Stories from Beirut - Irtijal Festival 2014 (part 2)

Stories from Beirut - Irtijal Festival 2014 (part 2)

May 23, 2016

Written by:

Philipp Schmickl

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1. A journey in many respects

In all those intensive days and nights I never found time to and now I am asking myself how to write about this festival. Should I describe the concerts? I was never able to do that; I never wanted to do that. Is it too difficult for me? I think, when I translate music into something else, when I can translate it into something else, then it's not into text but into an attitude/posture, into something fluent, into something corporeal, which is perceivable but not for the record, like a text.

It was a journey in many respects. First of all a physical transportation from Middle Europe into the Middle East; East seen from the West. And then, from a precarious situation in Vienna - which is characterized by questions like how to pay the next rent or the one after that and by answers that you do not want to hear, by refusal, ignorance and stupidity. But also by friendship and good work - into a dreamland in which I was living in a palace on the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean sea, in April, during a music festival where I met many familiar people and friends, in a city where so many things seem possible that I am unable to perform at home. But it was also a journey into a country where, for a European, unreal laws are reigning and are being executed, where the police looks like a squad of mercenaries and acts like it, they intimidate people, they lock them up and release them in exchange for ransom money. These policemen are different, they are massive, they are much bigger than the usual Beirut-person and they use their machine guns like the young women use their cellphones in the bar across the street from the police station.

How is it possible that through one flight I arrive in a completely different social sphere? That I turn from a working-class-child into a prince, or at least into one of the few guests of the Palace without paying for it? (And I am not even a musician playing at the festival). It became possible through art, the music and the people who are devoting themselves to it. To be more exact, it is the egalitarian attitude inside the scene, in Europe, in the Americas, Australia, Asia, the Middle East and so on. The music is free and exemplary. The more rules that are imported into the music or the more it is regulated, the more rigid hierarchies appear. This is not so much the case in improvised music, so that's also a reason why this music is called free. The people who organise concerts and festivals enable us to get in touch with her and also with people who are practicing and loving her, the music. Therefore and through the egalitarian attitude - although attitude not always translates into reality - relations can develop on one mutual level and I find myself in the music room of the Palace. It became possible through art.

But this change of stratum was not the main thing or the main reason for my journey; it is a detail which was very pleasant, a quite striking side effect, so to say. The actual reasons for my travels to the Irtijal Festival are always the music and the city with its people - those two ideas are inevitably linked in my thinking about this festival. If there was no music, I wouldn't come every year to Beirut and if Beirut wasn't Beirut, I may have missed one festival in between. The big roads and the small streets, the men selling coffee on the side-walk, the high-rise buildings and the wilderness in between, the beauty and yes, the fatalism of some people overcame me. And because I am not living here, I am keeping a very romantic image of all of this.

You cannot censor improvisation, not before the act, because it is invented and done in the moment and not after the act, because it already happened. In this way, improvisation can turn from a deeply human technique into a subversive behaviour. And to put a ban on improvisation as a method in art - I don't know if this is possible.

2. Mixing the genres

One afternoon in the Torino, I saw a very good-looking guy handing over his (second) car key to the barkeeper. He was pretty drunk, limping and had one arm in plaster. I caught the word 'car accident'. He just loves to drink, 'you know,' he said, 'I like the taste of it.' Then he said goodbye and turned his head to the barkeeper, 'and if I wreck my car, can you please get it for me?' Next to him at the bar sat a young girl and foam was coming out of her beer bottle and turning her face towards me she was licking it from the neck of the bottle. The music in the bars is rather mediocre.

At the festival the exact opposite. You always get a mixture of music from Europe, less from the United States, regularly from Canada - this is possible through the connection to Radwan Ghazi Mounmeh from Constellation Records - and music from Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, &c. Beirut is a meeting point for European and Arabian artists - because the music is universal and uniting. You'll find cooperation between artists from all those regions and a lot of mixing of the genres. Over the four days this year you could hear a lot of different kinds of music. First of all improvised music in its endless possible variations, rock music, electronic dance music, mostly avoiding, or trying to avoid reproducing clichés. And there was a live comic-performance and dance and circus-type-performances that enchanted the audience.

