Stories from Beirut - Irtijal Festival 2014 (part 1)

Stories from Beirut - Irtijal Festival 2014 (part 1)

March 7, 2016

Written by:

Philipp Schmickl

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1. Palestinänser

Sunday, March 30, 2014, Istanbul Gökcen airport, six in the afternoon

This is my fourth journey to Beirut. Since three years, every early April I go on this venture in order to take part in the Irtijal Festival. I got acquainted with two of the organizers, Sharif Sehnaoui and Mazen Kerbaj, on their journeys as traveling musicians in various European cities and pueblos, like Nickelsdorf, Mulhouse, Prague, &c. Invitations were pronounced and in 2011 the time was right for the first time to organize a trip to the Middle East.

I know the name of the city, Beirut, since I can remember. I grew up with it, heard it on TV, on the news and on the radio. Despite of what I had heard, the word Beirut always kept a positive connotation for me. Another word of my childhood, to which I connect some pictures from our old but already color TV - I suppose from the first Intifada - is the word 'Palestinänser' (Palestinian). The television-sequences I link with the word are stone throwing children. Or is my memory cheating on me? In our little village, we children did the same thing at the same time, but we threw the stones onto each other.

The lectures that I was attending at the University of Vienna about the history of the Arab world increased my interested in Lebanon and the civil war from 1975 to 1990, which I tried to understand. There was a time when I knew much more about this war than I do today. The special interest in this, I think, is also due to the word 'Beirut'. You can show off, in a way, when you say it, when you pronounce it and, even more, when you say that you are going there. Sometimes I avoided to use it and said that I was going to the Irtijal Festival. Beirut evokes a certain danger and exoticism, much more intangible than those of other cities. Similar to Tanger, which has also passed it's Golden Age in which Muslim, Christian and Atheistic traditions were mythically merged and in which many different languages were spoken naturally (1), in short, a city which is characterized by liberalism, also (especially Tanger in the last years) by economic liberalism and pitiless capitalism.

(1) I hear many people utter this statement: everybody in Lebanon is at least bilingual. I’ve said it myself a few times, often with a strange anticipation of curiosity and a conspicuous sense of pride. Now this statement is obviously not true. What we mean to say is: Everybody like us is at least bilingual. And by ‘us’ we mean those of a certain educational background, and sometimes even age group. Abundant as we may be, we surely are not everybody. All it takes is a ride in a shared taxi to realize how much of an inhomogeneous currency language is. In a typical journey, hellos and thank yous in Arabic, English, French and other languages, and in myriad accents and forms, fly around with naturalized ease, while maintaining a common ground for simple conversation is often a culturalized struggle. It is true that here in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the world, language is a seldom and innocent parameter and is often a highly loaded signifier of status - cultural alignment, political belonging and social class. But it is a little bit more complex than “Christians prefer French” and “poor people speak more Arabic”.

Ahmad Garbieh, Journal Safar ISSUE 01_APRIL 2014

The city is assimilating me. It allows me only to take notes. On a wall near Hamra: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.

2. War as inspiration

The latest larger attack happened approximately two months ago, not so far from the Msaytbeh neighborhood, in which I was staying last year, in 2013, at Ziad Nawfal's place. When it happened I inquired by e-mail, he wrote, 'The situation is pretty bad.' According to Neue Zürcher Zeitung there were four dead and 103 injured. The thought of an injury through an explosion of a bomb, open skin, blood, paralysis, pain, kept on recurring. If I blow up, okay, I can't do anything against it, but what if I only get injured or severely injured? Ziads flat is full of books in the three languages of Lebanon, in fact, the three languages of a part of the society of Lebanon, of Beirut, in which I move and which is as far from Bourj al-Barajneh (2) or Aleppo as Vienna. Can I say that? I don't know if it is true, but sometimes it seemed like it. Maybe because, walking through Beirut, I felt myself as far from this refugee camp as in Vienna.

