In the autumn of 2020, when Paris’s lockdown was briefly loosened, I went to the majestic Palais Garnier opera house to hear a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. It was the first time I had heard them performed live, yet the instruments produced a sort of Proustian effect that transported me back to the place where I had heard them for the first time: Shadows, a tiny record shop in Aleppo, Syria.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Aleppo, where my family still lives. Shadows stood out as a unique institution for those who loved classical music — an admittedly slim slice of the population — and the charismatic man at its helm, Bashir Kwefati, taught me everything I know about the genre during countless visits in the years before 2012. It was then that the first sounds of bombardment heralded the arrival of the Syrian conflict in Aleppo, and I set out on an journey into exile that included stops in Damascus, Khartoum, Beirut and ultimately Paris.

Bashir rarely uses social media, only surfacing occasionally on Facebook to write a biographical post on a composer. At the beginning of this year, however, he logged in to deliver some devastating news.

“This is how Shadows looked just before handing it over to its new owner,” he wrote in a caption to a picture of the store. For the first time since Bashir founded the shop in 1977, the shelves were empty: one of Syria’s greatest record shops had become another victim of the war and its fallout.

As the world watches while innocent Ukrainian civilians are forced to flee the war and seek refuge elsewhere, I cannot help but think about the small things with which they will have to part ways.

Being a refugee myself, and having covered the plight of other refugees as a journalist, I know how often people reminisce about the small, everyday things of which wars have deprived them: the local pub that is no longer there, the neighbourhood gossip that the hairdresser tells, the personal collection of books that was not deemed essential enough to take while rushing out of an endangered town.

I have a hard time thinking about Syria, the country I had to flee from, without deconstructing what it is that I miss about it: objects, places, individuals. As the years go by, and wars still keep us away from home, many of the people and places who constitute our notion of home start to disappear too.

The story of Shadows mirrors that of Aleppo: a place once famed for its people’s joie de vivre now mostly brings to mind the horrors of the Syrian civil war, which saw swaths of the country’s largest city destroyed, its people displaced, those who remained struggling to make ends meet.

What is known in the western tradition as classical music is not one of the best-known genres in Syria, aside from certain pieces that have a foothold in popular culture — Beethoven’s “Für Elise” or the first movement of Mozart’s Symphony No 40. But the city has a long history of music production and appreciation. Unesco last year added Qudud, a traditional form of music that developed in Aleppo, to the list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity.

My family revered classical music. On their travels, my grandparents visited opera houses around the world and my uncle used to organise concerts in small venues in Aleppo, featuring local chamber orchestras and aspiring opera singers. My parents enrolled me in music theory and piano classes; regrettably, I didn’t stick with them.

As a 13-year-old boy who only listened to classical music, I did not have the easiest time finding friends who shared my interest. But when I entered Shadows, it was like finding a 16-sq metre piece of paradise.

Once I was introduced to Bashir, I proceeded to ask some of the many questions I had, starting with the basics: was Beethoven really deaf? Did Verdi compose Aida for the opening of the Suez Canal? Was Wagner a Nazi? And I never had to struggle to identify a piece of classical music. Even if I could only whistle or hum a tune, Bashir’s smile would widen and within seconds he would hand me a CD. “Ah, Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A Major . . . a fine one!”

The neighbourhood of Azizieh, where Shadows is located, is known for its sandwich makers, liquor stores and some of the city’s best restaurants and cafés. Buying a CD from Shadows — which sold original, high-quality discs in a market plagued with pirating — cost more than stopping by each one of these combined, but it was worth it.

Eventually, in the face of my innumerable questions, Bashir handed me a paper full of concise information about classical music, one that I would hold on to for years to come. It explained the different kinds of musical forms, including the sonata, the concerto and the symphony; the time spans and main characteristics of the three common-practice periods: baroque, classical, and romantic; as well as some of the common tempos, including the allegro, the andante, and the presto. It also featured spotlights on a selection of the icons of classical music, in whose biographies Bashir always found food for his curiosity.

That same document came up when I spoke to Wanes Moubayed, former concert master of a chamber orchestra in Aleppo, who now lives in Canada. “All I know about music, and all the music records that I own, came from this shop . . . the joy of buying a record from Bashir Kwefati is unparalleled,” said Moubayed. “His was the only shop that would add to cassettes a brief explanation of the music, and the text of operas in the original language plus a translation into Arabic.”

Mohammad Ali Sheikhmous, who studied piano for five years at Aleppo’s Sabah Fakhri Institute of Music, also saw Shadows as one of a kind. “It was not an ordinary shop; it was the go-to hub for every music student or enthusiast in Aleppo,” Sheikhmous, now based in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, said. “You walk out of there not only with a new CD, but with a deeper appreciation of music that Bashir Kwefati channels to you.”

When Bashir opened Shadows as a young man, he sold what was popular at the time, mainly rock music. That approach changed after he was given a copy of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons by a Jesuit priest. “I started asking all my friends who go abroad to bring me back classical music cassettes with them,” Bashir said in a phone interview. “Little by little, the store started to attract the attention of all those who were interested in classical music and did not have anywhere else to go in order to buy cassettes.”

Bashir comes from a musical family. His father was one of the first people in Aleppo to acquire a cassette recorder. His brother Samir is a renowned composer; his late sister-in-law Mayada Bseliss was one of the most successful Arab singers of her time. Nevertheless, Bashir did not receive a formal education in music. “I scoured the bookstores of Aleppo and only found two books about classical music,” he said. “Those, in addition to the French magazine Diapason and the Jesuit father, were my first sources of knowledge.”

I know I will return to Syria one day, if only to visit. What I dread, however, is that I will not recognise it when I do.

The golden age of Shadows had already passed before the war broke out in 2011, thanks to the rise of digital streaming. Then came the war. It became physically dangerous for Bashir to open his shop, as mortar shells landed in the street outside. Even when that ceased to be the case, the value of the Syrian currency continued its freefall, and people’s access to their most basic needs remained limited. He could no longer get CDs from abroad, nor could customers afford to buy them if he did.

“Music, especially classical music, needs a relaxing environment; that is a privilege that people here no longer have,” Bashir added. “People are not able to pursue their interest in music when all they can think about is how to afford the next meal.”

It saddens me to know that Shadows has become another victim of this merciless war. But as for Bashir, he’s excited about his retirement. He has donated the bulk of the CDs he had in stock to a local non-profit that helps the visually impaired, and to a local library. He spends his time at home, listening to music and watching operas on Mezzo, a French classical music TV channel. “Our appreciation for classical music metamorphoses as we change and grow,” he explains. “It never lets you down if you strive to explore it thoroughly enough.”

Asser Khattab is a writer based in Paris

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