Music 4 Lebanon
Here is our Lebanon solidarity tour’s logbook, signed by Baptiste Cogitore.
Here is our Lebanon solidarity tour’s logbook, signed by Baptiste Cogitore.
Beyrouth, the 5th of September
Photos : view from the Hammana Artist House
Rehearsal of the quartet in the Hammana Artist House
Hammana, the 6th of September
Aurélien Zouki and Éric Deniaud have run one of the country’s very few artist residency spaces since 2017. It’s a vast, beautiful old house high up in Hammana, 40 km east of Beirut. When the weather is good, and the pollution is not too heavy, we can make out the capital’s buildings on the horizon, across the mountains.
The ”Hammana Artist House” opened its doors in 2017. It welcomes dozens of artists every year, both from Lebanon and abroad. The journey is well worth it for the spacious rehearsal rooms and comfort of the house. French actor Didier Bernard and Lebanese acrobat Hanadi Rajeh are here at the moment in a large room upstairs, rehearsing a theatre/circus show with strong political themes about the situation in Lebanon.
Éric explained that in Lebanon, when actors, acrobats, dancers or marionettists create a show, they usually start by rehearsing in their living room. When the work is developed, the artists rent a theatre or hall at a high cost where they can rehearse more conveniently for a few days. There are no creative residencies or public funds to help finance artistic projects. Culture is no exception to the stagnation engulfing Lebanon.
Because of the crisis, many artists have left, as they can not work decently. Therefore, they join the diaspora; more than 10 million Lebanese live abroad, two times more than the country’s official population.
In the “House of the Artist”, we immediately felt at home and amongst friends. We are welcome at the table where each person has their place, and candles are lit everywhere (to compensate for the frequent electrical failures), which adds to the warm ambience of the house. Here, like all over Lebanon, the local generator is not enough to supply the network correctly. Éric emphasises the fact that although the house is, of course, a creative space, it is primarily dedicated to human encounters and love.
Through stimulating the local cultural life with festivals and high-quality performances, Hammana Artist House has helped bring tourists and middle-class Lebanese people to the village. The inevitable price of this success is that the village has attracted more and more investors. There are many more trendy cafes, and the village centre is now full of small terraces with colourful, industrial furniture. The signs convey that gentrification here is complete.
Hammana, the 7th of September
Beirut no longer sleeps; each neighbourhood seems like a disconnected micro-world. Bourj Hammoud, founded by the survivors of the 1915 genocide after the collapse of the Ottoman empire, is the Armenian element in this mosaic capital. Beirut seems shattered – a city of scattered fragments forming a patchwork of cultures that cohabit and intersect. People who were ready to kill each other yesterday should today “talk more to each other” (“s’entre-tuaient”…“s’entre-parler”)
as Arpi Mangassarian said by a clever play on French words, which surely made her message circulate at lightning-speed throughout the Middle East.
Arpi Mangassarian, a descendant of genocide survivors, runs the Armenian cultural centre “Badguér”, two streets away from Armenia Street. This centre houses a restaurant, an exhibition room for Armenian history and wounded memories, and a space where women from the neighbourhood meet to cultivate the art of sewing and embroidery as in their country. At the dinner table in Badguér, the dishes would also be able to recount dozens of tales.
A bit further into Bourj Hammoud, we come across the Boghossian Theatre, built in 1986 at a time when “making war was a living art” in Beirut (I wondered whether it was at this point that the city stopped sleeping). Renovated after the port explosion, the theatre belongs to the Boghossian Foundation, which is one of the partners of “Music 4 Lebanon”. In addition to a sold-out concert for the general public, Akhtamar played their wordless children’s show “The Dream-Makers” there. About forty children attended, residents from the Muslim orphanage ‘Dar el Aytem al Islamiya’ in a nearby neighbourhood. The fact that they had never seen a violin before did not prevent them from singing along to the melodies initiated by the musicians.
