Country music has little of a fan base in the Middle East. The crowd of Syrians that filed into Tishreen Park was mostly propelled by curiosity for a rare concert of American music and a chance to meet Kareem Salama, reputedly America's first Muslim country singer.
Salama's concerts in Syria were among the stops on a one month tour of the Middle East arranged by the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, part of a wave of cultural outreach to the Arab world.
"I wanted to introduce them to our music," said Salama in his Oklahoma drawl. "A lot of people come up to us and say they really, really like it."
Salama's parents immigrated to America from Egypt, raising a devout Muslim family enmeshed in southern U.S. culture, from football to barbeques and rodeos.
"I never felt like I was anything other than American, but I did know that my family had come from another place," he said. "I wasn't made to feel out of place."
On stage he mixes English and Arabic, joking with the audience and introducing his bandmates. Through their guitar solos and his lyrics to songs like "Picnics and Sunshine" he conveys a uniquely American sound and a Southern ease. In another song called "You Are Me," he pulls a common thread through two cultures.
"Middle Eastern man, do you know who I am? I'm a God-fearing man, and I love my land," he says, then roughly repeats the line in Arabic. The song ends with a riff mixing "Hallelujah" and "Hamdullilah," the Arabic religious phrase of giving thanks.
The audience is visibly stunned by the musical mixture.
"They hear him singing in Arabic and it's like - whoa wait a second, this is for us," said guitarist and music producer Dan Workman.
"And then he talks in an Oklahoma accent. He pops you out of your preconceptions."
After each show, new fans surround the visiting musicians asking for autographs. In Latakia, guitarists JJ Worthen and Mike Whitebread gave an impromptu master class, teaching new guitar chords to eager Syrian teens.
"Most Syrians have a monolithic view of America. [Kareem] is Muslim, he's Arab and he's American in his own way...there's no conflict."
"He brought a sense of Western music here. I felt it and everyone felt it," said Claude Shamy, a college student in Latakia hoping to pursue a graduate degree in the U.S. "It's going to bring them closer to America and closer to the culture of America."
That's the point of Kareem's tour. This year the State Department is spending $11.5 million on cultural initiatives worldwide, with a generous set of grants for the Middle East.
Colombia Barrosse, director of the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Programs, says the initial uptick came after Sept. 11, 2001, when the Bush administration expanded cultural diplomacy initiatives in what then-advisor Karen Hughes dubbed 'waging peace' in the Middle East. Artists and athletes like baseball player Cal Ripkin Jr. and skater Michelle Kwan were sent abroad as "citizen diplomats."
The effort had has a renewed focus and increase in funding as the Obama administration sought to reset America's image abroad, advancing what President Obama called America's "smart power" and a "new beginning" with the Muslim world.