Music in the Middle East: Bring Back Peace

In the after­math of the start of a hor­ri­ble war, and as this sit­u­a­tion has deeply dis­rupt­ed people’s life, work, thoughts and well­be­ing, this col­umn, orig­i­nal­ly planned to be ded­i­cat­ed to Beirut, shift­ed to Ode­sa. The city in South­ern Ukraine is part of the greater Mid­dle East, as one of its inter­est­ing lim­i­nal points, because of its com­plex past: Greek roots and long Ottoman his­to­ry, before the Russ­ian recre­at­ed it in the 19 th cen­tu­ry. Ode­sa today is one of the largest cities in Ukraine and a key part in the resis­tance against Putin’s troops. It is also one of the cities asso­ci­at­ed with Klezmer music, hav­ing played a large role in its development.

A won­der­ful graph­ic nov­el for instance retells this his­to­ry, Klezmer, writ­ten by the mul­ti-tal­ent­ed Joann Sfar. Many actu­al­ly read it while lis­ten­ing to music from Odesa…

And Sfar has since Feb­ru­ary 24 been post­ing illu­mi­nat­ing draw­ing on the sit­u­a­tion in Ode­sa and Ukraine in gen­er­al, notably on Insta­gram.

As the war con­tin­ues, the mil­i­tary cri­sis has induced a refugee cri­sis, and more than two mil­lion Ukraini­ans have since been on the run. Before them, in the past decade, so many refugees sim­i­lar­ly found them­selves willy-nil­ly on roads lead­ing to West­ern Europe — some from Soma­lia, many from Sudan and South Sudan, more from Eritrea, Syr­ia, Iraq, Pales­tine, Turkey and West Africa. Unlike our Euro­pean neigh­bors, they weren’t quite wel­comed with open arms, unfor­tu­nate­ly… And mean­while in Ukraine, some African stu­dents have been strand­ed, in Kyiv and Lviv, while oth­ers were refused entry at the Pol­ish fron­tier and oth­er bor­ders, putting them at risk in a war rav­aging a coun­try that is not even their home.

Now, Beirut seemed as rel­e­vant as Ode­sa for this col­umn. The Lebanese cap­i­tal has recent­ly been through so much hor­ror and still hosts many refugees from neigh­bor­ing coun­tries. No cri­sis should take prece­dence over oth­ers, even though west­ern media con­stant­ly cher­ry-pick what they choose to headline.

And this month, while the events were unfold­ing in Ukraine, the sit­u­a­tion in Lebanon kept bring­ing deep wor­ries. So, Sama’ Abdul­ha­di, the bril­liant Pales­tin­ian DJ men­tioned in the first episode of this music col­umn, planned a series of events in sup­port of the cit­i­zens of the city, with Jad Taleb, Sam Karam & Tryan­gle­man and Res­i­dent Advi­sor, called “ Bring Back Beirut.” Two musi­cal fundrais­ers were sched­uled, in Paris and in Lon­don. First at Le Sacré, rue Mont­martre, Paris 2e, on March 10; then at Phonox, in Brix­ton on March 12, 2022.

Sama’ Abdul­ha­di has been rais­ing mon­ey for Lebanon for months now. This series of events she’s curat­ed will trav­el to Berlin and beyond, if the pan­dem­ic still allows. The mon­ey will go to Nusaned, a human­i­tar­i­an, com­mu­ni­ty-based vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tion, based in the Lebanese cap­i­tal, donat­ing 100 per­cent of the book­ing fee. The series is sched­uled to cul­mi­nate in a free, large-scale event in Beirut itself in late 2022.

No need to stress how impor­tant music has been for peo­ple in need through­out these past cou­ple of decades of hor­ri­ble human­i­tar­i­an crises. Musi­cians have often been the first to start fundrais­ing, though some of the first to be strick­en by the pan­dem­ic as well. Sama’ is no excep­tion to this fab­u­lous rule.

“Lebanon is cur­rent­ly in the grip of one of the worst eco­nom­ic crises in the world,” she wrote in her pre­sen­ta­tion of the events. “Elec­tric­i­ty, water, food and med­i­cine are scarce; there has also been a mon­e­tary cri­sis aggra­vat­ed by hyper­in­fla­tion for com­modi­ties. Beirut is wide­ly regard­ed as the most impor­tant club scene in the MENA region, and despite the cri­sis caused by the 2020 port explo­sion, arts and cul­ture are alive and fighting.”

Fight­ing is the key word here. Fight­ing back, resist­ing and tak­ing action, instead of feel­ing des­per­ate. In the words of the Russ­ian punk singer, Pussy Riot’s leader and anti-Putin activist Nadya Tolokon­niko­va, speak­ing to the Guardian, “at a time like this, only activism will keep you sane.”

In the same way, one of Ukraine’s most famous musi­cians, Svy­atoslav Vakarchuk, leader of the group Okean Elzy, also a for­mer politi­cian and now an activist against the war, has been vis­it­ing the front­lines to see troops and hos­pi­tals. Vakarchuk is very active on social media to bring aid to his people.

Sama’ Abdul­ha­di, whose career explod­ed via a Boil­er Room live broad­cast on the streets of Ramal­lah in 2018, “chose the char­i­ty Nusaned to be the recip­i­ent of the funds because it is a com­mu­ni­ty-based, human­i­tar­i­an, vol­un­tary orga­ni­za­tion, and is not aligned with polit­i­cal fac­tions or reli­gions. It is based in Beirut and close to its people.

“I am launch­ing the ‘Bring Back Beirut’ ini­tia­tive to help Lebanon get back on its feet,” Sama’ wrote. “Beirut needs us! The region is still destroyed in the after­math of the 2020 explo­sion. Beirut is my sec­ond home; it’s the place where I found myself in music and where I found my free­dom. It’s the least I can do to help bring the sit­u­a­tion to light.”

Like Sama’, mil­lions of Pales­tini­ans and oth­er refugees have called Beirut a sec­ond home, and it’s cur­rent­ly left behind. It’s not in the head­lines any­more, let alone on con­stant rota­tion on main­stream tele­vi­sion channels.

Sim­i­lar­ly, in so many con­flict and post-con­flict zones — in Kenya, in Liberia, in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, in Cen­tral African Repub­lic, in Afghanistan, in Yemen, in Syr­ia, too many refugees and wars are now being aban­doned by the media. What a relief it is that these musi­cians haven’t for­got­ten them… In the same way, let’s hope Svy­atoslav Vakarchuk and the Ukrain­ian refugees won’t one day be forgotten.

Originally published at https://themarkaz.org on March 21, 2022.

--

--

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Melissa Chemam

Melissa Chemam

Freelance journalist/writer, I’ve reported in 30 countries for the BBC, CBC, DW, magazines, on African-European relations, social change, arts, music & politics