At midnight, back on the road to Hammana, the fresh air and mountains lull me into sleep against the window of the minibus driven by Tony, the inexhaustible and silent tour driver. Behind me, Beirut is still wide awake. The Mediterranean never seems to bring any wind from the sea to the capital, just a stifling humidity. Beirut never sleeps. It just dozes, sometimes, in the toxic steam of the electric generators.
In Mashgara, a gentleman gets up to speak at the end of our concert.
« – What is the worst thing you’ve seen since you arrived ».
Coline replied that the street children begging outside the airport profoundly saddened her.
« – You haven’t yet met our politicians ! ».
In the Druze village of Baakline, the sports hall has been transformed into a concert hall for two groups of children. Some of them couldn’t resist jumping up to the monkey bars or playing with the sports mats. Lamia, one of the sports coaches who welcomed us, insisted on making herself up before being photographed. Having lived in Yemen, she’d had enough of being abroad. Even if life is complicated in Lebanon, she’s at home here.
The small town of Jeb-Jennine has both a mosque and a church, for a population that has gone from 8000 to 40 000 in the last three years due to the exodus of Syrian neighbours. Sarah, who lived here until she was 17, continues to talk about the “village”. She thinks that the current crisis has pushed the Lebanese further towards individualism. She says: “We ignore our identity. No one can tell you what it means to be Lebanese”. Sarah is in charge of production in an artist residency space. She studied in Paris before returning to Lebanon. She doesn’t want to leave the country because she feels a sense of duty: continuing to promote access to culture for everybody. “I try to do my bit,” she says.
Selim, Sarah’s brother, has made a different choice. He’s been living in Paris for almost 20 years, supporting his family when he can. “Sending money is normal of course, but at the same time, it allows the government to continue doing nothing to change the situation. People here shouldn’t be living as if they were on a drip.” He moved back to this part of Bekaa two weeks ago and hasn’t had a single Watt produced by ‘Electricity of Lebanon’, the public operator that distributes electricity in the country.
We could tell many stories about the village of Anjar. For example, the one about the Umayyad Arab princes and their great ghost town, which the tourist can wander through at leisure, taking in the impressive maze of stone vaults, blocks, and colonnades. Or the story about the Armenians who constitute most of the village population; the “Anjarian dialect” is spoken here, a mix of Armenian, Arabic, French and English, among other languages. The alphabet is used in Anjar, and the Yerevan flag is proudly displayed. One could easily have the impression that the village was actually an Armenian colony in Lebanon if the use of the term was not so loaded throughout the region…and yet the first inhabitants of the village were indeed pioneers who saw the potential in the “desert of sand and bushes” as Hilda Doumanian, the curator of the local museum, is fond of describing it.
The Memorial of Anjar commemorates the rescue of the Armenians in Musa-Dagh in 1915.
The Anjar Armenians are mostly descendants of the inhabitants of Musa-Dagh (Moses Mountain), a group of villages on the Turkish-Syrian border overlooking the Mediterranean. In 1915, to shield themselves against the ongoing genocide, these Armenians gathered in the mountains to resist the Ottomans. Fifty-three days later, exhausted and short on food and ammunition, they were rescued by French Vice-Admiral Dartige du Fournet (1856-1940). Wholly forgotten in France today, the people of Anjar continue to honour Dartige. Commander of the third squadron of the French fleet in the Mediterranean, aboard the ‘Jeanne d’Arc’, Dartige arranged the rescue of the 4000 Armenians of Musa-Dagh, entirely on his own account. After various twists and turns around the Middle East and Egypt, they finally arrived in Anjar “in the middle of the desert” in 1939. Through hard work and continuous effort, they built a prosperous and flourishing village. This is Hilda Doumanian’s account, described as though she had lived through it herself. Her father and grandparents were Musa-Dagh Armenians.
