Leah Caldwell on I Remember Syria

All proceeds from the re-release of I Remember Syria will go to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Available now at iTunes, Boomkat, eMusic, and your favorite digital music store.

On a map of Damascus, Thawra Street is a thick line tracing the western perimeter of the walled Old City. Off the map, it’s a freeway that plays host to a jumble of surfaces: raised pedestrian bridges, U-turns, and dead ends.

This strip of 1970s concrete defines the creeping border between the Old and New cities of Damascus — once tourists reach it, they immediately know that they’re outside the fabled jasmine-scented Damascus of guidebooks and on the edge of another city, where bus engines idle and buildings are greyed from pollution.

Mark Gergis planted his recorder here over a decade ago when he was traveling around the country recording Syrian radio waves, street interviews, and impromptu folk songs for I Remember Syria. A police radio bleeps, a muezzin bellows, cars honk — an incredible, dense echo of sounds on that street at that particular moment.

When I first listened to I Remember Syria in 2004, I was pleasantly disoriented. I had few ideas of Syria outside scant U.S. media reports — almost always negative and with very specific ideas about the country’s past and future. I Remember Syria was a more meandering world, one far from political proscriptions.

At first sound, Syria is a bit of dramatic Eastern Muzak, like the opening credits of a soap opera. Each track that follows is a kind of story. The first half are from Damascus, the capital, and the second half from some of the country’s more remote corners, like Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border and the port city of Tartous. Some of the stories are straightforward and take you directly to a place: an echo-filled nightclub in the coastal city of Lattakia; the waterwheels, or Norias, of Hama that drone on uninterrupted for a full eight minutes.

Other tracks don’t conjure any single physical place, but multiple places combined. These are my favorites, the ones that fluctuate between the street and the radio. “Damascus Between the Lines” is one such track. It’s a strata of sounds culled from Damascus streets that approximate a type of city-haze, but it’s all wedged between two radio broadcasts, suggesting that the noise somehow floats above reality.

Then there are the pure radio collages where Gergis uncovers something that I had never thought to look for in the Syrian media, since television, radio, and newspapers were tightly controlled, state-run affairs. Compilations like “Youth Radio of the Syrian Arab Republic” belie a socialist state’s radio efforts for national betterment. Other tracks like “Sonic Suriya” are odes to the Syrian nation and the Assads. But many of the radio clips collected and mixed by Gergis convey much more than the quiet predictability of an insular media.

In “Winged and Winded Receptions,” the clips are a jagged mix of radio odds and ends. A man announces in Arabic: “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration presents a trip through the solar system.” Then, in a voice of gravitas and depth, a man reads mundane production credits. These are the types of sounds that go unregistered in most of our lives, but taken together, they can make a different kind of music.

When it was first released in 2004, I Remember Syria could be listened to as virtual tourism or maybe a sound artifact of a country that would likely go unvisited. The recordings span from 1997 to 2000, the last years of Hafez al-Assad’s rule, and two months into the beginning of his son Bashar’s. I didn’t get to visit Syria until 2006. By then, most of the Western press coverage centered on the gradual capitalist “opening” of the country, something you could see in small doses on the street with a newly-opened Costa coffee, even if there was no McDonald’s.

Now, in 2013, I Remember Syria could be listened to as a lament. Tracks like “Al Thawra Street” can be a reminder of how Damascus has been carved into mazes of concrete barriers and checkpoints, its suburbs the site of battles between the regime and its opposition. In February, a car bomb exploded on Thawra — which means revolution in Arabic — killing 53 people. It was a deadly interlude for a street, and a city, that seemed to carry on incessantly. All proceeds from the re-release of I Remember Syria will go to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The ethereal world of I Remember Syria has given way to a harsh, black-and-white reality. Even with the regime and opposition lines so starkly drawn, it’s difficult to decipher the truth and fictions coming out of Syria from afar. Settling on any one version of recent events seems like willful deception. But even before Syria’s most recent crisis, truth was never easy to come by within its borders.

In Damascus, as I lived it between 2006 and 2009, there was a palpable atmosphere of taboos, a tacit agreement that certain truths were to be firmly held in public. These restrictions seemed to fade away in private conversations, but I was always left with more questions than answers. So I now listen to the casual interviews and conversations on I Remember Syria with a new kind of interest. They remind me of the blurriness between facts and rumors.

“Kazib City,” according to a resident, is a new, small country located between Yemen and Oman. Visas are available for two-day stints so tourists can visit the 10,000 year-old city located “under the desert.” It’s a Muslim country, he says, resistant to American ways and companies. The poor people in Kazib City “have everything… car, house.” The six-minute description of Kazib, ostensibly a totally invented place, is bizarre. Maybe the joke is on us since the word “Kazib” is a derivation of the Arabic root “to lie.” Possibly, the man is just telling the truth as he knows it, describing a surreal vision of Syria.

One man asks the “resident” of Kazib City, “Some people, they say about you that you are ‘dictatory.’ What can you say about this?” He responds, “We are not. You see, this is the problem. The U.S. says something like this and you believe it.”

Leah Caldwell is a writer and editor living in Austin.

All proceeds from the re-release of I Remember Syria will go to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

Available now at iTunes, Boomkat, eMusic, and your favorite digital music store.