Friday, August 31, 2012

Anti-LGBT Lebanese singer prevented in Canada

First published on BIKYAMASR

A controversy started on August 20 when the Montreal chapter of Lebanese-Canadian LGBT-rights organization HELEM condemned in an open letter the scheduled performances of Lebanese singer Mohamed Eskander in Canada, to take place on Saturday and Sunday this week, in Montreal and Ottawa respectively. Mr. Eskander has a long-standing record of homophobic and sexist slurs and whose lyrics reinforce discrimination and stereotypes – already strong enough on their own – against women and homosexuals.
His songs from recent years, “Jomhouryet Albi” (Republic of the Heart) and “Dod El 3enf” (Against Violence) glorify violence against women and homosexuals, are charged with a plethora of insulting remarks that mock both the cause of women and gay rights, not to mention that the video clips contain explicitly derogatory imagery: “Jomhouryet Albi” features a man defending his daughter from sexual harassment with a gun and “Dod El 3enf” portrays negative stereotypes against homosexuals, such as cross-dressing and sex in washrooms.
Already in 2010 a protest took place in Beirut condemning his encouragement of violations against women rights and Arabs also protested in Denmark against him performing in the country. While the content of his music is nothing short of outrageous, it is something of a commonplace in the scene of Arab pop, and unsurprisingly, in a country – Lebanon – subject to strict and rather aimless and inconsistent censorship laws, Mr. Eskander releases his songs unmolested and is not subject to any type of political, social or religious censorship.
The question for HELEM, however, is that in Canada his offensive and rather derogatory art, contradicts Canadian values and could be considered hate speech. In their view, his performance and lyrics contradict the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, violates the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and numerous provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code. It was against this background that Canadian-Lebanese gay rights advocates campaigned against the performances.
HELEM’s condemnation was reported by on August 22 and that same day, Lebanese channel LBC reported the incident in the evening news bulletin, followed by a host of media publications and blogs in Canada. The two venues in Canada, after mounting pressure, released written statements confirming that Eskander will not be allowed to perform any of the two songs above mentioned. Furthermore a third venue in Windsor, Ontario, where the singer will perform today, also notified that the two songs will not be included in the program.
While the omission of the songs was an achievement for HELEM with the collaboration of LGBT-organizations and friendly media, the success is only partial since Mr. Eskander is still profiting from performances in Canada in order to keep producing more homophobic and sexist songs. The fact that this offensive art is still allowed in Canada shows a certain proclivity on the part of the Canadian authorities – and cultural promoters – to encourage this kind of provocations against rights in Canada, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The singer obviously remains unrepentant and unapologetic for his scandalous art: Yesterday his son Fares Eskander – producer of the singer and the person behind the lyrics of his songs – spoke to Lebanese daily An-Nahar saying that he is ashamed that his father’s audience has homosexuals. On Tuesday, Ottawa Citizen reported that “Lebanese-Canadian gay rights advocates in Ottawa and Montreal have succeeded in preventing a visiting Lebanese singer from performing songs they consider homophobic and misogynistic.”
A deal was brokered between the venues and the activists, and demonstrations have been called off, nevertheless it remains to be seen whether the commitments will be kept. The recent crackdown on homosexuals in Lebanon, encouraged by media and gladly followed through by the authorities, based in a legislation that precedes the creation of the Lebanese republic, is yet another reason why Lebanese activists in Canada call for the solidarity and support of their Canadian friends in their efforts to fight censorship, intimidation and abuse.
For many Lebanese, it is rather embarrassing that in a country well-known throughout the Middle East for its rich and thriving artistic scene, with many outstanding bands and singers, it is precisely a figure like Mohamed Eskander who represents Lebanese culture in Canada, given the fact that he is also resented at home for his encouragement of violence; in a country that hardly needs to be encouraged more, in one of the world’s most violent regions and with the unabated support of the authorities.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Letter to Tundama

Dear Carlos,

It's been such a long time, I wonder where you are, what you do, who you are now. I've thought about you a lot in the past year. So great is my solitude these days, after a long year of isolation, in which my mind and my soul have grown up a lot, but yet not enough, and I feel that the pain, that pain from always, is still there, more alive than ever, but it now looks straight into my eyes and demands not consolation, but being listened to.

I still remember Hoffmansthal's poem that I translated for you once, because in May I included it in a letter that I sent to Canada, to a very dear friend, who never answered my letter. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed by fear, fear about my own capabilities. In the last two years I've begun to make what they call in the world "a career". The writer, the journalist. With the recognition and honors due to this respectable profession, but yet all of that is external; inside me the only things I have for display are anxieties, insecurities and fears. Perhaps writing is nothing but freedom mixed with fright.

The Middle East follows me, follows me everywhere, and I let it follow me; more often than not I also let it bleed me out, without stopping for a moment to pick myself. On the other hand, I write it out, I keep writing it out, and I give it everything of me, hoping that one day it will love me, that it will love like its own lost son, but it never happens. As always, it welcomes me, steals my best years, and then spits me out. Sometimes I begin to think I've lived the wrong life, or a borrowed life, one that isn't mine, but perhaps it's a bit late to ask myself those questions.

I keep planning my escape, I keep planning going home, arriving at my true destination, but I wouldn't know where to go. Sometimes I think, and not without foundations, that such a place is nothing but people, some people, people I love with the craziness of the East, and time after time, I produce nothing but fear in people. Those who read me without knowing me, those I would like to come near to, they only see what they call "genius"; whereas those who know me stay behind, frightened, they prefer the silence, and wound me mortally, always after the same fashion, time after time. They do it without knowing, and I keep stumbling, walking wounded, looking for them, without ever finding them.

I've learnt something new: To see myself. All those years living in hiding, and with telescopes, looking always outside, with the hope of never being seen. But it's to no avail, to not see myself means also that no one can see me, except when the wound is too big to stop the flow of blood and then it's nothing but an exquisite corpse in his own feast, to which no one has been invited. And no one can participate, even if they would like to. I've finished my best work to date last Sunday, and I doubt I can survive it in my current form. I need an absolute transformation, one that includes only me.