Therefore, it wasn’t a great surprise that the culture hall quickly filled up this evening for the quartet’s program of traditional music collected by ethnomusicologist Komitas (another survivor of the Armenian genocide). The public sang along to ‘Gakavik’ (The Partridge), a catchy nursery rhyme that sticks in the head, with particular enthusiasm. During this tour, I frequently have the impression that Lebanon has mastered a peculiar art: that of making you forget, sometimes, that you are in fact in Lebanon.
 Read “The Forty Days of Musa Dagh” by Austrian novelist Franz Werfel, 1933, Verba Mundi 2012, and “La Flotte française au secours des Arméniens 1909/1915” by Georges Kévorkian, Marines éditions, 2008.
So, how to talk about Beirut without addressing its many disasters? How to describe Beirut and cut out the background of the Civil War? Or of the 2019 revolution, blown apart by a gigantic explosion and then swept away by an unprecedented economic crisis? I suddenly find it unfair to define a city by listing the ways in which it’s been ruined.
At the National Museum, a showcase containing antique objects melted in the fires caused by bombings during the Civil War
Walking through the city, one is inevitably struck by the absence of symbols of national memory. In general, the Lebanese state has opted for voluntary amnesia. Amnesty laws mean the state can stay in its place, no matter what. Instead of remembrance sites, which would allow collective agreement on a series of facts to overcome past traumas, there is simply nothing. Voids or traces that time and real estate developers have not yet removed. Wasteland with dilapidated buildings, facades studded with mortar shards and bullet holes stand next to gleaming constructions, including these strange buildings in the shape of grenades, combat ships or tanks…
Only the « Yellow House », situated on the old front line, openly evokes the war years. But you must reserve a visit in advance, and an exhibition is currently being installed. We’ll have to come back another time.
Storyteller Chantal Mailhac, part of the “Clown me in” collective made up of activists trained at the “International Institute for Very Very Serious Studies”, is working on a show inspired by local mythology. She’s trying to form a narrative through tales much older than the tragedies Beirut has known for the last fifty years. She tells me that in Lebanon, “we don’t talk about what’s happened over the last seven thousand years”. Two years ago, she decided to teach her nine-year-old daughter Lara herself.
Listening to her, the following passage from the October 2019 revolution, which calls on people to burn history textbooks in front of the Ministry for Education, is the only thing that comes to mind: “If you wanted us to know your history, you would have taught us at school”. In Lebanon, no one learns about anything that’s happened since the last French soldier left (23rd of December 1946). After this date, history has no consensus. So it lapsed into silence.
Chantal also explains that the permanent state of emergency in which the Lebanese find themselves (acquiring food, petrol, a job, etc.) prevents them from taking an interest in their own history. Collective remembrance still seems like a far-away utopia.
Industrial Port of Beirut, the 9th of September 2022.
On the edge of the city, surrounded by a burning ring road, the landscape consists of a field of sinister and still smoking ruins, from the industrial port to the silos damaged in the explosion on the 4th of August 2020. There is a kind of memorial, tentative and improvised; hundreds of portraits of the victims, tags and graffiti that reads: “my government did this”, “you loved Beirut and Beirut betrayed you”, “Act for Justice”… To reach this place, you must risk crossing the motorway on foot, or take a half an hour detour through exhaust fumes and hot tarmac. What is there to see? A ruined port where activity has resumed. No matter the cost.
It’s a strange paradox: on the one hand, we’d like to speak more lightly of a city that’s fascinating in so many ways, and yet everything we see in Beirut reminds us that the tragedy is still present. Wouldn’t ignoring it contribute to the general amnesia?
In “961 hours in Beirut (and 321 dishes to accompany them)”, Ryoko Sekiguchi paints a poetic portrait of the city through its cuisine and those who prepare it. The Japanese poet lived for a year in the Lebanese capital in 2018, therefore in the Beirut of “beforehand”. She has recognised this, describing her book as “un livre de la veille” (“a book of the day before”). Nevertheless, it has done justice to the many attractions of Beirut: the light, quality of twilight, shade of the ochre stone and scent of the cafes.
