Airports

KELSEY WAXMAN

2005

Kinan Azmeh is queuing.

It is after midnight, and the Julliard student has just off-boarded a flight from Damascus at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He navigates a sea of passengers spilling out of planes throughout the arrivals hall and into the chaotic hordes of Passport Control. Tired and sleep deprived, Azmeh joins the queue meant for foreign passport holders, hulking and crawling along at half the speed as the one meant for U.S. citizens.

Time drags on. The queue stills. Eventually, agents stalk up and down the row, tapping travellers on the shoulder. A new queue emerges—it is browner, more foreign. From his new position, Azmeh checks his watch. An hour has gone by. He will miss the late train back to Brooklyn.

The agents circle back, start asking for passports. Shoulders are tapped; a fourth queue forms. The brownest, most foreign. A Syrian passport holder himself, Azmeh is soon directed to join them. Eventually, they are directed away from Passport Control and into a back hallway with blacked-out windows.

This is how I imagine it, at least, as someone who’s never been singled out in the airport for the colour of my skin or passport. In reality, Azmeh will tell me, it’s not that dramatic, just a long night of sitting and waiting. He removes a booklet of staff paper from his backpack. “I decided to use my time in that room creatively,” he will tell National Public Radio, over a decade later.[1] Over the course of the next five hours, he will compose “Airports”.

2017

This song is for all those who are stuck in the back of airports because of their different skin colour, beliefs, or passports.” [2]

This is how multi-award-winning clarinettist and composer Kinan Azmeh introduces his composition “Airports” to a packed concert hall in Beirut. It is his first solo show since wrapping up a tour with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble last week. Upon Azmeh’s arrival in Beirut, President Donald Trump issued an executive order barring the entry of citizens from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria, into the U.S. The arrival of new Syrian refugees has been outlawed indefinitely.

Up until 2011, Azmeh travelled frequently between Brooklyn and Damascus, his hometown, where his parents still reside. His public criticisms of the Assad regime in the wake of the Arab Spring have resulted in threats of detention from his own government, were he ever to return. Azmeh’s career has taken on new meaning throughout the years of the Syrian conflict. In 2015, he became the face of the United Nation’s “#WhatDoesItTake” campaign to end the war which has resulted in the death and displacement of hundreds of thousands. In the last year, he has performed for audiences of refugees in Jordan, the U.S., Germany, and the Netherlands. His piece “Airports”, in particular, is received as a call to resistance in the era of travel bans, armed borders, and mass deportations.

After the concert, which is met with a standing ovation, Azmeh wanders backstage, scrolling through messages on his phone. He is supposed to board a flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport in five hours. He is a U.S. green card holder now, lucky to have received one after the expiry of his student visa, but it is not clear whether that will be enough to allow him back into the country in light of the new restrictions. He fires off a quick, light-hearted text to a friend in Brooklyn, a Syrian-American writer, asking her if she’s looking for a new studio apartment, in case he’s stuck in Lebanon for a while.[3] Azmeh thinks, briefly, of Damascus, just two hours away by car. He books a taxi to the airport.

2019

My little sister Katia and I are keeping each other company, listening to “Airports” together on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Katia is working the reed of a clarinet with a knife. I am hunched over a keyboard, thinking about music and displacement. Over video chat, I ask a stupid question:

“Have you ever asked Kinan whether he considers himself a refugee?”

Katia eyeballs me. “Oh yes. I’ve definitely stopped mid-concerto, turned around and asked ‘Hey, Kino, do you consider yourself a refugee?’”

My sister is one of those insufferably precocious music prodigies and Kinan was one of her first teachers. They met nearly a decade ago at a summer music residency in New England, originally designed to bring musicians from countries in conflict with one another together to make music. They do not see each other often anymore; Kinan is usually touring in Europe, and Katia is at conservatory in the U.S. When they are together, they play; they seldom speak.

I explain the assignment to her again. We have to pick a song that represents, for us, refugeehood and forced migration, for the class playlist. I explain the rationale behind choosing “Airports” again. It was composed by a Refugee, before he was a Refugee, but draws on themes of Refugeeness, and is subversive in that it doesn’t sound like Refugee Music, as it was written by a Julliard-trained, world-renowned classical musician.

“You know, when the war first started, Kinan stopped composing,” Katia says. “He never wanted to write Refugee Music.”

At the same time as we are having this conversation, on yet another corner of the globe, Kinan is in an airport, queuing.

He is on his way to Seattle for the world premiere of a new concerto with the city’s symphony and other members of the Grammy-winning Silk Road Ensemble. He has spent a lot of time in Seattle since 2017, when the orchestra first reached out to him, days after his successful return to the U.S. from Lebanon, to perform in their “Music Beyond Borders: Voices from the Seven” benefit concert, which featured artists from the seven countries targeted by the Trump administration’s travel ban. Kinan has expressed his gratitude to the city and its commitment to activism: it was a ruling from a 9th circuit judge in Seattle that stalled the travel ban and allowed him to return to his home in New York City.[4]

The premiere will be met with a standing ovation. Kinan will end the concert with an encore rendition of “Wedding”, a piece he wrote before the ban, before the war, when he could still travel freely to his home in Syria. Chaotic yet mathematical, precise yet inviting to all kinds of improvisational encounters, the piece was inspired by the wedding ceremonies Kinan witnessed in the Syrian countryside. On this night, like many others, he will dedicate the piece to Syrians who have been courageous enough—in spite of the war, the rupture, and the loss—to love, find love, and be loved.

A Note

This piece draws on my conversations with Kinan Azmeh, Elaine Waxman, and Katia Waxman. The three vignettes represent three different manifestations of the relationship between the composition, the composer, myself (the writer), and Refugeeness. On the subject of literary ethnographic representations, Kathleen Stewart writes: “There is room in this writing for voices to come and go…Necessarily recursive, it fashions itself like a tuning fork that learns its note through small, incremental experiments made in fits and starts.”[5] In a world that demands grand, symphonic representations of the Syrian Refugee Crisis (whose Crisis?), I instead offer this single note of dedication to a friend.


[1] Hall, R. “This Celebrated Clarinettist Worries Trump’s Border Rules Could Bar Him from Foing Home to New York.” Public Radio International. 1 February 2017. Accessible at: https://www.pri.org/stories/2017-02-01/celebrated-clarinetist-worries-trump-s-border-rules-could-bar-him-going-home-new

[2] Clarinets Unlimited, “Airports – Kinan Azmeh & Clarinets Unlimited” YouTube. 19 July 2017. Accessible at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_jbrGw4QRUw

[3] Malek, A. “For Syrian Americans, the Travel Ban Feels Alarmingly Familiar.” The New Yorker, 5 Feburary 2017. Accessible at: https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/for-syrian-americans-the-travel-ban-feels-alarmingly-familiar

[4] Polk, L. “Clarinet Virtuoso Kinan Azmeh Premieres a New Concerto with the Seattle Symphony.” The Stranger. 6 December 2018. Accessible at: https://www.thestranger.com/art-and-performance-winter-2018/2018/12/06/36760942/clarinet-virtuoso-kinan-azmeh-premieres-a-new-concerto-with-the-seattle-symphony

[5] Stewart, K. “Epilogue” from ed. Pandian, A. and McLean, S. Crumpled Paper Boat: Experiments in Ethnographic Writing. Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2017.

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