How much I would like to see you, to visit you, to see that ancient lake you had told me about once; sadly I can't. I have other plans. I feel that as a writer I no longer have privacy of any kind, my whole life is an open book, a sort of library stocked with undecipherable ancient manuscripts that only produce curiosity, because there's no way to penetrate their content. When I write, I feel always watched; watched by other writers I've read, by distant and impossible friends, by ghosts I've never been able to bring to life even once. I'm but scarcely interested in readers; they're there, fulfill an aesthetic function, but they don't participate at all.

I wish I could write just for myself. But I'm not a solipsist, I need concrete images, moments in time, specific persons, otherwise I get lost, and to get lost in labyrynths of consciousness is a mere exercise in philosophy, very banal, and a degree of purity I find intolerable. I feel the pain of others, but I don't share it because one shouldn't be afraid, one shouldn't be afraid of suffering, of disappointment. It seems to me that whatever is truly human in love and friendship begins in disappointment, and it is only that experience what makes us realize we're not alone in this world. That there're others too.

I remember our last lunch, and the mountains from your bedroom's window. They're still there, keeping watch over us. Did you ever listen to the tangos I sent you? There's so little left of you in me, only a few letters, a little old, but the presence is present. It seems to me that memory is the great power, the great secret, because there's no such a thing as people we forget; they simply turn into gestures, in words of your own, in visions, and without knowing it, you never leave them behind. I remember well your farewell party, and that night at Sonia's. It reminds me of beauty, and I'm reminded not to remember.

I feel my profound contradictions: I'm not afraid of the world, as much as of the even minimal human nearness. I'm so courageous in my work, in the world; I never turn a blind eye to the horrors of war, of hatred, of tragedy, I let the world consume me so completely, without even blinking; at the same time that in personal matters everything hurts me, kills me. The simplest absence, the lack of warmth, the minimal distance make me tremble physically, I lose appetite and sleep. Perhaps it's a compensation for the courage to face the world in such degree of immediacy and without anything to protect me from it; I'm not even looking for any such protection.

Sometimes I cry, but just a little, just enough as to realize that what I feel is true. I feel that sentimentalism is aesthetically repugnant and I prefer laughter, boundless and crazy laughter, because it goes so much deeper than any pain ever could. Artist's laughter. Sometimes I feel my project is just too radical, and I simply can't live it, with all that empty air under my feet, with such insecurity, and that's why I hold onto others, I hold onto them with the only hope to stop surviving and finally live, even if only for brief moments. But maybe I've gone too far, maybe I can no longer hold to anything or anyone. Maybe that's really the limit, and the wisdom here is not to keep going further and further, but rather, to return, some day.


Monday, August 27, 2012

At the Square X

First published on THE MANTLE
For G. Maalouf
"O ancient scent from far-off days,
Again you intoxicate my senses!
A merry swarm of idle thoughts
Flits through the gentle breeze."
-Albert Giraud, in Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire", Op. 21
It might take only half an hour I think. How long does it take from Avenue de Paris to Waygand? We're closer to neither. Damascus is near. Saad told me yesterday that he had seen Samir in his garden with the fountain. "Yesterday I visited him, he was smiling peacefully in his beautiful garden, maybe because he doesn't know what's going on". Do you know? Maybe you don't. I think it's better. Would you like to go for a stroll? "Not the years poured out like water, / Not a beautiful woman / Or anyone / Could make me forget / Distances / Beyond any distance." Why did it take you so long to come? I know, I know, I'm impatient. I'm sorry. "You have concealed your soul from me, / Loaves of bread on the table have dried; / Moss grows on them." You know how it was. The same sense of excitement and possibility; every morning again, going back and forth. I'm only travelling here; that is what I told people. You know, I was always afraid, afraid to leave. "Why were you scared yesterday under the rain? / Death told me. / But if I am your silent, older sister!" It's not that I didn't want to leave, who wouldn't? It was the uncertainty. Would I ever see you again, Beirut, George, Eman?
Loss is a wrong metaphor, you know. How can you lose what you never had? Pristine blue sky, almost perfect, irregular blotches of white, on the contours. Had you noticed the daylight? "'Why is your life in the dark', the light said, / 'But why, if you are not in the bottom of the well, / What you're lacking is love." / And I wept. / I wept inconsolable." Marie was in Damascus, looking for a house, for a house to buy. She didn't find one, though, because what she was looking for was not a house; she was looking for Michel. But Michel is not there. "I have already died, I no longer exist, / My soul has already fled / From this warm body." But you won't leave, right? Where would you like to go, after this? "It was a time / When the senses wanted to go to the limit / Beyond the laws of heaven." I know where I want to go. It's a bit far. "When I die - / God will unweave my life / Thread by thread, / And will cast my colors into the ocean, / Into the reef of the abyss. / They will be perhaps turned into a flower, into a butterly / Of tender colors at night, of vivid colors at night." I hear the water. We must be nearer now.
[Ziad Saad in "A Perfect Day". Film, 2005. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige]
So glad you're here, at last, but there's nothing to see in this city. "How insignificant is the flame / Inside the mortal heart, / She said / And jumped / Into the bonfire / To rise to heaven in the fires of hell." I can be so cruel sometimes, but try not to judge me, I've been here for so long; I forgot many things while I was waiting. "I always wept / Because of my imprisonment / Between the walls of the house, / Between the walls of the street, / Between the walls of the city, / Between the walls / Of the hills." The world will not last, I think that's what the saints taught, but you? "My thoughts wondered / How you and those evil words / Could live in the same generation." How did you get here anyway? Did you take a cab? My directions weren't particularly clear. Was the traffic too bad? "When I screamed / When I was confused / How did you find me? / Find me behind the seven walls / That I built around me?" I'm not exactly sure what was worse, the nightmare or daydreaming. No, you wouldn't like to know the things I was thinking."True friend / Primeval soul from remote days of Paradise / You brought beautiful perfumes / To the bottom of the well / For soothing my spirit."
"Mafi 7ada 2a7la menak... mafi 7ada 2a7la menak...(*)" It's beautiful here, isn't it? It's OK. Nothing has changed much, except for a new music store, nearby. You'll see it. The people? Some left, yes. "Hate lies. Hate lies. Hate lies." Why don't you come more often, habibi? I love the simple words, you know, if I could say them more often, I wouldn't need to write; they're poetic already. I still have a map of the sky at night. It was very dark here in those days, the stars was the only thing we could see far in the distance and we were so curious then. What are you thinking of? "You know all the secrets / Now, tell me what to ask for in the last day." I saw Maiysa crying the other day, and I thought maybe you could tell me why. "Nor the reason for my life / Neither the reason of my death / Will I learn in this world."
Are you still there? "I admired your glowing beauty / And detected signs of abandonment / In the petals / You were almost fading - / My little friend / We were both in need of so much compassion." Do you know what time is it, George? Let's go, they're already waiting.
"Lucky is he who has no home; he sees it still in his dreams" -Hannah Arendt