(2) In this year 2014 Irtijal invited 'le rappeur et compositeur palestinien Osloob du fameux groupe de hip-hop Katibe Khamsé, formation rap issue du camp des réfugiés de Burj El Barajneh, connue pour son rap engagé et sa critique sociale,' (the rapper and composer Osloob from the brilliant hip hop group Katibe Khamsé, which originates in the refugee camps of Burj El Barajneh and who is know for his militant rap and his critique of social issues.)

Ziad's apartment is also full of CDs from Asmahan to Ray Baretto and he has a collection of DVDs, which represent the history of cinema. Ziad has a radio show (, he is a DJ and since some years he is also working for Irtijal. His brother is Jawad Nawfal, one of the most important electronic musicians of the country known under the name Munma. In the years between 2006 and 2008 he released three albums, a trilogy - point of departure was the bombing of Beirut by the Israeli airforce: 34 Days; Black Tuesday; Unholy Republic. The music is mixture of his characteristic beats and rhythms with samples from television and radio. War as inspiration. Two years ago Mazen Kerbaj told me some things about war and inspiration as well: 'A[nother] civil war would be impossible to bear for me, but a war like this one [in 2006], I mean, it’s not enough to make me leave and I had something to do, you know, I was happy to do what I’m doing, I mean, it’s one of the most important, if not the most important creative period of my whole life, probably, because in one month I did what I would do in one year and a half maybe, it’s so powerful, it’s an energy and it’s so interesting, as an artist, to experience this and work.' (al-shafahi/theoral no. 5, p. 93;).

Ziad Nawfal regularly releases CDs with recordings of live sets that are part of his radio show, The Ruptured Sessions, which are sensitively recorded and mixed by Fadi Tabbal who is also responsible for the sound at the Irtijal Festival. Fadi plays guitar with The Incompetents and recently also with Scrambled Eggs. Meanwhile there are five CDs out with the most important music from Lebanese pop/rock music, hip-hop, experimental and improvised music scenes.

Most of the people who are involved in the Irtijal Festival were born around 1975, the year in which the civil war started. Ziad even a bit earlier, but with him I did not talk about his experience from this time, neither about 2006. We were talking much more about the present and its music. We got to know each other in his car in which we were creeping through the traffic jams from Salim-Salam-street to Achrafieh or Gemmayzeh, between big limousines and off-road vehicles. Because Ziad was always busy with the festival and other things, I had the flat very often for myself. I read his books, especially William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and imported a large quantity of his CDs onto my computer, Marion Brown to Bonnie Prince Billy - I came to hear the music.

*photo credits: Freunde von Freunden

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3. Notes from last year

Notes from last year's notebook - Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Meanwhile I arrived in the Torino bar. On my way I met Tony Elieh, 'Schmickl, good to see you back again!'

Yesterday, after 40 hours without sleep I saw Khyam Allami, an Iraqi oud player in The Mansion, an old palace, which was renovated in its essentials. I am staying near the Salim Salam mosque in Ziad Nawfal's place whose apartment is full of books, music and movies. In bed I read William Blake:

Trembling I sit day and night, my friends are astonish'd at me.
Yet they forgive my wanderings, I rest not from my great task!
To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of man inwards to the Worlds of Thought, into Eternity
Ever expanding in the Bosom of God, the Human Imagination.

Thursday, April 4, 2013
The city is assimilating me. It allows me only to take notes.
On a wall near Hamra: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Demo: An emptiness is growing between my temples and my neck
My hair is too light today
Little mint flowers whose wine is swinging in my chest
Curly smoke is banging against the window
And a light red dress with white dots on it is floating by
Popcorn and sleeping songs provide my locks again with gravity and seriousness.

Torino: Campari Soda and white wine next to my paper booklet
Night falls through the open door and breaks on the softly tiled floor
Turns into dust in the rare and soft clinging of the glasses
Deep beats and red lights

Sunday, April 7, 2013, Bourj Hammoud, afternoon
It's hot. And Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian suburb, is quiet. Most of the shops are closed; even the ice cream stand is deserted. A few cars are rolling through the main street, from the roundabout to the bridge to Mar Mikhael. On this last day of my journey I am staying in Charbel Haber's house, which is in Mar Mikhael. When I looked through one of his windows, I noticed that suddenly everything had turned green. The fig trees and the mulberry trees are bending their branches. On rue d'Armenie I saw a man who tore off the light green fruits and put them impatiently into his mouth. To pick the unripe is a crime, a non-art.

