Sahba Aminikia's Flying Carpet Festival Brings Music to Refugee Children in Turkey

Sahba Aminikia hadn’t planned on dancing when he stopped by Club Deluxe in the Haight to unwind and hear a little jazz three years ago. But the band was swinging, and before long, he found himself boogieing with a young Italian woman. The Iranian-born composer was in a very good place in his career, teaching at the Academy of Art University while writing music performed by top-flight ensembles around the world, including Kronos Quartet.

During a break in the music, the woman related a fantastical story about an organization teaching circus arts to children who’d fled war and repression in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Forcefully struck by the unlikely vision, Aminikia set out on a quest that ultimately led him to give up his secure academic day job in San Francisco in order to establish the 2018 Flying Carpet Festival in the remote southeastern corner of Turkey.

Flying Carpet returns for its second year Aug. 18-24, and Aminikia isn’t going alone. Drawing on his vast network of friends and colleagues, he’s recruited musicians, composers, and technicians from the Bay Area and far beyond to bring music to children unmoored by some of the world’s most harrowing conflicts.

“This young Italian woman started telling me about her sister who was a clown in a refugee camp,” Aminikia recalls. “That wasn’t exactly true. It’s not a refugee camp, but she forwarded me the Instagram account of this NGO called Sirkhane, which means ‘House of Circus’ in Turkish and Arabic. I saw this incredible footage of a parade going through the most distant Kurdish villages. It was so mesmerizing and totally out of place, this crazy event happening somewhere where people are dealing with real issues and pain.”

Since he was already heading to the region to visit his family for Nowruz (Persian New Year) in March, Aminikia decided to take a detour to Mardin, the ancient town in southeastern Turkey where Sirkhane is based. The situation was tense upon his arrival, with tanks patrolling the streets of a city that was part of the Assyrian Empire in the 14th century BCE. Undaunted by the military presence, children quickly surrounded Aminikia “and every one of them wanted to sing,” he says. “I started to record them, and then I thought, 'Maybe it’s not a great time for an American citizen to be recording.' As I was leaving, the children were running after the car, still singing. It wasn’t a choice any more. I wanted to be involved.”

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Returning to San Francisco, Aminikia left his job at the Academy and put out the word that he was looking for artists to help launch Flying Carpet in September, an absurdly abbreviated schedule for organizing an international arts festival. The plan got a major boost and cash infusion of $100,000 when he won a grant competition from the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, which allowed him to help cover traveling expenses. But it was Aminikia’s guileless wide-eyed pitch, a dream of bringing music to dispossessed kids, that proved most persuasive, says cellist Helen Newby.

A member of the Amaranth Quartet, Newby got to know Aminikia when hers was one of several groups that performed his music as part of Kronos Festival 2017: Here and Now. Dubious about Flying Carpet when he approached her, she agreed to participate but was unsure of whether it would actually come to pass. “Lo and behold, I ended up getting a plane ticket in the mail,” she says. “I went into it not knowing a ton about what was going to happen. I knew it would involve working with kids and some performing, but it was taking a leap a faith. I thought, 'I’ll regret it if I don’t.'”

She spent two weeks in the region, mostly in a village near the border with Syria, working with middle school kids in a choir that Aminikia created. Though there was a translator, the language barrier meant she was “always trying to find activities that didn’t require too much verbal interaction,” she says. “We had an instrument petting zoo. The first week was mostly doing these workshops with the kids, but the second week we were doing a lot more performing and rehearsing, with the occasional surprise concert: 'By the way, you’re performing tonight for hundreds of people.'”

The experience proved impactful: after participating in Flying Carpet last year, Newby is heading back to Turkey again in August.

Aminikia’s empathy for displaced children stems partly from his familiarity with unbridled government power. While visiting his family in Iran back in 2012, he was recording sounds for a piece commissioned by Kronos Quartet when three Revolutionary Guards abducted him at gunpoint and accused him of being an American spy. The guards beat him and put a gun in his mouth while forcing him to attest to his Baha’i faith (a religion actively repressed by the Iranian government). Expecting summary execution, Aminikia was instead left on the outskirts of Tehran, stripped of his clothes and his eyes burning with mace.

Many of the artists who heeded Aminikia’s call bring their own experiences with dislocation. In the summer of 2017 Yugoslavian-born composer Aleksandra Vrebalov had watched thousands of refugees cross Serbia on their way to Germany. “When you witness it, seeing people sleeping in parks and walking on highways trying to get to a better life, it’s an amazing, painful thing to see,” she says. “I was very motivated to contribute to Flying Carpet.”

A world renowned composer with deep ties to the Bay Area, Vrebalov arrived in Mardin with a detailed array of expectations about what she would teach—expectations that she quickly discarded upon taking stock of the bare-bones situation. Traveling to one of three centers run by Sirkhane every day, she learned to adapt to the needs of the children who came to a workshop. The trait they all shared was an overwhelming desire for attention.

“When I got there I realized these kids were so energetic and intense,” she says. “They lived through hardships that we only read about, and the amount of energy and kind of connection that they wanted to establish individually with the guest artists was so humbling and moving. You can’t possibly do it. We invented music games where everybody could engage in some communal sense and a lot of energy would be spent. I taught for many years at different levels, and the kind of engagement and creativity that the circumstances demanded, I haven’t had that anywhere else.”

As the open call for artists to participate in this August’s Flying Carpet closes, Aminikia is busy reinventing the festival, looking to make it sustainable. Artists involved this year are paying their own way to Turkey. He’s drawing more on artists who live in the area, so that masters in traditional Kurdish, Turkish and Syrian music are featured in the festival, reflecting back to kids aspects of their own cultures. The festival includes  an ensemble from Iran made up of fellow Baha’is “coming by bus 15 hours from Tehran, and first they have to get to Tehran,” he says. There are eight acrobats from Brazil who are fundraising to pay their own way to Turkey, two choreographers from Istanbul and a magician from the U.K. who works in refugee camps.

When talking about his vision for the Flying Carpet festival's future, Aminikia sounds almost blissful to have stepped off the ordained path for a composer.

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“This place kills your ego,” he says. “You see the actual needs of people who are hungry and in need of education. You start analyzing yourself about your expectations. Artists in the West don’t feel appreciated and useful. But in many ways this is a very American idea. Mardin is a house on the hill. And we’re determined to build something that will last.”

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