[Passages from Zelda Schneerson-Mishkovsky taken from "Shirei Zelda", Kibbutz HaMeuchad, 1974]

(*) Lebanese: There is none as beautiful as you.

***The End***

In memory of Samir Kassir (1960-2005) and Michel Seurat (1947-1986), two victims of terror in a bloody international war that has claimed over 150,000 lives in Lebanon since 1975, and that to date has not ended.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Filmmaker Orwa Nayrabia missing in Syria

First published on BIKYAMASR

Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, part of the larger Arab Spring, also filmmakers have been on the death row of the Syrian regime, together with other artists, journalists and activists.
Before the first public demonstrations against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in March 15, 2011, Syrians bid farewell Omar Amiralay, one of the most prominent filmmakers and civil society activists, who died on February 5, 2011.
Amiralay became an ardent critic of the Syrian regime long before the Arab Spring and he played a prominent role in the Damascus Spring of 2000, being a signatory of the “Declaration of the 99”, signed by 99 Syrian intellectuals calling for an end to the state of emergency in force since 1963, release of political prisoners, prisoners of conscience and to allow the empowerment of civil society.
One of his most critical films, 2003’s “A Flood in a Baath Country”, a sharp and critical look at the education system inside Assad’s Syria – originally titled “Fifteen reasons why I hate the Baath Party” – was removed from Carthage Film Festival because of its strong political content and indictment of the regime; in solidarity with Amiralay, Lebanese filmmakers Danielle Arbid, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, among other filmmakers from the region, withdrew their submissions.
In 2005, after the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in Lebanon, Amiralay signed another declaration by Syrian intellectuals demanding Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and calling for the Lebanese to cease violence against Syrian workers in Lebanon. He is also remembered for producing the film “On a day of ordinary violence: My friend Michel Seurat”, a tribute to and remembrance of the French sociologist and Syria expert who died in captivity in 1986 after he was kidnapped during the Lebanese Civil War.
In May 28, 2012, the young Syrian filmmaker Bassel Shahade was killed by government forces during an assault on the besieged city of Homs, where he was filming and documenting after the violence in Houla. The 28-years-old was a Fullbright Scholar at the University of Syracuse (NY) and left his studies to return to Syria and tell the story of what was happening in his country. In Shahade’s own words: “When I held my camera and went to Homs… It was like holding a weapon with me. It’s very dangerous to hold a camera and travel around the country.”
He is also remembered for a short film, “Saturday Morning Gift”, dealing with the horrors of the 2006 July War between Hezbollah and the Israeli Defense Forces. Syrian-American writer Amal Hanano reported on his death: “In his final hours, Bassel Shahade, crossed Homs, under fire, to give condolences to his friend who had lost other friends. Then he died. Bassel Shahade held his friend’s hand and said, ‘We won’t forget them. We’ll do something in their honor.’ Bassel died an hour later.” It was also reported then that regime forces prevented his funeral by shelling the Christian neighborhood of Hamidyeh in Homs, after announcing the funeral.
On Friday, August 24, concern among fellow filmmakers and activists grew with the sudden disappearance of another Syrian filmmaker, Orwa Nayrabia, who went missing after attempting to travel to Cairo. Syrian activists reported that according to Egypt Air, he never boarded the plane and his family lost contact with him. Although no detention has been confirmed so far; the standard procedure of the Syrian authorities – not reporting or releasing information on detainees. Dutch documentary festival IDFA reported that Nayrabia was heading to Cairo around 5:00 PM on August 23, and went missing shortly afterwards.
The 35-years-old filmmaker is the director of DOX BOX, an international documentary film festival taking place in Syria that he had founded with his wife in 2008, and that had been supported prior to the Arab Spring by the Dutch IDFA. Nayrabia wrote for Lebanese daily As-Safir and starred in Yoursy Nasralla’s “Gates of the Sun” (2004), a film adaptation of Elias Khoury’s novel of the same title, dealing with the Palestinian struggles in Lebanon. He also acted as a producer in the documentaries “Dolls: A Woman from Damascus” (2007) and “The Light in Her Eyes” (2011).
Nayrabia is also known to be an activist himself with active online presence, besides the work of his film festival that served as a platform to highlight the events and situation in Syria, with more nuanced perspectives; it is believed that might have upset the regime. Now Lebanon also reported that he is the son of opposition figure Mouaffaq Nayrabia, who was imprisoned for almost 15 years during the regime of Hafez Al-Assad.
His friends and activists have set up a Facebook page, “Freedom for Syrian Cinema, Freedom for Orwa Nayrabia” and Dubai-based Lebanese documentary filmmaker Mahmoud Kaabour posted a video on YouTube calling for his release, highlighting his role as a pioneer in Arab cinema through his film festival.
The crackdown of the Syrian regime continues unmolested throughout the country and echoes in neighboring Lebanon; accordingly the concern over the safety of the Syrian filmmaker is very real as the case of Shahade and many other activists and civilians has shown. Thousands of people are reported missing in Syria and presumably arrested, tortured and disappeared by the regime, including not only Syrians but also thousands of Lebanese citizens that were arrested without trial during the long-time military hegemony of Syria in Lebanon. Since the time of his arrest, no information has been made available on his whereabouts.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Sounds from the Golden Age

