Silenced and threatened in his homeland, a Sudanese singer finally found freedom among the frozen fjords of Norway.
It’s an early February evening in central Barcelona and 44-year-old Sudanese musician Abazar Hamid is about to perform in a tightly packed living room. Old mahogany furnishings have been pushed to the side to make space for eight rows of plastic foldaway chairs. Hamid is tall and thin with a wiry goatee that grows thicker around the sides of his mouth. Standing behind his keyboard, eyes fixated on the floor, he says, “We’re just a mile from the Mediterranean Sea. On the other side, not very far away, something horrible is happening. We need to help these people.”
The audience members, ready to hear his songs that promote peace in societies ripped apart by conflict, sit quietly and solemnly nod. Over an eight-year stretch Hamid himself was persecuted, censored and threatened for performing his music.
He sings his opening song in Arabic. Onlookers in the hallway crane their necks to catch a glimpse of the musician. Smiling at a round of applause, Hamid picks up his guitar and begins another, this one in English.
A few weeks later, Hamid is performing in Paris at Maison des Métallos, a renovated 1800s factory building where brass instruments were once produced. Today, it is a cultural center just a few blocks away from the Bataclan, site of last fall’s deadly terror attack. The Afro-Arab sounds float around the large room as the audience members, fanned out across the dance floor, bend their knees to the beat and tap their hands on their legs. After these two stops, Hamid plans on visiting some fifty European cities in the coming years – about one per month – to spread his anti-war message through song.
Born in Sudan, Hamid’s home for the last sixteen months has been Harstad, Norway, nearly two hundred miles above the Arctic Circle. Gone are the dusty deserts of Darfur where he compromised his safety by battling genocide with his music. So too the sticky heat of Egypt, where he lived for six years. This far north during the dead of winter the sun peeks its head above the horizon for just thirty minutes a day. Home now is a city built on frozen fjords surrounded by dark pine forests, the remotest of settings that finally provides safety for Hamid, his wife Nazik, and four children, Maawia, Mohammed, Maryam and Yousif.
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Abazar Hamid grew up in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital, during a period when Darfur, in Sudan’s west, was enveloped in some of the darkest days of a decades-long conflict. According to the United Nations, three hundred thousand people have died and 2.5 million have been displaced. Sudan’s president, Omar al-Bashir, has been indicted for genocide by the International Criminal Court following a campaign to eliminate black Africans and non-Arabs from Darfur.
While working as an architect in Khartoum, Hamid performed with Igd Elgalad, a twelve-piece pop band whose members wore mint green shirts and swayed side-to-side on stage. Initially he fit right in with the upbeat troupe and for two years wrote songs with them. But after the violent eruptions in Darfur, Hamid’s lyrics began to detail the devastation there and the need for peace and reconciliation. One song, “Abyei,” named after a fiercely contested village, contained the words:
My brother, let’s work together and live together in Abyei.
Arab, Africans: No different on religion or race.
While the verse might not have raised eyebrows in most countries, in Sudan, where black Africans had been ostracized and government-sponsored racial conflict was nearing a fever pitch, Hamid’s words were downright rebellious.
His bandmates “had too many negative experiences with the Sudanese regime,” he says. “Some of them have been arrested. Most of their songs had been censored at some point in the past.” Presented with Hamid’s controversial material, the band “did not want to take the risk.”
In 2004 he went solo, and also soon fell in love with and married Nazik Muawiaa, whom he worked with at the architecture firm. His first solo album Good Morning Home, released in 2007 and comprised of innocuous love songs, was inspired by his relationship with Nazik, and, thus, didn’t attract attention from the state’s “monitoring committee.”
Recording professionally in Sudan is a tricky task. Every record company is required to submit a demo to a government-run panel for approval prior to the final studio version being taped. “They don’t give you an explanation,” says Hamid. “There is no one to talk with.” The monitoring committee simply returns the recording, red-stamped if it has been deemed unacceptable. Criticism against a government policy, or, as Sudan’s restrictive censorship law states, songs that “use words or expressions contradicting religion, morality, good taste and good conscience,” receive a red stamp.
Good Morning Home passed the censorship test. The songs were played on national radio, helping Hamid build an audience. By late 2007 though, when it was time to write a follow-up, Hamid once again found himself penning protest and peace building songs. The first six tunes planned for the album – which would eventually be titled New Sudan – were rejected by the monitoring committee. Some of the title track’s lyrics read:
Let’s build a new Sudan,
With all the components of Sudan: Arab, African, Muslim, Christian,
This Sudan wouldn’t have to be divided.
