A conversation with a musician building Beirut

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I’m hesitant to shave my beard at home. The electricity isn’t sticking to its usual rationing schedule, and we’re having sudden cuts throughout the day. This means I may be coerced into a fashion statement of asymmetrical facial grooming that I am not interested in.

Coercion isn’t something new to anyone living in the Arab world. Within our obvious diversities, this is an area where social, economic, religious and philosophical censorships are the common abusive denominator. Although censorship is our household staple, it’s still comical that it is also in this region that theories of Darwinian evolution are ultimate taboos. It’s comical because we always seem to find ways to adapt our normality into practical abnormalities that we should have set these ‘sinful’ theories free for humor’s sake.

We often find ourselves changing ourselves to cope with mundane absurdities, me sporting this beard for instance. They’re little things that accumulate into an overall sense of helplessness. The sheer concept of not being able to plan ahead is enough to blast any sense of control over our lives. I had told a man working on an interior renovation site I am handling to come to work after nine in the morning, right after that day’s three-hour power cut. The electricity bid us farewell around quarter to ten and I had to head towards him to soothe his pain with mine.

We have been working together for less than 48 hours, and we haven’t had time for a proper conversation yet. This gap in the system seemed like a good place to start. Azad, a Kurdish man in his fifties had left Syria a year ago. In his past life, he was a musician, a Buzuk player and teacher living in Damascus. He left because “although there’s relatively no violence in Damascus, no one wanted to listen to music anymore.” Azad smoked his cigarette and sat on an upside down empty plastic barrel of paint unanimously used as the construction worker’s chair.

While struggling to make a living in Lebanon through his music, like most of his Lebanese counterparts, he has succumbed to different side jobs including this one. It must not be that interesting for a fifty-year-old musician to suddenly become at the bottom of the food chain in a foreign country. Although you might come across some Lebanese people calling Syria “al-Shaqeeqa,” meaning “the Sister,” the majority looks down on its people.

It was funny to hear Azad wonder how we put up with living here. “Syria is dying, but what’s Lebanon’s excuse? How do you people survive this?!” he asks as he goes on and on about taxes, work permits, politics and poverty of his new neighborhood. Blank-eyed, he told me about how he struggled to help his wife get an abortion, and rumors about a fishy 300% income tax for a foreign musician like him working in Lebanon. He knows that most people look down at him, but he tries to avoid it getting to him as he reminds himself of his portfolio of past accomplishments. As we plan a small jam on site with his fellow construction workers, one of which is apparently a great vocalist, the electricity comes back on and each of us gets back to work.

This was probably one of the most interesting of the recent surprise cuts. It takes a glitch in the system to be able to see things outside the cyclic pattern of each of our personal lives. We might have more glitches than we can handle, but it’s always interesting to see the world from a different angle. I have the luxury of working with construction workers on a regular basis and it’s always a thrill when our professional relationships suspend momentarily for a sneak peak into each other’s lives.

The construction and demolition of our cities is predominantly the product of the work of these men in the foreign labor force. The majority of Lebanese citizens still look down at the people building their houses to the extent that one might think they don’t consider them as human as they are. The gap between the people sharing this land is far worse than any of our glitches. It’s not something we can lament as a product of our failing infrastructure, but an active aggression from our end against a number of people preventing them to be human.

Whether it’s the dilating amount of Syrian refugees in Lebanon or the ones already living in here for work, there is an ongoing monstrosity stopping them from pursuing life decisions they are trying to make within exceptionally disastrous circumstances. Both directly and indirectly we’re relaying our sense of helplessness onto them. As we remain unhappy with our status quo, it somehow boils down to the fact that if we can’t be more human with people sharing (and sometimes building) our cities, how can we expect these cities to be more human for either of us?

Raafat Majzoub is an architect, author and artist living in Beirut.

Comments

hey man sorry to hear about your loss of electricity.
how about some spark
the good stuff that comes with rain

i got some spark to spare

I am a big fan of Max Keiser & Stacy Herbert
Do you ever watch The Keiser Report - a bit of truth & reality.

Raafat,
Mexico
Brazil
Chili
are booming economies today - business has left western greed & gone to user-friendly.
Cuba is up & coming......the place is in ruins....imagine what a young & enthusiastic architect could do there if only he was given a chance.
An adventure......& a change to build a reputation ?

Raafat Mjzoub .....please to google
portable solar panels - click - images.
On the black market you can get anything - they will probably be much cheaper on your side of the world.

It is that they hang on to it all because it is their bread & butter & even if the face of positive proof.
"conspiracy theory," they shout.
" am not yet convinced."
"the jury is still out on that one."
"I am skeptical."
& on it goes.
"let go you bastard, can't you see it does not work, let go."

The trick is to hang on, at least until tomorrow, for it is after all, a new day & each day, one at a time.
The winds of change are blowing fiercely around our planet. Yesterday did not work out as it should have, as we had hoped. Today, yesterday is falling apart right before our eyes...........hooray. They think that they will live forever & carry on as they wish. You will live to dance at their funeral. Look back in time & see the great empires that have fallen & been carried away by the elements, a mere ruin to wonder at.
To get an idea of Lebanese music I looked at some Lebanese weddings on youtube - your people surely do love to celebrate.

Where is the picture of you & your beard ?

Richard Dawkins "selfish gene theory" could in fact be, an unknown to us as yet, parasitic infestation, not unlike Toxoplasma Gondii - did you know that ?
Ask around & see.

I wouldn't worry about Darwinian evolution to much Raafat, it was a revolution in it's time - 100 years ago - & indeed academia still hang on to it for dear life.
But physics has moved steadily forward over the years & we know just a bit more, so as to suspect that Darwinian evolution is not that relevant in any significant creation in the universe, after all.
Organized religions are also left wanting. Alas, we have painted god with the brush of our ignorance. Once there was a little old man up there somewhere & we have an answer for everything.
After all mankind, having realized the state of evolution & made the atomic bomb - we know it all. But do we, when each day we discover something new.
For if we believe that god created the universe therefore we know that he is the ultimate scientist - the genius.
And we know nothing of his creation - yet.
Time stops for no man, neither does enlightenment, if you care to look around.

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