Berggruen Fellow Eliza Griswold is a poet and journalist based in New York. She is the author of Amity and Prosperity: A Story of Energy in America which will be published this year. Griswold’s reportage and poems have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Atlantic, among others. She was awarded a 2015 PEN Prize for her translations of the poems of Afghan women, I Am the Beggar of the World, and A 2010 Rome Prize for poetry.
I first heard the oud, a kind of lute that was invented five thousand years ago, one summer night in 2014, in a Turkish teahouse along the Syrian border. The Syrian musician was classically trained. He was also a medical doctor who’d recently been held hostage by isis. A little out of practice, he ran his fingers over the instrument’s strings and talked about where he’d go next. No one wanted to stay for long in Turkey, Lebanon, or Jordan, where it was largely illegal for Syrians to work or to send their children to school. Despite these strictures, many refugees initially waited in one of those neighboring countries for the dictator Bashar al-Assad to fall. When he didn’t, six million Syrians pressed north. Among them were most of the country’s talented musicians and artists, who, like everyone else, were scrambling to rent apartments, find jobs, and learn languages.
Since then, the fall of Aleppo and Russian air strikes have driven Syrians of all kinds from their country. Last year, wondering what it means to be a Syrian artist when Syria in many ways no longer exists, I began to map the journeys of a hundred artists from the country. As I discovered, a large portion of the older guard of artists has ended up in Paris, thanks to visas issued by the French Embassy in Beirut. Many of the younger generation headed for the creative haven of Berlin, where rent is relatively cheap. Only a scant few remained in the Middle East, which proved expensive or unwelcoming.