Archive | March, 2010

Beirut’s Underground Music Scene

Here’s a trailer for a documentary project on the underground music scene in the Arab world, specifically Beirut. It’s very well made and offers some valuable insights into a scene that’s sadly still shunned by the mainstream, who prefer their stars lip-synched and surgically-enhanced. Like someone says in the video: “popstars sing dreams, we sing […]

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A Bit of Blighty in Beirut

As some of you know, I spent the best part of 22 years living in London. This means that I’m possessed with a sort of permanent wistful melancholy, a penchant for a mug of PG tips and the occasional violent outburst at a football match. You can imagine that the cultural baggage one accumulates in the UK is kind of hard to share with someone who doesn’t understand the culture. The English sense of humour is famously puzzling to anyone who hasn’t spent time on the British Isles.

True, it’s hardly as obscure as say being from Botswana, but when I want to reminisce about watching Newsround and Bananaman, I’ve always felt fellow Brits were few and far between in Beirut. Any Beirutis who grew up in the US have it easy, American culture being so ubiquitous that I’m sure even Massai tribesmen in Kenya are aware that Ross and Rachel were on a break. Anyone who grew up in France is also spoilt for choice when it comes to popular culture. Lebanon is a francophone country, and prides itself, sometimes misguidedly, on its links to our ex-colonizers, something of a prolonged Stockholm syndrome. You even get the full bouquet of French terrestrial and satellite TV stations from your neighborhood pirate cable provider. My provider comes in the form of a diminutive Armenian man who seems to have inherited very little from his ancestors beyond one tooth, a stutter, a sweaty disposition and no understanding of what the BBC is.

I can’t complain too much though, because things are much easier than the last time I moved to Beirut in 1997. Back then I had to rely on memory for any attachment to my native London. I had to dig out old VHS tapes of Have I Got News For You, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. Oh, by the by, VHS tapes were those big boxy things we used before DVDs, for you kids out there.

Now I download the latest episodes of QI and Mock The Week on YouTube. I download podcasts from BBC Four, and enjoy the surreal prospect of listening to Germaine Greer discuss post-feminism whilst I’m stuck in traffic behind a pimped-out yellow Honda Civic with two of Lebanon’s finest soldiers whistling at everything in a skirt.

And more recently, I’ve actually been meeting Brits, of the proper kind and the Lebanese kind, like myself. And as they say, once it rains it pours. I went from not knowing a single Brit for years to suddenly being surrounded by people from all corners of the UK. I’m overcome with a very un-English sense of joy when I speak to someone who has a proper English accent, never mind if it’s from Godalming, Somerset or Manchester. So in the last few weeks I’ve been remincing about a childhood spent watching Superted, Neighbours and The Bill. I’ve been recounting tales of meeting Jet, Hunter and John Fashinu at a taping of Big Break’s Christmas special with John Virgo and Jim Davidson. This probably means nothing to most people, but it means the world to me.

I’ve been away from Beirut for a couple of weeks now. I spent a few days in London last week, and it was refreshing to walk around aimlessly on pavements under a gentle drizzle. It was nice to wander into Waterstone’s and ask knowledgeable staff for book recommendations. It was nice to walk past my old school, my old university and my old flat. It was nice to walk into a pub with carpets rendered pungent from years of spilt lager. It was nice to have a conversation with a cabbie “bout all these fecking foreigners”, with a delightful sense of irony and self-awareness.

One particularly chilly day I headed to Canary Wharf for an interview. I boarded the Jubilee Line armed with a well-stocked iPod and a copy of the Financial Times. As the train trundled along, I caught a reflection of myself in the window. I was far paler than I was a week ago, especially in the unforgiving neon light. I looked like a caged corporate slave again, my Windsor knot choking any ambitions of creativity I have been harboring for the past year. My lips were chapped. I looked down at my hands clutching the FT, dried and cracked from the subzero temperatures outside. When I got to my interview, I gave it my all. I was even invited back for a second round, which I’ve politely declined.

I’m afraid London isn’t home anymore. I’m afraid there are ambitions I have for myself in Beirut, I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference. I have role to play in Beirut that surpasses my role as a faceless zombie on the Jubilee Line. Plus its warm in Beirut. And most important of all, I miss it.

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It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

Here’s a little story I haven’t told many people, because it shines a bright light onto my unbridled geekiness.

So, the year is 1992. The Chicago Bulls are NBA Champions. Andre Agassi is sporting a full head of hair. Kids are sitting around their rooms with Troll dolls attached to their pencils as Kriss Kross’ Jump and Sir Mix-a-lot’s Baby Got Back blare out of the boombox. Home Alone and Sister Act are topping the box office. And I’m a 10 year old kid.

Of all the year’s cinematic offerings, I’m particularly excited about the prospect of watching Aladdin, especially since I’ve discovered that he’s modelled on Tom Cruise and that makes the fat little bespectacled Arab kid in me really proud. It’s going to be cool to be Arab.

I settle into my seat at the Odeon on High Street Ken, and I’m ready for a mystical land full of anthropomorphic cuteness from monkeys and whatnot. Then I sit through 90 minutes of thinly veiled racism, which leaves me crushed. Even Robin William’s psychotic take on the Genie isn’t enough to salvage the film in my eyes.

I go home, and being the nerdy English school kid that I was, embark on a quest to chastise Disney for their insolence through the only means available to me: a strongly worded letter.

The details are a bit fuzzy and haven’t withstood the test of time in my memory, and I have no idea what I wrote. But I remember being particularly vexed by the swashbuckling and monstrous law enforcers. Plus the following lyrics didn’t really sit well with a proud Lebanese kid, who’d never actually seen his parent’s homeland yet:

Oh I come from a land, from a faraway place / Where the caravan camels roam / Where it’s flat and immense / And the heat is intense / It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home

So there you have it. I was a ridiculous 10 year old with a warped sense of pride sending a letter to one of the biggest corporations in the world. End of story. Right?

Not exactly. Through some weird combination of events, it would seem Disney thought a fat 10 year old had a point. They thanked me for my letter and forwarded it to the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, of which I’ve been an honorary member ever since.

Moral of the story. Always complain when something just isn’t right, sometimes people listen.

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Ode to the Zouzou

O zouzou, how brave you are on your battered Jog scooter, weaving in and out of traffic, an artist of the two-wheeled form
O zouzou, how dashing you are as you stand tall under the weight of all the Brylcreem that has established permanent residence from the roots of your hair to the tip of your lush pony tail
O zouzou, how charming you are when you whistle at young ladies passing by, forever stealing their hearts. All helpless victims at your feet. 2eww 2eww.
O zouzou, how cool you are, reclining against walls in department stores sneering at the passers by
O zouzou, how pensive you are, sitting on your throne of white plastic on the sidewalk committing the remnants of pumpkin seeds to the seaside air
O zouzou, how distinguished you are in your 1991 Mercedes CE Coupe with Serround bass and windows darker than the night itself, a true lover of the classic car
O zouzou, how I love it when you cheer on-screen kisses and bad-guy punch-outs at the cinema, a true lover of the arts you are
O zouzou, how I rejoice when the stars align and place me next to you in traffic as I gently hear the sounds of Assi Al Halani waft over from your pirated CD to my eager ears
O zouzou, how I admire the cigarette dangling magically from your lip all day, oscillating with the uttering of every new word
O zouzou, how I love thee.

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