Can Club Music Really Inspire Political Change And Action In Lebanon?

“We’re trying to make the party participate in what’s happening in the country.”
“When you’re in a city like this that needs you to be proactive, because the government isn’t supporting you to, you feel like anything you can do to speak out or send a message, you do.”

When you look at a map of the Middle East, it might surprise you to see how small Lebanon is in the grand scheme of things, given how large an imprint the country has had on the world, and how often it features in the news, both in a negative and positive light. It’s also surprising to see how this country is so nestled into the surrounding conflict.

How has tiny Lebanon survived countless wars? How does it manage to keep ISIS out, when Syria and Iraq are plagued by them? How are young people still able to party all night when their country is falling apart at the seams? How has it not collapsed under the weight of more than a million refugees from Syria and Palestine? Why won’t the government clean up the actual literal rubbish surrounding some of its most beautiful parts? Is Lebanon okay with the spawn of its early century migrants declaring a ban on people from the Middle East coming to Australia, yes I’m talking to you Bob Katter.

I have a personal interest in this topic. I went to Lebanon for the first time in 2013, to visit my grandparent’s villages. I spent a week in Beirut, only to discover it was a ghost town. There were hardly any people walking the streets and the nightclubs were only half filled with people. I’d heard so many stories glorifying Beirut as the Paris of the Middle East and one of the best cities in the world for partying, food and culture. This status still holds, despite the garbage crisis. So what was happening to the city even way back in 2013, when the Syrian war was increasingly spilling over?

We covered the garbage crisis at the peak of a social media campaign and mass protestsagainst the government’s ineptitude at dealing with the piles of rubbish that gathered around the city and their failure to dispose of it, which continues today. Lebanon’s disillusioned youth were fed up.

Now a video from refinery29 has emerged showcasing one young woman who has decided to do something in the face of this bleak outcome for Lebanon. Tala Mortada is an art director in Beirut and a DJ for the Grand Factory. She’s using music to create change. We saw not too long ago another case of a nightclub using its status to raise money for refugees. It’s a brilliant and creative idea.

According to the story:

“Channeling the club’s exuberance to inspire empathy in Lebanon’s nervous climate, Tala and her fans have built a recycling program at the Grand Factory. (It also teaches sustainability practices for the home.) Additionally, they’re running a clothing donation program to help refugee families — collecting second-hand pieces from patrons. Tala’s radical reimagining of the club as a place to foster activism, rather than just an escape from Lebanon’s problems, proves that hope is the greatest engine of change.”

But is hope the greatest engine of change? Or in the case of a divided Lebanon, is it more about unity? Is the greatest engine of change actually exposing the wealthy privileged class in Beirut to the same problems, the great equaliser that is the rubbish crisis? There is a huge divide in Lebanon across class and religion. From the north to the south, this tiny country varies in so many ways. The southern part of the country often falls victim to Israeli aggression, as seen in the 2006 war waged by Israel against Lebanese civilians. Although not everyone is affected by the violence in the same way, the entire country still suffers, whether it’s from attacked infrastructure, a fragile economy and efforts to further destroy a country still rebuilding itself from previous decade long wars.

In Southern Beirut, there’s an area known as Dahiyeh, often described in the media with the nauseating label: “Hezbollah stronghold”. This means that even when ISIS attacks civilians, the media can spin it to seem like the attack is part of the war against a so-called stronghold, as opposed to a terrorist attack on an area of innocent civilians.

The excellent Belen Fernandez writes:

“Never mind that Dahiyeh, while indeed boasting a substantial presence of party supporters, also hosts other Lebanese, Palestinians, Syrians, and others of varying religious and political orientations. The Dahiyeh=Shia/Hezbollah formula fails to account for the area’s smaller Christian population, not to mention the fact that, in many parts of the suburbs, you’ll find more flags belonging to the (primarily Shia) Amal Movement than Hezbollah flags.”

The fact that the humanity and suffering of people in your country can continually be called into question, is alarming at best. They may have different religious or cultural beliefs or economic status, but they are still humans deserving of shared humanity, compassion and assistance where possible. I know this is a hard reality for for everyday citizens to change — but as seen by Tala, you have to start somewhere. Young people across the country should be moved to act because attacks like these, justified by the media’s spin of an area into a war zone, is taking place not even half an hour away from Beirut, where these parties take place.

It’s heartwarming that Beirutis can keep on partying, even infamously during some of the worst wars Lebanon has endured. It’s an inspiring symbol that life still goes on and the city’s inhabitants want to live each day as it comes and make the most of it. Those who can still afford to live like this in Beirut are extremely fortunate and should use their privilege to help those who are still suffering disproportionately. It should take more than problems affecting you personally to be inspired to act, to do more to fix their country even when their beautiful views of the skyline aren’t ruined by the stench of rotting garbage, or because the refugee crisis makes the country impossible to live in. They have to act before the situation spirals out of control. Not for themselves but for all people in Lebanon, even and most especially for the refugees, who didn’t ask for this situation either. Lebanon’s problems can be a great equaliser — rather than ignore the other, they need to think constructively about the next solutions, together.

All Lebanese and all countries in the Middle East need to do more, to speak up against the atrocities when they see it. Arab Christians and Druze most especially need to stand up against Islamophobia and the racism that comes with it. Because those same issues — those who hate Islam and its adherents — are going to affect all Arabs, especially when the language so many countries in the Middle East speak — Arabic — comes under attack too. There are so many examples of how people are targeting and racially profiling Arabs because of this perceived association with Islam and for the mistaken conflation of Islam with terrorism.

Look at this example of a Lebanese rapper mistaken for a terrorist, because he was in the Dahiyeh area. This is how racial profiling works. Just the language of Arabic alone has become dangerous to people. Look at these young Muslims, pulled off a plane because fellow passengers accused them of being part of ISIS, simply because they allegedly saw Arabic text on their phones? Have you ever heard of anything so outrageous? That’s why initiatives like this tote bag are so important in highlighting the increased fear people have of the beautiful Arabic language based on irrational reasons. This affects us all.

I applaud Tala for her efforts, for doing something when so many feel helpless and stuck in a vicious cycle, and for speaking up in a part of the world that is increasingly under attack, for not making it about sectarian differences and just doing whatever can be done to help. But a greater conversation still needs to take place about Lebanon’s future. It’s about time that Lebanon accepted its fate and position in the world. It’s no longer a majority Christian country and its diversity is an important part of its future. Lebanon has survived despite years of chaos and war. There’s no reason it can’t survive this period. But the people need to keep fighting for justice, for action and for each other. We need more Talas, more initiatives from everyday people who have had enough, and more ideas that bring people together.

Here’s a video that, while beautiful, only shows one part of life in Lebanon. The natural beauty and the glamour and glitz. It doesn’t show the people (well apart from a few foreigners in night clubs). The people make up a country, too.

A more inclusive Lebanon must acknowledge all religions and groups, the different way of life and the sanctity of all human life which needs to become more prominent in our conversations. The world needs to do more to help Lebanon deal with the refugee crisis, particularly Western nations involved in the wars that helped create those refugees (or countries like Australia who keep trying to send them back to those countries in contravention of the refugee convention).

I don’t need another list of why Beirut is still the most glamorous and glitzy city in the Middle East, despite calamity surrounding it. Tell me what makes Lebanon strong. The people need to do everything they can to ensure unity and strength in the face of adversity, because their disunity makes them vulnerable. They need to work together.

This article by Sheree Joseph was originally published on The Vocal