Written by Sami Abd Elbaki
Photographs by Omar Sha3
Styling by Jad Toghuj
Special thanks to Al Balad Theater
This article is part of the “Emigration & Desolation” issue
“I’m not the star you’re looking for,” Jordanian artist Idreesi tells me over a phone interview, “I’m a guy who likes to make music. I’m my own manager”
Idreesi grew up listening to rock bands like My Chemical Romance, Elmorabba3, and Akher Zapheer, and was determined to make music that would make people feel what those bands made him feel. He dreamt of becoming a singer, but didn’t have the luxury to practice his passion until a friend gave him a guitar as a gift when he was 17 years old.
Idreesi began writing songs in his own language and dialect, something that is still important to him. He became more courageous and vocal about his songwriting while studying Drama at the Jordanian University, where he met Nairuz Aljouni during their sophomore year. The two started jamming and eventually formed the duo Garaseen, formerly known as Les Garcons (a Pulp Fiction reference).
Garaseen released their debut EP in 2018, Nairuz doing the recording, arranging and producing, and Idreesi taking over songwriting and vocals. It was recorded in Nairuz’s basement, and the result is a dreamy Arabic synth-pop journey. Idreesi was shocked by how well the EP was received; they had a tour in Egypt only 3 months after the release of Garaseen. Shortafter, the two decided to take a break (which is still ongoing), though Idreesi was still full of energy and ideas and ready to continue.
Idreesi began his solo project in 2019 after reading an article about youth suicide rates. Shocked by this article and noticing the limited attention it was receiving in the region, he committed to contribute to discussing the problem and raising awareness about suicide himself. He recorded and mixed an EP, Lon El-Shams, from his bedroom. The EP has a dreamy, lo-fi sound with Idreesi’s soothing voice delivering emotional lyrics, making us feel like we are in his warm bedroom with him or enveloped in a cloud together. This and the solo gigs that followed the EP’s release introduced Idreesi to new audiences who were interested in following the authenticity and intimacy he projected.
After the pandemic lockdown, Idreesi began doing more livestreams to continue building close relationships with his audience, and also contacted Muhammed Abdullah from ElMorabba3 and asked him to collaborate on a song called “Maraya”.
Idreesi wrote “Maraya”in 2017 while working in a play called “Now/Here & In Between”. The performance discusses immigration and expatriation through three characters; the young artist and director Farid (played by Idreesi) who left his country after one of his plays was stopped by the government for unknown reasons. The second character is a history student named Enaya, played by Sofia Al Aseer who traveled abroad after facing issues related to her education and reading banned books. And the third character is played by the director Mohammed Ben Hani, he plays a former investigative judge and is supposed to represent the security apparatus which questions its actions and consequences. The three characters are linked together by their exile after they were deprived from their freedom and rights in their homeland, they have no prior knowledge of one another until their paths cross when a bomb explosion hits the street they usually spend the day in, this was the director’s attempt to showcase that terrorism could exist anywhere across the globe, even in exile. At the end of the play, the characters come out with a newfound friendship despite their differences.
The play deals with the issue of immigration from a humanitarian perspective, and explores the relationship between the three characters along with the time and place that brought them together, and it raises many unanswered questions in the words of its characters, such as Enaya asking; “Why my country out of all other countries?” Therefore while rehearsing for the play, the director, Mohammed Ben Hani, would prompt the cast to improvise scenes by asking questions like “What is the inner animal?” or “Who is the woman inside of me?” One day, the director of the play asked them “What do you feel when the snipers are spread out on the rooftops?” The next day, Sofia performed a scene based on that question, but as for Idreesi; he wrote “Maraya” instead.
The song wasn’t performed in the play and Idreesi kept it hidden until he played part of it in a jam session with Muhammed Abdullah. Abdullah became interested in collaborating, but told me,
I told him the song is too powerful for a collaboration and would be better off with him alone. He contacted me in March during the lockdown, I was depressed and going through a writer’s block. I spent some time alone with the song, decided to join in, and recorded my parts from my bedroom. It is an intimate environment so overall it was a pretty intimate experience. I have a great admiration for Idreesi as a songwriter; the Jordanian music scene has way too many producers and a few songwriters.
Maraya is about going back to a place that hurt you, only to be reminded why you left in the first place. It is the love-hate relationship we have with our countries.
Abdullah echoed similar sentiments in his Facebook post, adding that “he didn’t know he was doing me a favour as I started working on this track in my bedroom during lockdown back in April. It helped me overcome some tough times.”
‘Maraya’ was released in September 2020. The collaboration was a dream come true for Idreesi, bringing his love of music full-circle; he got to work with one of his idols who inspired his passion for music in the first place. . It is no doubt that Mohammed Abdullah is one of the biggest figures in the Arab rock indie scene ever since he started ElMorabba3 in Jordan, and we can hear ElMorabba3’s influence on Idreesi’s songs. In Maraya, this appears in the hypnotizing bassline, emotional lyrics and Muhammad Abdullah’s distinct voice.
Abdullah shared that,
It was very rewarding for me to see that during all the years I’ve made music, I was helping in creating a new musical generation in Jordan and it wasn’t all for nothing… This is the natural and healthy evolution of music: to make music inspired by others but on the same level or even better, without copying their same style. I was personally inspired in my early years in music by Zeid Hamdan and Soapkills, and I eventually got to collaborate with him on Home with the Syrian band Tanjaret Daght, so I understand Idreesi’s feelings and enthusiasm when it comes to working with someone you look up to.
Idreesi, who co-produced this song with Abdullah, “found his sound in this song” with the layering and mixing of his guitar rooting the song. Idreesi is often described as “the sad boy with the guitar” amongst his friends as most of his songs show his vulnerability, Maraya is no exception. The lyrics of Maraya address multiple themes at once, touching on place, love, war, relationships, ego and reminiscence. Ideesi reflected that,
For me, it’s about loving what you can’t have from a distance, amidst all the chaos and monstrosity the world can offer, and the feeling of the power you get when you let go of that person/place… I imagine the song as a field where revolutions are happening, you’re protesting with your friends and loved ones, you share the same hopes and dreams with them, only to visit that same place years later and find it empty and hollow. You didn’t win your fight. If feeling let down had a sound, this song would be it. Being Jordanian I haven’t experienced any revolutions, only witnessed the Arab spring in other countries from TV screens, so I felt a responsibility to talk about this topic in my music.
Speaking on the power of these lyrics, Abdullah added, “I do think that everyone understands the lyrics in their own way… For me personally, it’s about 2020 especially that one lyric Go and leave no reflections behind. None of us want to relive 2020 ever again. But it’s also about internalized conflicts and mixed feelings towards a loved one, one day you miss them, one day you’re asking them to leave. I think everyone can relate to that.”
To me, Maraya is about going back to a place that hurt you, only to be reminded why you left in the first place. It is the love-hate relationship we have with our countries. One moment we’re singing “Your scent is spreading all over the field, oh you’re so beautiful in your revolutions,” but later we sing “I don’t love you the way I used to.”
Being one of the Syrians who left the country for a better future, I can only think of all the immigrants and refugees all over the world, and their mixed feelings towards the country; happy to have left, but wish I could’ve stayed longer. And just like the three characters in the play that inspired Maraya, we leave our home seeking comfort and freedom but we’re still left unsatisfied and out of place so we linger somewhere in-between our expectations and reality, somewhere between the nostalgia of home and the wishful thinking of a better future. We hang on in that space and call it home. Maraya reflects a part of many Arabs’ journeys and emotions, it’s all the words we wanted to say but never knew how.