First published on ART CLVB / REORIENT
Randa Mirza - Beirut is Back and it's Beautiful
Randa Mirza – Beirut is Back and it’s Beautiful (Detail)
The year is 1914, and the setting is a village in Lebanon under Ottoman rule, where the Empire has enslaved scores of Lebanese men. Abdou, the film’s protagonist, goes to get his fiancée, Adla (played by the legendary Fairouz), an engagement ring, but he is arrested along with others and forced into labour. In the meantime, the Ottomans prevent wheat from arriving to the village in order to curb the ongoing local resistance, and Adla travels to where – as rumour has it – Abdou is held captive. Along with the other villagers, Adla helps the resistance provide wheat to the people, and when they accomplish their mission – as well as liberate Abdou and the others – they then have to run for their lives, with there now being a bounty on their heads. Yet, despite all this, they promise to return to the village, and continue fighting.
Such is the synopsis of Safar Barlik (‘The Exile’), a 1967 musical drama by Egyptian director Henry Bakarat. One poignant scene in the film depicts a sham wedding, organised by the villagers to distract the Ottoman Turks as they smuggle the wheat needed to prepare their bread; a moment during which Adla sings Douwara Al Douwara, a song written by the Rahbani Brothers and performed by Fairouz, adapted to fit the context of the Lebanese folk dance known as Dabkeh, commonplace at local weddings. Though the times are tough, and the wedding is but a facade, we nonetheless see Fairouz and the villagers dancing and rejoicing – if only for a short while.
When the present fails to deliver on its promises, the Lebanese – like the villagers in the film – seek an escape from the obstacles of reality, and often find in films from the ‘Golden Age’ of Beirut (1958 – 1975), an era which is a source of both inspiration and consolation. That is how many viewed the 11-film retrospective, The Most Beautiful Days of My Life, that screened between June 13– 22,2012, at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil in Beirut, and featured a variety of Lebanese-Egyptian co-productions, as well as Egyptian films made in Lebanon. With the nationalisation policy imposed by the Nasser regime, a significant portion of the Egyptian film industry relocated to the then-glamorous Lebanon.
Dabke scene from 'Safar Barlik'
Dabke scene from ‘Safar Barlik’
Speaking about the selection of films at the festival, film producer and Arab cinema connoisseur Antoine Khalife remarked that:
Most of the films we selected reflect how the Lebanese wanted to represent their country in the 1960s. When I talk about the 60s, the Lebanese say, “Lebanon was amazing, so beautiful”. The Lebanese wanted to highlight the exciting things in their country. They didn’t want to deal with all their problems. They wanted to show the dolce vita, if you will.
Although the 11 films chosen by filmmaker and artist Joana Hadjithomas and Antoine Khalife included two films by Bakarat, namely The Melody of My Life (1975) and The Most Beautiful Days of My Life (1974), Safar Barlik did not make it to the shortlist.
Nevertheless, the film has recently made a timely comeback to Beirut, not through film, but rather in the recently released album, EP by Safar Barlik, a new nostalgic Lebanese musical project. As the booklet to the album notes, ‘With a longing for an idealized pre-war Beirut, Safar Barlik explores the feelings towards the city and its long lost Golden Age’. The project remains somewhat mysterious, featuring a strange blend of sounds, from those of Arab electro-pop, Indie, and Ambient, to echoes from French New Wave cinema. The lyrics in both Arabic and French are soft, yet melancholy, repetitive, at times poetic, and at others reminiscent of nurseries and whispered lullabies.
REORIENT recently got together with the man behind the music to discuss his project, as well as the alternative music scene in Lebanon, and the obstacles faced by artists therein.
Who – or what - is Safar Barlik?
Safar Barlik is a project by a person with a longing for an idealised past – the Golden Age of Beirut.
In what ways were you inspired by Henry Barakat’s film of the same name?
Fairouz, the Rahbani Brothers, and the epic-ness and grandeur of the film were all inspirations for me. Safar Barlik can also be viewed a symbol of prosperity – a time when such movies could be made. It has a lot of room for interpretation, and feels very relevant to my aims.
Yasmine Hamdan of Soap Kills
Yasmine Hamdan of Soap Kills