Hanadi knows why she’s here. She says that life assigns each of us a task and that she herself has several. She trained for seven years as an acrobat in a circus. She volunteers as a first-aid worker and stretcher bearer at the Beirut Red Cross two days a week plus one weekend a month. Hanadi is much shorter than me but could lift me up with one hand. With the Red Cross, she’s sometimes called upon to go out ten or fifteen times in the same night to help road accident victims. She says that it’s not exactly straightforward when you have to carry a 200-kilo man down four flights of stairs in a building. Hanadi is not idle. She climbs up a stack of chairs and does a headstand once on the top. She is an acrobat and defies gravity like she defies mobsters. Hanadi was a national gymnast champion, but it was made clear that she could go no further: it is unthinkable for a young Druze woman to represent her country at the Olympics. Hanadi would only leave Lebanon if there was war again. It is impossible for her to see her loved ones die, and even more impossible to imagine having to kill to protect them. And still, she would only actually leave if the Red Cross asked her to. Hanadi is not done with this country.
Nidal is a very resourceful little boy. Having heard the sheikh explain how the tears of believers would redeem their sins, he wanted to fill up a bottle with his own tears and get a head start on redemption. He then told his friends he’d be able to sell them a few.
Wissam describes Lebanon as a bad mother who began abusing her children. He says there’s nothing worse for a child than the fear of being devoured by his own mother. He also describes Lebanon as a super-rich cousin we met a while ago in Monaco. Now, the cousin is a drug addict who swears he’ll go to rehab if we accept, one last time – to lend him the money.
Hyam is a teacher and activist. She never swears and always participates in non-violent demonstrations, except when there’s a campaign at the Lebanese National Ministry of Education.
Three men are on a carpet at the side of the road to Baalbek, between two fields of dust. Seen through the car window, the scene is perfectly silent. The first man is standing. Leaning forward, he punches the second man who is on the ground. The third man sits, looking towards the horizon.
Wissam says that when he opened his eyes after the blast of the explosion on August 4th 2020, he immediately wondered why he had chosen to return to Beirut rather than buy a house in Lichtenstein.
Before each performance of “The Dream Makers”, Ondine explains to the public that the show is wordless and that everyone can create their own story through the music. After one show, a teenage girl says the show made her think of the Beirut port explosion.
Aurélien says that Hezbollah has developed a network of supermarkets open to everyone. Discounts are made for customers with a party card. Customers still hesitant to inscribe to the Hezbollah party are offered a one-month free trial.
Lebanese people no longer have the right to empty their bank accounts. Their savings are frozen by the state. So, recently some people have started robbing their banks to withdraw money that belongs to them. In one day, four such robberies took place in the country. ‘Robbers’ have become heroes on social media.
Having repeatedly heard that Lebanon is a cursed country, condemned to an eternal state of corruption, violence and misery, I almost ended up believing it. But that was before meeting the “Free Spirit” team – an alternative school in Hermel, in the north-east of the country. Currently, the teachers are preparing for the start of their fourth academic year since the school’s inauguration. In 2019, the school had eight students. Today there are nearly 140. No one could have predicted such success.
Ghoussoune Wahoud is officially the head of the school, but she tells us straight away that it’s just a protocol for the school’s administrative status. She explains that, in reality, there is collective management. Teachers, students, and their parents are involved in running the school and its development. Goussoune says: “Here, we want our children to succeed in changing the state. We want them to learn to act on their own accord and not wait for others to find solutions for them. In Lebanon, we are accustomed to putting our lives in the hands of a leader. The pedagogical basis of our school consists of free will and the children’s personal reflection”. All of the staff are trained in the new pedagogical methods . They either have a degree in educational science or conduct university research on the subject.
As well as battling with the inert Lebanese National Ministry of Education, the school had to overcome the obstacle of fitting into the local culture for whom the school’s values were alien at first: fundamental respect for children’s freedom and their desire to learn. In this Shiite town of 45,000 inhabitants, an umpteenth bastion of Hezbollah, the opening of the only secular school in the region must have been met with disapproval. “We had to win the parents’ trust,” they told us, “but many adults are frightened of freedom”.
