Listening Behind The Veil

Link to PDF of complete document

Text only below

MA Dissertation in Music (MA Music in Development)

Supervisor: Dr. Angela Impey

This dissertation is submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of MA Music in Development of the School of Oriental and African Studies (University of London) 11 September 2015


The role of song for Syrian women living as refugees in Northern Jordan




In 2011, when the Syrians poured into the streets in nationwide protest against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, they did so in song. Public places became filled with the voices of men, women and children who gained courage and determination through an increasing repertoire of songs shared through social media and learned in the homes and on the streets. Later as the violence intensified in the street, the women stayed in their homes. When their homes were destroyed, they took their children and walked to the safety of neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Now, five years into exile, over four million Syrians are seeking refuge outside of Syria. 80% of these are women and children. This paper looks at those living in the border towns of Northern Jordan, and at the role the revolutionary songs continue to play in their lives. Through analysis of the songs on the phones of fifty Syrian women and interviews with them and their children on the role these have in their day to day life, I ask how the songs are contributing to their sense of self and their connection with the family and the country they left behind.



Since the summer of 2015, Europe has been awakened to the plight of the Syrians fleeing the war in their country. Thousands of men, women and children have made the perilous journey every day across the Mediterranean Sea. Images of boats, trains, roads and bridges brimming over with families pushing forwards on their great trek west fill our television screens and many people have been wondering what they can do to help. Two years ago in the summer of 2013, when the war was already in its second year, similar images of Syrian people on the move, then heading south, motivated me to make my contribution and embark upon the research I present below.

Figure 1. Syrians cross the desert into Jordan, September 2013


In September 2013, 6,000 Syrians were arriving every day to one refugee camp in Jordan; Al Zaatari (Hummer, 2013). A Jordanian friend of mine lived a few miles from the camp in the border town of Irbid. She alerted me to the plight of the Syrian women and young girls arriving in her country, the sexual violence and domestic abuse they were suffering while vulnerable and unprotected, the early marriages of the young Syrian girls whose bride price relieved the financial strain of refugee life. We decided to team up to bring this situation into the public eye. While my friend accessed reports and data coming out of the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and their partners, I began by looking at the music.                 

Musicians have narrated the personal truths behind war and migration, victimisation and separation since these human experiences were first given names. Through songs it is possible to get beyond the facts and the figures to the feelings behind them. I was inspired by a short film I found online of a group of men in Zaatari giving voice to their suffering through song[1]. The group were called SMRTE, (Syrians Must Release Their Energy). Although I applauded the initiative I was struck by the absence of women involved in the project. Could the women, so often invisible and silenced behind the veil, also benefit from ‘releasing their energy’ through song? What I discovered over the next two years developed into a body of research that goes some way towards answering the question as to how the voice of the Syrian women refugees is being expressed through song.                                                                              

Over twelve months between September 2013 and September 2014 I spent time with women who, for a few brief months in 2011, had found their public voice, protesting with thousands of others against the oppressive regime in Syria, often in song. Soon, however their voices were muted once again behind the veil. The idea of singing, playing instruments, even coming together in groups outside the home was not a right most of the women I met saw as theirs. At first it seemed that even the right to music itself was denied them. Over time however, as a relationship of trust developed, I discovered how music snuck into their homes through small portable devices carried under the burka of most of the women I met. Their existence as refugees - often now isolated in private rented accommodation - had isolated them again, after a period of free expression, and the songs acted as some kind of a portal to the people, emotions and memories of those times when they had discovered their voice.                                                                                                                                                

By discussing the music on their mobile phones, I learned about their lives, their memories and their feelings. I learned how, through private listening, the songs continue to play an important role in their lives, relieving the isolation while enabling them to silently participate in continued resistance and protest. These women, excluded from the public participatory musical experience enjoyed by Syrian men, can, through private listening, enter a virtual liminal space where they can continue to form and maintains their sense of self.



2.1 Historical Context

2.1 i) The Syrian uprising and its impact on women from Dera’a and Homs.

The first Syrian anti-government demonstrations took place in March 2011 in the city of Dera’a, in the south of Syria close to the Jordanian border. Eleven children were killed by the Syrian military and the residents, including the women, took to the streets singing songs in protest.


Syrians are angry.

We are trying to bring dignity and to live happily.

For years ruled by a tyrant,

Killing, intimidation, imprisonment and inhumane torture,

We took to the streets peacefully and you met us with bullets![2]


(Translated from a song sung by refugee children, recorded in the streets of Jordan, Sept 2013,

Guide translation from the Arabic by Al Akash)


The public resistance was courageous, unprecedented in the forty-year rule of the Assad regime. The response of the military to quell the uprising was brutal: boys and men were rounded up, imprisoned, some tortured, or executed. Many more were killed later as the conflict became entrenched.

Protests soon spread across the country. When the city of Homs, further north, was ‘liberated’ by the Free Syrian Army it gained the title of the Capital of the Revolution (BBC, 2014). However the military response left the centre of the city destroyed and under siege, its people under the bombs without food and water.

As the violence increased, people fled. Most of those who fled Dera’a settled on the other side of the Southern Border in Northern Jordan. Those in the centre of Syria initially fled into Lebanon. As border controls became stricter, they too travelled across the Syrian Desert to seek refuge in Jordan[3].

Figure 2. Map of Syria showing neighbouring borders.


Many refugees in Northern Jordan are from Dara’a and Homs,

two of the towns known for their early resistance to the Assad regime.



2.1 ii) The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Northern Jordan

By early 2012 the population of the Jordanian border town of Irbid was swelling with refugees from across the border and in July the United Nations opened three refugee camps in the area. The largest, Zaatari grew at an unprecedented rate, housing over 200,000 refugees by April 2013 (UNHCR, 2015). With Syrians also fleeing into Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey it soon became “one of the largest refugee crises in recent history (ibid). By July 2015, 4 million Syrians were seeking refuge outside their country, 630,000 of these are in Jordan, of these, over half are from Dara’a and more than a quarter from Homs (ibid). Despite government efforts to keep refugees in the camps, the population of Zaatari has reduced by more than half since April 2013, while the numbers of Syrian refugees living in the Jordanian towns of Irbid, Mafraq and Ramtha continues to grow (Care, 2015)[4]. It is thought over 90% of the refugees in Jordan are now living outside the camps (ibid).


Figure 3. Map of border area between Syria and Jordan.


Dera’a and Ramtha are 6 miles apart, (Dera’a and Irbid 15 miles)



2.2 Cultural Context

2.2 i) The role of women in traditional communities of Dera’a and Homs

The social structures of the poorer refugees in Jordan, including most of those settling in Ramtha and Irbid are guided by fiercely traditional religious and social values where the women’s lives are structured around particular conceptualisations of gendered behaviour and clear delineations of private and public spaces. In Syria large extended families provided women from these communities with their sense of identity and belonging and social interaction took place largely within the private sphere. The nature of migration and exile has scattered these families leaving the women isolated and vulnerable. The modesty requirements of the traditional Islamic teachings is not conducive to finding solutions to this as it does not encourage creating friendships amongst strangers, engaging with others in the public domain or forming new social groupings. The limited number of safely segregated meeting places for women to access and engage with one another exacerbates this problem. Women’s physical mobility is also reduced as with fewer available men to accompany them outside the home they are forced to remain at home, sometimes for months at a time. The financial pressures on refugee families have also increased social tension outside and inside the home, and the incidence of domestic abuse, and early marriages is increasing at an alarming rate. Women head one third of the refugee households in Northern Jordan making them also increasingly prone to isolation and depression (Care, 2015). For all these reasons, many Syrian women in Northern Jordan are living in some form of self-imprisonment, in which they are lonely and vulnerable[5].

