Music break (sort of): Ravid Kahalani

There’s a standard speech I give when people ask me about the Middle East, and in particular the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have shied away from writing on the subject in this blog for some time — it often seems that all the arguments have already been made, and every discussion devolves into a screaming match that brings out the worst of the blogosphere, which is tiresome.

But today, in light of the news and a recent musical discovery, I gently put forth the crux of my standard speech, which is: From a cultural perspective, it doesn’t have to be this way. The division between Arab and Jew is an inorganic one. The precolonial Middle East and eastern Mediterranean were dazzlingly diverse. Major cities contained the three “religions of the book” in equal parts, and among these were many sects. But identities had as much to do with the city one called home — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Istanbul, Salonica, Jerusalem — as they did one’s religion. (I have written about this more here.)

And yet, the mainstream media constantly tells us or implies that the “Arab-Jewish” conflict is an age-old one. Not only is this inaccurate — it is a 20th century phenomenon — it’s a confusion of terms: Arab and Jewish are not exclusive categories. They are used to describe ethnicity and, in the case of the latter, ethnicity and/or religion that may overlap with many different ethnicities. One may take issue with the use of the terms in one way or another, but the thing is, we continue to have evidence that one may be both Arab and Jewish.

Take Israeli-Yemeni singer Ravid Kahalani, whose music I just found out about.

“Most of the people are like, are you Arab or Jew?” Kahalani says. “I am Arab, I am Jew.”

There. You. Go. (The link is from a February podcast on Kahalani by The World’s Marco Werman — I can never seem to beat him to an international music discovery.)

I could write a whole essay about what I like about Kahalani’s music, which a friend introduced me to a couple of days ago. There’s the lovely pentatonic scale; the combination of oud and darbakeh (Arabic drum); the evidence in his voice of his background as a synagogue cantor; that rolling trance-like feel to his rhythms that reminds me of Ali Farka Touré and makes me picture the desert. His album is called Yemen Blues.

Anyway. To bring my speech back to current events. I woke today to images of unarmed marchers setting out from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza and the West Bank, attempting to to cross the border into Israel. Troops of the latter opened fire, killing at least a dozen and injuring scores.  Many of the protestors were reportedly Palestinian refugees — there are nearly 5 million of them in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

In my standard speech, I make my point about identity because I think, however one evaluates incidents such as these, it is important to remember that they are a result of political grievances that have their roots in the events of the last 100 years. (Specifically, many of those Palestinian refugees continue to carry the keys to the homes their families were kicked out of 63 years ago when Europeans escaping persecution wanted a place to live.) Age-old religious animosity does not really factor in.

I certainly do not have Kahalani’s permission to entangle his music in this argument, but as I sit back and listen to him sing “Um min al Yaman” (Arabic for Mother is from Yemen), I can’t help thinking — and hoping — that alive out there still, is another vision for the Middle East.

Oh Lebanon…

For a good summary of the different perspectives on the situation, please check out Thanassi Cambanis’s blog here. I also had a listen today to a podcast I did on Lebanon a couple years ago — about six months after the “mini civil war,” and after I had spent a summer reporting there — to get me back in the Lebanon mood. I talked to four people — a filmmaker, a musician, an insurance professional, and a Syrian en route to America. It had been a while since I had heard those voices, and they brought back a lot of vivid memories of the energy in the country. Among the people I spoke to, everyone was pretty anxious about the future, and while not all their predictions have panned out (yet), it was a good reminder that the drama with government (or lack thereof) in Lebanon is not much of a surprise. If you care to have a listen, the podcast is still available here. (By the way, if I had to do it over, there’d be some more editing. But considering this was the first ‘cast I ever did, I think I did OK… right?)

Another thought: while it’s no surprise that there are problems in Lebanon, it’s also good to remember its resilience, its exhaustion with war, and most importantly its treasure trove of intelligent people who are committed to peace in their own ways, large and small. Let’s hope that this standoff is resolved without bloodshed.

Patriotism vs. nationalism

Origins, the memoir by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf (just about my favorite Middle Eastern writer) contains a passage dissecting the difference between patriotism and nationalism.

Origins focuses on the life of Maalouf’s grandfather, a liberal who lived in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. As in much of his writing, Maalouf — who lives in Paris — conveys a sort of jaded nostalgia, acutely conscious of its futility, for an Ottoman world where a kaleidoscope of cultures and religions once lived side by side.