Later: Osman Arabi crossed my way. He related the shooting in Tripoli in which he got caught on this day. In a way he is used to this, he said, but to see people sitting on a pick up and cruising around the buildings and shooting randomly into the crowd, that was a new experience. 'A guy with attitude,' I am thinking. 'He's very sincere in what he does, in his music,' Ziad said. You can see it in the way he plays his guitar. No bullshit. I asked Osman how he would go back from Beirut to Tripoli. Either he would stay with a friend or he would wait until the morning for a regular bus, he said. Because riding on a (private) night bus would be too dangerous. The drivers are mad and frequently quite drunk, a beer between their legs and they have accidents with 150 km per hour, or what you can get out of a minibus. Quite often you can see smoking scrap heaps by the side of the road. Once he forced a driver to stop and to let him get off, 'Fuck you, man! You go die alone,' he shouted at him.


4. Internazionale

Monday, March 31, 2014, in the airplane, one o'clock in the morning.

When I got pressed against the seat during take off I thought, 'This is my life,' and I was happy although I continued thinking, 'even if I shit in my pants.' We are still climbing into the air and I can look down on the brightly lit Istanbul. In one hour I will arrive in Beirut and in two I should be at the Palace, my residence this year.

I am drinking green tea - Kusmi Tea, Paris - in the guest apartment of the Palace. Although I brewed it too long, it still tastes fine. In the background they are drilling, like at almost every corner in Achrafieh, the central Christian neighborhood, through which I was walking for a coffee this morning - construction work everywhere. On the St. Nicolas stairs, which lead down to Gemmayzeh, another Christian neighborhood, the workers were greeting me in a very friendly way. And they must have been very friendly people, I think, because in their midst they had a birdcage with a budgie in it. 'They use the bird as their radio,' I thought.

The Palace is a real palace. It was constructed around 1870. Parts of the garden still date from that time. The guest apartment, in which Magda Mayas and Tony Buck are going to move in tomorrow, is the former apartment of Sharif Sehnaoui.

Sharif, together with Mazen Kerbaj, is the founder of the Irtijal Festival and both play, together with Raed Yassin, in the first improv band of Lebanon, the A-Trio [Sehnaoui, guitar; Kerbaj, trumpet; Yassin, bass]. Sharif seems to me like the godfather of Lebanese experimental music. Everything that happens in this field, concerts, festivals, tours, labels, &c. - he knows about, he's part of it, as a musician or as an organizer, or just financially. He is the one who is dealing with the artists and the media. Sharif is the firm and reliable center of the Irtijal Festival. I am going to meet him during the day. We will give each other a hug and say, 'Beautiful, it's that time again,' and, 'Nice, that you came again to Beirut,' and 'Great, that so many friends are coming this year!' I got to know Sharif six or seven years ago. We talked for a long time in the already cleaned up kitchen of Jazzgalerie Nickelsdorf during the 2007 festival, mostly about Paris and its music scene, because at that time he was still living there and still had long hair. Now he has short hair and a beard. I think, right now he's in the Irtijal office just across the street and is giving an interview for some newspaper or TV station about the festival. Nevertheless, it is very difficult to move people to engage with this music. Commercial stuff is much more popular. Like everywhere.

