If he draws a blank for the 8:30 A.M. music block, Osama al-Salloum plays Fairuz. If he could play only one voice on Radio Fresh FM all day, it would be Fairuz. To Salloum, the singer’s songs tie all Syrians together, especially now, as war tears their country apart. Fairuz—regal, softly lit, draped in a shimmering gown—is a 78-year-old musical power who transcends everything. Not secular or sectarian. Not rebel or regime. Not Sunni or Alawite. Her songs lull Salloum into a state of peace, something he wants for all Syrians, and he loves to picture that feeling flowing up from his tiny underground radio station, through the FM radio waves and mingling with strangers passing on the sidewalk.
“Fairuz strips us of anger,” Salloum says. “She will bring you down, and you will be free.”
A desire for freedom—particularly freedom of speech—and connection to the world beyond Syria motivated the Syrian uprising in the spring of 2011 and inspired Salloum to launch Fresh FM two years later. The radio station is Salloum’s nonprofit, peacenik attempt to help topple embattled President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Peacenik because Salloum, a 29-year-old petroleum engineer, refuses to pick up a weapon. There is no way, he reasons, that the social changes he demonstrated for under gunfire in 2011 will come about through violence. (One night, someone handed Salloum a pistol. “I felt power in my hand,” he says. “I could kill a man and no one would ask why. A man should not have this power.”)
And because one night, when the revolution was budding, he heard Fairuz and had a vision of a free Syria, a vision that he holds on to nearly three years later, a vision that connects Salloum to the armed rebels in the northern provinces. His school chums and soccer buddies, some now missing limbs but still alive, singing to themselves through the long nights, shooting, shivering and shooting in turns. Music in their brains, just like his. It had been this way since the beginning, when everyone gathered with protest signs in the village square in Kafranbel, Salloum’s hometown. They sang revolution songs together. When regime soldiers opened fire, they sang louder.
But Salloum is not a fighter. “I am a coward,” he says unblinkingly when asked to explain the difference between his attitude and the warrior-martyr mentality of his village brothers on the front line. The ones with faces masked by black kaffiyehs, with commanders who ask, “Are you ready to die?”
“Allah-hu Akbar,” they respond—“God is great.” They mean God is greater than they are, than bullets, than death, than this world that is only a trial before paradise. Salloum shakes his head. “I would rather die myself than kill,” he says. No, he is bound to them only by music. He lives in a mental space beyond Arab pride and checkpoints and firefights, where speech is already free, someplace far, far away.
For now, Salloum is living in exile. It is December, and he is sitting cross-legged on a purple mat in Reyhanli, a ramshackle border town in Turkey’s southernmost limits. He fidgets in his bulky winter coat; in his left hand is a cigarette smoked well into the filter. Piles of shoes, stacked suitcases, folding chairs and a mound of sweaty blankets surround him, all of it the accumulated evidence of aid workers, journalists and fighters who rested for a day or two on the scuffed marble floor before jumping the border back to Syria and civil war. Behind a swirl of cigarette smoke, consternation creases Salloum’s face.
He doesn’t feel like being photographed.
It took 30 months of air strikes and weeks of wrestling with the shame of leaving to push him to this safe house in Reyhanli. Salloum needed a place outside the kill zone, and this building in Turkey, just a few kilometers from the Syrian border, is close enough that he can drop by his bombed-out home and his beloved radio station in Kafranbel.
The camera ready, I ask him to relax his face. He refuses.
“I want it to be true,” Salloum says. Click. He sinks within himself, deliberating over the possibility of truth in all this confusion. He’s gone. It takes an hour, a pack of Gauloises Blondes, a hot meal and tea before he speaks again.
But I know the song on repeat in Salloum’s mind: “My Little House in Canada,” sung by Fairuz. His favorite.
The war in Syria was changing. Salloum could hear it all around him. War hymns saturated the music. No one sang the revolution songs anymore. No one sang Fairuz. He knew that. What Salloum couldn’t know was that back in Syria, soldiers were about to kick down the door of the radio station, and his days of broadcasting Fairuz—and peace—into the Syrian airwaves were numbered.
SONGS OF FREEDOM
It is two months earlier, and a bomb tumbles lazily across the October sky toward me. I am standing in hilly Kafranbel, Syria, roughly three hours from the Turkish border, when soldiers push the barrel bomb—an oil drum packed with TNT and scrap metal—from the belly of a government helicopter. Children scream as the bomb’s impact shakes buildings; an ominous claw of smoke rises up over the village.