As always, Maalouf is careful not to describe this time as one of peace, plenty and trustful coexistence. But in those days when many Eastern cities — Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Salonica — were significantly (sometimes equally) Muslim, Christian, and Jewish, and when talk of constitutionalism and democracy was still novel and inspiring, the Ottoman lands held a special promise. Were those ideals upheld, those lands around the Mediterranean could have been a model for coexistence and citizenship that stood in stark contrast to the ethnically exclusive nation-state system that Europe promulgated. That these ideals failed is a tragedy whose enormity is hard to grasp. Maalouf recognizes that, one big reason I admire his writing.

This is the background for the passage on patriotism and nationalism:

All too often we tend to equate the two attitudes, with the assumption that nationalism is an acute form of patriotism. In those days–and in other eras as well–this could not have been further from the truth: nationalism was the exact opposite of patriotism. Patriots dreamed of an empire where diverse groups could coexist–groups speaking different languages and professing different beliefs, but united by a common desire to build a large modern homeland. They hoped to instill a subtle Levantine wisdom into the principles advocated by the West. As for the nationalists, when they belonged to an ethnic majority they dreamed of total domination, and of separatism when they belonged to a minority. The wretched Orient of our day is the monster born of the two dreams combined.

It’s a warning that has relevance for many places in the world–I sure wish some of the American activists claiming patriotism would examine the possible meaning of the word. (And I guess I’ll probably keep wishing.)

The Last Cedars of Lebanon

I’m already back stateside, but I wanted to write a few lines about my visit to Lebanon’s cedars in early August.

When you hear Lebanon, you think cedars. The tree is featured on the Lebanese flag, the cedar forests of Lebanon are mentioned in Gilgamesh — which is the oldest known written story — and any two-bit Beirut tourist shop will have trinkets supposedly carved from cedars. Which is why it is astonishing to see just how few are left. (At least in the main preserve, which is the one I visited. Apparently there is a secondary one in the Chouf that is quite a bit more extensive.)

In the reserve in Mount Lebanon, the cedars are confined to a few acres on a broad, denuded plateau at about 8000 feet. The winding road that takes you to them — with the anticipation mounting all the while — goes straight up from the sea through fantastic villages perched on the sides of chasms whose bottoms lie in shadow. You pass the village of Khalil Gibran — the famous poet who wrote The Prophet, a popular feature at 70s weddings — and churches built improbably on precipices. Bare mountain summits tug on shreds of mist. You’re almost there as the car climbs up through a final ravine…

Suddenly, the car passes through a 30 meter stretch of crammed stalls selling cedar-related tourist goods, and a few stately cedars begin to pop up on your right. Man, you must really be getting close to the forest!

But then you pull out into a treeless plain and there’s nothing in front of you except a bare mountainside with a lonely ski lift floppily hanging to it. Those few stately cedars were the forest. And barring a somewhat spotty attempt at replanting on the road to the entrance of the preserve, all the old trees have been cut down, literally to the edge of the stone wall surrounding the preserve. Inside, there are just enough trees — and some of them truly are sacred, thousand-year-old grandfathers that instill a lot of awe — that you can briefly be tricked into thinking you are inside a forest.

From a vantage point high on the mountain ridge above, however — where I drove afterward — the magnitude of the deforestation is clear. The cedars look like someone’s garden, perched on the lip of a high basin that must have once cradled a mighty forest that seemed inexhaustible to its early harvesters. The deforestation is probably a problem that dates back to ancient times, because there is very little evidence of stumps or the former forest. But based on the topography and climate, and my experience with clear-cuts in North America, it seems pretty clear that the forest was as large as I imagine (though I’d like to get a scientific confirmation).

It is a pitiful sight and one representative of Lebanon in general — so much has been taken from this country’s glory. Only a tiny glimmer remains, just like these cedars. Perhaps it is just barely enough to produce seeds, which if carefully protected could produce another forest of beautiful Lebanese cedars one day. Then again, the grove is also so small that a single catastrophe could easily wipe it out.

The sight of this grove also made me thankful for the systems of public land protection we have in the United States, something we need to continue to protect. We are extremely lucky to have as many national forests, parks, monuments and wilderness areas as we do. Let’s not take it for granted.

