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Syria’s protest anthem

The New York Times yesterday reported on the origins of Syria’s protest anthem, “Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar,” or “Come on Bashar, Leave.” While there’s certainly no confusion over the song’s blunt lyrics and direct message, little is known about the person who created it. As reporter Anthony Shadid points out, however, there is near consensus on one point:

A young cement layer who sang it in protests was dragged from the Orontes River this month with his throat cut and, according to residents, his vocal cords ripped out. Since his death, boys as young as 6 have offered their rendition in his place. Rippling through the virtual communities that the Internet and revolt have inspired, the song has spread to other cities in Syria, where protesters chant it as their own.

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The man pulled from the river was named Ibrahim Qashoush, and he was from the neighborhood of Hadir. He was relatively unknown before July 4, when his body was found, then buried in the city’s Safa cemetery, near the highway.

Video on YouTube, impossible to verify, shows a man purported to be Mr. Qashoush with his head lolling from a deep gash in his throat. Residents say security forces shot him, too. But people in Hama dwelled on the detail that stands as a metaphor for the essence of decades of dictatorship: That the simple act of speaking is subversive. “They really cut out his vocal cords!” exclaimed a 30-year-old pharmacist in Hama who gave his name as Wael. “Is there a greater symbol of the power of the word?”

In a rebellion whose leaders remain largely nameless and faceless, Mr. Qashoush has become somewhat celebrated in death. “The nightingale of the revolution,” one activist called him.

This has become the legend at least. There are some discrepancies as to whether the real singer was someone else with the same name. Others insist that the song was actually written by a 23-year-old part-time electrician and student named Abdel-Rahman, also known as Rahmani, who the Times managed to find.

Sitting in a basement room, Rahmani celebrated what he called “days of creativity.”

As the protests in Hama grew bolder and bigger last month, he said crowds grew bored with the old chants — “Peaceful, peaceful, Christians and Muslims,” “There is no fear after today” and “God, Syria, freedom, and nothing else.” Speeches were not much better. Activists soon managed to bring sound equipment, powered by generators tucked in the trunk of a car, he said, and he wrote his first song, “Syria Wants Freedom.”

“Come on Bashar, Leave,” followed, though he and his brother Mohammed argued for a week over whether he should keep a marginally derogatory line, “Hey Bashar, to hell with you.” It stayed, and now draws the biggest applause, cheers and laughter.

“What I say, everyone feels in their hearts, but can’t find words to express,” he said, dragging on a cigarette. “We were brought up afraid to even talk about politics.”

No matter the song’s originator, the true origins of the song seem to be years of pent up political angst. Such lyrics as “Hey Bashar, to hell with you” may seem juvenile to us, but they are exhilarating to the people of Syria who no longer have fear to speak their mind. Even the slightly negative tone of the song hasn’t prevented it from reaching and affecting people more in the middle or even on the regime’s side.

“It’s started to spread all over the country,” said a former Republican Guard officer who has joined the protests in Homs, an hour or so from Hama. “It keeps getting more popular.”

Shadid sums it up best when he says:

Tunisia can claim the slogan of the Arab revolts: “The people want to topple the regime.” Egyptians made famous street poetry that reflected their incomparable wit. “Come on Bashar, Leave,” is Syria’s contribution to the pop culture of sedition, the raw street humor that mingles with the furor of revolt and the ferocity of crackdown.