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Verses in Exile: Syrian Rapper Turns War Into Art

Amman, Jordan -- "War changes things—your mentality, the way you think, it can mess with your head," says Mouneer Bu Kolthoum, leaning back into a black leather chair at his home office. "Subconsciously you are hit, and your mind starts to play on loop."

The 24-year-old music producer and rapper from Damascus, Syria, moved to Jordan almost three years ago because of what he says was his rapidly deteriorating psychological condition.

"I reached a point where I was spending so much time seeing psychiatrists and taking anti-depressants from what I had seen," said Bu Kolthoum, declining to detail what he had witnessed. "I had to leave Syria."

Your'e far from your environment, your family, your friends, your neighborhood, your accent, the people who you understand, Bu Kolthoum said. You're starting from scratch, rebuilding a community, and there's no way it will be exactly the same as the community you had back home—all these are main factors a person faces in exile. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

In Amman, he continued his education in art and graphic design, and delved deeper into his music, which he says has changed his life.

"When I came here I was alone, and there was a huge void. It gave me a chance to work on my music; with losses come some benefits," Bu Kalthoum said.

Working with a number of local Jordanian artists, Bu Kolthoum has built a following for himself locally, as well as with the online Syrian community. He said that although his main audience are Syrians around the world, his lyrics have struck a chord with the community in Jordan, where conflict and people seeking refuge from it are no strangers.

"Here there are Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, people from all conflicts," said Bu Kolthoum. "People can feel what you're going through."

His stage name, Bu Kolthoum, is a tribute to Um Kulthoum, the famed Egyptian singer, and Bin Kulthoum, an Arab warrior and poet from the pre-Islamic era. His lyrics often reflect frustration with the ongoing conflict in Syria and the emotions of leaving home and being in exile. He released his first album, Inderal, in November, named after a drug used to treat high blood pressure. Bu Kolthoum told me he chose the name for two reasons, the first to clarify that the album is very personal.

"Also, the album is the result of releasing pressure that's been built up (in me) for the past four or five years," said Bu Kolthoum, adding that he's already working on his next album. "This is the only outlet I have. I'm not stopping no matter what. God gave me this key so that I don't suffocate."

Bu Kolthoum's album release at the Balad Theatre in Amman. Photograph by Hiba Dlewati

Hiba Dlewati is a Syrian American journalist and writer moving throughout Jordan, Turkey and Sweden to document and narrate the stories of the Syrian diaspora. Twitter: @Hiba_Dlewati

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