Dylan Connor's Song 'Blood Like Fire' Evokes Syrian Civil War's Dark Heart
Dylan Connor (center) with his family (l-r), in-laws Ragheda and Taha al-Hariri, his wife Reem holding Jude, 7 months, and Fayrouz, 5.
In 2007, years before the wave of protests, riots and civil wars known as the Arab Spring would sweep through the Middle East, Dylan Connor had a premonition. Fragmented images of bombs falling from the sky, men being beaten in the streets, ashes scattered over the ground, the feeling of drowning . . . .
Newly married, Dylan had just returned from his first trip to Damascus with his wife, Reem, a Syrian studying at the University of Bridgeport whom he met singing karaoke at a bar one night. It’s a trip the 38-year-old Westport native remembers fondly—meeting his extended family for the first time, taking in the sights of one of the world’s most ancient cities, performing music at local clubs. He and Reem planned to visit every other summer once their daughter, Fayrouz, was born. But hidden somewhere beneath the surface of a bustling metropolis, a fervor was boiling, the first hints of revolution Dylan believes he was able to tap into with his songwriting.
“I wrote this tune called ‘Blood Like Fire,’ and it was very dark,” recalls Dylan, poking at a few smoldering logs in the fireplace of his Stratford home, while Reem and her mother are busy preparing dinner. “Very dark. And it really had no light at the end of the tunnel. The song ends by saying, ‘I once was lost, but now I’m drowned.’ I thought, ‘Hey, this is a great song,’ but I didn’t know why I wrote it, or why it was so dark.”
After a moment, he adds, “It was definitely from the realm of dreams.”
Fast-forward to the early months of 2011 and the Arab world has erupted into a fury of pro-democracy demonstrations, some peaceful, others turning shockingly violent. Thousands of men and women in Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan and Iraq have taken to the streets demanding change from their governments. Dictators are being ousted from seats of power they’ve held for decades.
Watching the events unfold on TV, Dylan and Reem—along with much of the world—didn’t believe the protests would ever reach Syria. The Syrian regime led by President Bashar al-Assad was too brutal, too merciless, to test. In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father, massacred some 20,000 people in the town of Hama in order to stamp out an uprising led by the Muslim Brotherhood.
“They were saying, ‘There’s no way it will hit Syria. No one in Syria is willing to go up against that regime, because they know it will be so violent,’” says Dylan. “We were all excited by Egypt and Tunisia, but [people] maintained until the day it happened that it would never happen in Syria . . . But it did. And it was pretty scary.”
The videos first came to him through YouTube, too graphic to be shown on cable news. Clips of soldiers firing on peaceful protesters, lifeless bodies being dragged through the streets, children dying in hospital beds. Soon Dylan was engrossed by what he calls the “YouTube Revolution,” scouring the Internet for hours in search of more news out of a distant country he had come to think of as a second home.
“It was just video after video after video,” he says. “Every Friday [people] would go out and protest and get gunned down. Every single Friday. And the numbers grew and then dipped and then grew. I just mined YouTube and I assembled these images and had someone put them together to my song ‘Blood Like Fire.’”
The song is indeed dark, and eerily prophetic. A moody, Johnny Cash-style chord progression plays while Dylan croons, “Our bones like wire, our blood is like fire,” over and over, his voice dipping in and out of a glassy falsetto. The same words flash across the screen in Arabic as the chorus plays, making the video simultaneously a wake-up call to average, apathetic Americans and a sign of solidarity between Dylan and the Syrian activists pleading for freedom almost 6,000 miles away.
The response to “Blood Like Fire” was overwhelming. The video quickly amassed thousands of views on YouTube, spurring Dylan to write more anti-regime songs in the hopes of lifting the spirits of demonstrators in the Middle East. Consequently, pro-democracy Syrians sing his lyrics in the streets of Damascus. They march in protests carrying banners adorned with his name. His face has appeared on stamps for the revolution. He is, for some, a symbol of hope.
Still, despite the powerful effect Dylan’s music has had on the Syrian people, a song is not an army. The civil war rages on, and men, women and children continue to be slaughtered by their own government with little help from the outside world—a fact Dylan is acutely aware of. “I don’t carry a gun, I write songs,” he says. “All I can say to you, 6,000 miles away, is that I hear you. Yes, I know nothing’s being done, but we are not our government. There are people here who do care.”
It’s a cold, snowy night in January, and the large dining room table in Dylan’s home is covered with platters of food. There’s a small mountain of kepseh—spiced chicken and rice with almonds, the national dish of Syria—homemade hummus, pita bread, thick and creamy chicken soup, salad, spaghetti squash, steamed Brussels sprouts and what Dylan calls “Arabic burritos,” an invention of Reem’s mother.
“Here, when you have somebody over for dinner, you cook one meal, vegetables, salad and that’s it,” says Reem. “This is like the minimum that mom can make. She’s pushing herself to comply with American culture.”
Reem’s mother and father, Ragheda and Taha al-Hariri, are originally from the province of Horan, where the very first anti-regime protests broke out in March 2011. During the initial week, Ragheda—a woman in her 60s, by then a grandmother—took to the streets with the other demonstrators, unable to stay silent any longer. She was promptly arrested and thrown in jail, where she shared a cell with bloodied and beaten men.
