The Marimacho: instruments do not know of borders

Together they sat across from me in a crowded tea house. Their knees touching softly, her hand reaching for his arm every now and then, as she calmly told a story. On contrast, he was in constant motion; unstoppable; moving; moving, moving to the music that never stopped inside.

Him: I looked at his green eyes flickering with light; they have trotted dirt, walked across a barren land to escape war. They reached a hostile border, where he hoped to find peace. After passing through the borders, Ferhad stood tall in Turkey for five years, trying to make it. But war caught up with him. On the day of Newroz, three years into his life in Istanbul, news of his sister Evin reached him. Evin, a young violinist, a Kurdish woman by descent, was abducted and killed by the terrorist group ISIS. In his new home, he wore this traumas like a merry Balkan song; riddled with piercing tones, yet upbeat in defiance.

He sang, and when he sang he unlatched his eyes, shook his head from side to side and laughed. In that resonant sound one learned the meaning of resilience. His defined cheekbones rose with his smile, his protruded Adam’s apple even bigger than usual, his endless blonde hair weaving itself like dark wheat into the traditional Kurdish tunes. Tall and lean, accepting and warm, he embraced sadness and turned it into joy.

Her: My eyes fell on her’s: blue. She had a posture that said “I am tough”, but her eyes, there was something welcoming about them. They said “please, come in, there is love here.” Mar‘s expression was a blank canvas that invited onlookers to be themselves, without asking for explanations. Her mouth was a continuous, understanding smile. Her nose, small and pleasing. She did not laugh easily but when she did, one felt the receiving of a gift. Her long hair impossibly blonde, her skin translucent. Her unequivocal beauty unassuming. Elegant and full of pride. She stood tall beside him and her eyes unquestioningly allowed one in.

IMG_2316.JPGThe afternoon: The tea house was nestled into the rear exit of an ancient church in the centre of Istanbul. People huddled there, sitting close to hide from the dry cold of the early spring. Tea paddlers walked by, distributing glasses filled with bergamot. The three of us sipped our teas and spoke of borders.

We were all very familiar with borders. My passport said Turkey, his Syria, and hers Britain. I had been working in humanitarian aid for the past year and a half, travelling far across the country to carry out research, particularly among child labourers. These were children who had crossed borders to save their lives. She had been working for the refugees in Turkey for the past three years, first down in Reyhanli, near the Syrian border as a dentist, and lately in Istanbul for a larger organisation. He also worked for refugees. He taught music and art to Syrian children. But his full time job was his music.

We talked of our upcoming departures, our paths diverging to reach new destinations. It was then that I handed over the instrument. The Marimacho.

The Marimacho: Exactly two years before that afternoon,  I lived among 200 families in a small village hidden in the Andes mountains. I was in southern Peru to carry out research on the traditional economy of Quechua people. In my spare time, I would descend into the city of Cusco, to take a break from the rural life in the capital of the Incas. One afternoon, I was walking in the hilly neighbourhood of San Blas. I crossed narrow alleyways aimlessly, putting one foot before the other, taking in the magic of this impossible city. Marked by immense old rocks, its streets cobbled with antiquity. I walked… I walked… until I heard the unfamiliar music. My body involuntarily brought me to the shop of Sabino, an old Cusquenian instrument maker. Sabino’s wife sat next to earthy flower pots in the entrance of the unassuming shop. There was no signage. Just a small door. She smiled at me, inviting  me to enter. Inside, Sabino was playing the Marimacho, all 18 strings of it, picking, picking, infinitely picking; impossibly picking.

Alone in the shop, the couple offered me coca tea. We talked in Spanish, a second language to all of us due to their Quechua heritage. They showed me Sabino’s workshop, each instrument was made from scratch. They showed me the precision it required to make; the time, the patience. I touched the surfaces of half made guitars, charangos, marimachos.


I looked at Sabino’s hands. I looked at his wife’s hands. Both smallish, both brown like mine, both marked by a labour for music.

I made a plan. I rushed to my dirty but much beloved hostel across the city, grabbed all of my money, climbed back up the impossible hill to San Blas and entered the shop an hour later. I offered the money in my hand to Sabino, opening my palm with excitement. He looked surprised. He smiled at me once more. He was happy to make a sale. Sure enough, tourists did visit his shop but who knew when he had made his last sale. We were both content to exchange.  I took the Marimacho from where it rested. We looked at each other one more time, smiled, and I walked out.

I do not play any instruments, but I had to get the Marimacho and find a home for it. There was an urgency to the feeling. I knew that eventually I would meet someone who would appreciate Sabino, his wife; that they would transcend borders and degrees of separation. I would carry the Marimacho until I met this person.