Hamid hired a lawyer to contest the ruling, and eventually cut a deal with the government. “New Sudan” and another song, “Peace Darfur,” could be released, provided that new words were added to balance the meaning. The other four contested songs remained banned.
Frustrated, Hamid made a risky, life-changing decision: He left Khartoum and headed to Darfur.
One militia, heavily backed by the Sudanese government to quell the rebellion in Darfur goes by the nickname “The Devils on Horseback.” Officially called “Janjaweed,” these camel-and-horse-mounted militias have reportedly ridden into villages after a government air raid to rape women, slaughter men and steal everything in sight.
A Janjaweed call for battle often begins with singing. The Hakamat, a cadre of army supporters also known as the “Janjaweed Women” or “Hate Singers,” sometimes accompanies the plundering men as they move from village to village, hut to hut. Their songs preach bravery, hail bloodshed and highlight racial superiority.
Hamid came face-to-face with the Hakamat when Care International, a global development charity that works to promote peace and reconciliation within small communities throughout Darfur, arranged the meeting. He sat and listened to their lyrics. A portion of one verse stood out:
The blood of the black runs like war.
We take their goods, and we chase them from our area.
And our cattle will be in their land.
Despite the violence of their lyrics, Hamid was taken by their songs’ dynamics, and he recognized layers of musical history weaved together within the Hakamat’s tunes. Hamid says their compositions are “linked with different types of folk music. If you look at how they write the music, how they compose the music, how they use their traditional drums, and how they use backing vocals and clap, you can hear what is from an Arab tribe and what is from an African tribe.”
One day with the Hakamat gave Hamid the belief that his country could live in peace once again. “It’s an amazing thing: there was cooperation in this music,” he says. “You can put Arab and African together without any fighting.”
The Hakamat agreed to rehearse with Hamid. He suggested some changes though, offering his own lyrics to be sung over their African beats.
“My first session with the Janjaweed women would be my last,” says Hamid. After recording the song, he made a three-day trip to the International Criminal Court’s headquarters in the Netherlands with twelve other artists, musicians and journalists, to describe the nature and extent of censorship in Sudan.
On March 4, 2009, the Court called for President Al-Bashir’s arrest. A few days after the ruling, Care International was expelled from Sudan. Al-Bashir saw international charities as an extension of the justice system pursuing him. After being questioned by police, a friend of Hamid’s from Care International’s music program in Darfur rushed to see him in Khartoum. “He told me, ‘They have the picture of you with [Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC’s Chief Prosecutor],’” Hamid recalls. “‘They are arresting anyone who has links to him.’”
Hamid immediately went into hiding in Khartoum. Using his savings, and a little help from a fan employed at the airport, he acquired an exit visa. Within two weeks he had fled Sudan, landing in Cairo. His family soon followed.
“I don’t know whether it is fortunate or not,” Hamid says, “but I began to play with Cairo’s underground musicians. These people were some of the first to begin mobilizing for the revolution.”
Egypt, under then-President Hosni Mubarak, provided Hamid with a safe home. By day he worked as a music teacher with African and Middle Eastern refugees in camps on the outskirts of the city. At night he performed in venues throughout the city. He cultivated relationships with show bookers and travelled the country.
Escaping Sudan, however, didn’t mark the end of censorship for Hamid. “I couldn’t perform at just any place,” he says. “I always had to provide a list of what I was going to perform.” Often his playlists were returned with his political songs crossed out. Bar and restaurant owners, nervous at the prospect of angry religious spectators, would make sure his political material wasn’t heard.
Hamid was at home when Egypt’s president gave in to protester demands and resigned. “I got my whole family and went straight to Tahrir Square and celebrated with the Egyptians,” says Hamid, who performed with some of his new friends in a large tent there.
The Egyptian revolution had unseated a dictator. Egypt would hold a vote on a new constitution and fresh elections within a year. Amid the euphoric shouting and crying that afternoon, as flags were waved and traffic brought to a standstill, Hamid had no idea how precarious his life in Cairo would soon become.
Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate, was elected Egypt’s new president at the close of 2011. Post-revolution Egypt saw Islamist candidates win close to a majority of seats in both of Egypt’s parliamentary chambers, and cross-cultural peace-builder like Hamid found themselves under attack. Hamid’s wife Nazik and his four children – one of whom is autistic – began to receive threats on the street in the middle of the day from a neighbor who worked in the Sudanese embassy. “We know who your husband is,” Nazik was once told. “It’s time to send him back to Sudan.” The family relocated to another neighborhood but the threats followed them. From May 2011 to December 2014, Hamid moved his family ten times.