Among other subjects taught at the school: National History. This is not on the primary school curriculum in Lebanon. Like in the other classes, the children construct their own knowledge and train of thought, starting from their neighbourhood, city, and region.
At “Free Spirit”, a school year costs families about 300 dollars per child, but “many pupils are enrolled for free”. The school also receives support from multiple NGOs and private donations. “Our aim is not to have a school of thousands one day”, explained Ghoussoune. “But to one day have many more free spirits in Lebanon!” Education is undoubtedly one of the keys for Lebanon to see better days in the future.
 pedagogical methods defends the principle of active participation of individuals in their own training. According to this principle, learning, before being an accumulation of knowledge, must be a factor of global progress of the person.
In Lebanon, the people’s votes can be bought like any other everyday product. Ballot prices range from 200 to 1500 dollars, depending on the size of the election and inflation levels. So, after the legislative elections in May 2022, crowds of people gathered in the suburbs of Beirut to ‘collect their dues’, having accomplished their electoral duty.
At the end of one of our concerts for young Syrian refugees in a Maronite village in the north of the country, a seven-year-old child described the images that came to him when listening to the music. He said: “I imagined becoming a famous musician and travelling. Actually, I’d like to be like you.” Still taken by the music he’d heard, he made his way to a series of tents marked “UNHCR” outside the village. The stars shone particularly brightly that night.
On the potholed mountain roads in Northern Lebanon, the heady scent of the cannabis fields does not help matters.
In the middle of the mountains, a child, about eight years old, walks briskly. He is holding a hunting rifle. It looks like a toy, but it’s not.
Five more “armed cash withdrawals” in the country today. The banks are closing for a few days because of this spread of robberies. In Akkar (in the northwest), a man has been imprisoned for forcing his banker to give him his savings. To protest against his detention, members of his clan took up arms and allegedly opened fire on the security forces – without causing any injuries. A well-informed expatriate concludes: “These are good-natured shots”.
Aurélien is terrified he’ll lose his identity card. Replacing it would be tricky: Aurélien no longer exists officially since a clumsy civil servant erased his entire family by spilling coffee on the relevant page of the large civil register. There’s only a paper copy.
Two loving dogs copulate under the portrait of an independent candidate for the last legislative elections. Meanwhile, a father and son dutifully dump their trash on the side of the road. These are the two images I clearly remember from my arrival in Tripoli.
Someone threw a grenade in the centre of Tripoli. For security reasons, we changed the location of tonight’s concert. Akhtamar will not play in the famous souk of the Mediterranean’s poorest city but in a trendy café in the squeaky clean Christian quarter. So, I find myself drinking cocktails in a bistro that a French official describes as “Le Café de Flore du Liban”. The audience consists mainly of European ex-pats, listening to Norah Jones as the musicians tune their instruments. All because of a grenade.
After a night spent under the stars in a Hermel marquis, I had the strange experience of waking up to the sound of gunshots. They didn’t sound like hunting rifles, but more like automatic weapons – AK47s or heavy machine guns? Our host informs us that the area has two Hezbollah training camps.
Walking along the coast in Tripoli. A man in neon green swimming trunks is bathing. His wife, dressed and veiled in black, watches him from the shore. Ten minutes later, as we’re turning back, there she is in the water with him. She is still fully dressed, her companion carrying her into the sea. Perhaps she can’t swim. Or maybe she’s just pretending she can’t – the better to hold him close to her.
As we arrive at our hosts’ house in the Christian town of Bcharré, we are told that, in principle, shots should be fired into the air as a sign of welcome to new friends. But nothing happens. We don’t know if it was a joke or if ammunition is too precious to be wasted like this.
Apparently, war might break out tomorrow and last for two days. The Bcharré cedar forest and the “White Hills”, 2000m above sea level, would be a beautiful place to wait for a ceasefire.