by Dellair Youssef
In the heart of Damascus, near the city center known as Marjah Square, (according to the popular name) or Martyrs Square, (according to the official name) and built around an ancient bathhouse known as Qarmani Bath, lay Al-Qarmani market. With its numerous shops, one could buy everything one needs in life; from watch batteries to furnishings for an entire house. All this before the municipality demolished the market entirely, building an ugly garden around it and preserving only the remains of the ancient bath.
In the heart of the Al-Qarmani market, was a covered section adorned with zinc-plated shingles. It housed various shops which sold vegetables, spices, clothes, cheap sandwiches, fish tanks, watches, and everything that the dreamer would not think of in a diversified market. A few steps separated the entrance to the market from Al-Thawra Street. One would descend into it and enter a labyrinth of smells and colors, then exit from the other end, which connected to the fish market and the bird market, overlooking Marjah Square.
Near the covered market was my grandfather’s shop, which was demolished along with the rest of the shops as part of the municipality’s organizational plan in 2004. There I lived with my brothers, uncles and cousins during my childhood and early teenage years – or at least in the summers, when I worked there.
The First Cassette
One of those various shops in the covered market contained hundreds, if not thousands, of non- original cassette tapes. The name of the shop, according to my tired memory, was Al Mahata Records.
Available at Station Recordings were whichever cassettes one desired. There were cassettes containing religious songs, folk songs, and wedding songs. There were cassette tapes with songs by Umm Kulthum, Fairuz, Muhammad Abdel Wahab, and all the prominent male and female singers of classical Arabic music. At the same time, the shop contained cassettes of singers and artists that had not been heard of before, aside from within a narrow local context. For example, local wedding singers such as Omar Suleiman, who would later became a global star singing in the venues of Paris, London, Berlin and New York, and other singers who preceded Sariya Al- Sawas in local fame, whose voices had spread in taxis that circle the city streets tirelessly.
In addition to those, we could find non-original cassettes featuring Arab pop artists, whose fame reached even the most remote home in a remote village; names like Amr Diab, Kazem El Saher and George Wassouf.
In one of those years in the early 2000s, my brother, who was a few years older than me, was giving private lessons to one of our neighbors, a girl who was two years younger than him. When the girl fell in love with him, she gifted him an original cassette tape of Kazem El Saher’s new album as an expression of her love. My brother wouldn’t let me touch the cassette or listen to the songs unless he had already listened to them first.
I got angry with him, and we fought repeatedly over allowing me to listen to the tape. Kazem El- Saher was our favorite singer at the time. We had memorized all of his songs by heart, as if we were lovers filling the universe with love. With my brother’s obstinacy, I decided to buy the cassette tape for myself. Because we were young, and because we were poor, I could not buy the original, so Al Mahata Records saved the day with their cheap, non-original copies.
This is how we ended up having two cassettes of the same album. One was an original owned by my brother, featuring a thick cover with beautiful colors. The inside was comprised of small full- color pages and folded pictures of Kazem El Saher, as well as the names of the songs, the lyrics, the writers, and the musical arrangers. Most importantly, the lyrics were printed in the form of poems, that when read, one could understand the meaning of each song in great detail. Even the words that one doesn’t understand when listening to the song without knowing the lyrics?
The other copy which I owned, the non-original, had the same outer cover, but in faded colors, without additional pages on the inside. So we didn’t know the lyrics of the songs, or even the names of the poets, the authors of these words. But my joy to own this cassette was great. It was the first cassette I had ever bought.
Perhaps due to this memory, and due to other things that I remember from my childhood and early adolescence in Al-Thawra Street and Al-Qarmani Market, that place occupies an essential place in my heart and memory. And what is memory if not sounds, images, smells and experiences? All of these things were given to me by Al-Qarmani market with generosity.
Cassette Stands in Exhibitions
Among these memories is that of my grandfather’s shop on Al-Thawra Street. The shop had once imported and resold used clothing (bale), but when the Damascus governorate forbade this form of trade in 1996, the shop was forced to transition to the selling of socks and leather belts. After some time, the Damascus governorate decided to permit the trade again, but my grandfather’s luck had already gone bankrupt.
I don’t know how, but one of my uncles, through some of his acquaintances, was able to reserve a place for our shop in one of the temporary mobile market stalls that were held in the suburbs of Damascus; in Douma, Irbeen and other cities and towns surrounding the capital. These markets were usually frequented in the evening by urban families seeking a breather from their towns, which lacked public spaces for people to meet. This small, temporary market was divided into overlapping streets, and on each street would be a number of hastily made shops, or platforms. In these shops were various goods, such as clothing, food, household utensils and toys. There were also a number of them that specialized in selling cassette tapes copied from old Sony or Panasonic tape recorders, which were the most prevalent brands in Syria at the time.
