Create Syria: Hannibal's story

This is part of a series of stories we are featuring from artists involved in Create Syria – our project with the British Council and the independent cultural organisation Ettijahat - Independent Culture that empowers Syrian artists in exile to build resilience between refugees and communities across Lebanon.

“I believe in peace. I believe that war will end and we need to be prepared for cultural reconciliation,” says Hannibal Saad, a Syrian musician, festival maker and cultural entrepreneur.

Hannibal works with displaced Syrian artists in Lebanon, training them to use music to heal, connect and create social cohesion.

Hannibal’s efforts to enhance cultural inclusivity and diversity started in Syria, long before the onset of the conflict in 2011. Educated in physics, philosophy and music in the United States, Hannibal chose to return to his home country in the early 2000s, at a time where many artists were leaving in pursuit of better opportunities.

In 2004, he was the first to start using arts as civic work in Syria. “I worked with civil society and cultural organisations to create a jazz festival in Syria. I believe it was the first initiative of its kind. I wanted to offer artists and musicians from all backgrounds a platform for cultural exchange in an international setting”.

In the years preceding the conflict, Hannibal launched, directed and managed the Jazz Lives in Syria festival, which brought together musicians from all over the world. Later in 2009 he started the Oriental Landscapes festival at the Opera House in Damascus, where scholars and musicians from Syria, the Arab world, Asia and Europe were invited to work together and discuss issues about the past, present and future of Oriental music. “There were conferences and concerts every day. I am proud to say that all participants came to the same conclusion: that countries in the Middle East have so much in common, and are as diverse as the EU.”

But things changed following the outbreak of violence. The conflict in Syria had a significant impact on his life and profession. “I lost my work and my financial support”, Hannibal stressed that what helped him cope was finding what is positive in displacement. “I found out that I had a lot of valuable things – my history, my contacts and my music.”

Hannibal carried on with his work in the arts, starting the Jazz for Syria initiative, which developed into the Global Week for Syria. The aim of the Week is to create platforms and stimulating artistic collaborations between Syrian musicians and their international counterparts. In 2016 the initiative grew to 21 cities around the world, from Beirut to New York to Paris.

For Hannibal, such events allow him to show and celebrate the rich culture of Syria. “[Syria] is a country of diversity and culture, not extremism.”

As part of Create Syria, Hannibal has spent the past few months coaching facilitators in using music for non-violent communication and psychosocial support. He invited Dutch expert Lucas Dols to Lebanon to lead workshops on this.

He also coached musicians in how to work with teenage Syrian refugees. “You can do much more than only singing. You [can] talk to the kids instead of singing by using your body and language, which opens up the mind for more possibilities. This makes them think creatively about life,” Hannibal demonstrated in one of the workshops.

Hashem Kibrit is a Syrian drummer and a participant in Hannibal’s training workshop. He not only enjoyed the experience but also gained vital teaching skills and made new contacts: “I learned about using music as an educational tool. I also met many Syrian artists.”

Hashem, who fled Syria in 2013 after being called up for military service is planning to use his skills in his upcoming project on community music performance. The project uses music to improve children’s psychosocial wellbeing, encouraging group work and acceptance. Some 150 displaced children will receive the training.

“The idea [is about] the ability of children to produce music from their own bodies and to use simple recyclable things they can find in their environment,” Hashem said. The project will conclude with a performance by the children, using music instruments made out of rubbish.

Hashem expressed his desire to carry on learning and developing his capacity for the future. “The current circumstances prevent me from producing so I’m collecting knowledge. Meanwhile, I want to pass on what I learn to create a positive impact. I want to keep developing myself to contribute to a future Syria.”

While Hashem wants to continue his learning journey, Hannibal’s hope is to be able to preserve the positive image of Syria in the international memory: “I will do what I can working with my full energy and full power. I want to create positive perceptions of my country. Diversity is richness. We should be happy with the diversity - that is my hope. It gives recognition. When people have what they need there is peace.”

Hannibal's work and story, along with other Create Syria artists, will be showcased at our exhibition in London from 22 September - 2 October 2016. Find out more: http://talkingpeacefestival.org/create-syria