On Feb. 8 the museum received a message through its Facebook page—26-year-old Syrian violinist Mariela Shaker shared her story about how she managed to flee the war in Aleppo thanks to a music scholarship she received in the U.S. in 2013. She explained that she now hopes to use music to “remove barriers between people and nations,” and to that end, hoped to collaborate in some way with the Doris Duke Theatre.
Then a few weeks later, the arthouse theater network—which includes the museum’s theater—announced the creation of the Seventh Art Stand. Theater director Taylour Chang instantly connected the dots, “In my mind, Mariela was always the anchor point for the program,” says Chang.
The Seventh Art Stand—which kicks off this Saturday—presents films, talks, workshops, and live performances with the aim of addressing Islamophobia and anti-Muslim discrimination, and closes June 3 with a performance by Shaker.
The violinist has performed at prestigious venues such as the the Kennedy Center, the Brookings Institution, the Pentagon Conference, the United Nations, and the White House. She has been profiled by the Washington Post, Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and now the Honolulu Museum of Art blog.
When did you begin playing violin, and what drew you to it?
I started playing the violin when I was 11 years old and I studied at the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo. My mother wanted me to explore different kinds of activities and arts. She also loved the violin but she didn’t get the chance to learn how to play it. Since I started learning this instrument, I loved it so much and I felt it was a great way to express myself. Two years later I figured out that this is what I would like to do for the rest of my life.
How did you leave Syria to come to the U.S.?
While I was still in the war in Aleppo, I was so determined to find any way to save my future. We did not have electricity or water. I was running under falling bombs and mortars to internet cafés to send my applications to different programs and universities all over the world. After six months of tireless work, I was beyond happy to receive an email from Monmouth College in Illinois offering me a full tuition scholarship in Music Performance.
I could not fly to my new college in the U.S. directly. I first had to travel to Beirut, Lebanon. All the roads to and from Aleppo were closed. We had been advised to go to an area in Aleppo where private buses gathered to pick up passengers, but it would be at our own risk, as the buses were not affiliated with any company. I had to say yes because my flight ticket had already been booked and I didn’t know if I would ever get a second chance. The bus trip took us 17 hours, and there were more than 50 checkpoints along the way. At many of them they thought the violin was a gun and I had to prove it was not each time. They would make me to open the violin case, pick up the violin and inspect it. The bus driver got lost in an area where I couldn’t see anything apart from destroyed buildings. We were incredibly scared. A couple of days after I arrived to the U.S., and I found out that three of the buses had been bombed, and people I know—including my doctor from Aleppo—were killed, as the road had become a target for snipers.
How have recent events in world politics influenced your music and role as an ambassador for Syria and its people?
I was humbled to be honored at the White House as Champion of Change for World Refugees by President Obama in 2015. I feel this is a huge responsibility. I would like to be an ambassador for my country Syria in the U.S., and conversely to represent all the great values I learned here worldwide. I consider myself now as not just a Syrian citizen but also a new and devoted young American woman.
You’ve travelled all over the world sharing your story through music. What makes you excited to bring your story and talent to Hawai‘i?
I have always heard of Hawai‘i and Honolulu since the time I was still living in Aleppo, and I have always dreamed of coming to this place. I honestly could not imagine that I would survive the war in Syria to one day be in Hawai‘i sharing my story and music with the warm Hawaiian community. I am so excited to perform at the Honolulu Museum of Art. It means a lot to participate in the Seventh Art Stand, and I am so grateful to the museum for their great support and help in raising awareness about this very important issue.
Why is music such an effective medium for bridging dialogue and understanding?
Music is a very powerful language and a very effective tool to inspire people, to advocate and express the ideas that are hard to express through language. For me it was the bridge that brought me here. I feel music is capable of removing all the barriers between people and nations. Through music I get to tell the story of my suffering country and people. It is also my prayer for a world where peace, love, and unity prevails.
What should our audience expect to hear, see, and learn when they attend your concert on June 3rd?
I would like to raise awareness about the Syrian crisis. Refugees are not a burden but displaced people who are desperate to find a second chance, a new opportunity. Syrians in the U.S. proved that they are so capable and successful. I will share the story of my Syrian friends who also arrived here three years ago to study. They graduated last year and they now work for Google and Apple.
For her performance, Shaker will be accompanied by Honolulu Chamber Music Series President and pianist Jonathan Korth. Get tickets.
Learn more about the Seventh Art Stand.