The Music Scene: 20 Weeks of Gratitude, Week 4

Part 1: El Hal Romancy

Let’s talk about a concert in Byblos.

Yeah, that concert; the one where Lebanon’s biggest indie band, Mashrou’ Leila, was banned from performing for a meme—for basically nothing. That episode seems almost comical now, with all that’s happened in Lebanon since. Here they are playing at the original T-Marbouta in 2008. Is it too hipster to say that I remember them when they were nervous boys playing their butts off for free? With every album drop & NPR Tiny Desk performance, it’s easy to forget how unlikely this band’s success was; how prophetic they sounded; how proud we felt.

It helps me to remember another concert in Byblos. Placebo came to Lebanon in 2004, in the midst of Elias Murr’s crusade against perverts & satanists—basically anyone wearing black. Deus Vult! But here was this moody band in eyeliner; here was this gender bender, Brian Molko, who’d grown up for a while in Lebanon, as he sweetly confided in us, to cheers.

I was a sheltered greenhorn, but I felt something powerful that night. The band had erupted on stage with Stefan’s bass hanging low off his shirtless torso, a shock of black paint spelling out something ugly—“HOMO”—across his chest. The music swelled into a crescendo & Stefan swung around; with his back to us, his grand reveal—“SAPIEN.” We lost our shit.

I don’t know why I cheered so loudly. The theatrics seem quaint now, but they felt revolutionary to my young eyes. And yet, I never imagined that one day we’d be cheering for someone like Hamed—a band like Mashrou’ Leila—on that very same stage.

Masha’Allah, it actually happened. And it will continue to happen. God wills it.

As the conflagrations of rage and love keep the revolution alive in Beirut, let’s remember to talk about that concert in Byblos. Let’s talk about those rappers in Ramallah too. Let’s talk about how incredible the sounds are coming out of Jordan today! Ah, willah, let’s talk about how amazing it is to have so many expressions of masculinity undone & redone in contemporary Arab pop. Let’s talk about our boys & our girls—their culture, their heritage, their lovers, their fears.

Part 2: Ya Lel Ma Atwalak

This is Rim as I knew her. I took this photo during a sound-check on the afternoon of her first concert in Damascus after she’d been banned from traveling to that “enemy state” by another that we referred to in like manner.

I still pinch myself. She was a living icon; a symbol of cultural resistance. Everything about her evoked the quintessential Arab woman I’d been raised to honor. Her music was a bridge between generations; anthems of heartbreak & defiance that even my dad could appreciate. And there I was, just sort of hanging out, like it wasn’t a thing.

I became Rim Banna’s guest in Syria through sheer dumb luck. Rim had defied her travel ban by playing over Skype to her Syrian fans; then someone I knew arranged for her to perform the same way in Lebanon.

“Communicating in sound & image through an internet connection is a simple & modest step, but of course this evening holds great meaning.” That was on March 16, 2008. A few months later, the same friend invited me to take a bus with her to Damascus, to meet Rim & watch her perform in person; it didn’t even occur to me to ask what had changed or how any of it was possible. I just went.

My feelings about that first gig in Beirut’s short-lived “Secular House” are complicated. I wanted so badly to belong to that edgy progressive crowd, but they made it very hard; my time with Rim & her friends in Syria further heightened that dissonance. Smart & humble, brave & generous, committed & kind; these were unfamiliar pairings I found in abundance in Damascus, a city I’ll have more to say about another day—and I’ll always associate that experience with Rim.

It’s like the songs she sang—I felt welcomed there, invited to sit for a while & observe in silence, free to break down & weep; accepted as I am, having never done enough, never being enough; in a land, but not of it.

Listening to Rim gave me roots.

Rim passed away exactly 10 years after her defiant call to Beirut. It still doesn’t make any sense.

Part 3: After the Revolution

“Aim high and throw hard!”

David Rovics wrote that in my scrapbook when I saw him play in Edinburgh. I didn’t know it at the time, but it’s something of a catchphrase of his.

He’d said it before in an interview with in 2003, where he’s also quoted as saying: “Humans need to have community; we need to have friendship; we need to eat together; we absolutely need to sing together, & listen to music, and be involved in cultural activities like that. We become miserable people when we don’t have that. We need the movement to fulfill as many of those emotional & social needs as people have. Look, we’re not just trying to defeat injustice, we’re trying to create a better society.”

That’s as good a manifesto for the man & his music as any. David is the upper left coast at its very best, but his songs are an exercise in countermapping; when you listen & sing along, you feel equally at home in the West Bank & the Warsaw Ghetto.

Edinburgh was the third UK city I saw David perform, & the first place I approached him to say hello. We chatted about his travels & my own; he told me about his daughter, Leila, & how much he loved her Arabic name. It’s funny that I only recently began to think of him as being from the PNW.

Alterglobal artists like David help me believe that another world is actually no-joke possible; the same goes for alterglobal friends, like Lena, my favorite rhizomatic Italian, who introduced me to Rovics and RotFront and Bandista in Beirut.

Theirs is the counterculture that, despite all my insecurities & inadequacies, helped me belong in Edinburgh’s Forest Café, Tokyo’s Irregular Rhythm Asylum, & Seattle’s Black Lodge; theirs are the maps that helped me recognize myself in Exarcheia, in Kadiköy, in Zokak el-Blatt, & even in Ashrafieh.

David didn’t know it at the time, but those words he wrote in my scrapbook were prophetic & necessary for me to read—back then & now.

But here’s the point: slogans grow stale; struggles falter & fail; even solidarity can weaken & fizzle out. Songs, though, are forever. Music keeps us going forward, with high aims & half-decent throws.

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