Figure 4. Young Syrian woman.


This young girl was 16 years old. She was married aged 13 and went to Saudi Arabia with her new husband. She returned a year later, divorced.  She doesn’t go to school and last left the house 6 months before this photograph was taken.[6]



2.2 ii) The role of music and song for women in the study  


In the Arabic language, the names given to different kinds of expressions of ‘music’ are assigned according to purpose rather than style. The word ‘musiqa’ was introduced to the Arab peninsula by the Greeks, who came with their elaborate courtly culture and a new concept of paying musicians for their musical performance (Stokes, 2015). With the growth of fundamentalist Islam in some parts of the Arab world, including Syria, this identification of ‘musiqa’, as being for secular entertainment is particularly relevant, as is the state ‘musiqa’ can get a listener into. Some Islamic scholars argue the state of ‘tarab’ or enchantment it too associated with feminine elements of the psyche and leads to oblivion and immersion, stopping the listener from remaining focussed (ibib). For a pious Muslim, the ultimate purpose of each action is to be closer to God, and the although the Koran does not actually prohibit music, the existence of hadiths or oral testimonies which bring the question of the purpose of music into question, have provoked centuries of debate, disagreements and uncertainty over the appropriate behaviour of a pious Muslim.

In one focus group discussion during the research, a serious debate broke out as to whether God would pour boiling metal into the ears of anyone who listens to ‘musiqa’ or whether this was just a symbolic teaching. While it was concluded that the important thing was the way the listener was affected by what they listened to, the general consensus was to err on the side of caution and listen to songs that were close to prayer. With their ultimately godly purpose, the songs and chants from the revolution were not in question.

The right of the woman to sing in public is also hotly contested amongst Islamic scholars. In Iran is has been prohibited for many years, and is now being restricted in many more areas where the Salafi, or ‘early Muslim’ movement is taking hold. Said to ‘deviate the man from his normal condition’, the female singing voice is thought to enter a certain frequency that is no longer within the range of ‘essential communication’, becoming one more of sexual communication (Najafi, 2014). Most of the Syrian women I met had little expectation of hearing a woman singing to express the feminine perspective of their current situation and all of the songs on their playlist were sung by men.


2.2 iii) Syria before March 2011 and the role of song

Prior to 2011, songs, musical chants and rhyming slogans were utilised in the construction and consolidation of what is often referred to as the ‘cult of Assad’ (Gorman, 2014, ed. Halasa et al p. 227). The Syrian population lived under the dictatorship of the Assad family for two generations, and although there was a history of dissent, led by writers and intellectuals, often writing from their prison cells, culture played a very limited role in shaping a sense of identity for Syrians in general (Yassin, al-Haj Saleh, ed. Halasa et Al, 2014, p.175). In an analysis of the study of the Assad cult conducted in Syria in 1996, the historian Lisa Wedeen describes how the regime produced ‘compliance through forced participation in rituals of obeisance’, (Wedeen, 1999, p.6) and how lies saturated daily life (ibid p.162). The Syrian writer Ossama Mohammed powerfully describes the soundtrack to daily life in the 70’s in his short story ‘The Thieves’ Market’ (Mohammed, ed. Halasa et Al, 2014, p.18). Sounds of adults and children chanting slogans in support of the regime fill the streetcs at weekends, and during the day, school loudspeakers blare out slogans during each classroom break: “Yasqut, Yasqut, Yasqut” ‘Down, down, down with the enemy”. Other than state sponsored occasions and private weddings and funerals, it was rare to gather publically in the street. (Gorman, 2014, ed. Halasa et al p. 226). This all changed when a revolutionary wave of public protests broke out across the Arab world in what became known as the Arab Spring. For Syrians the culture of chanting in public previously associated with state control was now turned on its head and men, women and children gathered in large numbers in public places and chanted not in praise of the regime, but for an end to it.


Bashar you’re an ass

And all those who support you

So come on Bashar, Get out!

Come on Bashar, leave, (call)

Come on Bashar, leave, (response)

Come on Bashar, leave, (call)

Come on Bashar, leave, (response)

We will remove Bashar with our strength

Syria wants “freedom” (crowd)

Syria wants “freedom” (crowd)[7]


Extract from Yalla irhal ya Bashar! By Ibrahim Qashoush

Translated from the Arabic by Ghias Aljundi and Revolutionary Dabke

(Halasa and Omareen, 2014, p. 212


Figure 5. Syrian Protests in Homs against President Bashar Al Assad.

The song ‘Yalla irhal ya Bashar’ became an anthem of the Syrian revolution

when chanter Ibrahim Qashoush was killed by the Syrian military, and his

body returned with his tongue removed[8].


The fieldwork was carried out in Jordan over a twelve-month period between September 2013 and September 2014. Over the year approximately 120 hours of discussion were documented with 89 participants, and songs gathered from the mobile phone playlists of 45 women[9]. The women who participated were aged between 14 and 66, and came from a variety of social backgrounds. Their levels of education ranged from those whose university and secondary education had been brought to a halt by the conflict to women who had married at a very young age, prior to completing primary education. All the women were self-identified as practising Muslims.

The selection process of the participants was designed to include women whose lives reflected the majority of refugees still outside the support network of the international donor community, while at the same time including women from as wide a variety of social and educational backgrounds as possible. Introductions were made with the subjects through a combination of personal introductions and informal encounters rather than through any large international organisations.


3.1 The relationship with the participants in the study

My methodological approach sought to take into account the increased physical and social isolation that characterises the lives of many of the Syrian women living in Northern Jordan and shapes their levels of trust and intimacy with all outsiders, including researchers such as myself.


3.1 i) The importance of a research partner


A local Jordanian social anthropologist, Dr Ruba Al Akash, supported me in Jordan, and without her, this research would not have been possible[10]. Each of us was able to draw on our different ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives in both our engagement with the participants and our on-going observations and analysis. Although both were outsiders when it came to identifying with the specific recent experiences of the Syrian refugees, Dr Akash brought an insider understanding of shared cultural codes and values that impact every aspect of their public and private life. This enabled her to translate both the spoken and unspoken language during the interviews and conversations. My difference as an ‘outsider’ on the other hand came with a naïve curiosity which provoked open discussions and explanations of core values and beliefs that were perhaps more forthcoming as a result of my relatively little prior experience of the cultural and socio-religious codes of those around me. The insider knowledge and experience of the region and in particular the town of Irbid facilitated independent initial introductions with the participants through local colleagues and acquaintances. Whilst no introduction made between researcher and their subject comes without certain expectations and assumptions[11], through these independent introductions, it was possible to approach women living outside of international donor support, and so reflect the majority of women refugees living in the region. As trust developed with the women, the relationships that progressed became intimate while remaining independent and free of expectations.


Figure 6. Karen Boswall (left) and research partner Dr Ruba Al Akash (right)

with participants Nasreen and Bara’a (left) and her children (right).