The journey: I went back to the village, a mere four hours from Cusco. Eight kilometres of uphill majestic inferno, leading eventually to the hushed sounds of grazing animals, of people working on their land. The Marimacho stayed in a dusty room until it was time to leave. Two months later it journeyed back with me first to Cusco, then to Ayacucho, then to Lima. It took a plane for the first time in its life. It flew to Spain, then to London. It took a civilised but understated bus journey to Oxford and rested in the corner of a room for three months.

Come September, it woke from hibernation and began a new life in Istanbul. There, it first lived outside of the city with my parents, then moved to the centre of town on the European side. Later it moved to Asia, but was not pleased, so it returned back to Europe. It sat in an ancient neighbourhood called Topkapi, where it listened to the call to prayer five times a day, its first music lessons in Turkey. Untouched, a virgin, it waited patiently, it waited for Mar and Ferhad.

Borders: When I met Mar, I was shaken by her calmness. I rushed around in anxiety taking all injustice in the world personally, never satisfied with the solutions, ever frustrated with the system and its unshakeable conditions. The war weighed on me, the bombings in Istanbul weighed on me, famine weighed on me, the lives of more than three million refugees weighed on me, working children weighed on me. They weighed on Mar too, but she knew how to be a sea. She knew that one had to go with the ebb and flow, let life be pleasant, help when possible, accept.

In contrast to Mar, when I met Ferhad, his energy astounded me. I invited them to celebrate New Year’s eve with me, in my small flat. The Marimacho was among us. We made music, we ate, we drank, we talked loudly, we laughed, we danced. Then, the black news reached us. Silence fell heavy on the room. Mute. Solemn.

There was a terrorist attack in a night club nearby; some forty were gunned down. The music stopped. We sat silently. We looked at each other in desperation. We held each other’s loss of hope. Then Ferhad got up, he said “yallah”. He put on a tune by Gogol Bordello, blaring “Start wearing purple” extra loud from the speakers and said “Listen, right now people are dying near and far. They are dying everywhere. You do not get to be upset because these ones are near and you can not be unmoved because those ones are far. It is your duty in this world to be happy. This is how you say ‘Fuck You’ to the fear-mongering bastards.”

Ferhad closed his eyes, allowed his mouth to spread into a wide smile, swayed his hips and danced. We joined. We too danced. We were taken by his resilience, accepting of what had happened, defiant, happy. In that moment the Marimacho told me it belonged to Ferhad and Mar.

The afternoon once more: They listened to the story of Marimacho’s journey as Ferhad unzipped its cover and touched its wooden body for the second time. The first was in my house during New Year’s eve. Now he listened with a cosmic smile as I told them I wanted to give them this instrument because they were the home it had been longing for, that Ferhad and Mar would care for it and let it continue its journey better than me. That the instrument was made to transcend borders with acceptance and joy.  The couple, now married, accepted the Marimacho.

As we finished our tea, I asked Ferhad a final question. “Do you identify yourself as a refugee?” He said “Look, they can call me what they like but how could I be a “refugee” if I don’t believe the world has or should have borders? I am just who I am, a part of this little planet.”

Ferhad and Mar, busy getting married on a boat in Istanbul. Photograph by Lawand Al Kurdi

We embraced and departed. A month later I returned to England. One day, sitting by my friend’s kitchen table in Oxford, the Skype icon on my computer started to jump up and down.  My screen revealed the bright faces of Ferhad and Mar, sitting in their living room in Istanbul, their voices skipping and jumping. Mar was offering her laughter, her gift, generously, while waving a piece of paper. It signalled Ferhad’s freedom to leave Turkey, a visa to continue his journey.  They planned to go to Spain and then who knew, maybe to Latin America. The lights in his eyes were now shining intensely. Across countries, across borders, across all the limitations, he played a tune on the Marimacho for me, picking all 18 strings of it. Somewhere in Peru, Sabino and his wife smiled. I, in England, felt acceptance and joy; an ephemeral moment of belonging. These days the lovers are slowly making their way to Europe. And the Marimacho, without a passport or a visa, is crossing all the lines we were told not to cross by the ruling criminals.



My rural home in Peru, an ephemeral moment of belonging.


Cross That Line

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.

He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.

Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?


*To listen to Sabino playing the Marimacho please follow this link. 

**To listen to Ferhad’s band Danûk please follow this link. 

This one is for Evin, of today and of tomorrow.


2 thoughts on “The Marimacho: instruments do not know of borders

  1. Pingback: The Marimacho: instruments do not know of borders — The need to belong — С любовью к людям!

  2. Pingback: The need to belong | The Human Times

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