After ISIL and Turkish bombs, refugee sisters sing of Kurdish sorrow

In this picture taken on May 1, 2023, Syrian-Kurdish refugees and musicians Norshean Salih (L), 23, and her sister Perwin Salih, 20, talk in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. Onstage in Iraq's Kurdish capital of Arbil, two Syrian sisters played the melancholy music of their people, the Kurds -- melodies that echo their own story of suffering and displacement. (Photo by Safin HAMID / AFP)

When the Syrian Kurdish sisters Perwin and Norshean Salih sing about loss, it comes from the heart.

Aged in their early 20s, they have twice been driven from their family home in the northern Syrian town of Kobane — once by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and again by the threat of Turkish bombs.

Now they have found a safe haven in northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, where they carve out a living by performing the often melancholy music of their people in a restaurant.

“Kurdish folk songs are our favorite type of music,” said Perwin Salih, 20, who plays the santoor, tambourine and Armenian flute. “They tell the plight of the Kurds, the wars, the tragedy of displacement and the killings.”

The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group of between 25 and 35 million people, are spread mainly across Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran, with no state of their own.

They have long complained of oppression but endured special horrors during Syria’s 12-year civil war, especially the onslaught of ISIL.

When the jihadists attacked Kobane in late 2014, and heavy fighting turned the town into a symbol of Kurdish resistance, the sisters fled across the border to Turkey.

After several unhappy months in İstanbul, they moved to the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakır in Turkey’s southeast, where they continued their music studies.

They moved back home in 2019, after Syrian Kurdish-led forces drove ISIL out of their last territorial stronghold, with US backing.

Turkey has kept targeting parts of northern Syria in what Ankara says is a fight against Kurdish militants.

Once, the sisters say, mortar shells hit their family home, thankfully without exploding.

‘ISIL still haunts my dreams’

Late last year, when Turkey launched major air and artillery strikes, the Salih sisters fled once more, this time to Iraq, where they and two more siblings now rent a modest two-room house in Arbil.

The two women said they grew up in a household of music lovers, with their mother singing to them before bedtime while their father played the tambourine.

But the trauma they have endured since has left deep scars.

“A vision of ISIL still haunts me,” said Perwin. “Men in black clothes, holding black flags, on a quest to turn life itself black.”

At a recent concert, Perwin played the flute while Norshean, 23, captivated the audience with a Kurdish folk tune about displacement.

“I am a stranger,” she sang softly. “Without you, mother, my wings are broken. I am a stranger, and life abroad is like a prison.”

Norshean, a classical music aficionado, also plays the piano, guitar and kamanja, an ancient Persian string instrument, and dreams of making it as a violinist.

But for now she has recurring nightmares of the jihadists.

“ISIL still haunts my dreams,” she told AFP.

‘We cried while we played’

On their latest escape from Kobane, the sisters faced another nightmare.

At the border, Syrian soldiers demanded that they play, warning that they would confiscate the instruments if they didn’t like the music.

“We cried while we played, and when we were done they smiled and said: Now you can pass,” recounted Norshean.

The sisters now mainly perform at a restaurant called Beroea, an ancient name for the once-vibrant Syrian city of Aleppo.

Co-owner Riyad Othman said he was not surprised by the dangers the women have had to face.

A Syrian Kurd himself, he said his people “spend their entire life fleeing, estranged and suffering.”

The wandering sisters dream of one day returning home.

“I hope … the war will end, so we can be free, so we can return to our homes to play music and teach music to the children,” said Norshean.

“This will be good to revive people’s souls.”

© Agence France-Presse

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