It was the year 2009 in Beirut. That’s when Mashrou’ Leila, perhaps one of the most popular Lebanese bands, appeared in the public eye for the first time. The story is well-known: they sent two demo tracks to Radio Liban 96.2 FM Modern Music contest, one of which was the now legendary Raskit Leila, heard also in the background of another classic of Beirut pop culture, the short film Beirut I Love You (I Love You Not), a tribute by Mounia Akl and Cyril Aris to Jean Pierre Jeunet’s film Amelie, set in modern Beirut (later turned into a TV/web series by LBC channel). Mashrou’ Leila won the competition that also unearthed other talents like Sandmoon and Anthony Touma. But their story begins in 2008 at the American University of Beirut when the violinist Haig Papazian, guitarist Andre Chedid and pianist Omaya Malaeb invited people to jam with them in order to relieve the tensions typical of being an undergraduate in a country enamored with war.
And so Mashrou’ Leila, not a band but a project, was born. Their soft melancholy lyrics popularized, coupled with a seven-piece ensemble bordering on funk and folk rock that could have been labeled Indie, had it appeared ten years ago but nowadays stands as a thing of its own. The journalist Ziad Makhoul, one of the members of the jury in the Radio Liban contest, put to words what he heard at the time: ‘A bastard baby and sumptuous orgy somewhere between Goran Bregovic, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Iggy Pop. Hipster but not too amateurish but not too romantic but not too eye catching but not too elegant.’ And since then, the project of Hamed Sinno, Haig Papazian, Omaya Malaeb, Carl Gerges, Ibrahim Badr, Firas Abu-Fakhr and Andre Chedid has become something of a phenomenon in the Arab world. This requires further explanation: an almost casual blend of sexual ambiguity, idiosyncratic Arabic songs, and a now well established almost pop aesthetics of ruins slash glamour.
Yet Mashrou’ Leila is not a discovery and one could hardly go anywhere past the countless features, interviews and what not that have appeared in press all over the Middle East. There seems to be so little to add. Two albums and many concerts later, the once quasi-underground band (a Protestant university hidden in a green corner of the Middle East hardly qualifies as underground) has moved to centre stage and whether one is hypnotized by their music or not is already a bit irrelevant to their overall presence. When writing about Lebanese music, I wanted to go to pristine untouched places: the folk sounds of Sandra Arslanian and Eileen Khatchadourian, the almost-installation electronic performances of Marc Codsi, the melancholy of Safar Barlik. It’s not that Mashrou’ Leila wasn’t interesting to me, but it felt simultaneously too distant and too close. And as time elapsed, I moved from film and music to fine art and somehow the exclamation mark of Mashrou’ Leila remained.
I questioned whether it was not too commercial? After all, they gathered crowds in the thousands across the region and God knows how close I could come. I mean, my interaction with art was different: usually I had very personal contact with obscure young painters and remotely known installation artists that I met in random dilapidated houses. And this wasn’t willy-nilly: I belong to a generation in the Middle East that has been told repeatedly that the art is bad because of censorship, because no critics, because no institutions, etc. And as everybody was looking West — not so much as a style but as a stage for performance — I was bored and wanted to be that critic; though later I realized criticism is boring as it requires a critical distance from what is being talked about. A distance I would never permit myself to have from art. I wanted to invade works of art, ensembles, and films; hence nearness and even friendship was a requisite for this task.
But these things are usually oblique and not necessarily straightforward. Every time I read another interview with Mashrou’ Leila, another polemic, gender this and that, Israel this and that, Palestine so and so, Lebanon this and this; that I never found interesting and the conversation lost some edge for me, although I remained always alert and curious to their music. I recognized intimately the place where it originated, just like I did with Annie Kurkdjian’s painting or Gregory Buchakjian’s photography. Something autonomous but uncontrolled: Beirut in 2006, the turning points, the tipping points, the return, the uncertainty. And the same melancholy that comes after suffocation: Do not talk about this, do not talk about that. Do not dress like this, do not dress like that. Love is between a man and woman. This is the way we are supposed to live. And the screaming inside as the sirens and planes buzzed outside, containing this fear, sometimes curious, sometimes paralyzing.
The voice of Hamed Sinno and the violin of Haig Papazian, both unpunctuated and unrestrained, were often part of my early morning repertory as I lay in vigil leafing through Michel Fani’s ‘Dictionaire de la Peinture au Liban’ and studying the writings of Sarah Kofman, trying to find that voice that I was in search of when addressing art: ‘Art is not a matter of some shadow world that could be opposed, in any simple sense, to the real world of the living. Art upsets the opposition between these two worlds, causes each to slip into the other.’ I hated the idea of a Lebanese or an Arab art; I wanted a non-descriptive topography for art in which the artist is not compelled to remain within certain restrictive boundaries of gender, ethnicity, nationality, only in order to please a contemporary audience hungry for pornography of war and suffering. The more it bleeds, the more it sells. And as those thoughts circulated, the music sometimes uplifted me, sometimes bled me out. It was always different.