“She’s saying it’s been boiling inside of her and everybody for years, this wasn’t just a spontaneous thought,” explains Reem, translating for her mother. “For her, all of her kids were outside the country. Usually the regime will go after your family, so she said, ‘Even if they arrest [me], they can’t really hurt [me].’ She can’t bear the thought of not saying what she wants to say anymore.”
Ragheda was released after only one day in prison, but the message was clear: The time to leave Syria is now. If she or her husband were arrested again, they might not be so lucky.
At first, the plan in 2011 was for Dylan’s in-laws to visit for just a month or two, until things blew over. But as the family watched guns turn into tanks, tanks turn into bombs, bombs turn into sarin gas, and protests transform into full-scale war, the hope of returning home dimmed, as did the prospect of peace.
Dylan, for his part, began to write again. This time foregoing the abstract poeticism of “Blood Like Fire” for simple chord progressions and pointed, topical lyrics sung in a mixture of English and Arabic. The chorus for the song “Feza Feza” is taken from a phrase that Dylan and his father-in-law would chant around the house during the early days of the revolution, a time when a communication blackout made it virtually impossible to tell if family members back home were alive or dead, free or jailed. “Feza feza la Horan. Feza feza la Suria,” they would shout together. “Help, help for Horan. Help, help for Syria.”
The object of Dylan’s anger and contempt in these new songs is no longer ambiguous, either. Instead, it has a name: Bashar al-Assad. The tracks that help comprise Dylan’s latest record, Blood Like Fire: Songs for Syria, are not just pro-democracy, they are strikingly anti-regime. On the song “Weary World,” he calls Assad a “mouse” parodying his name which means “lion” in Arabic. On “Not a Civil War” he cries, “This is not a civil war, it’s a revolution. We lift our voices up, the regime drops ammunition.”
Reem’s father, Taha, is a retired general in the Syrian military who served under Hafez al-Assad. He says it feels like a “mafia” is running the country, not a government—members of the Assad family controlling the presidency, as well as facets of the economy and the military for years. A former air force pilot, he taught Bashar al-Assad to fly during the dictator’s youth.
“He says when he taught Bashar, he was like an idiot,” explains Reem, translating for Taha. “Not an idiot in terms of he didn’t know what was happening, but he had zero personality. He didn’t really have charisma. He would come to the academy just like anybody else, dressed not even properly. No one thought that he would actually turn into what he is.”
“If we knew, I would have assassinated him,” adds Reem, speaking for herself. “If I had a crystal ball to tell me he was going to be this in a few years, I would have definitely killed him.”
Despite the obvious anger from his wife, Dylan, through marriage, has been adopted into a family of peaceful protesters, activists and dissidents bent on seeing the Syrian regime fall. Reem has close family members and friends who are still involved with nonviolent activism inside the country. Her cousin Zai-doun al-Zouabi, whom Dylan calls his “muse” and dedicates the song “Syria Healer” to, reported on the ground for CNN and was imprisoned by the regime twice, held in solitary confinement for months in a cell so small he couldn’t even lie down.
“I think actually the regime focuses on that kind of activism, because they really don’t want the revolution to come across like it’s all these intellectuals who are asking for freedom,” says Reem. “All the lawyers and intellectuals and doctors and professors go to jail because those are the people they’re really afraid of.”
While Reem first thought it unsafe to return home because of her family’s role in the resistance, her husband has now made a prospective trip even more dangerous. Dylan has become something of an underground celebrity in the country, old friends of Reem’s telling her to listen to his music, unaware that the two are married.
“I can’t go back home because of my own views and my family history with activism, but now I can’t even go back home because of him,” she says with pride. “They probably know who he is, have his name at all the borders.”
The Syrian civil war is not black-and-white, nor is it plainly good versus evil. Rather, what started as citizens speaking out for basic human freedoms has turned into a proxy war for sides so splintered and fragmented that it is, indeed, hard to make out a light at the end of the tunnel, easy for one who cares so much to feel like he’s drowning.
“The one thing that most people don’t understand is that Syria is the Brooklyn of the Middle East. It has all sorts of Christian sects, it has a whole variety of Shiite sects,” says Marc Ginsberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and White House Middle East adviser. “Every ethnic group and every clan has its own militia. The country is completely pockmarked by different battle lines.”
This conflict in Syria is one of regimes and rebels, Sunnis and Shiites, Islamists and secularists, despots and democrats. The United States, Russia, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda (among others) all have deep-rooted interests in what happens in the country. And meanwhile, amidst the ancient tribalism and geopolitics, innocent people are being murdered by the thousands.
Dylan Connor has toured the U.S. playing benefit shows for Syria. This summer he will go to Jordan and Turkey to teach displaced Syrian children to play music. All of the proceeds from his album are going to aid the war-torn country. He cannot stop the killing, but Syrians will continue to sing his songs in the streets, drawing inspiration for the cause of democracy. He wants to tell the stories that otherwise would be forgotten.
“That’s what motivates me to sing these songs now,” he says. “I can’t sit still knowing what’s happening.”
Dylan Connor's Song 'Blood Like Fire' Evokes Syrian Civil War's Dark Heart