We Turn the Page from City to City

By Marcel Khalifé

For the tenth time we are visiting the United States of America, representing our beautiful Lebanon in a mission of art, specifically music. For the tenth time, we are performing in American cities filled with millions who came from the ends of the earth to earn a day's mouthful-which grows ever smaller. Arabs have come from all their various countries, for one reason or another. When we meet with them, they tell us of their toils and troubles, and we bring them messages of our homelands which burden our hearts. No matter how far we travel, our homelands remain with us, and we sing of them, despite the pain and frustration that choke and insult us. It has always been a difficult mission to try to present music that will shed some light in this dark and difficult time of unchecked humiliation.

We travel from city to city like turning the pages of a book. Straight and orderly like a musical phrase, we line ourselves up in the next airport, stacking our passports before the immigration officer who asks us, "Coming from Lebanon?" He examines our eyes and features, carefully inspects our passports and visas and turns to his computer. It displays a list of names under the heading "Al-Mayadine- a touring musical ensemble." The sun-darkened complexions, the dark eyes, the language and the music all fit, but the charge he seeks - the charge that would prevent our entry - is missing. We reach our modest hotel, and each scatters to his room, only to gather again the next day in the concert hall, dressed in black and blue. We are musicians who play for liberty, not as a slogan, but as a reality. A loud first note launches our program, and an attentive audience listens deeply. We flip the page to the next city. Passports are in another officer's hands, and the same questions are asked, "You are from Lebanon, how come? Is there music in your country?" Lined up again, like a music score on a white page, we enter one by one as the computer allows, and head to another simple hotel. More concerts are yet to come. It's all right-tomorrow there will be another airport, and another crowd which will come to express love and support. We turn the pages from one city to the next, and though our mission is difficult, we are certain of our success, for everything is organized to perfection.

That was our American tour in which we presented Jadal, and during which we received the Reuters report of the "charge brought by Beirut's Appellate Attorney General Abdallah Bitar against Marcel Khalifé, and all individuals implicated by a future investigation, for allegedly ridiculing religious rituals in his song Oh My Father, I am Yusif." The charge itself seems ridiculous, as this song appears on an album that was released a year ago, and has been distributed in the Lebanese, Arab and world markets. The lyrics, a poem published in Mahmoud Darwish's book of poetry Fewer Roses (Topqal Publishers, Casablanca, 1986), include a poetic use of a part of a Koranic verse. In other words, music was written to a poem, not to a Koranic verse and, certainly, not to ridicule anyone's religion.

We received the news the day we were scheduled to perform at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. So many concerns filled my head that day: Beirut, the Israeli attacks on South Lebanon, the awaiting audience. I thought of the irony of, accused as I am among my people, facing an audience gathered in an American museum which holds a large collection of precious ancient Egyptian antiquities-transferred there for "preservation," the museum manager claimed.

Physically distant as I was from the accusations, they nonetheless were sufficient to poison my mood with disappointment and to fill me with bitterness. How do I perform for my beloved Beirut, the source of this unfair accusation? According to the Attorney's claim, I am threatened, along with all of those exposed by the investigation, with a punishment of six months to three years in prison. This means that tonight's audience, and perhaps every other audience, is a participant in the crime, for I have no other choice but to end my program with Joseph's cry "Oh my father, I am Yusif!"

It was not easy to perform that night. Nonetheless, with strong faith and a sense of responsibility, we managed to overcome our bad state of mind and remained true to our mission. The Brooklyn Museum performance was our statement of outrage. Music is our only weapon, and it sometimes seems terribly ineffective and weak. One is deceived by the thought of a vast homeland only to be faced with a narrow road, and by the dreams of the individual, only to be smothered by the clan. Touring through this land of modernity, the American melting pot, I thought of our Lebanese clans and religious sects. I have long feared the fate of this world divided by factions, and felt obliged to write music for love, liberty and progress, and for a dream country that is a homeland for Man, rather than for sects and clans. I left the clan and chose the urban life of modern cities to avoid such deceptions. At the end of the night, I looked for a dream that would ease my sorrow, and found it nowhere but in the eyes of my fellow countrymen who fall dead everyday in the downtrodden South of Lebanon.

* * *

We turned the page to the next city, and we met new immigrants. Why do those people emigrate? We wondered. Our question was answered through many stories. This is the land of immigrants. All of those Arabs, dark-skinned and tired of poverty and oppression, came to this remote continent to make a living or to seek freedom. As they spend their lives in toil and hard labor, memories of impoverished homes and inherited struggles fill them with confusion. Lebanese immigrants, in particular, rush here in thousands; one almost begins to think that Lebanon has been emptied of its people, and that authorities there are left governing a void!

With a look of despair on his face, Abu Hani said to me, "Were they to tile the airport with gold for me, I would still not return." How passionate! I marveled. Of course, after a few years he will become homesick, only to spend the rest of his life planning to return, like most of those who emigrated at the turn of the century. In time, his image of home will grow fainter and will eventually melt into a song, or a photo album filled with snapshots of the past: a photo at the marina in Tripoly, another with a girlfriend in Al-Qa'qour, a third of a friend in Jizeen with another who was martyred in Beirut. Many pictures, indeed, but they all fade away as much as speech succumbs to another language when it too leaves the mother tongue. Thus, Abu Hani met us at the airport and asked us with crooked Arabic, "How is home?" He had long been waiting to see us, to take in an aroma of home, and to bring together the Lebanese community which will attend our concert.