All that remains of Golden Age Beirut are pictures, stories, and buildings

There are a lot of different sounds coming together in this album – what, and who are your influences?
We are living in a hyper-oversaturated digital age, where different genres of music and movies are becoming more and more accessible, and we therefore try to pursue, discover, and fine-tune our tastes, and break out of the once-upon-a-time era of radio and television. Of course, as a result of this, our already-multilayered identities can become even more complex and overwhelming, to the point that we develop a yearning for different genres to fulfill our newly-developed needs. As such, the sounds on this album come together in the pursuit of those needs. Some inspirations of mine are more direct than others and there are many to list, but – in no specific order – I can name the Rahbani Brothers, Fairouz, Mashrou’ Leila, Soap Kills, Ariel Pink, John Maus, Maria Minerva, Joy Division, New Order, The Smiths, Daft Punk, Synth-pop and New Wave music, some Kitsuné music, and French New Wave cinema as some influences.
Many artists in Lebanon release albums with their own resources and under their own labels – particularly through the highly popular website, Pirate Beirut. Is the album self-released?
Yes, thanks to the many sharing platforms such as Facebook, Bandcamp and most importantly, Pirate Beirut.
There’s constant talk among the art crowd about Lebanese artists being ‘prisoners’ of either romantic, idealised images of pre-war Beirut, or war scenes. Safar Barlik, as you mention, deals with the ‘long lost Golden Age’, and a ‘longing for an idealised pre-war Beirut’. However, it seems the album deals more with arelationship to the past, rather than the past itself. What are your thoughts regarding this?
There’s a relationship to Beirut’s past, because I never lived during that time. All that remains of Golden Age Beirut are pictures, stories, and buildings. The album is an exploration of the notion of that idealised past, and its relationship with the present. In some ways, I feel it is a response to our current chaotic times, and in others, that is a sort of ‘escape’. However, bringing back the past is not unique to the Lebanese, and it certainly isn’t just a current trend. Throughout history, a lot of different movements – whether they were cultural or not – passed through episodes where there were indirect inspirations from, and revivals of the past.
The Golden Age of Beirut is a period most of us did not live through, and somehow we’ve come to experience it only through the lens of what occurred thereafter, such as the wars and the endless unrest. When dealing with this period as an artist or writer, does one agree that the memory is already distorted? Are there other ways to approach the subject?
Had we been able to live in that period, our perceptions of how it was could have also been different, depending on the lives we would have led. Especially as time goes on, people will tell different stories about that era, and our perception of how it really was will always be distorted.
Place Des Martyrs - Beirut, 1950s
Place Des Martyrs – Beirut, 1950s
Pas Pour Moi is a very interesting track on the album, as it seems to stand out both musically and conceptually from the rest of the songs. It doesn’t seem too melancholy as it does hazy, hypnotising, and whimsical – can you tell us a bit about the number?
Pas Pour Moi was an attempt to come to terms with the idea that some things, people, situations, and places are not made for each other, or rather, cannot function with each other. However, they still share something, whether it’s ephemeral or not, positive or negative, or in between. The lyrics were inspired by the type of dialogues you would hear in the films of Jean-Luc Goddard and the directors of French New Wave films.

Safar Barlik is an exploration of the notion of the idealised past, and its relationship with the present

Since the 1990s, there seems to have been a lot happening in the alternative music scene in Lebanon, with the rise of such musicians as Zeid Hamdan, Marc Codsi, Mashrou’ Leila, and others. Where is Safar Barlik’splace in this thriving scene of independent music in Beirut?
Only time will tell how Safar Barlik will relate to the ‘bigger picture’. I have a lot of respect for the constant strugglesthat artists in the Lebanese music scene go through in order to contribute to their own cultural heritage. Besides the financial struggles, there are other barriers, too, such as the risk of imprisonment. In some ways, I feel these artists are too developed and open-minded (in a positive and avant-garde way) for a Government in constant regression. One could argue that there are more ‘important’ issues that the Government should be taking care of. We could also get into long discussions about the benefits of Government support, but let’s stop at that – we’re still implementing these ‘tests of shame’. It saddens me. Nonetheless, despite all the struggles, these artists never cease to amaze me.
Lebanon's Haret Hreik district in 2006, during the Israeli conflict
Lebanon’s Haret Hreik district in 2006, during the Israeli conflict
Your album was only recently released – what’s next for Safar Barlik? Will there be any gigs? What other projects will you be working on?
There will be more to come very soon – but that’s all I can say for now.
Safar Barlik’s ‘EP’ is an exquisite musical journey from 2012 to 1967, and from there to 1914 and back again to 2012 – dates that are not to be taken lightly. In 1914, the Ottoman Empire was near its demise, and 1967 would not only signal the rising tensions in Lebanon that eventually deteriorated into the Civil War (1975 – 1990), but a crucial moment of transformation and disenchantment in Arab and Lebanese history, about which the artist Joana Hadjithomas notes:
I don’t think that we are any more modern today than, say, back then [the Golden Age]. I think we had a different perception of ourselves; and those perceptions changed a lot after the defeat of 1967 – during the war between the Arab states and Israel – and for many people of our parents’ generation, this was a traumatic moment in which we inherited a moment of disenchantment. We saw that Pan-Arabism and the Pan-Arabic dream had faded.
However, this ‘journey’ doesn’t necessarily have to be regarded as either a dirge or a celebration, but perhaps rather a moment of acute reflection. In his historical book, BeirutSamir Kassir remarks:
The temptation was great to speak of the city under siege, and of the ways in which it adapted to the catastrophe. But to have given in to that temptation would have distorted my fundamental purpose in writing this book, which as the history of a city must be a tale of civility – even if this remains to be reinvented – and not a tale of its death.
This is precisely what one hears listening to Safar Barlik – a tale of civility and reinvention – not one of death.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Homophobic Lebanese singer to perform in Canada

