LONDON: 1980 to 1988. 1990 to 1991. 2003 to today. These are the dates that are seared into the mind of Iraqi-Egyptian musician Nadin Al-Khalidi — the dates of the wars that changed her life completely and displaced or killed thousands in the country where she was born.
Al-Khalidi has risen above the sorrow and loss to make a life as a successful musician in a completely different culture to the one she was born into. She arrived in Sweden as a refugee in 2001, having fled Baghdad with her sister. By that time, they were orphans.
After the end of the first Gulf War in 1991, the family had moved from war-ravaged Baghdad to Cairo to get medical treatment for Al-Khalidi’s mother, who had been diagnosed with cancer. Sadly, she died soon after their arrival.
The family stayed in Egypt for several years before returning to Baghdad in 1997. But any hopes they had of living normal, peaceful lives were soon shattered.
“The situation in Iraq became unbearable. I had already witnessed many horrible things during the two wars. Early in 2001, there were public executions of women who were suspected of being prostitutes — though it later came to light there was a political rather than religious agenda behind these charges. I witnessed the execution of a woman right outside my building in Baghdad,” Al-Khalidi tells Arab News.
After the death of their father in 2001, Al-Khalidi knew she and her sister had to get out of Iraq somehow. After a tense, often frightening crossing into Jordan, the two young women finally ended up in a refugee camp in Sweden. It was there that Al-Khalidi began to rebuild her life, finding solace in music.
In Baghdad she had studied violin, learning to play Western classical music. It was in Sweden that she was first introduced to “world music” (a catch-all term that basically covers anything that isn’t of Western origin) —including Arabic music.
“I discovered that singing in Arabic — my mother tongue — really moves me,” she recalls. “It taps deep emotions and feelings.”
Al-Khalidi eventually settled in Malmo. And it was there that she met the five Swedish musicians and sound engineer with whom she would eventually form the successful group Tarabband.
“Our name comes from the Arabic expression ‘tarab,’ which means ‘ecstasy through music’ played by wandering musicians or troubadours” she explains.
Tarabband’s sound is a mix of haunting melodies and the kind of rhythms that make you want to leap out of your chair and dance, as Arab News witnessed at the band’s performance during this month’s Arab Women Artists Now (AWAN) Festival in London. But beneath the celebratory vibe, Al-Khalidi is committed to using her voice to speak for the displaced and the oppressed. “In Tarabband, we are always trying to get a balance in creating music which you can dance to as well as conveying serious messages,” she says.
Her songs, she told The Guardian in 2016, are based on “my nightmares and my PTSD, my relationships and loyalty issues — the fact I can’t have light relationships.”
Her intense focus on her music and her commitment to acting as a voice for displaced people and refugees has, she admits, taken its toll.
“Last year I collapsed. I woke up one morning and many realizations came to me all at once: I am now forty, I have no family, I am constantly touring and my priorities in life go mainly to my music projects,” she says. “But this is what I choose to do. And there is also huge joy in it. It is very energy consuming. I am the only female in the band, which is challenging — and, of course, there are cultural differences there to deal with as well. But the whole band has a strong and solid humanitarian and artistic culture.”
She is striving for balance in her life, she says, but she recognizes that her true calling is music — and telling the stories of others who don’t have a voice. She is determined to stand up for those whose lives have been blighted by war and feels strongly that politicians should take responsibility for the consequences of their decisions.
“I have witnessed the impact on civilians — the destruction of a nation, a culture, dreams and hopes, the education and healthcare systems, infrastructure…” she says. “Their actions have resulted in continuous misery for those who have been attacked.”
She hopes that perhaps she can have the same impact on others that other musicians, particularly US folk singer and activist Joan Baez, had on her.
“I discovered (Baez) when I was 17. Her way of telling stories through songs and between songs really touched me,” says Al-Khalidi. “When I first got her tape I didn’t know who she was, but she was singing in a (bomb) shelter in Vietnam. You could hear the bombs in the background.
“Somehow I felt she was singing for me because I was witnessing terror myself,” Al-Khalidi continues. “Then — at the age of 32 — I met her backstage at a concert in Sweden. When I talked to her, I knew I was on the right path.”
Al-Khalidi was particularly moved by the rapturous reception Tarabband received after their recent performance at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. “Before we went, I was expecting misery and sadness,” she says. “But what I experienced was about 500 young girls who are stronger and happier than you. The moment you sing and play there are sparks coming out of their eyes.”
Al-Khalidi knows she was lucky: Her own experience as a refugee ended relatively happily, and she is full of praise for Sweden — the country that opened its doors to her and her sister in their time of need.
“I was given a very warm reception and ended up living with a well-known Swedish opera singer (Marianne Mörck). I lived with her for six years and I still call her ‘mamma.’”
But although her experience has been overwhelmingly positive — there have still been incidents that remind her of the abuse and intolerance many refugees face daily.
“Outside the bubble of my music and the people who know me I am just a random person on the street. I have dark hair and the family name Al-Khalidi,” she says. “I have been physically threatened by a Nazi type on a train.” And even people close to her have surprised her with their attitude to refugees in general, she says.
“I would say there is still this perception from some people in Europe that refugees are trying to invade Europe with their culture and religion,” she continues. “I am not religious, but I am a hard-working, responsible woman. I’m honest. I show up on time. I am loyal to society. I pay taxes and live an honorable life. My black hair does not define me as a human being. My actions, hard work, engagement and morals are what define me.”
As, too, does her ongoing willingness to express the hopes and fears of those who often do not have a platform to express them themselves.
“I have seen death and bombs, but my experience is nothing to the mental and physical experiences of many other people around the world,” she says. “Telling their stories is my duty and calling. The memories and trauma I have experienced, I can’t delete. But I can make some peace with my past by writing music and singing about it and by sharing stories of other people, especially with the Western world.”