Although many women chose not to be photographed during the research, some,

Including Nasreen and Bara’a agreed to be filmed and photographed[12].

3.1 ii) Developing a relationship of trust through speech and silence and music


Speech-based participation, through focus groups, interviews, conversations and consultations with users is now widely recognised as an indispensible modus operandi of participatory practise; or as Cecile Jackson describes it; ‘the sine qua non of progressive change’ (Jackson, 2012). Although speech based communication was an important part of the research methodology, gesture, tone and even silence within the interviews were also listened to, and we honed our ability as ethnographers to 'listen and hear’, the voices of the women we met, even when they were silent (Jackson, 2012). The process of listening to the songs on the women’s mobile phones was an effective way for the women to speak and us to listen. It also stimulated emotional conversations, triggered memories, provoked stories and much laughter as well as tears. When this was carried out in small groups of either neighbours or families, it was clear the process was as engaging and stimulating for the participants as it was for us.

The interviews took the form of conversations in order to maintain a safe and informal environment. It was also important to ensure the sessions were not rushed, allowing enough time to create an atmosphere of trust whilst not taking up too much of the participants time or abusing the hospitality of the host. Schedules were kept flexible in order to allow the participants to determine the duration of the visits. Individual family interviews tended to last around two hours, with the focus groups lasting around four. Women brought their children and time was spent drinking tea and getting to know one another before formally introducing the research questions. Sometimes, icebreakers were used such as arriving with cakes, as is the custom in family gatherings, singing and playing with the children, or taking photographs together and sharing them. It was important to sense after each encounter that the participants also gained something from the experience.

A clearly defined set of objectives was defined for each interview, focus group or discussion[13]. Sessions began with structured questioning to ascertain basic facts and moved to unstructured questioning, using a responsive and intuitive approach in order to discuss emotions, decisions and coping mechanisms. The very private process of sharing mobile phone playlists and discussing song choice and listening habits flowed from this in interviews and discussions conducted in the latter phase of the research. This was only possible when a trusting relationship had developed with the participants.

All interviews were conducted in Arabic and on some occasions, when the women were comfortable with the idea, audio recordings and/or video recordings of the interviews were made[14].


Figure 7. Family discussion in the home of Hannan (left)



Hannan lives in Ramtha in a two-room apartment with her husband

Abu Nour, their seven children and his elder daughter Nasreen.

Five visits were made to this family over the year. On one visit

Hannan’s sister Bara’a and her six children were also living with

them. Recordings were made of songs performed by the children

On the last visit Hannan and her 16-year-old step-daughter

Nasreen shared their mobile phone playlists.


3. 2 The Four Phases of the Research

The study was broken into four intense periods of research in September 2013, and January, March and September 2014 (See table 1). Relationships were developed and maintained over the twelve-month period. As the understanding of the values and day-to-day realities of the women deepened over the first seven months, the methodology shifted from more general questioning around songs and the role of music to a specific focus on playlists on mobile phones and associated listening habits.







Family Groups, Focus Groups and One-On-One Interviews


Irbid & Ramtha September 2013 - September 2014

















































Table 1. Breakdown of research phases Sept 2013 – Sept 2014[15]



3.3 Additional Research Sources


In the first and third phase, information and data was also collected through interviews with representatives of both the Jordanian government and the humanitarian aid agencies UNHCR, Save the Children and the Kuwait Red Cross. In the fourth phase 45 women discussed their mobile phone playlists and listening habits in a combination of four family groups, four focus groups of between four and eight women per group and eight one to one interviews. Secondary research using published and online sources supported findings from this primary research[16].






4.1 i) The changing relationship with the songs between September 2013 and September 2014



Figure 8. Children singing in corridor of office block in downtown Irbid (Sept 2013)


“Heaven, heaven, heaven, My country is heaven. Revolt, revolt Dera’a

You are a candle to our darkness Our hope is from God. God won’t let us down.”


“Jana Jana” lyrics adapted by Abdul Bassat Sarut. Guide translation Akash[17]


The situation in Syria changed at an alarming rate over the twelve-month research period and this was reflected in the changing relationships the women had with the songs. In September 2013 there was still some sense of hope that those who remained in Syria would succeed in ousting the President and that the refugees would soon be able to return to their country and build a new life. In the corridors, stairwells and streets of Irbid and Ramth, children sang the songs from the protests they had taken part in, often encouraged by the women[18].

Televisions were tuned to Syrian channels and the sound of songs from the revolution was a permanent part of the domestic soundscape during the first phase of research.


Figure 9. TV’s permanent soundscape of revolutionary song (Sept 2013)


“Freemen’s army keep going, retain your faith and insistence.

You will have your land back by blood.

Stand up. Don’t give up. Rise up for us, our troops

Protect us from the enemies betrayal.”[19]


“Ya jaish elahrar taqadam” was a popular sung heard regularly on the Television

in Sept 2013


By September 2014, when there was little hope of return, the songs of victory and revolution had been all but silenced: “I can’t listen to those songs of victory and hope any more” one refugee, Manar explained, “I feel too angry and let down. I deleted them from my playlist”. Over the months since I had begin the research, the country had descended into civil war. The binary struggle between political oppression and democratic freedom that was reflected in the songs popular in 2013, was being replaced by a multi faction conflict dominated by religion[20].

The risk of regional instability was responded to with stricter border controls and men who had remained in Syria found it increasingly difficult to enter Jordan. The pain of separation, the grief, the sadness and longing for the country and lives they had lost were reflected both in the songs being listened to and in the more private listening habits of the women.


4.1 ii) Mobile phones – luxury or necessity?


When I first entered the women’s homes, I was struck both by the humble and cramped nature of their living arrangements and of the dominance of the television and mobile phone. The furniture in many of the women’s homes was limited to cushions around the edge of the room, some blankets and a television. In addition to this, each household had at least one mobile phone, often a smart phone. These were seen as a necessity, not a luxury.


Figure 10. A woman searches for music to play from her mobile phone


Songs and videos were shared largely using Bluetooth. This was not easy as there were very few opportunities for the women to leave their homes. Some relied on their sons or husbands for the collection of the songs. Others received their files via WhatsApp or Viber[21]. Phone credit for minutes and data was an essential element in the household economy. Some of the women allowed themselves short periods of time on Facebook every day and used this to receive material and information from Syria and from other refugees now scattered across the world.

Manar and her four younger sisters had arrived from Homs nine months before we met. They lived in a small two-room basement apartment with their parents. The two eldest girls had been at University when the conflict begun, the younger girls were completing secondary school. One ‘phone in the household was topped up with data once a week. “We need this” Manar told me. “We prefer not to eat meat so we can have our airtime and data”.



Figure 11. Manar’s Facebook cover photo


Manar chose not to be photographed. She suggested using this image

in it’s stead.



In a focus group discussion with a group of women in Irbid, the women explained where the songs on their ‘phones had come from. Many were from their husbands or sons, some from other family members, some had shared songs with others when they had arrived in Zaatari. Halad, a young computer technician from Homs described how she brought a SIM card full of songs hidden in her bra when she fled. These were a precious archive she shared with other refugees. A quiet woman Ramin, who had fled Dera’a with her four small children and couldn’t afford ‘phone credit, described how she filmed videos of songs from the television so she could watch them later in private. The main reason Om Hassam has a phone, she told us, was to talk to her husband in Syria. He was shot a few months before and is unable to leave his bed. He lies in a bed on the ground floor. There is only a ‘phones signal on the roof, five floors up. A neighbour runs between his bed and the roof, passing messages and news. She then shows us songs her husband sent her. “This is how he talks to me” she explains.

