Postcard: Beirut

Despite a recent three-month jihadist uprising, a nine-month street campaign by the Iranian opposition to bring down the U.S.-backed government and rumors of war swirling all around, it’s business as usual in Beirut’s packed nightclubs. The good-looking people in this good-time town have long partied to a sound track of popping champagne corks, clacking high heels and the generic beat of computer-generated dance music–whatever it takes to drown out the beat of Lebanon’s continual crises. But for a relatively small number of Beirut hipsters, there’s another sound track, one that evokes rather than denies the instability of their lives.

Many of them gathered for a performance by Scrambled Eggs, four nerdy-cool guys in tight jeans who strangle their guitars and have onstage seizures as if this were Seattle in the 1990s. “I was locked in a cellar, and it became my shelter,” sang front man Charbel Haber on See You in Beirut Whatever Happens, one of the band’s original songs, which channels the postpunk era of Sonic Youth and the Cure but seems somehow appropriate in the current Beirut setting: a subterranean nightclub called Basement, which coined its slogan, “It’s Safer Underground,” during last summer’s Israeli air raids.

Though war and a stunted economy have soured life for most young Lebanese, Beirut has been home to a small but artistically significant rock scene whose handful of bands, with names like Soap Kills and the New Government, have tried to put this tiny country on the music map for something other than sexy Arab pop divas. They’ve been part of a creative subculture of artists, architects and designers who have tried to reconcile Eastern with Western cultural forms, as well as tradition with modernity.

A foreign visitor might find it strange to discover a rock subculture in the Middle East, but Scrambled Eggs vocalist Haber, a former Catholic schoolboy, sees a similarity between the U.S. in rock’s golden age during the 1950s and ’60s and the Middle East today–sexually repressed conservative societies dominated by religion and an ideological cold war. “At the end of the day, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll means freedom,” he says.

Rock and freedom–if not necessarily sex and drugs–got a boost in Lebanon in 2005, during what outsiders called the Cedar Revolution. Huge crowds gathered in central Beirut to demand an end to the Syrian occupation and the country’s sectarian divisions. But the creative and intellectual frenzy that accompanied the Syrian withdrawal was cut short after the country’s ruling sectarian political class co-opted the Cedar Revolution and turned Lebanon into a battlefield between regional superpowers. Spurred by last summer’s war with Israel and by the current struggle between Iran and the U.S. over Lebanon’s government, talented young people have been leaving in droves. “We’re not a country that can handle big missions,” says Haber. “One side wants us to spread democracy in the Middle East. The other side says that we’re the country that’s going to bring about the downfall of the Israelis and the Americans. They have been pushing the country into a state of survival, and in a state of survival, art doesn’t survive.”

Haber’s lyrics, which focus on his “entourage of completely wasted people,” reflect what it’s like to live in a society fraught with uncertainty and violent change. One song, Let It Go, is both an exhortation to ignore one’s mounting problems and an elegiac farewell to the city’s golden moment that followed the Cedar Revolution. “It’s an Arab thing,” explains Haber. “They always go back to the ruins and cry and remember their lovers. In Beirut it happens every decade–the city is destroyed and then rebuilt. It disappears and then appears. That’s why it’s raw.”

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