Culture

An exploration of Lebanese identity

BEIRUT: For Donna Maria Feghali, founder and creative director of Retrieving Beirut, Lebanese identity and culture are nebulous concepts. “What is being Lebanese?” she told The Daily Star. “What is Lebanon? Who are the Lebanese living abroad? Who are the Lebanese living here? Are we connected?”

These questions drive Retrieving Beirut’s latest project, “SotwSoura,” which combines a series of photos by Australian-Lebanese photographer Mary Paula Ibrahim with performances by six bands and solo musicians – staged Friday night at Karantina’s KED art space.

Raised an Australian, Ibrahim was always aware of her Lebanese identity. “You’re conscious of your Lebanese roots but at the same time you don’t understand it,” she said.

“I was the only Lebanese at school, the whole time. I think that changes you. You’re aware that you’re different.”

Returning to Lebanon has been a process of discovery for Ibrahim, made possible by her photography.

“Photography triggers questions,” she said. “When I shoot something I find an answer or it triggers a question.”

Ibrahim’s grandfather was Armenian, and she has spent some of her time photographing the Beirut suburb of Burj Hammoud, which still has a large Armenian community.

Here, she says, “the photographs I’m taking [enable a] discovery of that identity.”

The musicians performing Friday are the subjects of Ibrahim’s photo series. She has spent the past two months photographing each of the six acts for two to three days in the privacy of their rehearsal space.

“I wanted them to trust me,” she said. “I wanted to know their lives at their most intimate moments.”

Shooting the musicians away from their natural performance space presented a challenge that was met differently by each subject.

“Not everyone’s comfortable in front of the camera, I’ve got to be mindful of that when I’m photographing,” she said.

Away from SotwSoura, Ibrahim has found that many Lebanese are cautious around the camera. She has to be particularly careful as she rarely asks for a subject’s permission before taking a photograph.

“I don’t ask when I shoot because once you ask, the photo’s gone, which is kind of risky in a place like Lebanon,” she said. “It’s not to be rude, it’s just for me the magic is the moment, the magic is the pause, the in-between stuff.”

She recalls seeing a boy about 8 years old dancing with his older cousin, a girl of about 16, outside her apartment in Ashrafieh. The boy’s family noticed her taking photos of the children dancing, and came to her apartment demanding an explanation.

Once she had explained her work and why she had photographed the children, the family’s initial hostility vanished. They even asked Ibrahim to send them copies of the photos.

While all the musicians featured in the project are currently based in Lebanon, many of them, like Ibrahim, were not born in the country. Having this in common helped Ibrahim connect with some of the other musicians.

When it came to photographing the Damascus band Tanjaret Daghet, “I kind of related to the fact that they’re not from here,” she said. “There’s that outsider connection.”

Despite the variety of nationalities taking part in the project, Feghali considers it to be very much about Lebanese culture and identity.

“Someone told me, and I always think about it, being Lebanese is not a nationality, it’s a profession,” Feghali said.

“It was very important that there is nothing traditional in the selection but at the same time a lot of diversity – a diversity that anyone anywhere in the world could relate to. This is when you discover there’s so [many] things in common between us even though we’re far away.”

The project’s finale will be as important as Friday night’s concert.

The “SotwSoura” project will relocate to Australia for the 2018 Big Sound festival in Brisbane, including several of the musicians involved in the Beirut performance, as well as Ibrahim and her photographs.

Zeid Hamdan, Tanjaret Daghet and Aya Metwali have already confirmed their participation. For Feghali, the primary purpose of this is to continue the “cultural exchange” taking place between Australia’s Lebanese diaspora and the Lebanese cultural scene.

Ibrahim says she is conscious of an “anti-Middle East” zeitgeist globally, “and in Australia it’s no different.” She hopes that having a Syrian band like Tanjaret Daghet perform will “challenge the Australian people” to rethink their preconceptions, while relocating SotwSoura as a whole to Australia will “bring back to Australia what’s happening here, what it is to be Lebanese actually.”

This stage of the SotwSoura project concludes with Friday’s performance but much of its value has been in its development. The project helped Feghali and Ibrahim forge a productive working relationship as well as a strong friendship, despite their different backgrounds.

“You know when sometimes you have an idea,” Feghali said, “and then you try to execute it, you realize that there’s a lot of like-minded people, they want the same things.”

At this point, it is unclear where the cultural exchange will stop. Big Sound has already expressed an interest in holding the Big Sound festival in Beirut.

“SotwSoura” concerts will be staged Friday evening at 8 p.m. at KED Beirut.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 24, 2017, on page 16.

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