Although the women found it difficult to put into words, many explained how they would feel better after listening to the songs. “They make us sad, but then afterwards it’s as if the sadness is lifted for a while”, Neham explained. “They remind us of all we have been through, and all that has been done to us and our people. It makes us determined never to give up”. Om Adhan added (From conversation with Irbid focus group, recorded in September 2014)

4.1 iii) Multi-Sensory, Participatory Listening

The ‘listening’ described by the women was a multi-sensory experience. With the technological advances of the smart phone and related mobile phone technology, the private and isolated worlds of the women in the study are connected not only through listening to songs, but also through watching videos, looking at photographs, art, text, and through sharing these with others. The mobile phone has become a portal through which people can communicate with a virtual ‘community’ both actively, through sharing data, or passively through shared listening and viewing experiences.

For many of the women, ‘listening’ to songs often also involved watching them. While describing the motivation behind a ‘listening’ experience, they would make reference to the visual images in the accompanying video. One song, Aini Hazeenah (My Sad Eyes) by a refugee from Dera’a; Ahmad Al Kassim[22], has an accompanying video that forms a particularly important element of the ‘listening’ experience. The video includes footage of funerals and demonstrations that some of the women remembered attending. The combined listening and viewing experience triggered memories and associations that provoke a painful and deeply emotional response whilst reaffirming the women’s identity and sense of self.


Figure 12. Images from the video of Aini Hazeenah by Ahmad Al Kassim (Dera’a 2011)


“There is no sleep for my sad eyes, The pain in my heart keeps me awake

The people of my country so oppressed, Syria, you are our very existence”


Extract from “Aini Hazeenah” by Ahmad Al Kassim. Guide translation Akash


While watching the video, Wallah shared how her uncle was killed at one of the demonstrations. Rallaf described how the first time she saw the video she was shocked to see the dead body of her neighbours daughter; that’s how she knew the little girl was dead. Om Kiteiba points to a shot of a street with a little girl walking down it; “That’s where I used to live. It’s all rubble now”. A flurry of shared memories ensued as women exchanged news of more recent destruction. Wallah’s brother Haitham was in Dera’a and had recently tried to find their house. “He couldn’t even find the street, it was all so unrecognisable”. Om Hassam, our host said quietly; “I listen to this song every day” It was the first time she had spoken.


4.1 iv) Sound, images and memory



Figure 13. Om Haitham’s Mobile phone



Another characteristic of the smart phone that contributes to the reaffirmation of sense of self is its capacity to record and replay sound. Professional productions of songs and videos produced in Daascus and abroad are saved alongside domestic audio recordings and home videos, each forming part of the women’s affective relationship with the portable device.                                                                                           

One afternoon at Hannan’s home in Ramtha, her husband Abu Nour received a poem via WhatsApp. The family listened to it repeatedly over the course of the afternoon, laughing hysterically each time. It was an amateur recording of a slightly distorted voice, the distant sound of a television and a child creeping in between the stanzas. The poem was written in the form of a letter from a refugee in Irbid to his family. Playing on the criticisms of the Syrian ‘good life’ that were come from the Jordanian population at the time, the poem describes with witty irony the ease of life with food stamps and the pleasures of shopping in the famous ‘refugee supermarkets’, both of which the family had been complaining about only the day before. The humour and sarcasm clearly touched a personal nerve. The family shared the poem with members of their extended family, laughing as they did so[23].                                                                       

In one extraordinary example of the relationship between sound, memory and mobile phones, Ralaaf played us the shrieking sound of a rocket falling and exploding near her house. She recorded it while sheltering under a table with her children, making a game of recording the sounds to distract them. Still now they ask to hear the recording to be reminded of what they had left behind.                                                         

4.2 Listening and Prayer

On each mobile phone, in addition to the songs of protest and resistance, there were one or two religious songs, some recordings of daily prayers and two or three favourite Koranic recitations. In the morning, religious songs and recitations would play from the phones’ small speakers as the women did their housework, giving them blessings for the day ahead. In the evening, when the children were asleep and they were alone, the women would listen to the songs from Syria. This was a ritual listening practise built into the daily routine. Both the religious songs and the songs of protest and resistance contributed in bringing the women closer to God.

One song that formed part of the daily evening listening ritual was Ya Hef (Oh Shame) by Samih Shuqeir. The women described how, by listening to this sad lament, they ensured they shared the suffering of those still being killed, tortured or imprisoned. They felt the grief of those in mourning and the sadness of those separated from their mothers.


Oh Alas, how shameful!

A hail of heavy bullets falling on the unarmed people’s heads

And children, the age of young flowers being arrested, How can that be?

Alas, this is happeing in Dera’a dear mother.


Extract of Ya Hef, by Samih Shuqeir[24]

Guide Translation Al Akash


This song is an acoustic recording, with Shuqeir’s plaintive voice accompanied only by the Oud and darbuka. Sung using Maqam Saba, sometimes referred to as the saddest of all maqams, the song is written in the form of a letter from a son to his mother, describing what he saw and how he felt as witness to the military’s response to the public uprising of the young people in Dera’a. It opens low and quiet and builds over the first minute to a cry of desperation when Shuqeir cries out “they shot us mother, with live bullets”.


The youngsters heard that freedom was at their door, mother,

And they went out to greet it.

They saw the guns, but, Oh mother, they thought

These are our brothers

They will not shoot us,

But they shot us mother, with live bullets.

We were killed by our brothers hand.


Extract of Ya Hef, by Samih Shuqeir

Guide Translation Al Akash


The women told of how they saved their pain and their tears for times when they could be with the songs in privacy, sometimes crying for two hours a night. They would play the same song over and over while connecting to the suffering of their struggling brethren. For these women, for whom all of their daily acts, both religious and worldly are based on a the ultimate objective of being close to God, this song Ya Hef, connected them to God and to Syria.


4.2 i) Tears and prayer


The act of weeping during prayer, is said to be ‘the ultimate sign of performing șalāt (ritual prayer) with kushū (consummate excellence) (Mahmood, p.130). According to Islamic teaching, unlike tears provoked by the pain of personal suffering, the tears of prayer ‘issue forth out of a sense of being overwhelmed by God’s greatness’ and are ‘enacted with the intention of pleasing Him’ (ibid). The tears shed during the ritual listening of songs such as Ya Hef, have more in common with the latter than the former. When women told me; “I listen to the songs and cry”, they were communicating an act of reverence. Wanting to please God was at the root of the tears shed during the songs and the prayers.


4.2 ii) Tears and ritual


During the first six months of the research, the women were in tears a lot of the time, as were we. This had changed come September 2014. Many of the women said they couldn’t go on crying every day and had to find ways to control their emotions. The structured and more ritualistic evening listening to the songs was a way the women could channel and divest these powerful emotions in the evening while being able to function without tears during the rest of the day. The allocated hour or two in the evening, when they were free to cry, was painful, and they would feel very sad during this time, but at the end of the fixed period, the release of the emotions gave them some relief, and they felt better.