First published on BIKYAMASR

One of the greatest catalyzers for the cause of human rights, freedom of speech and freedom in general in Lebanon has been art. It is often the case that Lebanese artists, perhaps not so much out of advocacy, but with their own work, challenge the perceptions of society about certain taboo topics such as the Civil War, the status of women’s rights, homosexuality and sectarianism.
This is probably not so willy-nilly, as artists themselves are subject to tight censorship of their songs, films, plays and books and although rare, artists can be imprisoned over a song, in a country where weapons flow free across its borders and where criminals run free and attend their own press conferences, while people are legally prevented from expressing their opinions, put on trial for their sexual orientation and freely terrorized at times.
While this is true for many artists, it is not for all and in the growing industry of spectacle and entertainment there are always performers in the scene of Arab pop who are happy to appeal to the populism and prejudice of a society in which their popularity and rise to stardom is the result of this selfsame populism and prejudice. More than helping shape a culture already decadent, the society of celebrities and stars is but shaped by this culture.
One case in point is that of Mohamed Eskander, a pop singer from the Bekaa region, whose voice is characterized by critics in the industry as a “strong, unique voice, marked by manhood and sensitivity”. Iskander’s career launched in 1988 when he appeared in the amateur program “Layali Lubnaan” and established himself a year later. Since then he has released more than 250 songs, to popular acclaim.
What is not as impressive as his musical career is his sexism and handling of certain delicate topics in Lebanese society; while his case is not unique, it is still remarkable the boldness of his approach: In recent years he released the song “Jomhouryet Albi” which is a dialogue between a father and his college-graduate daughter. In the otherwise apparently traditional and sweet lyrics, he uses his reasoning to talk his daughter into not pursuing a career.
With statements such as “our daughters don’t work”, “why bring [that] trouble into your life?” and “what will we do in that case with your beauty?” he makes his case, which is reinforced by saying that in the future an office manager will fall in love with her, while the song’s video clip you can see the boss harassing the girl physically and the father pulling a gun on him. The video includes other features like a maid hitting the woman’s child while she’s working. Following from this elaborate argument, the song mentions cynically that “Women’s rights are extremely important”.
How important are they? Violence against women in Lebanon is widely underreported and a study from 2002 revealed that 35% of women report experiencing domestic violence and 22% had family members who did. In December 2011 a draft law on violence against women had the Lebanese split and faced opposition from religious and conservative leaders. Most cases of domestic violence are dealt with by religious courts and rape within marriage is not considered a crime; a multinational company advertised via social media in Lebanon, its products – washing machines – as a perfect gift for mother’s day.
In 2012, Eskander, he released yet an even bolder song “Dod El 3enf” (Against Violence) which is a slogan used by LGBT to promote awareness against discrimination; to the same extent that Iskander mocks the plight of women rights in Lebanon, he does the same with LGBT rights. The song portrays a fight between a parenting couple because of their son’s sexual orientation and blaming the separation of his parents on the son’s homosexuality.
He goes on further to ridicule the young man with feminine mannerisms and suggests that men lost their masculinity since they stopped enlisting in the army. The song further encourages violence against boys displaying any feminine traits and the video clip features a wide array of gay stereotypes, including sexual intercourse in washrooms and boys wearing women’s heels and playing with dolls.
It is unsurprising then that in Mr. Eskander’s country – where he is of course not censored for any of the above – homosexuality is a considered a crime under article 534 of the penal code, and recently it was reported on that security authorities raided a cinema frequented by gay men after another media celebrity – MTV channel host Joe Maalouf – demanded authorities to act upon it in live television.
This sparked outrage and protests because of the “tests of shame” performed on the detainees to determine their homosexuality, yet two more men were arrested later in the month under suspicion of homosexuality, at the same time that Beirut was being terrorized by an armed gang with the purpose of kidnapping Syrian and pro-Syrian activists and the authorities stood idly watching.
None of this would be of interest outside Lebanon, weren’t it for the fact that Mr. Eskander, who has a standing record of homophobic and sexist slurs, was invited to perform in Canada, at Place Vertu Center on September 1, 2012 and at restaurant Mazaj in Ottawa on September 2, 2012. Lebanese LGBT-advocacy organization HELEM – that has a chapter in Montreal, Canada – has strongly condemned the invitation in the strongest terms.
A Lebanese doctor, Hasan Abdessamad, who is himself living in Canada, wrote in his blog: “It is time we stand up against cultural terrorism and hate speech in Lebanese art. This Lebanese singer has been advocating for using violence against kids if you suspect them to be homosexual. He calls on women to stay home and serve their husband because there is no place for them outside home. Women should not pursue educational degrees according to Eskander’s songs and should specialize in serving and pleasing their husbands at home. His lyrics are outrageous and offensive to say the least. A group of Lebanese feminists has protested his songs back in 2010. Recently a group of Arabs protested his performance in Denmark. No action has seemed to stop him and his hate speech to be persistent and escalating.”
HELEM Montreal released an open letter in both English and French yesterday, condemning the invitation of the singer to Canada because it contradicts the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and violates the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and numerous provisions in the Canadian Criminal Code. In their opinion, “Mr. Iskander’s offensive art contradicts Canadian values and amounts to hate speech.”
HELEM has also announced that they will ask federal and provincial authorities to hold the artist, promoters and the establishments hosting his concerts, liable for hateful behavior on the part of Mr. Eskander that exposes LGBT persons to hate, contempt or ridicule: “HELEM Montreal also reserves the right to seek any possible remedy, and exercise all legal recourse available under the law to defend LGBT rights and keep Canada free from hate speech and discrimination.”
Last week, HELEM Montreal and Lebanese LGBT were present at Montreal Pride and a banner was spotted that read “In Canada, I have the right to marry. In Lebanon, I have no rights!” Activists were present in the march to highlight that the tests of shame are still performed in Lebanon. It remains to be seen whether those, like Mr. Eskander, who curb people’s freedom and dignity in Lebanon, will have a free pass to do the same in Canada, where freedoms and dignity are supposed to be protected by the authorities; unlike Lebanon.