The South Wind of Summer Caresses the Hills…

I got a call around noon on Sunday — my last Sunday in Lebanon — from my capoeira friends asking if I wanted to come to the Bekaa to do a workshop for a youth camp.

Duh. Of course I want to go on a road trip with a bunch of capoeiristas to northern Lebanon!

An hour later, I was cruising up the Damascus Road in the back seat of a capoeirista’s jeep with a berimbau lying across the middle of the car. We came to the crest of the mountains and beheld the mighty Bekaa Valley. It was supposedly the breadbasket of the Roman empire, full of grains and fruits for nearly the length of Lebanon. Now, it still produces some of the best fruits, vegetables and wines, but it has been left out of the international trade loop, people say. It is relatively impoverished and development has bypassed it. Parts of it are home turf for Hezbollah. On the far side of this deep, broad valley rise the slightly more arid ante-Lebanon ranges. On their far side — in their rain shadow — lies Damascus.

The view has the same effect as the one that greets you coming over the Grapevine from Los Angeles into the Central Valley of California. You know, the view that Tom Joad sees in The Grapes of Wrath when his Okie convoy finally comes through the Mojave.

A little while later we were heading up the Bekaa listening to Salif Keita. We went through some small farming towns, where the people had a hard-bitten look to them, and there were Hezbollah and Amal flags everywhere. They run the show, and the Amal guys we asked for directions were completely helpful, despite the foreign appearance of even the Lebanese in our six-person group. (Amal is a political party allied with Hezbollah.)

Ahead of us was a thunderstorm: a good, old-fashioned, high-desert, afternoon-sky-blackening thunderstorm. My instructor — who lived in Albuquerque for years — and I immediately knew it was going to be a nice rain. We had a fun time arguing with the Beirutis in the car, whose conviction that rain does not fall in Lebanon in August under any circumstances was stronger than the evidence before them. Finally the blessed drops began to fall, and we stopped the car and greeted the moisture with out-stretched arms. Such refreshment is hard to come by down in Beirut.

We turned up into the hills to the west, and began a slow ascent through mountains that looked exactly like the semi-arid country of southern Colorado. The difference was that here, the soil was limestone, and the trees were not pinions and junipers but olives and other deciduous trees. They grew in the same evenly spaced patterns of a pinion forest. A breeze was blowing and I could smell the rain. I felt right at home.

In a small dale where the road was glistening from the recent rains, we stopped by a cabin where some apple trees were growing. A man in camouflage pants with a pony tail came out of the cabin. Some children and women were in the background.

“Hey, don’t I know you?” he said in clear English, with a decaying smile. He then proceeded to offer us “cocaine, ecstasy, hash — whatever you want.”

“Uh, no, we just wanted some apples,” I said in Arabic.

“Oh, OK, please have some. In the summer, we have apples. But in the winter we have cocaine, ecstasy, hash, only.”

It was a puzzling and light-hearted conversation. We had no interest in his more exotic goods, but we left with our delicious, fresh apples and drove above dark green fields of crops (you read correctly, Cypress Hill fans) to the camp where we were doing the workshop. The picture above was taken on the last leg of the trip, above the little valley where the hamlet is.

At the summer camp, we did drills with everyone in the late aternoon on a large stage. People liked it — the children were most enthusiastic — but their attention was mixed until we played in a huge roda and they got to see the acrobatics and contortion of the game. Then, with great enthusiasm, everyone taught us same dabkeh steps and played darbakeh beats on the African drums we had brought along.

We drank fresh cold water from a stream (hope that was OK, everyone was doing it) and ate a meal of fresh fish, fattoush and french fries. The full moon came up over the beautiful valley and the air was very cool (elevation about 1,500 meters). It felt just like a New Mexican village. We left despite the entreaties of several young men who begged us to stay and talked about American music with us. Most of the people in the camp were visitng from the middle of the Bekaa and thought of the locals as a bit backward. (Which was a little funny since that is how Beirutis probably view them.) The town looked like Hezbollah ran most major operations, despite the presence of a cursory Lebanese army post.

We cruised back out over the hills in the moonlgiht and told each other scary stories. I freaked everyone out with La Llorona, which seemed appropriate to the landscape.