Figure 14. Tears and prayer


In the traditional anthropological analysis of the role of rituals in society, as developed by Emile Durkheim in his article The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, ritual action is seen a means of and space for channelling and divesting the antisocial qualities of powerful emotions (Durkheim, 1915). In the same way, the evening listening is a way for the Syrian women to channel and divest their powerful emotions of grief and loss that were also starting to become ‘anti-social’. With the reverence of prayer the ritual expression of their emotional excess was divested while listening to the songs enabling the women to return afterwards to ‘the normative order’ (ibid).


4.2 iii) Listening and Piety

When I first began sharing the lives of the Syrian women in Jordan, I had misgivings around the patriarchal and misogynist qualities of the traditional Islamic practises I saw as imposed on these women. After spending time with them, however, although I continue to feel uncomfortable about many aspects of the cultural codes they abide by, which I see as part of a global oppression of women, based on centuries of an institutional tolerance of male hegemony, I came to respect the faith upon which these practises are based. Drawing on the post-colonial feminist Gayatri Spivak’s writings (Spivak, 1987) I continue to ask myself whether my secular-liberal judgements are not also a product of my own ‘Western framing’ and rationalised on the colonial basis of the “inferiority” of non-Western cultures (Mahmood, p.189). I saw the women isolated and sad, and thought they needed ‘saving’ (Abu Lughod), whereas perhaps their choice to remain in contact with the sadness of the suffering of others is an aspect of their religious practise through which they ultimately find personal fulfilment.

In researching her book ‘Politics of Piety’, feminist Muslim Saba Mahmood, spent a year with women who were active in the growing Islamic ‘piety movement’ in Egypt (Mahmood, 2005). In the book she tries to understand how some Islamic women choose to embrace the patriarchal oppression of Islamic teaching through practises she admits to having found ‘objectionable’ at the outset of her fieldwork (ibid, p.158). Over the course of her profound experience, she finds that the ‘sentiments, commitments and sensibilities’ that ground the existence of the women she was studying, could not be understood using the arbiters of freedom, equality and autonomy that she herself held so dear. (ibid, p.198) She argues it is important not to assess this practise in terms of ‘progressive and backward’ or ‘superior and inferior’, but to recognise and respect alternative searches for meaning and purpose in daily life as what she refers to as ‘human flourishing’.

Through her analysis of the different conceptions of interiority and exteriority of the women in the piety movement, Mahmood describes how ‘ritual prayer is conjoined and interdependent with the pragmatic actions of daily life’ (Mahmood, p.126). Contrary to the theory of the separation of sacred and profane described by Durkheim, Mahmood draws on an Aristotelian model of ethical pedagogy in which ‘performative acts (like prayer) are understood to create inward dispositions’ (Mahmood, 2005). She distinguishes between Aristotle’s earlier notion of habitus, and the better known understanding of it developed by the social scientist Pierre Bourdieu (1977). In Bourdieu’s theoretical concept, there is no conscious effort involved, the process of “practical mimesis” through which habitus is acquired is learned by the body’, becoming ‘not something that one has, … but something that one is’ (Bourdieu 1990,73). Whereas the ‘moral cultivation’ of the habitus described by Mahmood (Mahmood, p136) is conscious. It is the choice of making the actual performance of ritual prayer five times a day that forms the inner qualities of the pious Muslim. The practise of ritual prayer enables her to keep her mind occupied with things related to God during the rest of her daily life. What she hears, what she says, how she says it, and even how she feels in relation to others becomes part of the self she forms through the discipline of prayer.

Although the Syrian women I spent time with were not actively part of any piety movement, their religious faith and teachings similarly impacted every aspect of their daily life. Like ritual prayer, the evening listening of the songs from Syria formed part of their ‘moral cultivation’. By listening to the songs and using that bodily experience to ensure they never forget the suffering of others, never felt complacent about their own relative comfort, and actively sought ways to access the pain felt by their brethren, the women were effectively ‘honing and securing their moral capacities’, and avoiding a state of ‘careless, negligence’ known as ghafla (Mahmood p.130).


4.3 Listening, Voice and Resistance

Many women described how listening to the songs made them feel a part of the struggle, uniting them to those still standing up against the regime in Syria.


4.3 i) Participatory Listening as Resistance


The women’s participation in the struggle through listening to songs forms part of the musical experience Christopher Small identified as ‘musiking’. For Small, all those involved in the musical experience are connected through complex spiral of relationships’ (Small, 1998, p.48). For the Syrian women listening to the songs calling for change, naming the culprits, remembering those who died in the struggle, relationships are developed and maintained ‘between individuals, between individuals and society, between humanity and the natural world and even humanity and the supernatural’ (ibid). This is an important part of their continued resistance. Through participatory listening, or musicking the women are silently giving voice to their anger and pain.

In her analysis of performativity and embodiment, Judith Butler (1997), described what she called ‘speech acts’ which, both communicate an action and consummate it. This analysis predominantly referred to spoken acts, one example being the performative pronouncement of “man and wife” in a marriage ceremony, through which a new identity of the bride and groom is performed and constructed. However Butler made it clear in her analysis that speech acts include not only oral or textual annunciations but also bodily acts (Butler, 1997, p.11). Saba Mahmood argues that the use of the veil and the practise of ritual prayer are both speech acts, and that through the actual physical act of wearing the veil and performing ritual prayer the women perform and so construct their identity (Mahmood, 2005). I would argue that the solitary, private and often ritualistic listening practise of the women refugees is also a participatory speech act. The women are performing their identity and their resistance within the cultural norms of the society in which they are living.


4.3 ii) Ringtones as Silent Resistance


One notable exception to the women’s otherwise private participation in shared resistance is through their choice of mobile phone ringtone. Many of the women had chosen one of two songs as their ringtone. One was the revolutionary song “Heaven” (Jana), a kind of ‘anthem’ of the struggle, also popular with the children[25], the other was Rajealek Ya Bladi (I’m coming back to you my country) by Ahmad Abu Khater[26]. The twelve-second introduction of this song is very distinctive, and immediately recognisable. The haunting melody of the instrumental opening is a sonic trigger. The synthesised vocalisations in octaves, treated with excessive reverb and chorus, give the song a unique identifiability, which, for those who know the song, contain the essence of the lyrics that are to come:



How many children were martyrs?

Like birds you smashed their heads,

And you killed a girl like a crushed rose,

And you killed the child who stood up to you,

And you killed the mother in cold blood,

As she watched on in fear

And you killed the photographer with such aggression

And you killed the witness

You don’t know your God to fear punishment


Extract from “Rajealek Ya Bladi” by Ahmad Abu Khater,

Guide translation Al Akesh


The ringtone becomes a sonic act of resistance, enabling the women to speak through the music. This innovative form of resistant and expressive silence, as discussed by Cecile Jackson in her article on Speech, Gender and Power (Jackson, 2012) is one of the ‘multiple registers’ through which the ‘voiceless’ women are speaking, and through which they ‘embed, unsettle and resignify’ language (ibid, p.1000).

Jane Parpart and Naila Kabeer, who have written on the subject of voice in relation to agency and empowerment, describe how silences can ‘speak’ effectively for the voiceless, and that ‘voice’, especially when understood as some kind of expression of identity, does not necessarily need to be equated with ‘Speech’ (Parpart et al, 2010, p.8). In what Parpart describes as ‘an increasingly dangerous world’, the option of silence over speech is an empowering strategy (ibid). For the women in the study, the mobile phone and the individual choice of personalised ringtone becomes an important vehicle of personal expression and resistance through silence.