Early evening: Mar Mikhael, Rue d'Armenie, Internazionale.
The bar looks like a renovated bar from the fifties. In fact, until two or three years ago, it was an abandoned garage. The owner of the bar had the furniture built exclusively for this place and added some vintage lamps and barstools. 'He could take his time with this place,' told me Tony Elieh, because he, I think, is earning enough money with his other bar on the same street down (or up?) in Gemmayzeh, the Torino Express. He is half German, half Lebanese and has a skull like a Greek statue. Last year I saw him once at the Torino and people were whispering into my ear, 'That's the boss.' The Torino was some years ago the first bar in Gemmayzeh - small, dense and always full. Tiled floor in black and white, arcades above the brilliantly lit spirits, old wood, red lights, shiny glasses, loud music, napkins under the drinks - and served as a model for many other bars that were opened since then.

On my way back from Bourj Hammoud I met Charbel Haber and Tony Elieh standing in front of Internazionale, smoking. So I stayed. I had a good coffee and then another one and then some al-maza beers with Tony. Now they left and I am thinking about having another drink to accompany my writing. You always drink here. 'One glass of white wine,' I ordered.

Tony and Charbel are two of the four members of the rock band Scrambled Eggs (Malek Rizkallah, Fadi Tabbal) and, during the festival, they are working for the festival. He cannot live from his music, said Tony, his main occupation is being a photographer: 'food, fashion, architecture - that's good money and I'm free to go on tour.' We ordered another round. He told me about Kdoudd Halabiya, a Syrian musical tradition from Aleppo, and one of its main interpreters, Sabah Fakhry, who can sing 16 hours through. Tony said that he finds it very sad, that he never visited Aleppo or Damascus before the war, 'I blame myself for this,' he said, 'because now it's too late.' And the war can spread to Lebanon any time. At the moment it is quiet because Assad is controlling the border and his enemies cannot cross it into Lebanon to attack Hisbollah or Iranian facilities. But the tensions are there. 'I hope, there won't be another civil war.' His most dreadful memories date back to the years 1987 to '90, towards the end of the war, when he was between nine and eleven. 'You don't want to experience that.' I noticed a nervousness sweeping through him; he cracked his fingers, sat up straight but didn't change the subject and went through it with concentration.

In the Internazionale they're playing jazzy funky cool bar music. Meanwhile night fell, the cars are rolling slowly through the street, and the gas-smoke is spiraling in front of the headlights, like cigarette smoke under a reading lamp. The counter and the bottles are mirrored in the large fifties-window. Most people left. Maybe they come back after diner. I'm going to leave as well.


5. An old Armenian

Torino Express:
I am thinking about a conversation I had with an old Armenian who I visited again this afternoon, after two years. I got to know him in 2012, when I was staying for two weeks in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian suburb, in a flat that Sharif had just newly rented. I had three empty rooms with beautiful tiled floors, a bathroom, an empty kitchen and a large and a small balcony; there was also a fridge and some mattresses to sleep on. Every day after getting up I went to this man's little place which was basically a room full of stuff and his big shiny coffee machine - two tables and five chairs in front of the shop - and had a green tea and one or two cups of coffee for 50 cents. Every day he told me - partly in German, because he went to a German school in the sixties - about his Weiber, as he said, his women. Once he went to Hamburg for vacation - he loves the German language ! - and everyday he went to Reeperbahn. He slept with two to three prostitutes per day. He also went to the South of Germany but didn't like it so much. Out of the blue between coffees he said, 'In my life I had two hundred and thirty six girlfriends except the whores that I fucked.' I was stunned. Then I asked him, 'What!? You fucked a horse!?' He frowned and I began to understand. 'No. No horse,' he said.

Today he did not recognize me right away. I ordered a coffee and only when I sat down on the chair on the side where I was sitting all the time two years ago, he asked me if I had been here before.

In the narrow street there were two concrete throughs with young plants in them and some cars were parking to the left and to the right. A big black polished Mercedes was parking in a way that a woman with a baby carriage couldn't pass by. The child got out of the carriage and went through the gap; the mother lifted the carriage over the hood of the car and also passed the gap. On the other side the child got back into the carriage and they went their way. The old coffee guy didn't tell me stories this time.