Finally, we were back in the flats of the Bekaa, and drove by the awesome (not in the surfer sense — rather, the original sense of the word) Roman ruins of Baalbek. To make everything unbelievably perfect, we had the windows open bumpin’ Marvin Gaye as we drove past the towering columns and still-intact temples of the ancient city. So the denizens of the surrounding town got a nice taste of Sexual Healin’ before we left down. Which is really very appropriate for Lebanon, whether or not you are in a Hezbollah-dominated area. People like to live, and they are used to the outside world.

Anyway, that’s the story of my last Sunday. I gotta say it was a good day.

(PS The title of this blog is from a song by the band The Flatlanders. Listen for an auditory equivalent of the breezes I felt that day.)

Tripoli Tragedy

When I woke up this morning to the news of a horrific bombing in Tripoli (northern Lebanon) that killed at least 11 people, I swore I would not join the throngs of amateur (or often amateurish professional) pundits who leap to blame someone or other for this kind of strife.

But I have to point out how quickly people are doing just that. Check out this unfounded-in-fact editorial from NOW Lebanon, which blames Syria for the attack.

It’s gotten to the point where, any time any violence happens, folks just pull out their own agenda and slap it onto the vague facts of the case. There’s no sense of justice or accuracy in such games. Quite the opposite, they stoke hatred and suspicions. (Blaming Syria, in this case, implies certain sectarian and political abettors in Lebanon, which I won’t get into here.)

In a place where so many such crimes remain unsolved, I don’t blame people for speculating. But it would be nice to let people mourn and take stock of the situation before making wild accusations, especially if you have a voice that carries some authority. Using the event for a political agenda is terribly callous.

Anyway, I refuse to join the crowd of would-be experts and speculate about who is responsible. All the voices of such pundits gain steam until they are reported as near-fact on respectable websites. I just want to say that this attack — because of its timing and the fact that it apparently did not target any particular individual — especially requires some calmness and careful thought before allegations are made.

We’re not dealing with the latest rumor about an American presidential candidate’s extracurricular activities. We’re dealing with events that threaten to destabilize a country that is still very vulnerable to civil war. So if you’re in the media, be responsible and show some restraint before you start calling out names.

Midnight Oud to Beirut

It is getting quite hot here – it’s been close to 100 for the last few days, and combined with the humidity it can be stifling.

When I arrived in Beirut, I had a fantasy of sleeping with the floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto the balcony, with curtains billowing and the dawn pouring in above the rooftops, probably accompanied by Cesaria Evora singing “Sodade”. But I discovered on my second night here that if you leave the door open, a mosquito is liable to single-handedly ruin your life, biting your face and droning ever more lowly as its gut fills with your blood over the course of a long, sleepless night. So to sleep, I close the door of my fourth-floor room and turn on the AC. (And if I don’t use the AC, I wake up in about a half hour drenched in sweat.)

The other evening was a very warm one, and just as I was dozing off the power went out, and with it, the AC.

In the ensuing quiet, I heard a strange sound. It was a haunting melody played on strings, so faint I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination or not. I got up and opened the doors, walked out onto the balcony and peered into the night, listening.

It was there, coming from the street below, where it was very dark because the electricity was out: the tremulous, smooth notes of an oud. The music filled the street for a few minutes and then stopped, and I saw the oud float up on the hands of a group of men sitting in front of a sandwich shop. It flashed in the ambient light like a gem, luminous, perfect and lusciously full-bodied, as more hands received it to put it in a car.

In the streets of Beirut, you rarely hear anything but the screech of tires and of horns and Arabic pop music blasting from fancy cars that, in their luxury, are incongruous with the pot-holed, rules-free roads. You see half-finished construction projects and garish ads for beauty products, cigarettes, alcohol and soft drinks. Haze obscures the mountains.

So hearing this oud – that most authentic of Arabic instruments, whose sound is the cry of longing – lovingly played in the silence of the midnight was like listening to a secret whispered about the real soul of Lebanon.

Beneath all of the scar tissue, it seemed to say, beneath the plastic consumerism and the chaos and the violence, somewhere in the tired soil of this land the seeds of its essence lie quietly in wait for the chance to grow again. There are still fingers that play those ancient, gentle Lebanese chords, though you may need to have a power outage in the middle of the night just to hear a few bars.

It is a theme on which I will expand in my next post, about my visit to one of Lebanon’s last stands of cedars.