Renowned violinist Mariela Shaker tells her story through music and words.
By Sarah Schudt, Arts & Entertainment Editor
“Music speaks to people,” says world-renowned Syrian violinist Mariela Shaker. She has experienced the power of music more than most; it saved her life.
During a lecture at Moraine Friday evening, Shaker relayed the story of her life, offset with violin performances of the music that gave her hope. “Mariela Shaker – Tragedy and Triumphs” took place at the Dorothy Menker theater as part of a two-day event featuring Syrian artists. She also performed Saturday as part of “Songs for Syria,” along with artists Bassel and the Supernaturals and Omar Offendum.
Shaker was born in Aleppo in 1990. She was a violinist from an early age and earned many awards while she lived in Syria. Although she loved her home country, as she grew older, she realized she could not stay there due to the massive civil war that has been ongoing for more than 10 years.
“It’s a global crisis, the situation in Syria,” she said. “It’s not about only one group fighting, or two; it’s about people who are suffering terribly in the world, and I feel that human beings are always paying the bill.”
Shaker grew up with death as a constant companion. During her lecture she told the story of how her mother was invited over to tea by a neighbor one afternoon. Her mother was asleep and missed the call. At the time her mother would have been taking tea with that neighbor, the neighbor’s house was bombed. Her mother escaped death by minutes.
The escalating violence made Shaker realize that if she wanted to pursue her dreams, she couldn’t stay in Syria, as much as she loved it. Finally, she took a dangerous escape route after receiving a music scholarship to a college in America.
She was stuck in a bus for 17 hours, and was accosted by soldiers at almost every stop. Soldiers thought her violin was a weapon, and she had to prove it was not before she would be allowed to go on.
It was a long and arduous path, but eventually Shaker made it to America. She was granted asylum, was educated at Monmouth University on a scholarship, and taught at DePaul University for many years. She has performed at the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and the White House. In 2015, she was named a Champion of Change for World Refugees by President Barack Obama.
She has made a new life for herself in America with her music, but her love for Syria has never faded.
In the middle of her lecture, Shaker paused to showcase a video of Aleppo before and after the war.
“I can no longer recognize my home,” said Shaker, before footage of beautiful buildings and the rubble they are now played on the wall behind her.
Middle Eastern culture is often misrepresented in Western media, but Shaker’s performances humanize a misunderstood culture, letting people see themselves in it.
“There’s something so human created when somebody sits down and tells you about themselves and the arts that they love tremendously,” said communications and literature professor Amani Wazwaz, who heads a project at Moraine called Mosaics: Muslim Voices in America.
“The arts are an incredibly valuable way of showcasing your expression, your conflicts, your challenges, your very human emotions, in a form that very much draws people’s attention. The aim is to build a bridge of understanding.”
The audience reacted positively to Shaker’s lecture, relating her story to their own experiences. One audience member said that it reminded him of his own family history, as his grandfather was a refugee.
Expanding people’s world view is one of the goals of Moraine’s Fine & Performing Arts Center, according to FPAC director Tommy Hensel.
Both Shaker’s lecture and Saturday’s performance were geared toward increasing understanding and transcending cultural prejudice and boundaries. “Songs for Syria” was billed as a way to pay homage to “the history and culture of Syria with multiple musical genres including classical violin, spoken word, neo-soul and funk with captivating lyrics about love, loss, and a war in Syria that has directly affected over 10,000,000 people.”
Shaker hopes to bring our eyes on Syria’s situation, to get people to see what is going on, and realize what they can do to help.
“I need to send this message to the Western cultures, to let them appreciate what they have here, to work hard always to achieve their dreams, to not just sit in their rooms and be depressed, but to think outside the box and try to see what is happening in the world.”
Mariela Shaker tells about her experience in a TEDx Talk called “A Story of Hope from the Syrian Civil War.”