ANTAKYA, Turkey — In the world of the Syrian border singers, Walid the Prince is a king, the author of a pop hit that earned 1.6 million views on YouTube and a darling of the seedy after-hours clubs in Turkey’s frontier towns, where the customers, he said, “are all thieves.”
In fact, they are smugglers, transformed into swaggering dons by the money they earned on the backs of countless Syrian refugees. These days in the clubs, huddled around low tables, the traffickers tip Walid the Prince, extravagantly, when he sings their praises.
“We are the masters of the borders,” he sings on “King of the Smugglers,” his YouTube hit, sung in the Syrian popular style, with a melody that ebbs and flows, like a mosquito considering an ear. “We are the masters of the wall.”
The song burst out of a musical scene in southern Turkey that includes a handful of well-known crooners and a bundle of new clubs. The singers are mostly war refugees and have found inspiration and an audience in Turkey’s border provinces, where more than a million Syrians have settled. The songs have resonated beyond Turkey, in the sizable Syrian diaspora in Arab countries like Jordan and Lebanon.
“Most people here went through the suffering of smuggling,” said the singer, whose real name is Walid Malandi.
Some of the songs, like “King of the Smugglers,” draw on a tradition of working-class popular music that makes heroes of outlaws — recalling the narcocorridos of the U.S.-Mexican border that celebrate the exploits of drug barons and cartels. Other songs summon the masculine bombast of gangsta rap.
Mohammed el-Sheikh, a popular Syrian singer who also lives in Antakya, struck a chord with a song whose title translates as “The Serious, Serious Men.”
“We burn the whole world just by a batting our eyes,” goes one line, as if begging to be blared from a truck. The song is even more popular than “King of the Smugglers” by one measure, tallying 10 million views on YouTube. The song has also won Sheikh, a 26-year-old with rockabilly hair, invitations to perform in Bahrain, Qatar and even Russia, he said.
The songs have emerged as the Syrian diaspora that produced the genre faces an increasingly tenuous future in Turkey.
The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has deported hundreds of Syrians in recent months, according to human rights groups. Turkey has also announced its intention to resettle more than a million refugees in an area of northern Syria that the Turkish military invaded in October — even as hundreds of Syrians, fleeing violence or economic hardship, continue to cross the border into Turkey every week.
“Oh God, please make it easier for me, and open the border,” Malandi sings in another song, channeling the frustrations of Syrians stuck in his homeland.
“This is the time of smuggling,” it goes. “The time has oppressed me.”
Playing to the audience
Malandi grew up in a working-class home in Syria’s northern Idlib province and left school after sixth grade, he said. He worked for years as a laborer, finishing home interiors. He traveled to Turkey six years ago after defecting from the Syrian army — crossing before a border wall was erected, before the smugglers became a necessity. Malandi, who has shortly cropped hair and a bushy beard, is 28 but looks older.
“The time has aged me,” he said, riffing on his song.
In Turkey, he changed careers, choosing music because he thought it might be lucrative and keep his family from depending on government handouts. Malandi played weddings at first, then performed in a small cafe. His first songs included call-outs to a few smugglers — men who would “give you $1,000 if you say they are king of the world.” Soon other smugglers came calling.
“I started to get offers that paid double, from bigger places around here,” Malandi said.
The smugglers used clips of his songs as calling cards for potential customers or to claim bragging rights among the fraternity of traffickers.
Initially, Malandi said, he was swept up by the rarefied world of the smugglers, whose trade — moving refugees across the Turkish border and then onward to Europe — had become “more valuable than gold” during Syria’s eight-year civil war.
“I had a big ego,” he said. “I hired two bodyguards.”
He was so popular that one well-known club where he performed regularly was forced to shut down when he moved on.
But he came to regard the smugglers as arrogant. “They throw this money at us, and they get it from the poor people coming from Syria,” he said. But he still performs at the clubs.
On a recent evening, Malandi was the star attraction at the grand opening of a dive called Barcelona, in an industrial stretch of Antakya. The entrance was bathed in red light, and inside, walls were decorated with photographs of characters from Brian De Palma’s film “Scarface.” The staff milled around the bar for a few hours after opening, before any customers showed up.
As the tables started to fill, Akram Mustafa, a singer from Aleppo, warmed up the crowd with a lament. “My heart is in Syria, my body is in Turkey,” he sang. When a well-heeled group arrived in luxury cars, it was time for praise.
They were “car dealers,” Malandi said, carefully avoiding calling them smugglers. He spent a good chunk of the evening at their table, weaving their names and their hometown in Syria into a song — a quickly forgotten epic about the not-so-distant war.
Successful but trapped
Mohammed el-Sheikh also has a regular gig, six nights a week, at a spot on the outskirts of Antakya called the Mountain House. It was livelier than Barcelona on a recent Friday night, filled with men of all ages, some in the company of female escorts who worked at the club.
Sheikh’s set generally stretches from midnight until about 5 a.m. There is usually a table of smugglers, but mostly the customers are regular businessmen, he said. He earns enough to support his family, and to buy sharp blazers and a chunky watch with a pumpkin-orange face. But Sheikh is also trapped.
As a Syrian refugee, he cannot travel from town to town in Turkey without permission from the government, forcing him to pass up invitations to play concerts in Istanbul and other cities. He cannot travel abroad, to meet fans in other parts of the Arab world, or Europe, because it is difficult for many Syrian refugees to obtain a passport.
Sheikh was a student when he left Syria six years ago. Like Malandi, he sharpened his vocal skills at weddings before he started writing songs in 2015, he said. In Syria, his family would not have approved of his musical career, but in Turkey, where refugees were free, or forced, to reinvent themselves, “things were different,” he said.
He wrote his hit, “The Serious, Serious Men,” for a few friends, imagining the song, with its taunts, as the soundtrack to a standoff between two gangs. “We don’t remain silent, and kind, to those who disrespect us,” Sheikh sings. The song was rumored to have caused an actual fight in Syria, when a group of men playing the tune were set upon by another group that took offense.
It was often played at weddings. Lots of other singers had tried to copy it, Sheikh said. The song was an “expression of strength, of being tough,” he said — an antidote, for some Syrians, to the feeling of powerlessness that can accompany exile.