4.3 iii) Distinguishing between Voice and Resistance

While some of the Syrian women saw their listening practise and use of ringtones as an act of resistance not only against the regime, but also against their oppression as women, there were others who did not see themselves as engaged in resistance at all. Although angry at the brutal way their president and his military responded to the popular demands for change, for them, the songs were an apolitical expression of their identity as mothers, wives and daughters and not as a silent act of protest. It is important to recognise both perspectives and avoid what Jackson refers to as ‘ventriloquizing’ the aspirations and needs of those with no voice (Jackson, 2012, p.1002).

Mahmoud suggests that the “feminist consciousness” as described by Lila Abu Lughod (1990, p47) is not always a meaningful category for some Islamic women and that the use of the term ‘resistance’ may not be appropriate when describing “a whole range of human actions including those which may be socially, ethically or politically indifferent to the goal of opposing hegemonic norms” (Mahmood, 2005,p.9). In an analysis of her own study of the poetry of Bedouin women as a creative expressions of resistance (Abu Lughod, 1986), Abu Lughod herself warns of misattributing forms of consciousness or politics to subjects when that is not part of their experience (Abu Lughod, 1990, b. p42).

Abu Lughod reminds us that the complex workings of power are often at play even within the notion of resistance. Perhaps I too am guilty of omitting looking beyond acts I perceive as acts of resistance and making an analysis within the complex inter-workings of post-colonial, religious, economic and patricarchal power. There is a complex network of power relations at play within the Syrian context, and when evaluated within this discourse, the private yet participatory listening of Syrian women may not be so much one of resistance as one of an assertion and reaffirmation of identity; as women, yes, but also as Muslims and as Syrians.

David McDonald, who has made an ethnographic study of Palestinian resistance songs, spent over a decade in the field following the songs and the performers (McDonald, 2013). Although his subjects are largely men, and the act of sharing discussed in his study is via cassettes rather than ‘phones, and although the Palestinian resistance is now in it’s 67th year, rather than the Syrian fifth, there is much I can learn from McDonalds analysis. He draws specifically on Abu Lughod’s arguments to assess the workings of power behind the resistance expressed in the Palestinian songs, stating that “If we are to fully move beyond the tendency to romanticise these expressive practises of resistance, it is essential to understand each performative act, each song, poem, gesture as a tool for understanding the dynamics of power from which it arose’ (McDonald, 2013, p.26). In the case of the dynamics of power behind the Syrian songs of resistance, all aspects of political, patriarchal, colonial and religious power are present. A complex web of power relationships is woven through every aspect of the women’s lives and influences both their choice of songs on their playlist and their listening habits. The songs reinscribe practises ‘embedded within their systems of meaning, values and aesthetics’ (ibid), making resistance only possible as a form of action for some of the women for whom the songs are important. Nonetheless, as in the Palestinian context of McDonalds study, moving across the limited ‘space and time’ of Dera’a, Homs, Ramtha and Irbid, over twelve months, it is clear that the expressive culture of the songs has helped some of the women in the study form some conceptions of resistance.


4.3 iv) The female voice


       Figure 15. Wallah, Ramtha. (March 2014)


           Wallah was in her last year of secondary school when we met. She had lost three years of education since the crisis began in 2011 and was older than her Jordanian colleagues, but has made new friends in Jordan and is excited to be finally about to take her final exams and fulfil her dream of going to University. She had come across a recording by the female poet Nada al Mahameed, which she listened to “at least once a day, often more” (from an interview with Wallah, 2014).

In this musically accompanied poem, Mahameed likens Syria to a cooking pot and all the different factions coming into the country as bitter ingredients that make the pot boil over and burn.


In the north came DASH

With their straggly hair

In the north came DASH

With their chaos and religion

In the south, came al Nusra

With their gowns and their caps on their heads

And tied to their waists

Belts ready to bomb

In the east, my mother,

Islamic State rang the bell

In the west Assad’s army, killing even his own followers

You are all the same

The people are searching for the one who did the beheading

Either Daash or Nasra or Assas’s regine and his followers

Syria is lost my mother

And the pot is boiling over.


Poem set to music by Nada al Mahameed[27]

Guide translation by Al Akash


The feminine voice of resistance is still rare in Syria and more likely to be found coming out of Damascus. Mahmood however is from the region around Dera’a. This made her an even more important role model for Wallah. The fact that the singing voices of men give expression to the feelings of the women in the songs of resistance and protest that have come out of Syria is part of the complex network of power relationships discussed above. Mahameeds poem and Wallah’s identification with it is an important exception to rest of the findings of this study, where the songs reinscribe the patriarchal practises embedded within the womens existing system of meaning. Although from a humble and strictly religious family, Wallah’s access to education and new social groups has given her a new sense of identity and this is reflected in her search for and repeated playing of this poem.


4.4. Listening and Identity

4.4 i) Listening from exile

There were two songs on the ‘phones of almost every woman who shared their playlist. These were, Aini Hazeenah (My Sad Eyes) (with the associated video discussed above) and Ya Darna (Our Home). Both are by Ahmad Kassim, a refugee in Northern Jordan himself, and are sung from the perspective of exile.

Ya Darna (Our Home) has a three-note refrain, much like a slow chant, which dominates most of the song. Metaphors of marriage rituals from the male perspective, liken Syria to an abandoned bride, the dowry paid and doorways of the newly weds painted as is the custom in the region, but in blood. The love is betrayed and the bride becomes a ‘precious memory’ from the exile of distant lands.

Oh Sham, your bride price has been set,

but there is no price for the priceless.

We drenched your soil in blood,

and with blood we painted your doorway,

and the colonial army witness your death


Don’t blame us if we migrate and leave,

don’t blame our mind,

you are the most precious memory in my mind,

despite our absence,

you will always be our home


Extract from Ya Darna (Our Home) by Ahmad Kassim,

Guide translation Al Akesh


In powerful video footage taken by a refugee of a performance of this song in Zaatari refugee camp[28], thousands jostle to be close to the singer Kassim as he stands on an improvised stage, singing through a small amplifier, his voice distorted under the strain. Most of the audience are men, raising their mobile phones in the air recording the moment so they can listen to it again later and share it with others. Children sit on their father’s shoulders their arms swaying to the slow beat. One old man stares up at Kassim, his face crumpled in grief, tears streaming down his face.


Figure 16. Ahmad Kassim sings Ya Darna (Our Home) to refugees in Zatari refugee camp. (2011)


The participatory experience of listening to the performance and sharing it with others in this liminal public space is contributing to the participants’ sense of identity and their sense of hope.


4.4 ii) The ‘effervescence’ of assembly and the formation of the self in the virtual ‘liminal’ space.

Some of the women I met had started to form a new sense of identity through similar musical participation during the public protests in the streets of Syria in 2011 and 2012. These new identities are now reaffirmed in exile through new effervescent and liminal spaces, created through shared musical listening, not in a physical public world, that they remain excluded from, but a private virtual one, through which they can continue to form their sense of self and develop their emotional understanding of their own identity.