It was something rather intimate, a private space in which both the music and I exhausted all our vital forces until a sentence looked perfect on paper, although it would become disappointing the day after. A change of scene. Istanbul, March 2013, lying in bed for days, with a heart broken and left behind in Manama. Reading from the journals of Susan Sontag: ‘I will never just outlast this pain. (Healing passage of time, etc.) I am frozen, paralyzed, the gears are jammed. It will only recede, diminish if I can somehow transpose the emotion –as from grief to anger, from despair to assent. I must become active. As long as I continue to experience myself as done to (not doing) this unbearable pain will not desert me.’ But the music never changed. Perhaps it just became overwhelmingly incremental. I had this theory that sounds record memories better than images; images are often a cruel and frozen reminder of what no longer is, whereas music is perpetual re-enactment.
And then Mashrou’ Leila in Istanbul. I toyed with the possibility; I shouldn’t burn, I thought, but then it seemed as the possibility of returning to something, to something that circulated succinct but unexpressed. How close could I come? And then I found myself right there, across the band I had tried to skip so many times. And by right across I mean, only a few centimeters away. I remember almost the order of the songs, the first one in particular. And how I broke crying there, it was even funny. Words and people who write have their common stories, especially when they’re the words of others, some private property that you appropriate in secret. It could have been so many hours, but yet it all elapsed in a second. Anywhere but Istanbul it was then. A lifeline between Beirut and Manama that somehow broke suddenly allowing only enough time to pick up the little pieces and flee.
And politics in Beirut. We’ve all heard it. It’s all terrible and bad. Life sucks. There’s no hope. There’s no escape. Just the continued deathless death. Where is your ID? One of the local greeting forms. The penchant for fireworks and heroes trying to save those who do not want to be saved. This intoxicated extension of the Holy Land in which there is no option but being savior or saved; no place for the simple free man. It all came back to me immediately, with flying colors. As I looked around the rather small hall, the Turkish fans — who thank God couldn’t cry with the lyrics — and a small group of Lebanese, Syrians and Israelis crowded at the front. I couldn’t be too bothered as I was completely withdrawn into the performance of Sinno and Papazian that might as well have been one of those carefully staged performances of Ali Cherri; drawing in the air with instruments and voices the imaginary maps of a country that could never really exist, except when looking at it from here.
That night I sent the band an email telling them about the paralyzing effect that the performance had on my persona, like a teenage girl sending fan letters. And everything I put on Instagram, because that is what you do in 2013 to belong to the instagrammar of contemporary feelings, dating and visual literacy. The next day I returned for the second performance and in a surprising twist of events I had a casual chat with Hamed, the man that had made me cry the night before. He reminded me of the artists I had met in the studios: nonchalant and casual, friendly and somewhat unrestrained, laconic but yet not quite phlegmatic. I guess art happens just like that. You’re not really in control. You don’t really know what you’re doing. And there I was, finally closing my circle with Lebanese music, outside my comfort zone, in a city I hated then, and unable to write it out for many long months. We talked about meeting in Beirut; being now unsure whether he or I remember.
Later that night, in a frenzy, I met a young architect from Aleppo who had come all the way from his place of refuge in Eastern Turkey to see Hamed Sinno perform live, being one of the many fleeing from the horrors of the Syrian war. And that made my grief at the time seem so insignificant, which comforted me in a way. I had just taken leave of my friends and sat with him, half-inebriated, on a bench next to Taksim Square waiting with him until morning for his bus to return to hell. And yes, this is a brutal place, not suitable for young people, certainly not for artists; and it is all the more reason to dare to do so many things. I’m reminded now of a time when I was a conscious student of Hannah Arendt and came across her dedication to Karl Jaspers in which discussing the cruel cold facts out of which the political thought of the 20th century was born, she adds, ‘I have not accepted the world created by those facts as necessary and indestructible’.
There’s no other form of resistance more adequate and brave than simply daring to live in these times, to create, to produce art, to unearth possibilities. And no, art will not liberate anyone, it is powerless before bombs and snipers, but it is dignity’s only life insurance in such troubling times. It sounds silly, but really, the alternatives are few. And soon Mashrou’ Leila will release a new album, I listened to the song and all; I will not be there but nonetheless it gives me relief that life never stops in Beirut. And while sometimes I wonder about the architect from Aleppo, that moment was one extended unforgettable sound, standing across Hamed and Haig, seeing art face to face, for the first time. Or, in the words of Michael Cunningham: ‘There is still that singular perfection, and it’s perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.’