Not even their local mosque provided a secure place of refuge. Many times worshipers affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood came straight up to them and declared his music an act against God, while Sudanese-citizens attacked his affiliation with Ocampo. “There was one man,” says Hamid, “he came up to me, directly, to my face, and said, ‘I know everything about you and about your family. I know where you live. I know you have a disabled child. We can – if you continue with your music – kidnap him.’”
The constant relocation made life intolerable. Hamid was writing less and his children were not attending school.
In February 2013, he decided that life in Cairo had become too difficult. Through Freemuse and SafeMUSE, two NGOs that work to find safe havens for musicians, he applied for asylum in Europe. “I had heard that Harstad had declared itself the first ever ‘safe music haven’ in that year,” Hamid recalls. “They wanted to help persecuted musicians, so I applied.”
Nazik, about to give birth to her fourth child, Yousif, was told by doctors that she needed a Caesarean section. With a little help from Hamid’s fan at the Khartoum airport, Nazik snuck back into Sudan and gave birth safely, in the company of family.
In Egypt, Hamid heard back from Freemuse and SafeMUSE: his asylum application wasn’t successful. But on July 2, 2014, the city government of Harstad, where a former music teacher and French Horn player had recently become mayor, signed an agreement with the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), an organization working closely with the global literary organization, PEN (International). Harstad, home to the celebrated Arts Festival of North Norway, was to be the first in a network of thirteen Norwegian cities and more than fifty European cities to provide refugee assistance for musicians. Freemuse and SafeMUSE encouraged Hamid to reapply. “There was complete consensus on the city council on hosting a musician,” says Ole Reitov, a fan of Hamid’s and the executive director of Freemuse. Reitov credits the city with starting a movement: “Harstad has inspired other cities to host musician[s] or a composer or an artist, and that is very good.”
Hamid completed an application in September and on December 10, 2014 was on a plane bound for Norway – no people smugglers to pay, no boat to board, no camps to wait in. The Hamid family were some of the lucky ones.
“When I arrived, I thought I would be the only African in Harstad, but there are many refugees in this city,” Hamid says. “I asked myself: How come there are so many Africans here, all the way up north?”
A little further north of Harstad, Norway’s boarder with Russia has become a destination on the “Arctic Route” into Europe. Of the one-million-plus refugees who entered Europe last year, Norway gave refuge to 32,000. But while anti-immigrant right-wing parties are not succeeding in the polls in Norway, the state is hardening its stance on asylum claims. Now a country with “Europe’s strictest” rules, access to permanent residency has tightened, family reunifications are harder and the expulsion of rejected asylum cases has sped up. Hamid recognizes these challenges. ICORN can only provide the artists it helps with a two-year visa. After that, each artist needs to find alternative support.
While Hamid’s journey has been much easier than that of many other refugees, his long-term future hangs in the balance. He doesn’t know how much longer he will be able to stay in Norway, but remains confident it will work out.
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Though Hamid is constantly traveling – he performed at the Stockholm Library in Sweden on May 7th – he and his family aren’t moving anymore. At the Voksenopplæring language school in Harstad, he helps use music as a tool to integrate new arrivals. “There has been a positive response working with the refugees,” says Hamid. “The first problem was the low levels of integration between the refugees. Before you saw the Sudanese sitting on one table, and then Syrians on another table, and the Somalis on a different one.” But he says that when he started working with the refugees, using music to teach the language, they become more integrated. “They are working together and then they communicate with the local population.”
Cathrine Helland, an ICORN official working in Norway, says Hamid’s influence is already being felt around Europe. “His presence and visibility, with the clear message conveyed in his music, has a double effect, which we particularly noticed at the concert in Paris,” she says. “He has become a role model and generates self-respect for many of the young Sudanese refugees.”
Hamid is also working closely with local Norwegian music groups, and is often their only contact with refugees. He plays with Harstad’s gospel choir in the city’s Cultural House, where a group of twenty blond, middle-aged Norwegians in thick cotton sweaters assemble to sing his song “We Need Peace” in unison. When he isn’t with the gospel choir or other migrants, he is visiting schools or collaborating with musicians from the local indigenous group, the Sami.
“The first day I came, I couldn’t walk on the snow,” says Hamid. “I fell many times. But, as a family, we are happy here.” Hamid’s children are already speaking Norwegian and Nazik is retraining as an architect.
Far from home, Hamid is still bringing communities together, one song at a time. “There might be only half an hour of light here in Norway,” he says, “but there is the light of freedom and a warmth of being in a safe place.”
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Christopher Finnigan is an English writer and journalist based in Barcelona. He has been published in the Guardian, Independent and Roads and Kingdoms. He tweets at @chrisjfinnigan.