Zaid Jabri’s father had studied theater in East Berlin, taking advantage of the historically strong and friendly relations between Syria and the Soviet Union and the cultural exchange opportunities they offered. Returning to Syria, he brought home a great treasure: a collection of classical 33 RPM LP’s. When Zaid was nine years old, he put Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana on the phonograph, and, enchanted by the O Fortuna movement, played it over and over again. Worried that the boy would burn a hole in the vinyl by putting the needle on the same spot, his father ordered him to listen to the whole piece. “And that,” says Jabri, “is how my love of classical music began.”
He played the rest of his father’s LP’s and decided to take up the violin. But the Syrian composer Nuri Iskandar remarked to his parents that the boy had the mind of a creator, not of a performer. As there was no way to study composing in Syria, Jabri, upon graduation from high school, applied to the Academy of Music in Krakow, which was known for its high level and relative artistic freedom amongst conservatories in the Soviet bloc. Entering the school at the age of 19, he first spent a year learning the Polish language and history. He then followed the rigorous five-year combined Bachelors/Masters program and went on to earn his Ph.D. at the Krakow Academy, where he taught from 2008 to 2015. He was twice elected to the board of the Polish Composers’ Union, and his prolific career as an award-winning composer and lecturer has taken him around the world.
In late 2015, a new government of the extreme xenophobic right wing took power in Poland, and Jabri’s status as a “foreigner”—his naturalized Polish citizenship notwithstanding—caused him to lose his job at the Academy of Music, along with other indignities and threats the current regime levels at unwanted ethnic groups.
Luckily, the United States opened its arms to him. In short order, he was awarded a Bellagio Residency by the Rockefeller Foundation in Italy, a stint as a Weiss International Visiting Scholar at Barnard College in New York, a MacDowell Colony Artist’s Residency in New Hampshire, and a fellowship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University, which will continue until the end of this academic year.
Last December in Cologne, Zabri’s Song Without Words for cello and orchestra was part of a concert in which former members of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, now war refugees without work, were recruited from all over Europe to play with the West German Radio Orchestra. As he had done on several occasions during those first months of his Radcliffe residency, Zabri flew to Germany to attend this performance of his work.
But when in February of this year the German Symphony Orchestra invited him to Berlin for a recording of a new clarinet concerto, he felt it was too dangerous for him to leave the United States. The President’s first executive order banning Syrian visitors made it unclear whether he would be allowed back into the country, despite his current visa and the fact that he has Polish citizenship. He hopes the situation will change for the better so that he can continue visiting the United States, but for the meantime, his next move is to Norway. There, he has been offered a newly created position as composer in residence at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, which plans to establish a top-notch conservatory of music.
Though he is a celebrated international artist, Jabri can relate to the plight of refugees, which is the subject of Yvette Christiansë’s additional lyrics in A Garden Among the Flames. “I’m an E.U. citizen because of my Polish citizenship, but look where that got me! My Syrian citizenship is causing me problems in the United States. Norway seems like a lovely place where I’ll be left in peace to teach and create my music. If not—well, I’ll be on the lookout for another planet!”