But it is a blessed day: The bomb misses the elementary school packed with refugees I’ve come to photograph. Salloum arrives shortly after the explosion to mingle with activists and protest artists and to swab a tin of hot lamb fat with hard bread. Rattled, he chews nervously.
“This is what we live with. I must get out,” he says, more to himself than anyone else.
Government soldiers have killed his uncle, and Salloum’s family home has been bombed twice. He refuses to return to it, even after the gaping holes have been repaired. Last he heard, another displaced Syrian family was occupying it.
What is important is Fresh FM, and he is eager to introduce himself—and the station—to me. “I am Osama,” he says. “I work at the radio station. You are a journalist? Would you like to see it? I will take you there.”
The next day a group of boys stand among the rubble in the streets with their necks craned upward. Salloum sees them and listens. “It is a plane. It might kill us,” he says. A sweeping shopkeeper freezes with his broom. Kids yell to each other, “Tyara jayah” (“An airplane is coming”). Girls playing nearby start to cry.
The structure that houses Fresh FM stands out on a debris-cluttered block thanks to a brick facade dotted with squares of red, pink, yellow and blue. It feels more San Francisco than Syria. The building houses the Kafranbel media center and Karama Bus, a nonprofit that provides social activities for village children; Fresh FM is crammed into the rear of the basement. Salloum guides us past a coughing generator and a tangle of motorcycles to a metal door leading down a narrow, shoulder-width plywood hallway that branches off into claustrophobic, wire-veined rooms where staffers smoke, work and boil tea. The vibe is military efficiency meets activist squat. (Yes, that smell is definitely black mold.) A golden bust of President Bashar al-Assad, complete with black eyes, lipstick, a missing tooth and a Frankenstein forehead scar, looks down from the newsroom wall.
“Have you met our president?” a staffer asks, smacking the statue gently on the cheek. “Say hi, Bashar.”
This is home, even if relentless bombing has turned the buildings on either side into broken concrete accordions. Under Salloum’s supervision the Kafranbel office has evolved from a drafty concrete-and-plywood dungeon into something of a geeky casbah. There is a small fireplace, a kitchen with a candy counter, free cigarettes and tea. Rich red, embroidered curtains insulate the rooms. Staffers seated on tasseled cushions handle Twitter, Facebook and broadcast algorithms from their laptops. Weekly trivia-contest winners come in to claim prizes and be interviewed on the air.
Out on the street, café workers in the village square try their English on foreigners while listening to Follow Me, an on-air language lesson. Down the hill, a boy tunes the radio at his family’s tire shop.
“Are they allowed to say that?” the boy asks during a Fresh FM news report from the front line in Maarat al-Numan, a nearby city. His father hushes him and shrugs. “Listen. How many dead?”
Rebels learned the word hero from the Enrique Iglesias song of the same name. Fresh FM staffers regard Iglesias as the most influential Western artist to date and play him relentlessly. Salloum prefers Whitney Houston—“I Will Always Love You” is his favorite song in English—but lets it slide. “Tee Rush Rush” by Nasser Deeb also dominates the station’s music blocks.
From this bunker Salloum works on various large-scale nonprofit projects, all of which fit into his philosophy of nonviolent resistance: constructing a media conference center in Kafranbel that will house foreign reporters in exchange for public conversations with villagers; managing a logistics office and a rehabilitation program for wounded Syrians in Reyhanli. But he truly loves only the radio station. Fresh FM is his jewel.
Salloum has been sleeping at the station to insulate himself from the sound of government planes and bombs. Years of shelling have worn at his nerves. The sound of an airplane sometimes plunges him into a panic attack. Once, when air strikes shook the walls of his basement shelter in the station’s back room, Salloum went into convulsions. His radio colleagues rushed him to a hospital for a tranquilizer.
“This is how we live,” Salloum says. “The situation tests how much we believe in what we are doing.”
No one doubts Salloum’s belief. From his laptop on a mat on the concrete floor, he operates a mobile communications desk. Resources from dozens of European and American humanitarian organizations—money, medicine and ideas—are rerouted based on Salloum’s assessment of the situation on the ground. It is his job because he can give those assessments in English and Arabic. He is trusted for his intelligence, humility and ability to break a project into manageable tasks. Salloum is like many of the young nonprofit workers from such places as Colorado and northern California. Fashionably unkempt, unusually blunt (he once introduced himself to an American nonprofit worker by asking, “Why are you so fat?”), an introverted virgin married to the undulating international conversation of tweets and blog posts that he sees swelling like an ocean wave. That’s the idea, anyway, and Salloum, the man behind the most listened-for voice on the radio waves in Idlib province, is an idea man.