DAMASCUS, Syria May 21, 2010? -- 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.
Syrian Youth Flock to American Music
"I just thought it was wonderful and I wish more things like it would happen," said Rima Abou Hoja.
"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.
But that new beginning has been hard to forge, especially in Syria. Washington just renewed economic sanctions on Syria, and has yet to send an ambassador to Damascus after a roughly five year absence. Syria is close ally of Iran, a supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah, and technically at war with Israel.
Yet Syria has also emerged as a keystone of U.S. objectives in the Middle East. A possible Syrian-Israeli peace has long been seen as a way to untie the Israeli-Palestinian impasse. Syria's leverage with Iran and neighborly relations with Iraq give it a hand in the success of U.S. policy.
Salama's music reaches just a relatively small and already Western-friendly group. Roughly 1,000 people came to the shows in Syria, a country of 27 million.
"There may be 500 people at one concert," said Barrosse, "but when they walk away, they walk away with a different impression and vision of the United States."
"They'll have a context when they see the United States in the news or anywhere else? you have opened the door for a subsequent relationship," he said.
Salama's tour comes after a long drought of American music in Syria. Last month hip hop artists Chen Lo and the Liberation Family played in Syria, also sponsored by the State Department, in what was the first such concert in years.
Salama Bridges East and West with Music
Salama plans to release a version of his next album in the Middle East, and return to the region.
"I represent something to a lot of people, which is the idea that two things that seem opposite can come together in one person," said Salama.
"For them maybe I represent the idea that we can accept one another."