Distracted for a moment, you see a sprig of jasmine, white like peace and delicate in its beauty. In that moment, you forget everything else around you: the ghostly neighborhood, the cramped balconies clothed in bullet holes and rubble. Then it comes back. The Israeli occupation of 2006 is no place of beauty, and thousands of visitors are evacuating. Dripping with sweat from hours under the hammering sun, they pack onto ships like sardines, eager to leave Lebanon. One of the videos of these refugees stands out: the evacuees dancing and enjoying music, “[managing] to have some fun and forget about the war” (RHM Productions), not merely surviving, but enjoying. This use of music has, in part, been keeping Lebanon alive in times of strife— in other words, almost always. Many Lebanese citizens use music as an escape and mouthpiece for emotions, harnessing its power to conjure wistful images and express political opinions. Music can capture feelings and release political tension, allowing Lebanese citizens, among others, to use it to wrest some control—either illusionary or real--over their politically chaotic world.
Lebanon has been divided by various ideologies since at least the 1920s of Khalil Gibran, who said, “you have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty” (Gibran). Conflict has been inherent—religious wars posed against hazed nightclubs, the methodical lull of the ocean versus exploding bombs, the bullet-shot buildings against the strength of Mount Lebanon— yet most citizens have seen beauty regardless, mostly because music became a lens through which they looked at their country. Even though the Switzerland of the Middle East has been reduced to a war zone, peace lives on in wistful Lebanese tunes, which can be an escape as well as an expression of hope.
In contrast to this argument, many in Lebanon and outside may state that musicians use music for fame and moneymaking. Musicians may be seen as arrogant and greedy as they use their skills to manipulate the public. Yet in a war-torn country, and one where the number of pop stars is very small (“300-400 for the entire Arab world,” and no more than 100 in Lebanon (Gamal)) why would someone spend time creating music, especially when most musicians rarely gain fame and riches as a result?
Furthermore, Lebanon, war and music have been linked almost forever. In the 1970s, Lebanon rose to the top of the charts when the diva Fairouz began to sing about the Lebanon that the Lebanese wanted: “village life…nightingales, the smell of jasmine, fig trees and vineyards” (Tarabay), “a unified Lebanon” (Tarabay). Her popularity shows how common peoples’ desire for the good old days was. She gave people ideas and images to lose themselves in. When Lebanon broke into civil war in the 1970s, Fairouz refused to perform. The beauty of longing, the “innocence of childhood” was torn away. Some speculated that the war’s end came because the Lebanese yearned to be enveloped once again in the sweetness of Fariouz’s nostalgia, to once again “[learn] to live,” and have “hope about what they might once again become” (Mitterand). In her first concert after the war, it was said “that the peace and future of Lebanon” was once again “guaranteed” (Mitterand), for Fairouz had returned.
Marcel Khalife was another musician who took his countrymen away from their lives. He considered his music “service [for] humanity…a sort of balm for wounds” (Malek). He performed in the bombed heart of Beirut, risking his life yet creating the poetic juxtaposition of a man standing in a home that is no longer home. The only power to return him was the strum of his oud and the sound of his voice, begging his listeners to “return [to him] the stars of his childhood.” Khalife wanted “to change the world with music” (Malek), expressing a longing for political equilibrium that countless artists echoed after him.
In the early 2000s, singers like Nancy Ajram and Elissa modernized music, and songs became more about love than nationalism. However, they were never able to abandon the historical legacy of Lebanese music, as images of village life almost always appeared in music videos: local fruit stands, a small town café bordered with olive trees, a village girl tending to her chickens. The pride of their country, though physically marred, lives on in the voices and images of its singers.
Today this tradition is evolving. The landscape of Lebanon is dotted with night clubs and singers, some of whom want to “find their identity” (Bourdain). New forms of music have been adopted: hip hop to rid the stress, heavy metal to shout the ache, rap to explain the anger. This new Lebanese generation, born into challenges, continues to wield music as a tool to deal with pain.
Mashrou’ Leila is an example of this, a band that began as a group of college kids expressing the common desire to vent stress. Their political motives are clear today: they want change, and are holding on to small sparkles of hope. An example is their song “Tayf.” It opens with the ambiance of violins, slowly weaving in drum beats and a slight speed in tempo to make it ideal party music. But to contradict this, Mashrou’ Leila have replaced the usual love ballad with a critique of society. In the song, whose title translates to “Ghosts,” the band unforgivingly refers to Lebanon as a “mushroom,” a piece of fungus thriving on undergrowth and death, a parasite of the world. But this mushroom has a dual nature: it’s disgusting to think of, but still edible and good. There’s good in this society, and it’s growing, just like the mushroom is growing. It is a race to see which trait will overpower the other. They continue singing about the death of “friends…who were executed,” their “country’s gunshots.” The song often mentions being controlled by someone’s “feelings,” but it becomes clear that the controlling master is no girl--it’s a ruler, a government that they’re shouting at “in [their] demonstrations.” They end on an abrupt note, after which the music promptly stops, in opposition to the slow transition with which it was introduced. They finish, whispering, “raise up your voice with singing, songs are still allowed.”
This continues in their song “Inni Mnih.” It is a depressing ballad of squeaking guitars, crashing tambourines, and descending piano. Along with lead singer Hamed Sinno’s lamenting voice, the entire affair sounds pained, mirroring the pain youth feel as a result of political strife. The singer is desperate to leave his past, leave the present, and “burn this city…forget this time.” He wants to “build a more honorable one… a more tender time.” In one word, this song is disappointment. Poetically beautiful in its destruction, the singer is filled of longing to change things, to use his power to do something positive, but at the same time he is unable to do what he wishes, as he is changed by the world rather than changing the world. The title “Inni Mnih,” translates roughly to “I’m okay,” but rather than reaffirm anyone, Sinno seems to be trying to convince himself he is okay, or that he one day will be. The song’s wild popularity is proof that these feelings are shared across much of Lebanese youth, many of whom probably find liberation in hearing music explain what they feel.
Pain is a feeling Mashrou’ Leila seem to have come to terms with in their music. In a similar ballad, and my own personal favorite, Sinno is cries about a pain many are familiar with: breakup. But then he takes it further. “Shim el yasmin,” he moans. Smell the jasmine. Listen to the music and see that there is so much more. Escape for a moment, forget your pain, whether it be of a breakup or political conundrum. He is crying to his countrymen, sharing his pain, asking them to stop and smell the roses; deliberately distracting them from their pain, from his pain. Focus instead on the music. Do as the Lebanese have done for centuries; drown your feelings as two conundrums—a chaotic reality and a dream of humanity--collide in the song.
Bethool has been captivated with stories of old Lebanon brought to her by her father and grandfather, who lived in and often visited the country. Though not of Lebanese descent, she felt a strong connection with the poetry of the music regardless of the language. She loves writing and reading, as well as listening to and playing music. This was an essay Bethool wrote for her CTW 2 class, discussing the relationship between nationalism, history, and music in Lebanon.
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