Saman Haddad came to Germany at the age of 13 as the child of Iraqi refugees. Now, he's a well-known cultural figure in Bonn, unafraid to do things his own way.
In a room in the middle of the city center of Bonn, Germany, Saman Haddad sits behind a transparent screen, singing. Hans-Joachim Büsching, clarinetist in the Beethoven Orchestra, stands in front of the plastic screen and, with the help of his instrument, demonstrates how best to approach the singing at this point in the piece. Around them a polyphony of European and Middle Eastern instruments is playing: A violin, guitars, an oud and a Nay flute, among others.
Haddad, a lively man with curly black hair and a winning smile, is the organizer of the workshop "1001 Takt - Zwischen Bonn und Babylon" ("1001 Measures between Bonn and Babylon"), part of the Beethoven anniversary year BTHVN2020. In the workshop, musicians from different musical traditions work with themes from Beethoven's 4th Symphony, which Büsching and the musician Bassem Hawar, who is of Arab descent, have arranged.
"Something very important is happening here," Büsching tells DW, "people from different cultures are communicating with music." The goal of today's exercise, he said, is to intertwine the Beethoven fragments with an Arabic folk song. In the latter, "there is a completely different understanding, a different interpretation of notes," he says. "In this workshop, we want to bring listening back into Beethoven — the music itself, and not what was notated."
A tireless worker for the arts
Understanding nuances, creating connections and breaking down rigid social structures are Haddad's specialties. In Bonn, he has become a local celebrity — and not just because of his two bands, the 30-piece Kültürklüngel Orkestar and the "transnational trio" called Golden Kebab. Haddad is more than a musician: He is a tireless worker for the arts with a seemingly endless amount of energy.
In the last few years, he has organized concerts on boats and on double-decker buses, and has put on intercultural events and spontaneous outdoor "gala dinners" in downtown Bonn. He even traveled to his former hometown in northern Iraq to work with the culture industry on behalf of the Goethe Institute. Behind it all is his love of bringing people together.
Haddad describes himself as a "cultural mediator," but he has also been named "Kültürminister" — a play on words in the Turkish language, which uses the letter "ü" a lot. Haddad is a fan of puns and jokes that mix European and Middle-Eastern cultures, and his pseudonym changes every few months — sometimes he calls himself Mustafa Mustermann, or Salvador Ali.
It all began with food
Haddad's cultural mission began 10 years ago in his small kitchen. He had long been in the habit of inviting friends over to his house for dinner. "When we get together in the Middle East, we have to eat something while we're doing it — I always served mezze and finger foods." At one point, he pulled an old guitar out of the basement and an impromptu jam session ensued. The musical meetings became regular events and his kitchen became something of an institution, often packed with music enthusiasts every Friday.
The secret to his success? "In the Balkans, there's a beautiful saying: 'A hungry bear doesn't dance'. It's quite simple. You have to satisfy the basic needs first, then people come out of their shells."
In this manner, he created a large network of amateur and professional musicians within a short space of time. Haddad became well-known in his neighborhood, and named his kitchen "4telbar," which is a play on the German words "Viertel Bar" — neighborhood bar — for the open-minded spirit of his beloved Bonn neighborhood; but the name also describes the quadrant-shaped bar in his kitchen.
'Just do it'
Haddad began organizing and curating concerts in the city's main garden as well as on the "Township," a party boat in Bonn, collaborating with the city's rock and pop commissioner Hans-Joachim Over, among others.
When the open-air anniversary concert in honor of the 4telbar had to be canceled due to coronavirus restrictions, Haddad came up with a solution: he went to the cultural office and asked Bonn's tourist information office if he could use an out-of-service double-decker bus to give pandemic-friendly concerts.
The authorities agreed, and Haddad put on 40 concerts — first in front of senior citizens' and refugees' homes, then throughout the city. "The most beautiful performances we had were in Tannenbusch," Haddad told DW, referring to a multi-cultural and marginalized neighborhood in Bonn.
Haddad still recalls the overwhelming reaction of children to the bus concerts, and it still gives him goosebumps when he talks about it: "That's when we realized it's all worth it! These children will never forget that. And that's my incentive: To bring joy."
Haddad organizes most of the events on a voluntary basis. He makes his living by working on cultural projects such as the "1001 Takt," the aforementioned workshop for the BTHVN2020 project, which he supervises for the Bonn Institute for Migration Research and Intercultural Learning.
An early educational journey
Born in Baghdad to parents with Kurdish, Arab and Indian roots, Haddad came to Germany with his four siblings and mother when he was 13. They followed their father, who had been tortured in prison for supporting the opposition against dictator Saddam Hussein in Iraq. At the time, he came to Germany for related medical treatment.
The family initially lived in asylum-seekers' homes, where Haddad would have to change schools every year. At some point, his German became too good for the required "compensatory classes," but was still too weak for him to partake in regular classes. By the skin of his teeth, he managed to graduate from secondary school, but didn't know how to get ahead after that.
He did an apprenticeship to become a plumber, but one day, when he had to dismantle a toilet bowl that "hadn’t been cleaned for years," he decided he had had enough, and became determined to make a change. Haddad went back to school, completed three apprenticeships in a row, and worked as a children's animator, a tour guide and on a cruise ship.
Haddad was an avid reader, initially teaching himself new things through the books he read. In doing so, he began to understand himself better. "Many migrants don't study because they have two personalities inside them. On the one hand, you're the good kid at home, doing everything your parents say and living according to the culture of your country of origin. But outside, you live out your other personality. This realization has also made me become more honest with my parents."
Return to Iraq
In 2019, he returned to Erbil, his hometown in northern Iraq and capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, to lead a Goethe Institute pilot project. He had lived in the city from the age of six until his family fled to Germany. In Erbil, Haddad was tasked with organizing a conference, which focused on promoting the cultural and creative industries in northern Iraq. "The job was like a fine dance on a diplomatic tightrope," says Haddad. "Because I had to satisfy both the German and Iraqi sides."
This time spent in his home country also grounded him: "I've lived in Germany for 25 years. At some point, you're part of society and you also have these "first world" problems. In Iraq, I met artists who had nothing, but they had dreams." He said he was tempted to stay in Iraq, but decided to return to Bonn.
An immigrant's contribution
He wanted to study to become a teacher and was particularly drawn to the German language and philosophy. He felt he wanted to "give something back to the country" and "encourage migrants who are so helpless, just like I was."
But despite several attempts, he was denied admission to the regular university. So he studied at the distance learning university of Hagen, working part-time as a mover or waiter. When Haddad finally got a well-paid job at the embassy of the United Arab Emirates, he paused his studies. But it was precisely during this time that the 4telbar success story began. The rest is history.
His favorite quote to see him through the good and the bad times comes from German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: "Who knows himself and others well / No longer may ignore: / Orient and Occident dwell / Separately no more."
"Even though I don't like the word at all, the concept of 'integration' has always existed," Haddad says. "When I go to another city, to another country, I adapt to the circumstances there. And when someone comes to me as a guest, then I approach them. Integration applies to everyone, whether they're the host or not."
Saman Haddad doesn't wait for others to take the initiative, and that’s why his spontaneity sometimes causes a stir. He doesn't let others' reactions put him off. "You don't have to talk about integration, just do it. Eat together, play soccer together, make music together, dance together. Then integration happens on its own."
Haddad's biggest dream is to establish a city partnership between Erbil and Bonn, to "bring his old and new homes together through culture." With his go-getting attitude, only the sky appears to be the limit.
This article was translated from German by Sarah Hucal.