In his book “Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation” (Turino, 2008), Thomas Turino presents experiences of musical participation such as this as important not only in the process of personal and social integration but also in contributing to people’s understanding of themselves and their identities. He draws on Emile Durkheim’s analysis of ritual and ‘effervescent spaces’ (Durkheim, 1915) and Victor Turner’s development of this in his discussion of ‘communitas’ and ‘liminal space’ (Turner, 1969) to describe the feeling of oneness that is experienced through moving and sounding together in synchronicity. Songs sung and listened to within a participatory and shared experience cement a sense of heightened togetherness forming part of a cycle of effervescence where the situation is produced by and in turn produces a new sense of being, of identity, and of self. In the words of Victor Turner, moments of ‘potentiality’ such as this put participants ‘in the subjunctive mood’ (Turner, 1969 p.372). Ethnomusiclogist calls this ‘the urge to merge’ (Keil, 1987. p276). Turino calls it ‘sonic bonding’.[29]

When Manar shared a video of a public gathering she was at in Homs[30], she described the sense of hope she felt, and how, caught up in the euphoria, she even forgot her vow of modesty as she danced and clapped and responded to the calls of the chanter. “We felt united with the whole nation. We knew we were on the threshold of change and we were excited to be a part of it”[31]. Although Manar now finds herself in a dark cramped basement apartment, with no hope of completing the medical qualification she was so close to obtaining, and no idea what her future holds, she still holds onto that hope she felt in the square in Homs. If she could do it all again, she told me, she would do the same thing.

Manar was pleased to have found her voice in that square and although she has deleted the revolutionary songs from her playlist, she still participates in the liminal space of change through her mobile ‘phone and through the act of sharing and listening to laments of protest. continues to take part in the collective experience of forming a new Syrian identity for the next generation.   Through her private listening in exile in Syria she is putting herself back into ‘the subjunctive mood’, calling up the hope she once felt and holding onto it as she tries to look to a new future.





Over the course of a year, I spent time with women who, for a few brief months in 2011, had found their public voice, protesting with thousands of others against the oppressive regime in Syria. But no sooner had they found it than it was taken away again. They have been pushed back into their homes, their voices silenced behind the veil. The idea of singing, playing instruments, even coming together in groups outside the home is not a right most of the women I met saw as theirs. At first it seemed that the right to music itself was denied them. Over time however, as a relationship of trust developed, I discovered how music snuck into their homes through small portable devices, carried under the burka of most of the women I met.

The relationship the women had with songs was experienced not in the visible and public realm, but in the very private and often spiritual realm of solitary listening. Living in what the women themselves describe as a form of imprisonment, the participatory yet private listening practise contributes to relieving their isolation, increasing social bonding and informing and developing a sense of self. For women who are used to being silent, veiled and so often invisible and inaudible in the public world, the songs connect them both to one another and to those they left behind in Syria. Not only did the mobile phones serve as a point of contact with family members in Syria, but also enabled a participatory connection to the struggle for change in their country, through images, video, text and sound, but in particular, through song. The songs serve to maintain a connection with others, but also with a part of themselves, helping them to process emotions and to express and reaffirm their identity. The combined listening and viewing experience triggered memories and associations that provoked a painful and deeply emotional response whilst reaffirming the women’s identity and sense of self. When the women listen to songs of resistance and protest, they are privately performing their own resistance by silently giving voice to their anger and pain. Listening to songs from Syria formed as much a part of the private daily routine as their daily prayers. As important as connecting to God through religious songs and koranic recitations in the morning, the evening would be for connecting to Syria. For these Syrian women living behind closed doors in displacement and exile, the night-time ritual listening to songs and laments from revolution serving instil hope, serving as affective portals where relationships are built and maintained with individuals, communities, with the self and with God.

By listening to selected songs as part of their private daily practise, the women are participating in the hope, resistance, grief, anger and longing of their community, while remaining in the home, where their modesty, humility and religious piety is sustained.

Between September 2013 and September 2014, songs had taken on new roles in the day-to-day lives of the refugees. It is possible that since the end of the study, the songs will have changed again, and may continue to do so. For as long as the women remain in their relatively closed and isolated lives however, their listening habits will remain private and the mobile phones will continue to connect them to the public world not only through conversation, but also through song.





Abu-Lughod, Lila., 1986. Veiled Sentiments London. University of California Press

Abu-Lughod, Lila.,1990 Language and the politics of emotion Cambridge University Press (p. 1-46)

Abu-Lughod, Lila (1990) The Romance of Resistance: Tracing Transformations of Power Through Bedouin Women

American Ethnologist Vol. 17, No. 1 (Feb., 1990), pp. 41-55

Abu-Lughod, Lila., (2013) Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Harvard University Press, (ISBN 9780674725164)

Akash, R & Boswall, K (2015) Listening to the voices of Syrian women and girls living as urban refugees in Northern Jordan - a narrative ethnography of early marriage. Edward Elgar Publishing. (awaiting publication)


Boswall, K & Akash, R (2015) Personal Perspectives of Protracted Displacement: An ethnographic insight into the isolation and coping mechanisms of Syrian women and adolescent girls living as refugees in urban settings in Northern Jordan. Intervention Journal of Mental Health and Psychological Support in Conflict Areas. Volume 14, Issue 1 (awaiting publication)

Butler., 1997 Excitable Speech A Politics of the Performative London Routelage

Durkheim, Emile, 1915. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (tr. Joseph Swain). London: Allen and Unwin, 1-20 and pp. 205-239,


Halasa, M. & Omareen, Z. (2014) Syria Speaks Art and Culture from the Frontline. London. Saqi Books

Jackson, C. (2012). Speech, gender and power: Beyond testimony. Development and Change, Volume 43 (Issue 5), pages 999-1023. Institute of Social Studies, The Hague

Keil, C. 1987 Participatory discrepancies and the power of music

Cultural Anthropology Vol. 2, No. 3 (Aug., 1987), pp. 275-283

Mahmood, S. 2005 Politics of Piety The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton University Press. (with new preface, 2012)

McDonald, David, 2013, My Voice is My Weapon: Music, Nationalism and the poetics of Palestinian Resistance, Durham NC: Duke University Press

Parpart, J. Kabeer, N (2010) Choosing Silence: Rethinking Voice, Agency and Women’s Empowerment. Working Paper 297. Gender Development and Globalization Program, Center for Gender in Global Context. East Lansing, MI, Michigan State University.

Small, Christopher, (1998) Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middleton CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Spivak, Gayatri, 1988. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, pp. 271-313.

Stokes, M. (2015) Music in the Middle East – the Question of Prohibition, Powerpoint in undergraduate class 29/1/2015 (Unpublished)

Turino, Thomas, 2008, Music as Social Life: The Politics of Participation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Turner, V., 1969. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. London: Routledge,



Unauthored Publications

BBC. (2014). Homs: Syrian Revolution’s fallen Capital (7 May 2014, Accessed July 2015)

CARE. (2015). Five Years into Exile: The challenges faced by Syrian refugees outside camps in Jordan and how they and their host communities are coping. (2015) Care International in Jordan. Amman; (accessed July 2015)

IRC. (2014) Are We Listening Acting on Our Commitments to Women and Girls Affected by the Syrian Conflict (International Rescue Committee, Sept 2014) (Accessed July 2015)

UNHCR. (2013) From slow boil to breaking point: A real-time evaluation of UNHCR’s response to the Syrian
refugee emergency (2013) (accessed July 25 2015)

UNWOMEN, 2013. Gender based violence and child-protection among Syrian refugees in Jordan with a focus on Early Marriage (accessed July 2015)

UNHCR. (2015) Syria Regional Refugee Response Inter-agency information sharing portal (Accessed Sept 2015)


Film References


Boswall, K (2015) Boya Boya (Shine Shine) (Password Shine)


Ayat Najafi

(2014) No Land’s Song (Distributer / Link?)