I don't know if the city itself is musical but she is constantly audible. And when you listen closely you can hear almost comic-like sceneries. After all, it's a musical city. Jim Denley said in an interview we did in 2012:

'I mean, often when I talk about what I've been talking about, it sounds like that I'm only interested in nature and I don't think that's necessarily true, I mean, I don't find urban environments uninteresting, they are really amazing and yeah, Beirut seems like a really specific and interesting sonic environment - all the traffic with constant horn use but then, as soon as you get off the main roads, you find some very quiet, sleepy places which are fully pedestrianized and slow. When I was walking around on Friday, which was Good Friday, it was amazing because there was so much music and singing everywhere. And it occurred to me that in this music festival [Irtijal] there is some very complex music or ambitious music, structurally, in terms of its ideas, you know, as in most experimental or improvised music festivals. People are not playing simple music - it's often way too complex - but it occurred to me walking 'round yesterday, the music coming out of the churches and even the car mechanics' workshops is actually quiet sophisticated, these long melodies and even the quite popular voices have so much inflection and melodic complexity.'
theoral no. 5/al-shafahi

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3. Recording the city

Magda Mayas was regularly recording the city. One afternoon, the three of us, Magda, Tony Buck and I, where crawling through the traffic into the quiet streets which are leading out to the East. They are so peaceful that you can distinguish one sound from the other. In the hot alleys in Mar Mikhael you can see many very old cars that are still in use. Men were having barbecues in the street, the children were on their bikes or running past us with their shopping bags full of stuff. The roots of the big trees are lifting the bitumen, mighty branches are coming out of the trunks, and power cables are hanging in bundles from the pole. Through the windows sometimes you can perceive music.

Due to Magda’s recording I was concentrating - we all were - even more on the sound of the city. I perceived the children running past us more like a source of sound than as human beings, also the drone of the traffic further back and further ahead that we were inevitably approaching, the big roads and motorways that are framing the quiet areas. After crossing the yellow Beirut River we entered the Armenian suburb. Bourj Hammoud is more or less laid out in a grid system, many buildings are from the forties and fifties, two or three storeys high, with market stands on the ground floor or little bakeries or a small shop where you can get everything you need. Almost nothing was destroyed during the Civil War. People are mostly walking or riding their mopeds through the narrow streets, rarely they go by car and if a car drives by, then it's a big one.

We approached a shop where they sold chick-like birds in various neon-colors that reminded me of the swimsuits of the girls in the mid-eighties. And people were buying them. All the children wanted one. The chicks were wrapped up in paper together with their feed and the small people where happy. 'That's the food for their whole life,' I said to Tony and he answered, 'They'll be dead by six o clock anyway.' Magda kept her distance.

On another day we went together with Didi Kern to a hopelessly overcrowded market under the motorway-bridges; Jisr al-Wati means 'The lower bridge'. There everything happened at the same time, the people around us and the cars above us. There was almost no space for walking, you just went with the flow and above us the traffic-thunder was rolling and the people had a good time. I hope one day I can hear the recording.

4. How to disappear

From a book that I found on a window sill of Irtijal,

How to Disappear
1. Sit alone in a public space like a café, garden or public square.

2. Try to shift your focus from the thoughts spinning in your mind to the sounds of the space surrounding you.

3. Consider the sounds that reach your ear, sound by sound, without granting any one sound greater significance than any other.

4. Contemplate the folds and creases of the sounds you now hear. When you hear the voice of a passerby, contemplate its tone and this tone’s depth, not only the meaning of its words. When an annoying car drives past, contemplate the harsh sound of it’s motor and the sonic spectrum of its reverberations. When you hear a distant radio, don’t focus merely on the singer’s voice or the song’s name, but rather contemplate the clarity of its frequency and listen to its static.