On a number of occasions, I’d go with one of my brothers or uncles to these cassette sellers in order to buy new tapes to listen to in our house, which was already filled with tapes. We would ask the seller about cassettes by Majida El Roumi or by Muhammad Munir – two artists who, ironically at that time, formed a sort of ‘alternative music’ movement in Syria, before eventually becoming mainstream music heard across all satellite channels, local radio stations and amateur singing programs.
The seller would often answer us: “Who are they? Where do you get such names from?” The seller did not know of Mohamed Mounir – one of the most famous singers in Egypt, despite the presence of hundreds of tapes of hundreds of male and female singers in front of him on the table. This is because he listened to and enjoyed other types of songs. Songs with lyrics like: ‘Humiliation, humiliation, humiliation, path of passion, humiliation, God curse the father of love, who wasted their whole life’, sung by the ‘king of humiliation’, Mufid Tahtah. Or the song: ‘Warda, oh Warda, step onto the cotton, so I might see you at the north side of the field’, which is one of the most famous songs ever to come out of northeastern Syria… or the songs of the then-rising artist, Wafik Habib, or cassettes by the local Ghouta singers in Damascus, such as Abu Naim Al- Qabouni, Abu Zaid Afouf, and Mahrous Al-Shgari.
In our house, it was a little different. Like any Kurdish household, music plays a big role. From my grandfather, who would listen to cassettes whenever he wanted to enjoy moments of life; tapes with classical Kurdish songs, recorded by singers, known to all Kurds, such as his friend Muhammad Sheikho, or Muhammad Arif Jaziri and others… to my father’s and mother’s cassette tapes, which usually featured artists such as Shivan Parwer, Nazim al-Ghazali, Fouad Salem, and other Kurdish and Iraqi singers (footnote: my mother is of Iraqi origin), who melt the heart with their voices and songs.
Of course, our house also contained tapes of Fairouz, Umm Kulthum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez, Asmahan and other famous Arab classical singers. The new generation, my Brothers and I, added to this, our cassette tapes of foreign music, such as Backstreet Boys, Celine Dion, and tapes by Ciwan Haco, Kazem El Saher and others.
However, perhaps the first phrases of the ‘resistance’ that were imprinted in my memory were the ones printed on the covers of cassettes issued by Al-Quds Radio (Jerusalem Radio). All of these were tapes featuring Moltazema (Committed Songs) by Marcel Khalife, Samih Shukair and other Al Fann Al Multazam (The Committed Art) singers. The phrase: ‘On the path to the liberation of Earth and Man’, was printed on the front of the cassette cover. I do not remember today the shape or color of the cover. I only remember this sentence, and songs such as: ‘I walk upright, I walk with a raised gait, I walk with olives in my palm, and my coffin on my shoulder, demonstrations fill the streets and alleys’ … and: ‘A Grenade on my waist and a Kalashnikov in my hands, and the world is on fire’.
Cassettes and Love Songs
I grew up and became a teenager who loved, adored, and listened to songs that melt hearts. Computers became more prevalent. Some homes had computers. At the time, people listened to music and songs on compact discs, called ‘CDs’. Those who did not own a computer owned devices that could play CDs. But despite this, the reliance on cassette tapes still remained more widespread, and the cassette continued to be the primary means of listening to music. And cassette tape stores were still spread throughout the country.
Personalizing a custom-made cassette tape was common in the early years of the millennium. One of us would go to a store specialized in sound recordings and ask the worker there to make a compilation tape comprised of songs by multiple singers. The cost of such a service was usually not great. One, I remember going to a shop and asking them to compile songs by Amr Diab, Wael Kfoury, and Ehab Tawfik’s most popular song: ‘Titraja Fiya (You Beg of Me)’, as well as other songs that had great romantic popularity in the early years of the twenty-first century. I got my custom-made romance tape, me, the teenager who thought the world belonged to my feelings. So I sent the tape to a ‘female friend’; the daughter of a family friend of ours. She was at least ten years older than me. I thought I loved her, albeit, it was one-sided. She loved me – perhaps as a sister loves a younger brother, but I had misunderstood her signs, perceiving that she was reciprocating with celibate love.
The Cassette Inside the Walkman
In those years, the ‘Walkman’ was the coolest device among youth. Someone who owned a Walkman was like someone who owned the ball when we were kids; controlling us, our playing times and our team divisions, like when we played soccer in the streets.
I don’t know how, but I remember owning a Walkman, despite my family’s poverty in those years. Or maybe it was owned by my brother, I don’t know. It’s become confused after all these years. But recently, among my partner’s old stuff, I discovered a Walkman similar to the one I’d originally had. We bought new batteries to power it up for our three-year-old daughter, so that she might listen to songs recorded on a few dusty cassettes…
Do I call all of this ‘The Nostalgia of the cassette’?