During my walk through Bourj Hammoud I passed by an Agence de Voyage. The blinds were down; the sun was beating on the window. Through the open door I could hear very clearly La Chanson pour l'Auvergnat from Georges Brassens and the agent singing along with it joyously. I stopped but I couldn't see the guy. He must have been somewhere in the depth of his office, so I was only listening to this song that I haven't heard for a long time and I almost sang along with it as well.

In the Torino the waiter who usually only speaks Arabic, said after the order: 'Ainsi soit-il.' They are playing Charles Wright and Stairway to Heaven. The other waiter polishes every glass that comes out of the dishwasher.


6. Torino Express

Tuesday, April 1, 2014. Palace, noon.

Power outage, it seems, at least all the lights went out. The cat is walking over the table at which I am sitting and writing and insists on being caressed. Outside everything is going on as usual: construction work, honking of the horns, the drone of the traffic. The rooms of the Palace are so high that in this guest area where I am right now, they put in two more levels - a kitchen and a marble bathroom and up near the ceiling where you can almost touch the stucco, is the sleeping room from where you can look through circular windows into the trees.

The cat presses and scratches her head against my pen and is scratching on the paper. I put her aside. I am going to stay another night in this room, and then I move to the music room.

The bars where during the night heavy drinking takes place are even more beautiful during the day. Sandyellow, polished crumbling plaster on the walls, a beautiful worn down tiled floor, barstools made of dark wood with deep red seats, light balls, iron bars in a half circle – a rising sun! – over the entry, polished windows and red neon saying Torino Express. Yesterday after writing here, Paed Conca arrived, a Swiss clarinet player who saved himself into Beirut-exile. He already speaks Arabic. Yesterday with the bartender and his girlfriend Yara, who came a little later and distributed cookies from her grandmother to guests and employees. Paed is living in Bourj Hammoud because 'it's so much cheaper' - when I was staying there myself I realized that the price of a coffee in the street is a fourth of the price you pay in Beirut, just across the yellow river. Paed doesn't need a long-term visa because he is traveling in and out regularly. He has a duo with Raed Yassin (who's playing also with the A Trio) called PRAED. They take songs from old Egyptian movies and transport them into a contemporary dance (music) context and with that they tour regularly in Europe and Japan. I said to Yara, 'We met last year. We were drinking, you were driving.' And she said, 'Oh, I was drinking too.' This is very normal here, everybody does it. The first time I came to Beirut I read a graffiti on the walls of Hamra - together with Gemmayzeh the most popular neighborhood to go out - which said, 'If you're drunk, let me call you a cab'. (I'm thinking of acab). This graffiti made her only laugh, this girl who was completely drunk, driving me through the night and ignoring almost every red light. I was not afraid at the time, nor later. It was too exciting.

Paed and Yara had another glass of red wine (Ksara, Beeka Valley) and drove home. Alone among strangers I continued writing and when I looked up to order another drink, both of the bartenders were gone - maybe they were already too drunk to work - and the guests went behind the bar and made their drinks on their own. Since none of the bartenders came back, I settled my bill with a customer and went the St. Nicolas Stairs up to Achrafieh where the Palace is.

I went to bed too early because this morning I saw that I had a phone call from Unknown at 3.39. I suppose it was X. who I got to know on my first visit three years ago. Last year we met for an hour and two small coffees. She was talking all the time about love and how she just couldn't find out what it is, love. 'Do you know?' she asked me. 'Well,' I couldn't say very much. 'I have a boyfriend and I think, I love him. But he is married.' She knew at the time the exact date when she would quit him. She realized that she loved him when she once took one of her friends to his place and requested that they sleep with each other. She wanted to find out if she would be jealous. Both were hesitating but she insisted. 'But when they started kissing and undressing each other I shouted: stop! And then I said: okay, go on. I wanted it to happen. So, that's why I think I love him because I had this reaction and when I saw that he really wanted her, I wanted them to keep on because I wanted it for him. Then, later, I slept with him.'