5. Prevent these sounds from forming a hierarchy; prevent them from occupying the foreground or retreating to the background. Always remember that you must place all sounds at the same distance from you.

6. You will find that your greatest difficulty is concentrating on the sounds themselves, for the thoughts, impressions, and memories that these sounds conjure up will persistently take over part of your concentration, pushing the real-time sounds to the background. Make sustained efforts to return to the sounds arising in your present moment, for your mission is only to listen to them, not to think about their meanings.

7. As time passes and you steep yourself in what you hear, you will discover an increasing number of sonic details around you. Each of these details will lead you to another; each sound will lead you to a neighboring one. At this point you will find that your inner voice gradually diminishes at the same rate by which you immerse yourself in your sonic environment.

8. When you ultimately succeed in listening to the place in its entirety, you will find that the distance between yourself and the space’s sounds has diminished, and that you have become part of the place. You will find that no one around you notices your presence; everyone will pass by without seeing you.
Haytam El-Wardany

In Beirut it is rather normal (like, in a way, in Vienna), that if you dedicate yourself to any art you get in touch with many other forms of art. The art-scene is small, people from different disciplines know each other and many work in more than one field of art. Mazen Kerbaj, for example, who is working in comics and music, or Raed Yassin, the double bass player and visual artist, or Tony Elieh, the electric bass player and photographer. With time I got to know more people and discovered friendships between photographers and editors, musicians and visual artists, filmmakers and museum curators, &c. The concerts of the festival took place in spaces that were on the one hand designated music rooms, but on the other hand the music happened in art galleries, most of all the experimental ones. Some concerts took place in cinemas. And so the people come together and mingle and work together and the musicians produce the soundtrack to a movie and the editors play a supporting role and the music video is made in exchange for the soundtrack and the graphic designers design the covers of the records for the label of a musician if it is not done by Mazen and so on.

5. Conversations

On a hot noon I was walking without any objective through Gemmayzeh when Charbel Haber was calling me. I recognized his voice but I could not see him until I looked up and saw him waving from a balcony, 'Third floor on the right, come on!' I entered the colonial building, its windows were not made of glass but of iron bars, elegantly ornamented. On every floor there were two doors (closed) and on every second door there was a designed sign that referred to so-called creative activities. On the third floor, as I was entering the Studio Safar, somebody put a glass of ice-cold white wine in my hand and various people were shaking my other one. It was the presentation of the number one of Journal Safar ( from which I was citing in the beginning of the text (part one). Charbel, who was sitting and smoking on the balcony had contributed a poem that was on the back. I recognized many faces that I knew from the concerts and from the Torino and Internazionale. Leaning against the door case I read

a worn out ode
to the fallen

since the summer of 58
an eternal fire

for a perpetual spring

under rugs

in reception halls

hotel suites and luxurious living rooms

gasoline gasoline
we need more gasoline

The city is big and with the one million of Syrian refugees that had come to Lebanon it grew again to a great deal. But the art scene is small and mainly Christian. Most people are concerned with other things.

I made some interviews, or as I prefer to say, I had conversations. And I recorded them. On a very hot afternoon with Osman Arabi whom I met for the first time last year, in 2013. (I mentioned him in part one of this piece). We met in the Demo bar and were talking for a long time and while Osman was explaining me the things I reached another level of consciousness about the Irtijal Festival, that means, I had an insight. Irtijal means improvisation, as a term and as a festival. Osman is coming from the metal scene, from its darkest corner I would say, and he was working most of the time alone until three years ago when he was invited for the first time to Irtijal. At that time he had stopped playing live. Here is what he told me about the Irtijal and its people:

'So, with these guys, I am always more loosening up and always open to new things. I kind of see where they come from or what their approach is and I know what my approach is and in a way I manage now to combine both, so I’m more at ease, I can take from here, I can take from there, now I'm starting to manage to actually mix things. I don't know what it is becoming but at least I am trying to do that and I push that forward and see what might come of it. And especially the last year with Irtijal, to me it was fucking mind-blowing. I went back home, I was like, 'Wow, okay, I have to rethink lots of things now.' I played with Balász [Pándi] on drums and Stéphane Rives on [soprano] saxophone. The approach was really different and it kind of reflects how I started looking at things - my old way of improvisation was like, okay, you have a scale, you know all these notes and I just play around like that, I improvise and that's it, there's nothing more to that, it was all about the mood it gets or the feeling it gives you, rather than anything else. But now it's completely different and I like that. Right now it's that, plus getting away with the techniques, just dropping all the techniques, all these conceptions like what a guitar is, how you play the guitar et cetera. And you mix that with the aesthetics of blackness plus some awkward references plus I don't know what and you get something completely different and that was the breaking point for me with Irtijal last year.' theoral no. 9

Another guitar player, around 40 years older than Osman, with whom I recorded a conversation, is Jean-François Pauvros. I am admiring his Gestalt and music since a long time. We sat in the lobby of the Hotel Port View, he was wearing sun glasses and he told me about his (temporary) loss of eye-sight some years ago and his plaisir de toucher la guitar. After a while the conversation really started to flow but then Vincent Fortemps arrived - a Belgian comic artist (who actually reminded me of Tintin) who was playing at the festival with Pauvros and Wormholes (Sehnaoui / Kerbaj) two days earlier - and said that they had to go because the French embassy had invited them for lunch. J.-F. was very reluctant, but in the end he went to put on his shirt and said that we should continue next time we meet. I hope so.

6. Another reality

Standing around in the lobby my phone was ringing. I answered it and my friend told me, 'You know, H. was arrested.' What!? I told her that I'm in their hotel and we met in the lobby. We were facing each other helplessly. We were facing the city helplessly, a state and his laws that are regularly ignored by the inhabitants, but which are nevertheless in force, also for tourists like us. The legislation in many things does not differ very much from those of other countries in the region, ie they are rather conservative. The Torino and the Internazionale can deceive you. The Lebanese friends that I told about the arrest were all shocked and a question that occurred immediately was, 'Did they beat him?' No. They were relieved, because, 'If you'd be a Syrian, they would beat the shit out of you, or simple Lebanese.' Tarek Atoui, a Lebanese electronic musician who is living in France was arrested in the streets in 2006 because he was doing sound recordings.

'During the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Atoui hit the streets to collect sound recordings. He was arrested and detained for three days, during which time he was whacked on the head and lost partial hearing in his left ear, permanently.'
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie, in: Ziad Nawfal, Ghalya Saadawi and Tanya Traboulsi, 
Untitled Tracks. On Alternative Music in Beirut. Amers Editions. 2010

I went with a lawyer to see our friend at the police station and I spent there one hour. I was supposed to translate from French (lawyer) into German (friend) in order to escape the comprehension of the policeman. We sat in a room with an old, dirty-beige desk, way too small for the huge soldier who was sitting in front of us in his camouflage uniform like a grumpy and disgusted executioner. On the desk stood a small and old computer, also in dirty beige. From time to time he was typing something and looking into the screen. Right next to the desk was a bed made of iron bars. We were waiting for an official translator for the testimony of my friend and most of the time sitting in silence while our lawyer and the policeman were conversing in Arabic. I was imagining what could have already happened on this bed and I was horrified, even without having heard the stories about the blood on the walls in the cell were they had put our friend, but thinking, 'He must have served in the Civil War.' H. was much calmer than I was. I felt aggression rising inside me like bubbles and with the bursting of every bubble I got a little more uncomfortable, primarily because the fuss they created stood in no relation to the actual "crime" and my antipathy towards the soldier grew with every second. Maybe it was the hangover but I felt the urge to insult him (and I am very happy that I did not do it). When they had found kind of a solution for the official translation he told me that I could go, they didn't need me any more and when I actually wanted to leave the building I got a little lost and went into a room where two camouflage-policemen were sitting at a dirty-beige desk playing with their guns. I asked them about the exit and they immediately intimidated me - these methods work very well with somebody who is not used to them. H. always kept his calmness and dignity, he didn't show fear nor servility. When I left the police station, another friend who was waiting in front of the station told me how pale I was. I went over to see the other friends at Demo and had a beer. Some hours later our friend was free. Not because of me but because our whole group put together all their cash, including the fees they got for the concerts, and that's how we paid the police.