Monday, August 20, 2012

At the Square IX

First published on THE MANTLE
For S. Haroun & G. Maalouf
"I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." -Virginia Woolf
Cherries. Blackberries. Blueberries. It's good to be back, you know, but it seems we are all Ghouraba(*) here now. How I loved La Cigalé, at day time specially."...Here was the one place they could truly feel alive." Once I literally ran all the way from the library to get one of those tartalettes with glazé on the top. I wasn't particularly fond of sweets, or I am not; the taste is icy, somewhat piercing, but I loved the colors. Eman was here too, she loved the chocolate cakes, or rather, the textures inside them; it was a long time ago, that day when we met a certain famous writer. How long did it take us to get here? I can't recognize anything. "To be sure, the maze of old alleys that had perplexed Poujoulat still survived, leading Henriette Renan to remark in 1861: 'To know where one is in Beirut seems to me an impossible problem'". Did you read Maalouf's latest novel? I heard he came back too, in his dreams. "The novel begins with a phone call, that Adam answers, the main character in the story, and thus, it is also the writer's double." I think it's something about his best friend, who was dying somewhere nearby. "Locked up in a prison cell by the patriarchate, in QannubinShidyaq succumbed to privations and mistreatment after a few years."
Reading an old newspaper, eh? It's good to pass the time; this is a rather long road."Eventually they found him... That is how it ends, or at least some hope so, the last act in this shame comedy that began one day in March 1985, when Michel Seurat was kidnapped, him and his colleague, the journalist Jean-Paul Kaufmann, along the road between the airport and downtown Beirut." You know Saad, it's strange, I hear the jolts, the crowds, the cars, tip-toeing, but it is as if there was no one here, not a single soul, except you and me. "In the heart of the old downtown -between Place des Martyrs, Place de l'Etoile, Rue Foch, Rue Allenby, and the Tawileh souq -the only pedestrians were stray dogs." What? The resistance? Ha. "We don't need any Zionist hostages, we're all the hostages in this country anyway". Yes, Saad, you're right, and anyway the Israelis bombed the synagogue and everything else in 1982, so we have nowhere to take the prisoners of war to in case they want to invoke their own supersititions. Bassita(**), Michel,bassita; you must be on the way home, if not there already. Tell your wife this was like the army, that you had no choice.
I tell you what, Saad, these were the great names of Beirut, the great thinkers. Lupercus, Publius Egnatius Celer, Strato, Marcus Valerius Probus, Hermippus, Theodorus, Lucius Cavenus Taurus. The sages from the School of Laws. The rest of the names I can't remember. Who knows what happened here? Who is young enough to remember it? "After the tablets of Tel el-Amarna and the letters ofUgarit, centuries passed without any mention of Biruta in a written text [...] Two possible explanations have been advanced in this regard: either Biruta was destroyed in the course of the invasion by the Sea Peoples in the twelfth century, or it was annexed by a neighboring city, perhaps Byblos or Sidon." It's not so important. Oh, yes, the novel, I was in the middle of telling you. Let's continue with that. "What is then the real reason for returning to this beloved country, whose name I'm afraid to mention?" You know, the other day, George asked Susan if he would ever get to see the Holy Land. I don't know. What do you think?"Unavoidably, being only one or two days distant from the places that saw the birth of Christianity, Beirut was a point of departure in its expansion and, if one considers the Holy Land in the broad sense, actually a part of this land."
That I remember. Were you there too? The parties on the roof, belle epoque, the empty streets, it was an ocean of sleepwalkers, one more beautiful than the other. Ah, that July. How to forget what it means to be saved? Isn't that what heaven feels like? "Military victories, the traditional reason for public celebrations, were no longer available to the empire; but there were more than a few occasions to hold parades and declare holidays, which made it possible in turn and in spite of all appearances to the contrary, to maintain an image of power and to indicate its extent." This was such a beautiful journey, you know. George, you mean? Oh he was busy, he couldn't come this time, maybe he will come tomorrow or the day after. No, no, he is not like Godot. He always comes, in fact, he didn't even have to come once, he had been there from the very beginning, it's just that I didn't know it. Would you like to come with us next time? "The novel ends in darkness, solely with the purpose of showing that 'the disappearance of the past is something one can find consolation for easily'; what is inconsolable is the disappearance of the future as well." No, Saad, it might take hours from here to the square, let's wait. 
"That he should die there was perhaps inevitable."Why don't they leave us alone now?" one of his young neighbors asked me before the cops towed Kassir's Alfa Romeo away and his followers spread a sea of candles across the road. "Why must they go on using this methodology of murder? We have to stop this. Are they trying to drive all the young people out of Lebanon?" Not longer after Kassir's killing, his colleague and editor at An-Nahar was atomized by a car bomb in eastern Beirut. There were twelve political murders at this time -a dozen in just three years, including that of Kassir. No arrests, of course. There never are in Beirut. Warm and gentle Beirut may be. But tough and cruel." What does it mean, Michel? What does it mean to regret when you had no choice?
[Passages from Samir Kassir taken from "Beirut", University of California Press, 2011; "Michel Seurat, sans commentaires...", An-Nahar newspaper, July 24th, 1998. Passages from Amin Maalouf/Georgia Makhlouf taken from "Amin Maalouf: l'écrivain et son double", L'Orient Littéraire, August 2012]
*Ghouraba: Lebanese expression to refer to Arab strangers, used pejoratively against Palestinian and Syrian workers. **Bassita: Lebanese expression: Don't worry; Take it easy; It's fine.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Artist as Mystic

First published on ART CLVB / REORIENT

‘To write is to practice, with particular intensity and attentiveness, the art of reading’. Such did the acclaimed American writer Susan Sontag begin her reflections, Writing as Reading, a contribution solicited by the New York Times in 2000 for a series entitled Writers on Writing. Sontag goes on to explain that to write is to read, re-read, and sit oneself in judgment, using Henrik Ibsen’s expression.
Why do writers read? According to Sontag:
Reading usually precedes writing. And the impulse to write is almost always fired by reading. Reading, the love of reading, is what makes you dream of becoming a writer. And, long after you’ve become a writer, reading books others write – and rereading the beloved books of the past – constitutes an irresistible distraction from writing. Distraction. Consolation. Torment. And, yes, inspiration.
For writers, the reading of and commenting on great books from the past is the sign of their unchallengeable seriousness, with which they position themselves inside the human enterprise of writing. For those who write, to read other authors is to pay attention to the world; and this is precisely the art that the Egyptian-American poet Yahia Lababidi has mastered.
In a conversation with fellow writer Alex Stein, Lababidi elaborates on this ‘attention’ as such:
The artist prays through attention. I think of my dreams. I think of those times when I fly in my dreams. I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing where I feel I am aloft, ecstatic.
Lababidi’s book, Trial by Ink: From Nietzsche to Belly Dancing, provides a bird’s eye view to what exactly the Egyptian poet is trying to achieve. In what could be otherwise mistaken for a series of essays in which different topics are investigated, he redefines for himself the original meaning of the ‘essay’ – a term coined by the French writer Montaigne – as judgment. And, like Ibsen, he indeed sits himself in judgment.
As Lababidi notes regarding Trial by Ink:
This [the book], too, is a subjective work where I attempt to evaluate what I care for, and generally test my responsiveness to literature and culture. In the course of such investigations, particular judgments emerge, expressions of taste and values. These are my trials, where I am simultaneously scratching my head and pen across paper, to determine what I think about a given subject.
What Lababidi is judging however, isn’t only the Western literary culture in which he so easily feels ‘at home’, but also the popular culture of our times – one of the most neglected topics in the work of serious writers – and the culture of the Middle East that he has experienced firsthand in both Egypt and Lebanon. Accordingly, he spares no effort to portray the profound sense of contradiction between religiosity and eroticism that invades everyday life in Cairo and Beirut.
Yahia LababidiAt the same time, it would be wrong to think of Lababidi as an essayist, as the strong, personal, and poetic voice to be found in his work reveals him to be more of a prose writer. It is in the realm of poetry and aphorisms that Lababidi excels, with Trial by Ink being the only intermediary between his celebrated collection of aphorisms, Signposts to Elsewhere, and his volume of poetry, Fever Dreams.

