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Week 13: Close to home

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In our blog series ‘Close to home’ Yemeni refugee Ali* and host Robert share their experiences living together. There will be weekly posts about the ups and downs, difficulties, highlights and surprises. This week: Music tastes.

*not his real name.

Robert is many things, dad, dog-lover, Director of Takecarebnb, an organisation that matches newcomers to host families. Every day, he convinces Dutch host families to offer temporary places of stays for refugees with a status. Now that his youngest daughter has passed her final exams, it’s time to put his words into action.

Ali is a refugee from Yemen with big dreams. He loves poetry, chess and can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than a minute. He spent time studying and working in India when it became clear he could not return to Yemen. When travelling to Europe as part of a conference, he visited The Netherlands and knew he wanted to stay.

Robert: I always play music. My daily routine starts with classical music and halfway through the morning I switch to more upbeat genres. My taste is ‘eclectic’ and I move from reggae to eighties rock and from Dutch to Arabic. Arabic? Yes, and that of course is caused by Ali’s stay during this summer. Sometimes he introduces me to artists he likes and sometimes I just look for a  playlist on Spotify with Arabic music. For me it’s about the feeling this music brings. Since I don’t understand Arabic I have no idea what a song is about, but I may like the beat, the melody, the voice, the instruments.

Ali: My friends always disagree with my musical taste, so let me confess: I like all types of music, but I especially enjoy lyrics and songs with a distinct rhythm, melody, and harmony. I’m talking about the singers that no one knows about but they sing with their heart and whatever they like.

Music, I believe, is my escape these days. I can fly back home with my imagination, I smile and laugh uncontrollably, and yes, I cry sometimes too. I listen to music when I’m happy and I pause at the lyrics when I’m sad. And I believe all of the songs were written specifically for me, to the point where I convinced myself that I was in love with an imaginary girlfriend.

Ali (cont): I like Arabic, Hindi, English, and Spanish songs, and I’ve recently started listening to Snelle and Jaap Reesema (Dutch songs).

Robert: Playing Arabic music recently had an unexpected effect. I was waiting for Ali to join me for an evening tea and wanted to create a nice, ‘gezellige’ atmosphere. On Spotify I searched with keywords ‘Arabic’ and ‘evening’. The algorithm came up with ‘Late night Arabic coffee’ which sounded like the right list. I started the music and poured another cup of tea. Then Ali joined me. We talked about our weekend, my trip to the beach and his visit to the friend who had recently become a father. And then there were tears in his eyes. ‘This music man.’ He explained that the song was about how nothing stays the same and situations will always change over time. How this gave him hope for his country and that maybe one day he would be able to visit his parents and sisters.  

Living together with someone from another country, who was brought up within another culture comes with many surprises. This experience for me mainly illustrated how much we have in common. We all celebrate new life, be it with ‘beschuit met muisjes’ (untranslatable, I’m sorry) or the roasting of a sheep. And we all get touched by music. But it’s so easy to forget that what is just a nice background sound for one person can go straight into the heart of someone else.

Ali: My father loves classical music, and Robert does as well. Waking up to classical music is my new normal, and it’s something I can expect from Robert, but I never expected him to listen to Sudanese music while cooking, or to listen to Fairuz and Mohammed Abdulrahman while having a drink at night.

Music is just like love, a universal language, the emotions it evokes are indescribable, it brings back memories while also creating new ones.