As the community gathered the next day, the dream of unity crystallized, only to dissolve again as they dispersed each to his home and busy life. In an attempt to prevent a complete loss of roots, on the other hand, they form clubs and societies which hold community events from time to time and help bring "home" to the land of exile. Unlike Lebanese politics, these activities tend to be prompt and concise, a natural outcome of quick city life.

Later, I ran into Abu Yusif from Rashia Al-Wadi, who asked for an autograph and began to tell his story: "I arrived on a fall day sometime during the Thirties, and here goes another fall without ever going back to Rashia Al-Wadi. I still remember the crazy young man who died climbing Al-Shaikhmountain in the middle of December in order to complete a condition to marry a girl he loved from my hometown. Perhaps I was a bigger fool when I crossed the Atlantic, heading to New York to look for my father. He left my pregnant mother at the end of the First World War to make a living in America. After I was born, my mother died and a relative sent after my father; he never replied. I came looking for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Sixty springs have passed since. How is home?" Then, he invites us for a coffee at his house. With genuine Arab hospitality, the old man serves us his coffee and on the wall of his living room he has hung a map of Lebanon, framed photographs, two swords and a poem about hospitality written in Kufic calligraphy. "This map is all that's left of home. What's left of my life is much less than what has passed," the old man spoke. We turned the page to Boston, where we met a new Lebanese immigrant who had sold his house and furniture in Beirut, quit his job and left for America. "Now," he concluded, "I am looking for a job."

Clearly, immigration did not fulfill people's striving for truth and for meaning in their lives. Meaning could only be found in declaring the truth, loudly and courageously. Relentlessly, the thought of truth throbs in my head, often at a rhythm I did not choose. However, I grasp truth, since it may be the only alternative to the backwardness of our native land. It is no use to try to slip away from such a place-it is a reality that is fused to us despite all attempts to escape to a secure and free life elsewhere. When my fellow citizens ask me about Beirut, they often find my answer confusing and unsatisfying, though analytical and accurate. They want the truth, of which there isn't enough in Lebanon. They want freedom, but that too is suppressed by individuals who seek glory, even on the ruins of their city.

So I mused as we flew at thirty-three thousand feet heading for Houston, another center of Arab immigrants in America. Our landing brought back the earthly concerns and contradictions. After a short break, we started to practice. This time, our program depended heavily on instrumental music which required a specially prepared concert hall. We chose an all-instrumental program to create a new level of awareness and appreciation of musical abstraction. As in the other cities, we brought together a widely-dispersed crowd, made our statement and left. They, on the other hand, came to catch what appeared to be a home-bound train.

On another plane, we turned toward Miami. My middle-aged neighbor asked,
"Do you speak English?"
"No."
"Are you Arab?"

He turned out to be a Lebanese citizen on a short visit to the U.S. In his Lebanese dialect he continued, "Are you Marcel Khalifé?"
"Yes."
"Pleased to meet you, your face looked familiar. We read in the newspapers that they are taking you to court in relation to your recent album ... "
"I too read about that."
"It's a scandal, the Lebanese way."
"That's right, a scandal over a two-year-old song."
"I heard it played more than once on almost all of Lebanon's radio stations, particularly during Operation Grapes of Wrath. Whose poem is it?"
"Mahmoud Darwish's."
"Don't worry, we're all on your side."
"Thank you."
"What are you working on these days?"
"Body."
"Body?!"
"Yes, a lyrical album called Body."
"Is it all love songs?"
"Yes."
"Why love songs?"

We fastened our seat belts as the plane started to land. It shook as it entered a thick layer of clouds. As I was about to answer my neighbor's question, the plane suddenly lurched, causing him to hold his breath in fear. I wished he would continue the conversation, but his face changed color and instead, he smiled with effort and mumbled a few words. After a difficult landing, my neighbor relaxed and repeated his question as he was reaching for his luggage in the overhead compartment,
"Why the body, sir?"
"Because it is the ultimate expression of love, and love is with us everywhere: in the earth and in the night, in fighter's wounds, students protests, and children's eyes. Above all, it is in a woman's body."
"What put you in that direction?"
"The factional war that shattered my soul and left behind its sharp fragments."
"Do you imply all factions?"
"Yes, all factions. Instead, I yelled with a new voice, that of the body."
"Generally, what is the subject of the album?"
"I entered the beautiful world of making love, and drew a picture with my music."
"Do you mean it is morally anarchic? Do you think it will be allowed into the Arab markets?"
"I don't know."
"What if it is banned?"
"Then it is just another banned item that Arabs will enjoy! I believe it will reach everyone, despite any obstacles."

My neighbor bid me good-bye and disappeared in the crowd.

We exited the airport in a drizzly fall night. I walked along, feeling like an overthrown king, leaving behind my childhood glories and the dream castles I built in my hometown Amsheet. I needed a drink and a moment to sit on the beach and contemplate a way to forget what had happened, but I reminded myself of the rest of the tour still ahead. Instead, I looked for distraction in a newspaper.

This article appeared in Vol. 2, No. 11 (September 1996).

Copyright (c) 1996 by Al Jadid


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