Memory Songs

In a refugee camp in Jordan, a Syrian flute helps a displaced shepherd keep the past alive

By / March 2017

Jehad Nada Al Attma started playing the midjuiz when he was twelve. The Syrian shepherd didn’t have much to do while watching his flock graze in the fields around Dara, a village north of Aleppo, so he sat under a tree and taught himself to play. “My sheep liked my music so much that they would follow when I played for them,” Jehad told me.

I was sitting on a thick foam cushion in Jehad’s temporary home in Mafraq, a refugee camp in northern Jordan. Jehad, his wife, Zainah, and their five children have been living here since 2011, when the family fled across the border at the start of the Syrian Civil War. Jehad, 37, says making music is therapeutic and helps him endure the many difficulties of displacement.

Zaatri Refugee CampJehad’s family lives in refugee housing in Mafraq, 40 miles north of Amman.

Jehad feels gratitude toward the Jordanian government for providing safe haven but wishes there were more job opportunities for refugees. Absent work, Jehad plays the midjuiz for his family, friends, and expat guests who come to Jordan to help the Syrian refugee population, which, as of Jordan’s last census, numbered nearly 1.3 million.

The midjuiz is a double-barreled instrument typically made from metal tubes. Jehad’s is made from a TV antennae cut in two, glued and banded together, and dotted down the length with six pairs of holes spaced at equal intervals. A small, pear-shaped ball of beeswax is wrapped around the top of the tubes and functions as a conduit for connecting two round reeds to the main body of the instrument.

As he plays, Jehad breathes in through his nose to keep his tan, bulging cheeks inflated while simultaneously blowing a steady stream of air into the midjuiz. His quick fingers cover and uncover the holes, transforming the droning noise into to notes. “It took weeks to learn how to breathe in and blow out at the same time,” Jehad says. “Now I can play nonstop for hours.”

Playing the midjuiz helps Jehad, who worked as a shepherd in Syria, endure displacement.

To my ear, the midjuiz sounds like a cross between a clarinet and Scottish bagpipes but it’s closest relative, to hear Jehad tell it, is a Bedouin flute called the shababa, which has been played in the Middle East for more than 1,500 years. Jehad’s grandfather played the shababa. He taught Jehad how to play at an early age.

The midjuiz, by comparison, has been around for a half century. Jehad knows only a handful of people who play it. Most, he says, come from his hometown. He wonders where they are now.

The melodies composed for the midjuiz rely more on rhythm than harmony. Jehad plays a repeating series of notes and then without warning he throws in several bars of a high-pitched ecstatic trill to break the monotony. Then he returns to the repetitive rhythm again. The sudden changes in pitch rhythm are requisite to the music but each player has discretion over when to tap them. The music, as a result, is erratically hypnotic.

As I reclined on the cushions and finished a plate of warm pita, hummus and foul prepared by Zainah, the shepherd played one final tune. He has never seen written music for the instrument so he plays by ear and relies on memory. He closed his eyes and swayed to the music of his own making, as if possessed of thoughts of happier times, back before the war, when his sheep trailed the sound of his midjuiz through the fields of Dara.


Danny Wright lives and writes in Jordan.