This Charmless Man

World Music and the church of latter-day orientalists

In the late August heat, the man onstage in the white djellaba and red headdress sang verses into the microphone in a thick, monotone Jazira accent. The lyrics — a simple mishmash of praise and repeated rhythmic phrases — were whispered into his ear by his personal poet, who looked for all the world like a Syrian Mukhabarat, or secret police agent, in his beige button-down shirt and brown polyester pants. Behind them, an electric bouzouki player and percussionist hurled the rhythm up into a crescendo while trying to make eye contact with all the girls, each song more frantic and frenzied than the next. We whooped and stamped in response, each convinced we were doing the dabke the right way, even though no one’s steps quite coordinated with anyone else’s.

It was the last party at Ajram Beach — by day, the sole women’s-only beach in Beirut. The property had been sold the week before to a luxury developer for ten million dollars, and by next year our footfalls would be so many echoes inside the engine-heart of a new complex made, as everything in Beirut now seems to be, for the very rich and the very exclusive.

The man who had brought us here for this final, crowing farewell? Former wedding band leader and current international sensation Omar Souleyman, from Hassake, Syria, performing in Beirut for the first time.

I’d first heard of Souleyman a few months earlier, when I had the chance to meet another pop sensation, a British singer and composer — let’s call him Ethan — who’d fronted two famous bands and who happened to be in Beirut one night in May when a friend of ours casually mentioned that he would be part of the group she was going to meet that night. Did the rest of us want to come?

Did we ever. Three of us trooped along to a tiny bar on Gemmayze Street, a traditional Beirut neighborhood whose arched and curlicued balconies overlook a street level that has become a maze of clubs and watering holes in the last ten years.

The guy from the band looked disappointingly like an older, tired version of a particular kind of track-suited British person I’d seen in pubs all over London. Even when you know not to expect too much from celebrity, you can’t help but look for some of the burnish of the limelight when you see them in person. Although with him it was less celebrity than artfulness that I was taken with — his lyrics seemed to reveal a sensitivity to the world and to people, and I was looking for evidence of it on his face, in his manner.

While the group around him chatted and flirted, Ethan sat by himself in a corner. No one was talking to Ethan, and he was talking to no one. I’d had enough beers by then to think nothing of strolling over and starting a conversation with him — just to be polite.

I opened with, “You seem bored.” Because he did.

“Yeah,” he answered, taking a sip of his beer. “But I’m just always bored. You could say I’m existentially bored.”

I tried not to let any reaction register on my face. Maybe he was playing with a persona. He was, after all, a stranger in a strange land, and he’d traveled to so many different places. Maybe this is how he dealt with all the surplus stimulus.

“So, is this your first time in Beirut?”

He nodded that it was. “It’s really not what I expected.”

I raised my eyebrow into a question mark.

“I don’t know. It’s a lot like England, really. Drinking and bars and pop music.”

I asked him how long he’d been in Beirut.

“One day,” he answered. He said they were in town for only a couple of days — they were passing through on their way to Syria to meet one of his musical idols.

That was the first time I heard of Omar Souleyman.

Every time there was a break in the lyrics, Omar Souleyman would tuck his wireless mic under his arm and clap along to the rhythm, surveying the dancers with an inscrutable expression behind his dark sunglasses. In his traditional dress and distinctive Secret-Service eyewear, he stood in stark contrast, yet was occasionally a perfect complement to, the crowd below, mostly hipsters from the Beirut art scene. After all, there were those among them who wore their Ray-Bans to shield themselves against the glare of the night, and others who accessorized with checkered kaffiyehs — although not around their heads, Bedouin-style, like Souleyman.

Where had Ethan heard of Omar Souleyman? Probably through the same source that brought Souleyman out of his wedding-singer obscurity and into the world-music spotlight: the Seattle-based collective Sublime Frequencies. The group has gone all over the world, recording, compiling, and promoting local musicians from places like Lhasa or Pyongyang, and releasing their music under their own label to an international audience of hipsters and pop-culture connoisseurs in search of ever newer and stranger sounds.

“And so what do you think of Beirut, then?” I asked, still looking for a specific answer.

“Weird,” he said. “I sat on my balcony this morning in front of my typewriter, and I could only write five words. I’m still trying to capture the essence of the city, you know?”

Well, this was something I could have a conversation about. Writing about Beirut — could anything be as difficult as negotiating this city of contrasts without playing into tired clichés?

“I’ve been working here my entire life,” I said, “and it’s still something I don’t think I’m even close to.”