The sun moved high above the street and is reflecting in the rear side-mirror of a big off-road 4x4 and lights up a little spot on the polished wall here in the bar. They're playing salsa, which is mixed with the humming of a fat motorcycle (Batman!) reverberating from the sidewalk. Half of the customers (2) are standing in front of the Torino and are smoking their cigarettes. The people I see here are mostly between 30 and 40, decently styled. Here comes Tony. After an austere conversation: Tony came from a photo shooting. Now he's reading next to me, Jean-Paul Sartre, Words. He said he just started some months ago to really read books. Last autumn, when they were in Berlin, Mazen showed him a book by Paul Auster. 'Since then I am into books. He (Mazen) knew what to show me.' I am thinking about looking into my book: Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin.

Early evening, Torino, where else:
On my way down here I met Mazen who said, 'Welcome to Beirut!' And, 'When you stay in the Palace, Torino is your kitchen.' Yes, it is my kitchen, my writing kitchen. I got to know Mazen at the same time as Sharif, first as a trumpet player. Later on I found out about his drawings and comics. In the summer of 2006, when Beirut was bombed by Israel, he got known to a wider public through his blog (in which he was giving an account of the life under the bombs). More or less every day, that means, when the Internet was working, he put drawings and short texts online, to which he got reactions from all over the world. 'Pressure creates diamonds,' said McCoy Tyner.

Meanwhile the bar is full. It's still bright day outside, nonetheless Gin and Tonics are floating over the counter.

Mazen Kerbaj
Mazen Kerbaj

7. A Music Friendship

Mazen Kerbaj is maybe the best known of the Irtijal people, also because he's working successfully in two worlds, in the music and in comics. He and Sharif founded the MILL Association which is responsible for the Irtijal Festival, 'a non-profit organization with the intent of promoting contemporary and experimental practices in music, and assisting projects that do not fit into the Lebanese mainstream, yet still present undeniable artistic value.'

Sharif and Mazen are inseparable (in my mind), also because - at the time still with Christine Abdelnour - they were the first to play and to organize experimental or improvised music in Lebanon. The way Mazen describes it, everything came into being through a teenager friendship that was formed around music, a friendship which was possible through the music. Mazen about the beginnings:

'And little by little we discovered affinities, for sure, but then we discovered that after three o'clock everybody goes back home or is sleeping and then Sharif and I would stay from three to six in the morning playing CDs and listening to CDs and he was very happy to find another crazy idiot who would stay with him. And we would go to the party and wait for everybody to sleep and to go home because we wanted to listen to CDs and discuss. It took very long but I remember very precisely a day where I said to Sharif: You know, why don't you give me your phone number, maybe I can call you and come directly without the other fuckers, I mean, just listen.'
al-shafahi/theoral no. 5, p. 73.

They found out about US free jazz, about European free jazz and improvised music (Evan Parker!) together, they learned to play free together and they took others with them. They invited musicians from all over the world to play in Beirut and then they were invited as well and went to the United States and Europe. The festival grew over the years and after 14 years it is what it is now. But behind these men, who are carrying the festival now, there is a woman, Neila, the mother of the godfather. Without her, things wouldn't be like they are. My highest admiration.

The festival is starting tomorrow. Tonight the first musicians will arrive, also my friends from tiny Austria.

I sleep very little but I don't feel any tiredness in this city. Next to me some women who just turned 30 are talking about their wrinkles - tourists from the US, but with Lebanese roots. Two beautiful African (Ethiopian?) women entered the bar - and they went straight behind the bar and what are they doing? They take out the garbage and leave without a word. The two waiters from yesterday are back again.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014. In the garden of the Palace, afternoon.

Today I moved to the music room. During the festival it serves as a depot for the instruments - I am looking forward to sleeping next to a double bass ! – and during the year it serves as rehearsal room and 'many recordings were made in there,' Sharif told me. And entering the room I recognized it. I had seen many photos with Sharif, Raed, Mazen and others playing in this room. Brown walls, huge mirrors, colonial windows. Today starts the festival.


*photo credits: Tanya Traboulsi, Sebastian Apostol
German version available HERE

You can reach Philipp Schmickl via schmickl [at] socialanthropology [dot] net

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