Musicians in their war-torn homelands, the members of the Arab Youth Philharmonic Orchestra have come to Berlin for the Young Europe Classic festival, reveling in the opportunity to have a break from the horrors of war.
The Arab Youth Philharmonic Orchestra (AYPO) has arrived in Berlin for the second time since 2013. With 63 young musicians from eight Arab countries, the orchestra met for a week to rehearse together before taking to the stage of the tradition-rich concert hall in Berlin, the "Konzerthaus."
Rhamres Nooselhuda and Baghiani Redha are two of the members of the multinational orchestra. The two musicians know each other from Algeria and say they were beyond excited to have received an invitation to play with the AYPO in Berlin for the "Young Euro Classic" festival.
"Berlin is so great," they both cry out, nearly simultaneously. They seem to adore the city, remarking that it is so quiet and relaxed - in total contrast to their hectic lives back home in Batna, in Algeria's north.
The annual festival for youth orchestras has invited players from around the world for their 17th gathering.
More work than play
Rhamres and Baghiani say that the rehearsal time ahead of the concerts involved a lot of work. Under the direction of conductor Heiner Buhlmann, the young men rehearsed from morning until evening in an old school in the idyllic Berlin neighborhood of Grünewald, a quiet place filled with villas and much greenery.
The rehearsals included compositions from Amir Khalf and Ali Osman as well as the prestigious Brahms Symphony Number 2; the program required their full concentration. The 27-year-old cellist and 25-year-old double bass player had little time to go out; unlike their contemporaries in Berlin, visits to sweaty nightclubs were not on their agenda.
But for the young men, the concert was not only about music.
"We are playing here for peace," Rhamres said, who explained that those in their company wanted to provide a different image of the Middle East than the one so often portrayed in the news, which mainly focuses on terror and death.
A break from the horrors of war
Hasan Obaid comes from Damascus - a place where that image of destruction and bloodletting has been at the forefront for several years. Obaid is a 21-year-old violinist studying at the University for Music and Theater there. The explosions outside and battles carried out on streets have spread their horrors all the way into the rehearsal rooms.
"I have been stressed out from the nonstop war," Hasan told DW..
"My violin is with me and that helps."
It's clear that music has become a means of survival for Hasan. And Berlin is something of a vacation away from the horrors of Syria.
"In Germany, you get to see all aspects of life," he said, trying to put the feeling into words.
But for Hasan and the two other Syrian musicians, even obtaining the visa to come to Germany required a perilous trip from Damascus to Beirut to visit the German Embassy there. Many of those invited faced increased difficulty even up until the last minute. It seems to be a bit of a miracle that so many of the musicians could manage to make it to Berlin.
Refugees among musicians
While Hasan is only in Germany for a week of rehearsals followed by the concert, his friend Kais, the same age, has been here for a year. Kais arrived last year as one of more than one million refugees. He traveled to Berlin from the northern Germany city of Cuxhaven where he and his brother live with a guest family on their family farm.
Kais explains that at the time he hadn't fled necessarily due to the war but as a result of the miserable opportunities for education in Syria. The university used to be held in Russian hands before the start of the war but once crisis negotiations began, the Russian professors all fled the Syrian capital.
The university collapsed.
A diverse group of Arab musicians
That's one of the reasons why Kais and Hasan appreciate the week they have together in Berlin.
"Syrians do not have any experience with musicians from other countries," said Kais. It is the first time they can work together with musicians who are "on another level."
Of the 63 musicians comprising the AYPO the majority come from Egypt. They are the best in the group, say the others. Even the founder of the orchestra, Fawzy El-Shamy is from Cairo, and was the dean of the music conservatory there.
In founding the orchestra in 2006, he had fulfilled a dream, he said. It is important for him, he explained, that musicians from a variety of Arab lands have a chance to come together and learn how to get along with each other. The diverse group includes players from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Algeria and Kuwait.
Fawzy El-Shamy says that he is convinced that the members of his orchestra will be able to keep up with other young orchestras that are also performing at the Young Euro Classic Festival. At the big concert at the Berliner Konzerthaus on August 30, 2016, the AYPO are received with roaring applause at an almost sold-out event. Like the members of the orchestra, many concertgoers also turned out to be young and full of excitement about the event.
Time to say goodbye
After the concert, the time came for the young AYPO musicians to say their goodbyes. Kais is due return to the farmhouse in Cuxhaven but says he plans to study violin in Hamburg. But Hasan will have to return to Damascus - back to everyday life marked by terror and war.
"Music is my life," he said, adding that he intends to fight with others to ensure that in spite of the war, art and culture survive in his homeland. He takes home with him a new feeling of community and belonging that came with working with other young musicians from Arab countries.
And then there's also the unspoken desire to perhaps return to Germany one day - to a country where he can forget the war for a bit and hone his skills at a German music university.