Archive | May, 2011

Shooglenifty cuts a rug at Music Hall

17 May

BEIRUT: It isn’t often that one hears the shrill tunes of traditional Scots music in Lebanon.

Perhaps this is why Sunday night’s chord-strumming, string-whizzing performance of Scottish fusion band Shooglenifty had such a dramatic effect.

Twenty-year veterans of the stage and studio, this six-man band is one of Scotland’s premier exports, famed internationally for its unique splicing of traditional Scots folk and contemporary techno.

Shooglenifty and guests took to the stage of Wadi Abu Jmeel’s Music Hall. The gig provided a spectacular send-off to the Beirut instalment of Reel Festivals’ 2011, which now wends its way back to Scotland.Reel had originally planned to have events in Syria as well as Lebanon, but events in Syria made it necessary to cancel these. The program set out to bring Scotland’s best films, music and poetry to Lebanon, and to showcase a selection of the best contemporary Syrian and Lebanese films, poetry and music in Scotland.

The Beirut program included philosophical street art by Bill Drummond, projections of documentary and feature film at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil, and Syrian, Scots and Lebanese poetry, read as well as discussed, at Saifi Urban Gardens.

Reel’s promotional literature speaks of Shooglenifty’s “super funky phonics” and “wild uptempo mix.” Any doubts as to whether this sort of thing could be popular among a Lebanese audience were put to bed at the very start of Shooglenifty’s 90-minute set.

It took less than a minute for a crowd to leap to its feet and gather before the stage, jigging and reeling with Pictish enthusiasm.

Fiddle player Angus Grant’s virtuosity with his instrument was astonishing, and he proved able to create and sustain the most beautiful notes while on the move, sliding, bolting and leaping mid-bow.

His charisma was matched by that of his band mates. Drummer James MacKintosh set the beats with energetic gusto and pinpoint accuracy, oftentimes pushing his avid audience into a frenzy of pogo-ing as they tried to keep up the pace.

The throng of Quee MacArthur’s bass provided a sonorous and somehow profound backbeat, expertly picked up and sharpened by Garry Finlayson on banjo and banjax – a five-string electric banjo.

At times, the fingers of guitarist Malcolm James Crosbie would shoot across his instrument’s strings with such energy that the clarity of his playing was somehow surprising.

Eyes closed, Luke Plumb gave a compelling, powerful performance with his mandolin.

It was as though the playing of each note were a moral imperative.

The individual performances were impressive but the players’ years of diligent study and talent expressed itself in their ensemble work.

The Music Hall show was Shooglenifty’s Lebanese debut, apposite since the Reel Festivals’ raison d’etre is to promote understanding among countries by sharing one another’s arts and cultural production.

The trans-cultural success of the festival was made obvious when Lebanese nay player Bashir Saade and Iraqi oudist Omar Dewachi took to the stage to accompany the Scots.

Having only met two nights previously, the mingling of Arabic and Scots provided visual and aural evidence that the interaction of cultures through art is one of the most entertaining ways to build bridges among nations.

Reel 2011’s focus now turns to Scotland. It will be interesting indeed to see whether the Lebanese and Syrian artists taking part will receive the same reception in Scotland as the Scots artists got here.


Six poets, three countries, transcending borders

13 May

BEIRUT: “All writers have to cross a border of some kind,” said Scottish poet Tom Pow, “real or imagined.”

Pow was one of six international poets to participate in “Crossing Borders/Bearing Witness,” a panel discussion held Wednesday evening at the Saifi Urban Gardens as part of Reel Festivals 2011, an event devised to celebrate and instigate cultural interplay between Syria, Lebanon and Scotland.

Six poets, two from each of the three countries, gathered to discuss notions of border and the “role” (if any) of the poet.

Borders and witnessing, Pow continued, are at the essence of what Reel is about: “Learn[ing] from one another and understand[ing] each other’s worlds better [through] art and culture.”

The poets met for the first time only last week and have already begun collaborating on casual translations of one another’s work. The poets were asked to give a three-minute talk on borders, witnessing or both in relation to geography, language or the past. The subsequent discussion was wide ranging.

Emily Ballou, a Glasgow-based American-Australian poet emphasized her multinational background. She said she was frustrated by the traditional ice-breaking question, “Where are you from?” since it forces upon her a thwarted sense of belonging.

“I want to be asked ‘Where do you belong?’” she continued, “and I want to know what happens when you can’t live where you belong.”

