employed by a Croatian oil company in Syria, although he continued to dabble in art, particularly calligraphy.

Khayer’s mother was a primary school teacher, raising three children.

He is the youngest, to an older brother, an architect in Dubai who sometimes moonlights as a photographer, and a sister, an economics graduate who lives in Damascus.

After completing high school, Khayer continued his love affair with all things maritime in Latakia, a city on the Mediterranean coast of Syria.

There, he undertook a degree in marine engineering but the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the country thwarted his ambitions, although he hopes to return to his studies one day.

“I was going to demonstrations like everybody else who was doing it,” he says of the early days of the conflict, now in its 10th year.

“You know, we wanted to say the word of freedom. We wanted our basic, basic human rights.”

But a politically charged verbal sectarian dispute between university students in mid-2014 led to Khayer being imprisoned by the secret police for 34 days. He was released on clemency grounds.

Khayer grew up in the city’s old district, where the narrow cobbled lanes feature traditional Arabic houses with internal courtyards. It was, he says, 'not a small town and not a big town', where everyone knew everyone. Yves Gellie / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Khayer grew up in the city’s old district, where the narrow cobbled lanes feature traditional Arabic houses with internal courtyards. It was, he says, 'not a small town and not a big town', where everyone knew everyone. Yves Gellie / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

At around the same time, ISIS declared the annexation of Deir Ezzor as part of its so-called caliphate, starting a three-year siege.

Khayer unhappily remembers the hardships endured by some of his friends and cousins who were still living there, forced to eat grass from the streets.

He made his way to Turkey by land at the end of 2015, where he found himself once again following the flow of water in a rubber vessel, although with none of the frivolity of his childhood jaunts.

After a safe passage across the sea to the Greek island of Lesbos, Khayer joined the swelling numbers of refugees trudging through Europe in search of safety.

Passing through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria, his original destination was Sweden because he wanted to settle “as far away from Syria as I could possibly get”.

Khayer says the evening at his new share house with Beeken has taken on legendary proportions.

He had sung a traditional Arab mawwal, and admits to being overwhelmed.

“It was with this guy who just sat behind the computer and started playing with the keyboard," he says.

"I didn't understand anything in the beginning: ‘What's happening on the computer on the screen? What is he doing?’

"I’d never recorded, I’d never stood in front of a mic and never heard my voice like when using headphones,” says Khayer.

Within a week, they played their first song at Rote Flora, a former theatre turned unofficial space for artistic performers. Khayer hid behind some plants to shield his nerves.

“The only stage I ever had before was in my bathroom,” he jokes.

Then came a request from a music company to remove some songs that they had uploaded to SoundCloud so that they could be released under its label. “We didn’t even have a name for the band,” recounts Khayer incredulously.

“So then they started asking what Shkoon meant, and that became a bit funny as well,” says Khayer of the title that seems to provide endless amusement.

The band fuses electronic downbeat, progressive-house hip-hop with oriental melodies and the deep vocal tones of Khayer’s singing.

Theirs is a burgeoning fan-base across the major social media platforms and Shkoon’s songs have had millions of plays on YouTube and Spotify.

If Khayer’s decision to live in Germany was unforeseen, that was nothing compared with the previously unimagined musical career that resulted.

Beeken is a long-time pianist, who has played since childhood.

Khayer, although given a Casio keyboard by his mother for coming top of his sixth-grade class, never trained as a musician and only sang at the usual social occasions among friends and family.

“I feel music more than I understand what it is,” he says.

“I listen to what's happening in the track and sometimes I have those flashbacks in my mind about a memory that I had one night with a friend, with a girlfriend or with a family member or a story that happened to me, and it reminds me of the song I was listening to at the time.”

Mawwal is an Arabic genre of vocal music often with a slow beat and sentimental nature.

Performers invariably sing longingly for love, family or home. It is perhaps the emotiveness of the lament that enables listeners to engage so immediately with Shkoon’s offerings in spite of the language barrier.

“I feel like they've all been through what we've been through,” says Khayer, “and we were lucky enough to have the fan base there. They really listened to the music.”

Khayer’s friends and family back home were as bemused as he was by his musical path. There was much teasing, but also pride in how he is sharing their culture.

“They were making fun of me in the beginning,” he says, “They weren’t used to it, you know, the marine engineer guy who's that?

"It's so far from what I was doing in Syria. And then when they saw that I'm taking it serious, they were supporting me.”

Shkoon’s success gave Khayer the chance to see his family again after a four-year separation.

The band’s international tour in late 2019 after the release of their last album, Rima, took them to Beirut for two sold-out concerts. His parents visited from across the border.

Three days were not enough for me, but three days is also enough sometimes

“It was nice and it was weird,” he says. “Three days were not enough for me, but three days is also enough sometimes. We have to [adapt] to this situation. And I was lucky that I met my father before he died.”

His father died three months ago, a sad reminder of the sacrifices that refugees make in exchange for their relatively safe exile.

Khayer tries to always look at the positives in life but even he admits having many frustrations over the bureaucracy arising from his legal status.

Simple things such as opening an online bank account remain out of reach until he becomes a permanent resident, something he hopes will happen soon.

Travelling is another issue and there have been opportunities, such as performing in the US, when Khayer was unable to join the band.

But with pandemic travel restrictions in place, touring isn’t something Khayer has to worry about for some time.

With concerts a distant memory, the lack of performing opportunities has forced the band members to seek other employment.

While Beeken and Khayer look forward to future musical collaborations with other artists, they are now working in vaccine centres in Berlin.

Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem surprising that Khayer has followed the Elbe downstream to a German river city with 190 bridges. Sounds right up his stream.

Updated: February 11, 2021 04:46 PM

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