Irtijal Festival
Irtijal Festival

7. Censorship

Another way to harass people is censorship, which is also very common. I didn't actually notice it but in the Torino bar I found a small booklet that drew my attention to it. It was talking about censorship in Lebanon and it contained some examples from the Virtual Museum of Censorship. In the Museum of Censorship you can find all censored works of literature, music, theatre, etc. but also prohibited appearances of artists and murders of journalists.

'Most works are censored or threatened to be banned for the following reasons:

1. Political reasons: regarding foreign relations with friendly countries, the censor pays considerable attention to the political sensitivities of Arab regimes and endeavors to safeguard diplomatic relations with these countries as well as banning attacks on the Palestinian cause and Arabs in general. Also, films on the civil war have been routinely censored since the nineties on the basis that referring to the conflict “threatens civil peace.”

2. Israel: regarding relations with enemy states, censorship is firstly based on a national law that calls for the boycott of all Israeli products. Secondly, there is censorship of all forms of publicity or compassion for Israel. In practice, however, this is often blended with censoring works that depict Judaism or Jews in a favorable or compassionate way. Censorship based on the boycott of Israel is being extended to censoring works of artists who show support of Israel and works of Jewish artists.

3. Religion: General Security will send creative works it thinks might upset religious sensitivities to their respective governing bodies (usually the Catholic Information Center or the Dar-al-Fatwa/Iftaa', which is Lebanon's highest Sunni Muslim authority). Scenes deemed offensive or topics that question the ability of religion to counter evil are removed.

4. Obscene and Immoral content: Material which offends public morals or contains scenes of nudity, sex and foul language are strictly censored. The censor generally determines the extent to which the film or work does not offend public morals. Also, works that promote homosexuality are prohibited, whereas violent scenes or scenes depicting drug use are allowed.

In this context the importance of Irtijal enters another dimension. Because you cannot censor improvisation, not before the act, because it is invented and done in the moment and not after the act, because it already happened. In this way, improvisation can turn from a deeply human technique into a subversive behavior. And to put a ban on improvisation as a method in art - I don't know if this is possible. But then, of course, they are prohibiting the appearance of people.

Through all these experiences I realised the relevance and importance of the Irtijal Festival even more. The organisation and realisation of a festival like this in a place like Beirut is not at all self-evident. On the one hand, because many of the more open-minded people are not at all into improvised or experimental music. A friend who is working for the Beirut Art Center and who sometimes attends concerts, repeatedly said to me, 'I don't like experimental music.' That's okay, I think, but I have a slight suspicion that she is not so much into listening at all. They are interested in other forms of music, also traditional music; they are into cinema, visual art, literature, etc. Free music or musical experiments have, according to my small knowledge, no tradition in Lebanon, except 14 [now 16] years of Irtijal. On the other hand it is not self-evident that this festival exists in Beirut because the political framework is not at all friendly-minded towards the organizers. There is no support from the official Lebanese state nor from the city of Beirut. Sharif once told me what he got as a response to his attempt to raise money for Irtijal, 'What? You don't make money with this? So, why do you do it?'


*photo credits: Tanya Traboulsi

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

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