For Ballou, who is also a screenwriter and a novelist, the question of exile, whether self-imposed or necessary, is also related to the question of bearing witness.

In a reference to Syria – where the first segment of Reel 2011 had to be canceled because of the current political situation – Ballou remarked that, as a writer, she is now “bearing witness to witnesses” – to the Syrian poets taking part in the festival who are living in a place she as a foreigner has been advised not to visit.

“I can witness the pulse in each writer’s work that helps me to connect to [it] and to their experience.”

Poetry’s ability to recreate experience was also celebrated by Scottish poet William Letford, who described poetry as “language that opens up moments. The poems I love most are the ones where my eyes are opened to someone else’s perspective.”

Coming to Lebanon, Ballou said, has “infused the border question” with greater meaning, explaining that she was only now beginning to “feel a connection to Scotland, having left.” There is a paradoxical relationship between location and identity, she suggested, between the existence of geographical or linguistic divisions and of a connection that surpasses them.

Syrian poet Golan Haji referred the question to sometimes random notions of the border. Describing the “imaginary border” between Kurds and Turks, he described a man killed by Turkish soldiers. “His body was burnt black in the yellow fields” he said, “ … and just because he was on the border.” Simultaneously though, children were giving food to these same soldiers “because they spoke the same language.”

For Mazen Maarouf, notions of the border held an arbitrary aspect. A Palestinian poet and journalist living in Beirut as a refugee, he identified a strong connection between borders and memory. “I was always stereotyped by people who had a memory of the [Civil] War, because the Palestinians took part and made mistakes. I am surrounded by blocks that stop me from reaching my country.

“I never thought of borders being about geography,” he continued. “ … Borders are made not by systems, protocols or society but by the accumulation of evils that take place in life.”

Maarouf’s hope was that poetry might circumvent these borders, not by being explicitly political, but by exposing borders to be things created by history and time.

Lebanon’s Yehia Jaber also saw borders in political, social terms. He spoke of the way that, in Lebanon, the very act of naming oneself imposes borders. “When you hear a name, you can identify. And your next question is, Where do you live?”

Though Jaber described Lebanon as “a country without official borders,” he spoke of social, political and religious barricades that extend deep into society. “I feel uncomfortable everywhere,” he added. Born to a Shiite family, Jaber lives in the traditionally Christian area of Ain al-Rammeneh.

Since he is not affiliated to Hezbollah, he said, he feels anxious both in Shiite and Sunni neighborhoods. “Even in Hamra Street I feel nervous because there, there are the national parties.”

Letford took the discussion in a different direction, evoking the border between life and death. The acknowledgement and embrace of the delicacy of this border daily makes him live better. “You are linked to the person on that border,” he said. “And if you live life like that, everything is a gift.”

Syrian poet Rasha Omran remarked that “borders are not significant in my work. Ideas of borders are different now, because of the Internet. There are no longer barriers to communication.”

Omran, who directs the annual Al-Sindiyana culture festival, introduced the controversial topic of poetry’s place in modern society. Maarouf insisted that it is poetry’s role to “witness the world in a modern way.”

Ballou preferred to focus on poetry as “an opportunity to connect with someone through writing. I’m filtering myself, through a mask … [and] by losing myself I know more.”

“Each poem holds many others inside it,” Haji agreed. “Poetry has made me an eyewitness – even to things I did not live.”

Much as these six poets sometimes disagreed, the rapport that developed among them provided a compelling argument for the power of poetry to surpass borders and create dialogue.

The paradox of this monologue, discussion and debate – and thus the festival as a whole – is that while it crosses and transcends borders, it also celebrates them.

The art of bringing people together

9 May

BEIRUT: Art’s ability to incite social change is one of history’s most discussed topics. Since “The Republic,” in which Plato famously argues for poetry’s removal from the state, the subject has been debated by philosophers and artists alike.

Plato wasn’t as anti-art as is popularly believed. His stance against poetry was rather against its power; poetry, he urged, ought to not “only give pleasure but bring lasting benefit to human life and human society.”

It is a strong claim for the form, and one that might – and has – put off artists and readers alike. Not, however, Reel Festivals, an international arts festival that hopes to “bring a different face to regions in conflict.”

“Art,” says festival coordinator Daniel Gorman, “can bring people together like nothing else; it can speak directly to our emotions and bring us together to celebrate both similarities and differences.”

