This Composer Wants You to Know Who Syrian Refugees Really Are

“Beautiful Syria,” says Suad Bushnaq, is “filled with culture and history and amazing food and people who laugh.”

Courtesy of Suad Bushnaq

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


When Suad Bushnaq thinks of Syria, she thinks of the wonderful years she spent studying at one of the Middle East’s top conservatories, attending performances at the Damascus Opera House, and catching jazz gigs in back-alley cafes.

She thinks of musakhan, shwarma, fresh-squeezed juices; and of her dearest friends and the jokes they told each other.

She thinks of her late mother, born and raised in Syria, and of her mother’s family still living there.

“When I was in fifth grade, my mom told me, ‘If you stop taking piano lessons I will break the piano!'”

But these days, watching events unfold from the safety of the United States, she is barraged by daily images of violence, airstrikes, and fleeing refugees. And the public apprehension, ever since the Paris terrorist attacks, that has allowed craven politicians (including the governor of her home state) to paint those refugees as a threat. “No one [in the West] has the image of the Syria that I know,” Bushnaq told me. “The beautiful Syria filled with culture and history and amazing food and people who laugh.”

Syria has changed dramatically in the decade since Bushnaq, one of only a handful of Arab women composers on the planet (Layal Watfeh and Farah Siraj being among the other notables), last set foot there. The ongoing civil war has disrupted and even claimed the lives of many of her friends and relatives. Now she’s fighting the loss of Syrian culture in the only way she knows how: by creating orchestral pieces and scores that combine the Western and Middle Eastern musical traditions.

She has released two albums and collaborated with award-winning Arab filmmakers, as well as the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, which performed a movement of her orchestral suite Hakawaty (or Suite for Damascus) to a sold-out international audience in Bremen, Germany, this past September.

The 33-year-old composer was born and raised in Amman, Jordan, by a Syrian mother and a Palestinian-Bosnian father with a large LP collection. (“My house was full of music,” she says.) She started piano at age four but hated her lessons, preferring to make up her own songs. “When I was in fifth grade, my mom told me, ‘If you stop taking piano lessons I will break the piano! I am not the type of mom who would allow us to have a piano as a piece of furniture.'”

By 16, she decided that composition was more than just a whim. She dreamed of attending McGill University’s Schulich School of Music in Montreal, but her parents said no. It was too far away and too expensive. So Bushnaq moved to Damascus.

There she attended the Higher Institute of Music, where she learned from and performed with some of the region’s premier musicians—many of them women who’ve gone on to international success. But Bushnaq was the only one studying composition. She would also be the only Arab woman ever admitted to McGill’s prestigious composition program, where she landed a full scholarship in 2005. At McGill, she further honed her compositional style—a distillation of the influences of “a classically trained pianist who grew up in the Arab world, who has a bit of Balkan blood, and who likes to listen to jazz.”

Bushnaq, who now lives with her husband in North Carolina, has worked on the scores of several films. One of them is a documentary about a 12-year-old Syrian refugee, by the female Lebanese director Niam Itani. There’s also a psycho-thriller called The Curve, which will premiere at the Dubai International Film Festival in December, by Jordanian-Palestinian director Rifqi Assaf. (The strings on the soundtrack were recorded by Syrian musicians in Damascus.)

Lately, Bushnaq has been looking around for an orchestra to perform her Suite for Damascus in full, following on the success of the Syrian Expat concert. She remains in constant contact with friends and family back in Syria, where, despite all the chaos, the Higher Institute of Music continues to operate, and its musicians continue to perform.

“It’s sad what’s happening now,” Bushnaq told me. “But it makes me happy to know that the music scene is still going. It shows me that despite the war, people are still trying their best to live.”

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

THE TRUTH IS...

what drives Mother Jones' team of 50-plus journalists. The truth is powerful, as evidenced by how hard those with something to hide, or profit to gain, seek to discredit it. The truth, stated boldly and reported meticulously, is what draws so many readers to Mother Jones.

And the truth is, going into the final 4 days of the year we still needed to raise $TK to hit our $350,000 goal and start 2021 on track. It's nerve-wracking, wondering if the big spike we normally see at the end of December is going to be another thing that doesn't go as planned in 2020, or worse, if, now that Donald Trump is set to leave the White House (for longer than a taxpayer-funded golf trip to a property he owns), folks might be pulling back from fighting for the truth and a democracy and think the hard work is done.

It's not, and if you can right now, please consider a year-end donation to support our team's fearless nonprofit journalism so we can close that big fundraising gap and finish the year strong, ready for all that's ahead in 2021. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it all matters in keeping us charging hard, and we'd be grateful.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate