eliza berkon is a features writer and musician based in washington d.c. 

Come For The Shawarma, Stay For The Syrian Pop Music At This Festival

When Syria pops up on Americans' Twitter feeds, it's often in the context of bloodshed. The Middle Eastern country has struggled through a brutal civil war for the past seven years that's taken an estimated 400,000 lives and forced millions to flee.

This Sunday, a cultural festival returning to D.C., in the middle of a region where more than 185 refugee families have rebuilt their lives in the past several years, aims to remind the local community that the land dating back to antiquity is much more than a battleground.

Syria Fest, a free, outdoor event first held in 2017 and billed as the largest Syrian event in the United States, will bring food, fashion, dance, crafts, and other cultural offerings to D.C.'s Freedom Plaza. Presented by the Syrian Cultural House, a nonprofit whose goal is to preserve and promote Syrian culture, the festival is expected to attract thousands of spectators (last year's festival drew more than 10,000 attendees, according to an event representative) with performances and exhibits that celebrate both traditional and contemporary life.

“Syria gave so much to the world, whether it was ... the first musical notes, or the first forms of writing," Syria Fest chairman and Syrian Cultural House co-founder Farouk Belal said in a press release. "We hope even more people this year can experience Syria Fest and share these beautiful aspects of our country with neighbors, friends, and co-workers."

So what are some of the highlights?

At 11:45 a.m., Syrian musician Muath Idriss—a vocalist and oud player (demo here) who took home first place on "Ajmal Sout," an Arab singing competition show, in 2001—will perform the U.S. national anthem in Arabic. (Stick around till 4 p.m. to hear him belt out a few Syrian pop tunes as well.)

At 12:30 p.m., stop by the cultural tent for a discussion titled "Journeys of Syrian Jews: From Ancient Times Until Today," led by Sephardic Heritage International DC founding director Franz Afraim Katzir.

When hunger strikes, visit some of the food vendors throughout the day for some shawarma (which is quite different from its Greek cousin, the gyro) or halawet el-jibn, a sweet cheese dessert that you may be inspired to recreate at home.

At 3 p.m., the Narts Dance Ensemble, based in New Jersey and making its first appearance in the D.C. area, will perform Circassian folk dance, traditional styles derived from Circassianheritage.

There's a reason frantically busy people are sometimes referred to as "whirling dervishes": The term describes the art of whirling oneself in a circle as a spiritual meditataion, and is a practice of the Mevlevi order of Sufi Muslims. At 5 p.m., watch Mevlevi Adnan Tarakji perform a dance likely to be meditative and hypnotic for the spectator.

Throughout the festival, booths will be open for patrons to explore photography, crafts, henna, traditional fashion, and children's activities (including face-painting and a moon bounce. And for those who want to show some love but can't make it, there's also an online store full of swag.


Syria Fest will be held at Freedom Plaza from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 2.

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