Kinan Azmeh: Syrian Clarinetist Stranded in Beirut Thanks to Trump Ban

Yo-Yo Ma woodwind player unable to go to New York City home of 16 years

Syrian Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh is affected by Trump's travel ban. Credit: Ben Gabbe/Getty

This is third in a series on musicians affected directly by President Trump's travel ban on seven Middle Eastern countries. Read our previous pieces on Iranian born electronic artist Ash Koosha and Iraqi metal band Acrassicauda.

For the moment, Kinan Azmeh is stuck in Beirut. The Syrian clarinetist, who tours the world with Yo-Yo Ma and plays shows worldwide with his jazz quartet and other groups, flew there last Friday for a concert. That same night, President Donald Trump signed an executive order disallowing Syrians and citizens of six other countries from entering the U.S., even if they have legal visas. So while Azmeh, 40, has an EB-1 "alien with extraordinary abilities" visa and has lived in New York City for 16 years, he has no idea whether he'll be allowed to return to his Brooklyn home. His flight, from Beirut to John F. Kennedy International Airport via Rome, is Thursday night. "If I'm denied flying, I don't know how to get my stuff out of the U.S.," Azmeh says from his Beirut hotel.

Azmeh, a Damascus-born graduate of New York's Juilliard School who also holds an electrical-engineering degree, has faced discrimination in the U.S. before. After September 11th, he recalls, "You start to speak Arabic with a softer voice." He has had a green card since 2014, and wonders if he'll make a scheduled show this month at New York's Cornelia Street Café.

How might the travel ban affect you?
When I landed in Beirut on Friday, I found out about all this stuff. I continue to not know what's going to happen. I hear so many contrasting reports. I'm getting lots of feedback and advice from friends all over the place. I'm hearing people with green cards are denied boarding U.S.-bound flights, and I'm sure you've heard stories of people being turned away when they land. I'm somebody who travels back and forth quite a lot. I have lots of plans to play concerts in New York, lots of commissions to play chamber pieces and concerto pieces. There's a big question mark on all of this.

You're in Beirut now, right? When were you planning to return to the States?
Yes, right now I'm in Beirut. The plan was to fly back this coming Thursday, right after the concert. I have a couple recording sessions and a couple concerts in Washington, D.C.

What do you think will happen to those scheduled shows?
The thing is, I don't know. It's crazy to think about all of these things, because I've been there for the last 16 years. I've been in this situation, in 2001 or 2002 – it's happened a few times. I got to my own concert late because I was stopped at the airport. This is not only about me, but it's about millions of people who are having their lives shattered by this, whether they have green cards or visas. It's quite incredible that it's happening now.

What have you been doing in Beirut? Are you trying to get answers?
I don't think anybody knows, really. Friends of mine, for example, tried to fly back from Abu Dhabi to the U.S. on a direct flight and they did let them in. But other people I know were not allowed to take a plane into another city. I will only know once I go to the airport in Beirut – or in Rome, because I'm connected in Rome – whether I will be allowed to take the flight to New York. And the story continues when I arrive in JFK. What's going to happen then?

How are you dealing with the anxiety from this?
I always put things in perspective. Since the situation in Syria escalated five years ago, I know so many people who lost everything, who lost their loved ones, who lost their homes, either they cannot go back or their family is disappearing. Even in this, I'm a very lucky person. I have my clarinet, I can express my feelings through music. It sounds cliché, but it really empowers me. Of course, it's affecting me personally, but some people's lives have been in a catastrophic shape the last five years.

Have you spoken with promoters for your scheduled shows? Are they concerned you might miss them?
I haven't, actually. Some of them wrote to me, because they heard about the story from different media outlets. Some people are incredibly sensitive: "I'm sorry to hear this." And some people say, like, "Oh, should we cancel the dates." It's funny to see the contrast of how people react to things.

What other questions do you have about this?
What does this mean, long-term? What does this mean for everybody in the world who is discriminated against, just because they have a different skin color, a different passport, different religious beliefs? That's the question everybody is asking.