Basil al-Sorouji

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Syrian Histories,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Turkey
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Basil al-Sorouji was born in Damascus in 1963. He spent the first two years of his life in Algeria then moved with his family to Saudi Arabia where his father worked as an Arabic teacher.

The family moved back to Damascus in 1970 so that the girls could pursue their education as there were no middle schools for girls in the Ha’il region. Basil stayed with his family in Damascus until 1978, when they traveled again to al-Kharj city in Saudi Arabia for his father’s work.

Basil recalls that all roads in the Ha’il region were dirt roads, and people used four-wheel drive vehicles to get about. “The Saudi society was still closed and predominantly Bedouin in nature. Despite this, we met and mingled with new communities through my father’s circle of acquaintances and friends because he was very active in literature, poetry, and theatrical training. There were Saudis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Egyptians and other nationalities. Being in contact with and open to new communities was a rich and beneficial experience.

In 1982, Basil enrolled in the College of Food and Agricultural Sciences at King Saud University and graduated after 4 years. He lived in a dorm on campus and gave English language lessons. He was engaged in university activities, such as theater and sports, in addition to his true passion for music - particularly western music such as rock, metal and blues. “To me, music is the window to the outside world,” he says. “I used to listen to German and French songs among others. However, I preferred rock and metal tracks because they addressed diverse and topical issues, such as speaking about Sarajevo or apologizing for the nuclear bombing of Japan. I used to buy cassette tapes and translate the songs into Arabic. I also read and took notes on how classical music developed into different styles.”

Basil believes that being exposed to the world’s cultures and arts educates people, makes them more humane, and motivates them to leave their mark on the world through what they do. However, he didn’t find anyone to share his passion for Western music with in Saudi Arabia’s conservative society. He spent all his time listening to music. Even during his vacations, he would spend 8 hours in his own world of Western bands. His father wasn’t happy with his actions, but he treated him in fairly. He would write down his comments on a piece of paper and leave it for Basil to read so that he knew what was bothering him.

Basil faced criticism from his friends and a few Sheikhs in Saudi Arabia due to his preference for Western style and songs. However, he felt that Western songs addressed important topics and touched on humanitarian issues while Arabic songs focused mostly on love and longing. Basil always tried to explain to his critics that foreign songs and music styles could not all be grouped into one category because they were very diverse and rich.

In 1989, Basil went back to Syria and spent almost 2 years unemployed. He then found work in a record store in the Abu Rummaneh region in Damascus. “I lived in Yarmouk camp, got married, and worked in many fields,” he says. “I felt I had more freedom in Syria, especially after I became independent from my family. For instance, I had long hair and listened to the Western music that I loved without any significant societal pressures. However, there were a few pressures, especially in Yarmouk camp where society was conservative and critical of those who were different. Nonetheless, there was a community of young people in Syria who were like me and whom I could relate to on different ideas and share insights on various topics with.”

After his second child was born, Basil decided to cut his long hair to fit in with the image of a father in society and at work. He says, “Maybe I’m a little bit different to those around me in a few aspects, such as feeling a great sense of responsibility towards everything whether general or specific, as well as staying away from trouble and violence when dealing with others. However, I am not against customs and traditions. Some of them are good and relevant and should be preserved, while some others must be reconsidered.”