His features twisted into a half-smile of incredulity. “Yeah,” he said. “But it’s what I do.”

I smiled back and turned to talk to other friends who were standing near us. Soon the conversation turned to the upcoming Earth Hour initiative, which asked of people all over the world to turn off their lights for one hour in order to raise awareness of climate change. Ethan poked his head into the conversation, to weigh in on how necessary and important the whole campaign was.

“Yeah,” I said, grinning. “But you know, we do our part here in Lebanon. At least three hours a day in the capital, and at least eight outside it, we don’t have any power.”

Everyone laughed, nodding, except Ethan, who became suddenly animated.

“Oh man,” he said, “that’s so great. You guys are doing an awesome job.”

Apparently the joke had gone right over his head. “Um, no, we’re not,” I said. “It’s against our will, and we all resent the hell out of it. We all have to plan our days around the power cuts, and most people have dirty, smoke-spewing generators to make up for it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” he said. “But someday, we’re going to come and learn from you. Someday, we’ll be coming to you and saying, ‘Show us how it’s done. Show us how you live with this.’”

I refrained from suggesting that maybe the British should try having a civil war or two, or perhaps a bombing by the Israelis, if they really wanted to go green.

At one point, making my way through the dancers for a refresher at the bar, I looked up and saw another crowd on a balustrade above us. Being a women’s-only beach, Ajram is shielded from the streets above by high concrete walls. Beneath them is a balustrade that can be accessed through the fish restaurants on the street level. And there, on that crumbling concrete platform, a whole crowd of Syrian workers — some of them construction workers who’d heard about the coming of the fabled Souleyman, some of them waiters from the fish restaurants in their striped uniforms — were leaping about madly to the sounds of home, separated from us by a perilous drop, by a world of different circumstances; by their endless, thankless jobs-for-a-pittance; and by the $20 cover charge that kept them from officially attending the concert. They hadn’t needed any guys from Seattle to tell them about this phenomenon arriving on the scene. They’d simply followed the rhythm and found their way there and were dancing. Together with us. Separate from us.

One of the organizers climbed up onto the balustrade to dance with them, then came down to talk to one of the Ajram employees. Could they waive the entrance fee for these men and allow them to come down and officially join the party? The Ajram people mulled it over.

“Fine,” they finally agreed.

But not before adding one condition — that the men were not allowed to touch any of the women.

When things wound down at the Gemmayze bar, it was decided we would all head over to a house nearby and continue the party. We walked the two blocks there, chattering all together, forgetting that Gemmayze residents detest the surrounding pubs that have turned their picturesque little neighborhood into a playground of drunks. One woman dropped a glass bottle down on us from the second floor — far enough away so that no one was brained by it, but close enough to make it a terrifying possibility. After that we were much quieter and ascended the three flights of stairs to the apartment in silence.

The space was beautiful — one of those high-ceilinged old houses typical of the neighborhood, with a rabbit warren of rooms all leading into one another. The huge living room had been painted a number of contrasting colors, with large, bold stencils on the wall. At one end, a pool table dominated, and a little stand-alone bar in the middle of the room formed a natural point around which to congregate.

My friend Fadi turned to Ethan, who was standing next to him, and said, “It’s an awesome place, isn’t it?”

“I guess. It’s not really Arabic, though, is it.”

We tried to give him a pass on that one. But then it came up again, a little later, as four of us leaned against the bar, mixing drinks and chatting.

“So,” said Fadi, warming to the futile process of trying to converse meaningfully with Ethan. “I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a really thriving hip-hop culture here. I mean, it’s a small scene, but it’s growing, and there’s lots of bands in Palestine and Lebanon who are using the medium to talk about political issues and issues of marginalization.”

Ethan shrugged. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m not really interested in that. You guys have a lot more interesting sounds you could be playing with instead of copying the Americans and trying to do what they’re doing.”

I had to interject. “What, you’re saying the music isn’t authentic enough and you want the indigenous people to be playing authentic music?”

He visibly recoiled at this, knocking his baseball cap off kilter. I’d finally gotten a reaction. “Nah, nah, nah! I was just saying, you know, there’s a lot more interesting sounds you people could be playing with. A whole culture of great sounds, you know? Why’d you need to be copying America?”

He adjusted his baseball cap so it sat sideways on his head again as we stared at him across the bar.

I guess he meant sounds like those made by Omar Souleyman and his band. I wonder if Ethan got the authentic vision of the Middle East he was looking for when he arrived in Syria a few days later to meet his “musical idol.”