Reel is all about bringing people together. The concept was born in 2007 after Gorman and his colleagues visited Afghanistan with the Scottish organization Afghan Schools Trust. “I met a huge amount of inspiring people,” says Gorman. So many, indeed, that the idea of communicating through each nation’s art took hold, and Afghani culture was brought home along with the returning voyagers. “Reel Afghanistan” took place in 2009 in Edinburgh, though regional instability prevented the festival from presenting a reciprocal festival in Kabul.

A year later “Reel Iraq” continued the cultural exchange, bringing to Edinburgh an entirely different Iraq from the one seen in daily headlines.

Now Reel Festivals is being held in its partner countries for the first time. This year’s festival is trilateral, crossing the borders between Scotland, Syria and Lebanon.

Recent events in Syria have led to the cancellation of the Damascus-based events, which were to have begun on May 7. The Syrian-inspired events planned to take place in Scotland will go ahead.

The first festival bringing Scottish films, music and poetry to Lebanon, Reel is as much about exposing Scottish culture to the Lebanese as the other way around.

The Beirut section of Reel 2011 begins Monday and continues until Sunday, May 15. Events include screenings of six classic and contemporary films, musical performances, discussions on poetry and a live poetry session.

Films, showing daily at 8 p.m. until Saturday at Metropolis-Empire Sofil, include premieres, documentaries and shorts. Three question-and-answer sessions with Scottish directors will also take place. A “Story-Telling of Cinema” workshop will take place following Thursday’s film, Amy Hardie’s “The Edge of Dreaming.”

The organizers seem to be savoring a sense of irony, having scheduled a Scottish horror film, “The Wicker Man,” for Friday the 13th. Saturday sees the first ever Arabic-language screening of Christopher Young’s “Seachd – the Inaccessible Pinnacle,” the first feature film made in Scottish Gaelic.

Music is also a crucial part of the festival. Internationally renowned Scottish musician Bill Drummond will be in town with his new choir “The17,” and is to give a lecture Wednesday at USJ’s Beirut campus on the future of music. The lecture will be followed by a performance with the choir.

Art aficionados will want to keep a lookout for a piece of graffiti which, courtesy of Drummond, is to appear somewhere in Beirut over the next seven days: “Imagine waking up tomorrow and all music had disappeared.”

Four poets hailing from Scotland (Emily Ballou, William Letford, Tom Pow and Ryan Van Winkle), two Syrian poets (Golan Haji and Rasha Omran) and two Lebanon-based poets (Mazen Maarouf and Yehia Jaber) will take part in poetry events in Beirut and Edinburgh. Somewhat topically, they will also be discussing borders and the poet’s (in)ability to cross them.

Celtic folk-techno fusion pioneers “Shooglenifty” are set to play at Beirut’s legendary Music Hall in a grand finale Sunday.

While Reel Festivals exists partly in order “to empower cultural figures and encourage their development,” another of its stated intentions is to “spread awareness of areas in conflict beyond the headlines.” The final sector of the festival thus takes place from May 16-21 in Scotland, and is to include a selection of Lebanese films – one of which is Zeina Daccache’s “Twelve Angry Lebanese” – and a retrospective from the acclaimed Syrian director Omar Amiralay.

Scotland will also witness a fusion of dabke-electronica beats from Syrian and Lebanese artists. Reel Festivals is a project of Firefly International, a Scottish charity aiming to encourage dialogue and communication through the arts. Run by Gorman and Syrian-born Palestinian Yasmin Fedda, both of whom are filmmakers, Firefly aims, through Reel, to “shine a little light” on the aspects of the Middle East that international media tend to shun – namely, its arts and culture.

Reel wants to encourage both “engagement with the arts and international issues” and “dialogue between communities.”

Given recent developments in Syria and the fact that the festival has had to be cancelled there, such exchange has never seemed more necessary. “We believe that art can transcend barriers,” says Gorman. Whether or not Plato would agree, it has got to be worth a try.

Reel Festivals 2011 begins in Beirut Monday and continues until May 15. For more information and the schedule of events visit

Was the Bard an Orientalist?

6 May

BEIRUT: There is no shortage of outsider characters in the work of William Shakespeare. Literary history being what it is, the best-known of these is probably Shylock, the villainous Jewish moneylender in the bard’s “The Merchant of Venice.”

Queasy at the thought that English literature’s greatest playwright may have been as prejudiced towards his country’s Jews as most Englishmen of his day, 20th-century literary critics suggested that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Shylock is more nuanced than that of his other villains. To this end, they fondly refer to the usurer’s sympathetic remarks, like “If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”

Another villainous outsider to preoccupy some Shakespeare scholars in the age of post-colonial studies was Caliban, from his romance “The Tempest.” The offspring of a woman’s coupling of a devil, Caliban was seen by some contemporary writers to embody the incomprehensible indigenous creatures (whether in the Americas or Africa) that the English had encountered in their early voyages of exploration and conquest.

Whence, then, “The Orient”? Picking up a copy of “Hamlet,” you’d be hard pressed to find a reference to the imagined place that was propelled into popular consciousness by the politically inflected cultural criticism of Edward Said.

In fact, according to the scholars in town for the international conference “Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient,” ongoing at the American University of Beirut, The Orient is unlikely to surface anywhere in Shakespeare’s canon. The sparse references that do exist are limited to “the pearl of the Orient,” hardly a precise image.

Although more literary criticism has been written on the work of Shakespeare than that of any other dramatist, The Orient does not much crop up in Shakespeare studies.

This is one of the reasons for holding this conference. Chaired by AUB professor Francois-Xavier Gleyzon, the scholarly gathering has aimed to widen the conventional framework of Shakespeare studies.

“It is the first of its kind,” said Gleyzon. “We have brought together the best academics in this area.”

The timing was propitious. As one keynote speaker, Dr Margaret Litvin from Boston University, pointed out “the most exciting thing about working with Arabic contemporary life is how quickly it changes.” The political turmoil presently rocking the Arab world has stimulated a renewed interest in political theater and its ability to spark change.

“Rotten States and Unmoored Moors: Arab Engagements with Hamlet and Othello,” Litvin’s discussion Shakespeare reception in this part of the world, was particularly topical. She argued that, contrary to popular opinion, “Hamlet” provides “allegories for the postcolonial Arabic predicament” that are more resonant than those of “Othello.”

Hamlet’s great question, “To be or not to be,” Litvin argued, has taken on particular political relevance in this region, where Arabic-language adaptations of the play often interpret the remark to be related to questions of Arab identity.

She notes a Hamlet-inspired graffito “To be or not to be, now is the time,” was found scrawled on a wall near the site of Rafik Hariri’s 2005 assassination.

“‘Hamlet,’” Litvin said, “has been repurposed for the barricades.” This might have puzzled Shakespeare, given the weighty emphasis he placed upon the self-doubt of the tragic hero.

Litvin identifies three stages of Arab-language Hamlet adaptations since 1950. The first, from around 1952-1967, is characterized by stagings that represent Hamlet as some sort of reconstructed Arab hero, a man with whom spectators could identify and by whom they could be inspired.

After the disaster of the 1967 War – as much a defeat to the ideas of Arab nationalism advanced by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as it was the individual states involved in the war – Litvin identifies a shift in the tone of “Hamlet” adaptations. They begin to express a nationalist longing, she argues, focusing especially on the figure of the ghost of Hamlet’s father.

Finally, from 1975 to 2001, “Hamlet” came to be used primarily as a platform for dramatic irony. During this time, Litvin says, the play is frequently re-made into something absurd, the tragedy of its climax presented as bathos.

Crucially, for Litvin, “Shakespeare is the ally, not the target, of this bitter wit.”

The objective of this conference, organisers say, was “to prove how the critical and artistic reception of Shakespeare in the Orient is paramount to apprehending and reinventing Shakespeare as a cultural and social bridge uniting the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ in the landscape of global culture.”

They “hope to offer a critical insight into Shakespeare and Early Modern political theology that would help refashion, remap broader issues that engage the status of cultural and religious identity, nation, and individuality in the landscape of global culture.”

Given that the topics of Wednesday’s seminars ranged from Shakespeare’s sole mention of Mohammed – that was in “Henry VI part I” – to the role of body and the concept of desire in the comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” the conference will likely provoke debate.

Madhavi Menon’s discussion of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” concluded that imagination and desire in this comedy become interchangeable precisely through the play’s imagining of The Orient – the “Indian boy” acquired by the Fairy Queen being oft-mentioned but always voiceless.

The references may be more implicit than explicit but, it seems, The Orient is not completely absent from Shakespeare.

“Shakespeare’s Imagined Orient”” continues in AUB’s auditorium B1 until Friday May 6.

Beirut Music and Art Festival: “This is just the beginning”

5 May

Beirut: Lebanon’s big summer music festivals seem designed to lure people out of Beirut.

Baalbak has its festival, as do Beiteddine and Byblos. Beirut, on the other hand, seems to be the preserve for year-round festivals, platforms and forums devoted to film and video art, dance, fine and plastic arts and (depending on how plastic your definition of “Beirut” and “music”) classical and free improv music.

Never fear. The status quo is set to change, sort of. A little later this month, the Beirut Music and Art Festival (BMAF) intends to transform downtown Beirut into a performance venue. This is the first BMAF, though organisers want the event to become an annual fixture.

Organized by the Ministry of Tourism in co-operation with Solidere (the private company licensed to retool downtown Beirut for the post-Civil War era), BMAF aims to “put culture back on the daily agenda.”

Mobilizing over 200 local and international artists to perform over a three-week period, BMAF certainly means to provoke international attention.

Performers include such international bigwigs as “Earth Wind and Fire,” “Sister Sledge,” and ex-Supertramper Roger Hodgson. Local luminaries Lena Chamamyan and Tania Kassis are also among the performers.

Co-directed by Beirut Jazz Festival organizer John Kassabian, Hamra Street Festival organizer Fadi Ghazzaoui and Imad Darwich-Houssami, BMAF hopes to “usher in the renaissance of Beirut’s golden age of art and culture.”

“Beirut is a capital city, at the crossroads of three continents and a gateway between East and West,” said John Kassabian. “Musical and artistic trends tend to take off from capital cities, the cultural centers of a country. As the cultural heart of the entire region, Beirut deserves to have its own music and art festival … The time has come.”

The program is not limited to international stars. BMAF has declared its desire to support local artists, so lesser-known local and foreign bands both are being given a performance platform from May 19 till June 2.

With 45 bands in total, three groups per night will perform in the Beirut Souqs. The mélange of East and West will also include a patchwork of musical styles, jazz and blues, oriental classical and hip-hop.

“It’s time to broaden our horizons,” opined Ghazzaoui. “It’s time to create a stage that promotes fusion, where Lebanon will both learn and share with our international guests. We want to give these groups a platform to express themselves on a bigger stage.”

The lineup for the Beirut Souq Music Village devoted to experimentation, featuring a smattering of Beirut Underground, and less-underground, artists like Rayess Bek, “Home Made,” “Amy Smack Daddy,” and “Zeid and the Wings.”

The Beirut Souqs will also play host to a wide range of other art events and activities.

“Mayadeen” art exhibition, is set to occupy downtown Beirut from May 18 till June 5. Subtitled “A Public Space Project,”Mayadeen, according to BMAF promotional literature, is “a platform for evolving practices in a discourse about public spaces’ everyday life.”

“Mayadeen” aims to “dissect the evolving state of Beirut’s public spaces.” Exhibition applicants were asked to perform an inquiry into the contemporary perception of cities and the cityscape.

It is also particularly interested in the impact of digital media and the role that public images have upon society. Curator Ghada Waked is hoping that “Mayadeen” will initiate a debate about how “space itself is altered in negotiating cultural traditions, political priorities, community values and history.”

“Mayadeen” will include a diverse range of media, including photography, projections, printed banners, performances and installations.

The aim of “Mayadeen” corresponds with Kassabian’s vision for BMAF. “This,” he said of BMAF, “is for culture’s sake, and not just for music’s sake.”

BMAF is providing two open afternoons of musical performance on the festival’s first weekend. From 4 p.m. until 7 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, local Lebanese bands are free to perform for the public.

“We are extending special consideration and support to local artists and bands within the umbrella of an international festival. This is something that has never been done before,” Kassabian remarked.

At 4 p.m. on May 21, BMAF will hold an hour-long march from Saifi to Starco. “The Beirut Parade,” as it’s being called, is set to be suitably bombastic, with plenty of music and color to fill the air.

The co-directors have pledged that BMAF is here to stay. “Year after year, the Beirut music and art festival will honor the past, celebrate the present and look to the future of music, art and culture. This,” said Ghazzaoui, “is just the beginning.”

The Beirut Music and Art Festival runs from May 19-June 12. The grandstand performances will be held at New Waterfront (BIEL) May 27-June 12.