Islamic religious scholar Abdolnabi Ja Farlan interviewed about the prohibition of women singers in the film


Derki, T. (2014) Return to Homs





Song References

(Video Portrait, Mohammed)

(Video Testimony Nasreen - early marriage)

(Video Testemony Bara’a – leaving the camps)

(Songs in Homs – Mphammed & Abdul Bassat Sarut)

(Children Chanting in Irbid)

(Aini Hazeena – with guide sub-titles)

(Ya Darna – with guide subtitles)

(Protest in Homs – from Manar – Manar in group of women)


Ibrahim Qashoush: (remix with crowds) (homage to author on death) (on the soundtrack to the Syrian conflict)


Ya Darna:

Ya Hef:

Ahmad Kassim in Al Zaatari


The Pot Is Overfilled

FSA Anthem

Jana Jana (Heaven


Audio (Anonymous Poem)





Abu-Lughod, Lila., 1993. Writing Women’s Worlds Bedouin Stories London. University of California Press

Deeb, L. 2006, An Enchanted Modern Gender and Public Piety in Shi’i Lebanon. Princeton University Press


Grima, B. (1992)The Performance of Emotion among Paxtun Women Texas University Press


Hirschkind, C., 2006 The Ethical Soundscape Cassette Sermons and Islamic Counterpublics Columbia University Press


Gennep, Arnold Van, (1960) The rites of passage   (Trans. By Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle L Caffee.) London: Routelage and Kegan Paul

Hmoud, W (Brigadeer) & Shehab, A. (Brigadeer) 2013 Interviews recorded with Director of The Syrian Refugees Camps Affairs Department (SCRD) and Director of the Jordanian Police Department Mafraq (Including Za’atari) recorded in Amman and Zatari

Holliday, J. (2011). The struggle for Syria in 2011. Institute for the Study of War, 16. Available at:

Hummer, Liz. (2013) Mapping of Host Community-Refugee Tensions in Mafraq and Ramtha, Jordan (accessed July 2015)

Keil, Charles and Steven Feld, 1995. Music Grooves. Chicago: University of Chicago Press (pp. 96-194)

Navarro, Z. (2006) ‘In Search of Cultural Intepretation of Power’, IDS Bulletin 37(6): 11-22.

Turner, V., 1982. From ritual to theatre: The human seriousness of play. New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications.






[1] This was part of a VOICE project supported the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development –Legal Aid (ARDD) See

[2] See Appendix I, Song 1.

[3] See for video testimony of Mohammed, a 12 year old boy who fled Homs with his family in 2014.

[4] See for Bara’a’s explanation of her choice to leave Zaatari

[5] Much has now been written on this. See UNHCR, (2013a, & 2013b), UNWOMEN, (2013). CARE, (2015) & IRS, (2015), Boswall & Akash, (2015) and Akash, Boswall (2015).

[6] See for Nasreen and her mother’s video testimony

[7] See Appendix I. Song 3

[8] See New York Times (2011), Huffington Post (2011), Middle East On-Line (2011)


[9] See Appendix II for participant summary.

[10]Dr Ruba Al Akash is from the Jordanian town of Umm Qais, on Jordan’s Northern Border with Syria. She lives in Irbid with her husband and four children. Umm Qais and Irbid form part of the Houran region whichis made up of three Syrian provinces; Dara’a, Sweida and Quneitra and three Jordanian districts; Ramtha, Irbid and Ajloun. The region was divided following the creation of a physical border between Syria and Jordan after WW1. However trade, marriage and movement between the two populations remained commonplace and many cultural codes and traditions are still shared between communities on both sides of the border.

[11] In Ramtha, some women later explained the volunteer’s power (power as a man and power over the distribution of clothes and food) may have influenced their decision to attend, but once they were with us and understood the nature of our research they were happy to participate and share their lives with us. In Irbid, the connection with the landlord may have created expectations around issues related to the rent.

[12] For video testimonies of Nasreen and Bara’a see:

[13] See Appendix III for list of interview objectives.

[14] Most of the women decided against being filmed or photographed, some also preferring not to have their voices recorded. However a small group welcomed us back into their homes following the initial research allowing us into their lives with cameras and microphones. Some of their testimonies have been made publicly available, (Boswall, 2014) other have remained in private archives.  


[15] See Appendix II. p58 for detailed participant breakdown

[16] With the fast changing situation in Syria, the primary research forms a stronger basis for the findings of this research than the secondary.

[17] See Appendix I. Song 5

[18] See children chanting

[19] See Appendix 1. Song 6

[20] President Bashar Al Assad’s Shia identity became the focus of many of the Suny groups contesting his rule, including the Free Syrian Army who was fighting the regime in Dera’a and Homs. With the increasing military involvement from other religiously motivated factions, most notably the group now known to the English speaking world as the Islamic State (also known as ISIL, or ISIS and DASH) . For an insightful view of this shift from peaceful protest to war and from secular motivation to religious from the perspective of the composer of many of the songs and chants coming out of Homs, Abdul Bassat Sarut, see “Return to Homs” (Derki, 2013)  

[21] two most popular cross-platform mobile messaging apps

[22] See Appendix I. Song 7

[23] See

[24] See Appendix I. Song 8

[25]See Appendix 1. Song 5

[26]See Appendix 1. Song 10

[27] See Appendix I. Song 11

[28] See

[29] Turino is drawing on the term “muscular bonding” created by William H.McNeill in 1995 that refers to the oneness of marching or dancing together.

[30] See

[31] From an interview with Manar, conducted in Irbid, Jordan Sept 2014

[32] Maher al Assad, Bashar’s brother, commander of the elite Republican Guard

[33] Bashar’s lisp was ridiculed in many uprising songs (Halasa & Omareen, 2014)



My deepest thanks to Ruba Al Akash and her dear family, Abdulla, Farah, Fitoun, Feras and Noura for welcoming me into their home; for their tireless emotional and practical support, their boundless generosity and their constant patience and good humour. Particular thanks to Feras Qusairy and Ruba Al Akash for interpreting both language and culture throughout the research and for their hard work and patience for painstakingly translating songs and interviews with me long into the night.


Thanks to the Syrian refugees who shared their homes, their stories, their

experiences and their songs. Particular thanks to the families of Nasreen, Mohammed and Waddah who opened their lives to the imposition and scrutiny of the camera, and to Om Haitham for her strength, warmth, friendship and trust.


Thanks to Dr. Angela Impey for her inspiring insights and guidance and tireless enthusiasm and encouragement in supervising this journey of discovery.

Thanks too to Dr Lucy Duran, Dr Stephen Hughes and Professor Martin Stokes for the invaluable part they played


My thanks also go out to my mother Dorothy Boswall, my husband Sidónio Givandás and my sister Claire Whittle. Without their generous support, this research would not have been possible.