This being Lebanon, we got the story a couple of weeks later via a friend who had been at that historic meeting. A long table was set with plates of mezze, and Ethan took the honored seat right next to Souleyman. An interpreter sat next to them, making conversation possible.

I can picture Ethan sitting there, his head bowed close to receive the words.

“Who are your musical influences?” he asked. Souleyman listened to the question being passed along, and answered the interpreter.

“He says he’s number one. He doesn’t listen to anyone. He’s number one.”

Meanwhile, a tide of laughter swept across the table as people passed something from hand to hand. Did Ethan raise his head in curiosity, waiting for this item to be passed along to him so he could be included in the joke, in the scene of togetherness of all these musicians and producers sitting around a table full of food somewhere in Syria, hoping to collaborate together and bridge the East–West divide through their art?

I wonder what he thought when it finally reached his hand: a cellphone, playing a video of a man fucking a sheep.

Earlier on the afternoon of the Ajram party a friend of mine had lunch with Souleyman and asked him the same question Ethan had asked, wondering if he would get the same answer.

“Who are your musical influences?”

“No one,” answered Souleyman. “I don’t listen to anyone. I just sing the way I was always taught.”

“It’s strange,” said my friend later. “He was talking about how he suddenly became famous, and he seemed to be genuinely surprised that he’d been plucked out of a crowd of others who do the same thing he does — entertain people at weddings. A ‘simple wedding singer,’ he called himself.”

From village weddings where they slaughter sheep and shoot their guns into the air in celebration, where Souleyman’s poet whispered attributes about the bride and groom and their families to include in his recitation; to audiences across the world, playing to far different crowds, like the one at Ajram in Beirut, where Souleyman’s poet whispered to him to remember to praise the beauty of the Lebanese girls and the generosity of the Ajram hosts.

Björk, another celebrity fan of Souleyman’s, has made much of this mysterious collaboration between poet and singer. But it has a history, hearkening to the tradition of madeeh, or praise, an old form of Arabic poetry composed on the spot and performed by court poets for the caliph, sheikh, or other person of nobility kind enough to host the poet. Poets would incorporate their surroundings into their poetry, glorifying the generosity and wisdom of their hosts, extolling the beauty of their women and lands.

Souleyman’s music is a Bedouin version of the dabke, the rhythmic, repetitive music whose traditional stomping dance has a local variation in every region from South Lebanon to Northern Syria and back. Naim el Sheikh and Ali el Deek, also singers from the border regions of Lebanon and Syria, make music very similar to Souleyman’s, and any trip in a minivan across the Western Bekaa guarantees you’ll probably be bouncing across the bumpy roads to the very same rhythms that were reverberating across Ajram that night.

True, Souleyman uses electrical instruments — but so do many other Arab musicians. It is the twenty-first century, after all. Björk has also cited Souleyman’s use of YouTube as a medium to single him out as a particularly modern phenomenon. But is it so surprising that Arab musicians should be using these instruments, these mediums? Perhaps someone should show her the cellphone with the sheep video — would that add to Souleyman’s modern cred, or would it detract from it?

Ethan and his ilk traipse around the Arab world from Morocco to Iraq and back again, searching for a vision, a sound, a party, an apartment, that will fulfill their fantasies of visiting another, exotic realm, of stepping into a painting of Sir Richard Burton’s. While they search for signs of “modernity” to praise — so long as that modernity doesn’t erode the authentic culture they’re so desperately searching for — we sit raptly awaiting their judgment. When their seal of approval — depending, as it does, on previously held expectations and desires — is granted, we can breathe a sigh of relief and think nothing of paying an entrance fee to hear music we’ve heard countless times before on car or minivan radios without it ever breaching our consciousness in the same way.

It’s not that Souleyman’s music isn’t catchy and danceable, because it is. And it’s not that he doesn’t have the charisma and stage presence required of a performer, because he does. It was more troubling that we’d waited for him to be bought, and packaged, and resold to us by someone from outside before we bothered to notice him, to celebrate him.

We danced in a space soon to be excavated to make way for experiences we will barely be able to afford, thrilled with the pop-culture madness of it all, while the Syrian workers stomped their distinctive dabke around us, careful not to come too close to our dancing bodies for fear of being ousted.

Thinking back on it all now, I’m kind of wistful. I sort of wish that Ethan could have been there that night at Ajram. I’m sure he would have been leaping around front and center, pumping his fists into the air and reveling in the fact that he’d finally stumbled upon the authentic Beirut, finally captured the essence of the city.