I think there must be some connection between how I fly in my dreams and this state I sometimes come to in writing where I feel I am aloft, ecstatic – Yahia Lababidi

Lababidi’s poetry has traveled far. It has been translated into several languages, and is widely available on the Internet, not only in its original form, but also in the form of video clips, readings and accompanying other texts. Today, it is no longer uncommon for authors from the Middle East to write their books in English – or other languages, for that matter – and engage global audiences, while still remaining anchored in the contemporary anxieties of the region. On February 2011 – only shortly after the beginning of the Egyptian protests which later turned into a full-scale revolution – his poem What is to Give Light, a poetic tribute to the Tunisian fruit-seller who helped spark (literally) the wave of protests extending from the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf, was published. A year later in March 2012, his essay Poetry, and Journalism of the Spirit appeared on the The Mantle, the widely-read American forum for progressive critique.
In Poetry and Journalism of the Spirit, Lababidi laid out his thoughts and reflections on the place of poetry in the context of the Egyptian revolution and the larger ‘Arab Spring’ movement, looking to the great writers of the West for inspiration. What he does – together with Alex Stein – in his most recent book, The Artist as Mystic: Conversations with Yahia Lababidi is a similar exercise, in that he pays attention to what other writers have said about writing and poetry.
Stein commences the book by noting that ‘Conversation is the litmus test … Conversation is pudding in which the proof resides. In conversation we give the most complete, up to date, version of ourselves’. Together, Stein and Lababidi set out on a perilous journey to discuss those authors who have provided Lababidi with the living material for his poetry, most notably Rimbaud, Kafka, Bataille, Baudelaire, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche, among others.
Detail of a Persian miniature from Rumi's Masnavi
Detail of a Persian miniature from Rumi’s Masnavi
For Yahia Lababidi, the condition of the artist is exalted, and as such requires a withdrawal from the world, as if one were a mystic or saint. As Franz Kafka mentions in his Blue Octavo Notebooks, one of Lababidi’s favourite books:
You can hold yourself back from the sufferings of the world, that is something you are free to do and it accords with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the only suffering you could avoid.
In The Artist as Mystic, Lababidi questions the ecstatic state of the poet, comparing mystics from the Persian Sufi tradition to contemporary authors such as Kafka. As he says:
The Ecstatics from my tradition, the Persian tradition, could be wildly erotic, but because they were addressing themselves to God they felt safe. For Kafka, the mystic ritual he called ‘writing’ was his safe zone.
Accordingly, the reader cannot help but feel the strong sense of identification of Lababidi with the works of such enigmatic and somewhat cryptic poets and writers.

In the culture I come from, a saying is a magical thing – Yahia Lababidi

The works of Lababidi’s that have been most widely read are his aphorisms, perhaps because they are more intellectually accessible to the public. However, unlike the European aphorists, practitioners of the fragment and the freeze-frame, Lababidi finds inspiration in the oral narratives of the Middle East. ‘In the culture I come from, a saying is a magical thing. It was something people were always happy to hear or recite, and if I happened to have written it, that was good, too’, he mentions.
Frederic Nietzche
Frederic Nietzche
In one of the most significant passages in his conversations with Stein, Lababidi discusses his reading of Nietzsche in his native Egypt. ‘When I read it [Nietzche’s work] again, maybe a decade later, more intentionally, in the desert outside Cairo, it was like a long slow exhalation that let me finally examined what I had received’, he reflects. It was in the Egyptian desert, where the contemplative and mystical traditions of the West emerged since the time of the Desert Fathers, and he knows this well.
On a similar note, Lababidi allows himself a singular comparison between the work of Nietzsche and the desert. As he posits:
The desert is inhospitable. It doesn’t really want you there, but if you could stay there, if you could stick it out, you could be granted an access that you couldn’t find anywhere else. There’s a desert quality to Nietzsche’s writing, I think. It doesn’t care much for you. It may, perhaps, want you there, but it doesn’t need you there.
The vocation of the artist is omnipresent throughout these conversations, and partly echoes Sontag’s conclusion to Writing as Reading in 2000, in which she states regarding the difference between reading and writing that ‘Reading is a vocation, a skill at which, with practice, you are bound to become an expert. What you accumulate as a writer is mostly uncertainties and anxieties’.
However, Yahia Lababidi – as his conversations with Alex Stein make manifest – isn’t simply reading; he is also listening and paying careful attention to what the writers of the past have said. In doing so, he attempts to enter their worlds and inhabit them – if only temporarily – as if they were other pathways leading him to poetry.
It was perhaps another mystic, the French writer Simone Weil, who said it best: ‘Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity’.