Why you should care
Laughing in the face of terror takes nerve and wit. It can be infectious and inspiring.
The power’s cut and it’s dark. The keyboard won’t work, as usual. It’s Lebanon. Far too many people in far too confined a space plug in air conditioners, fridges and televisions, and the power grid sizzles out.
“We play in the evening, even if a bomb has gone off in Beirut in the morning,” says Khaled Soubeih, leader of Al-Rahel Al-Kabir (The Great Departed).
Cigarettes and whiskey, does everyone have some? Soubeih and his bandmates puff clouds of smoke into the rehearsal room. Soon, red glowing dots dance in the dark; glasses clink. And they proceed. The oud, the Arabic guitar, sounds out — without connection to the socket. And the singing starts in earnest — skewering the atrocities of the Islamic State terrorist group, led by the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in a feast of irreverent satire.
Master Baghdadi! You will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other.
Al-Rahel Al-Kabir is Soubeih’s brainchild. The 37-year-old earned his journalistic stripes covering the war in Syria, and its pernicious effect on Lebanon, before shifting his focus two years ago to Beirut’s vibrant cultural scene. And he joined it, hardly anticipating that he would become one of its most important voices. He has a shaved head and a smile that belies the seriousness of his mind.
“We must take advantage of the freedom we enjoy here,” says Soubeih. “It is our duty.”
The liberal Arabic press is already calling the band the voice of a generation — a generation of war-weary young people who want to live without bombs, without religious conflicts, without fear. “Everyone who lives here has lost friends or relatives to bomb terror or the war,” Soubeih tells OZY.
“Master Baghdadi! You will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other,” they cry out in their biggest satirical hit, the “Hymns to the Caliph.”
Fans love it, cheering the six musicians from Al-Rahel Al-Kabir, laughing and laughing, as perhaps the best antidote to mounting fears. In Lebanon, always, the more terrible the dictatorship and more powerless the individual, the more biting the jokes. Al-Rahel Al-Kabir delivers the punchline. It provokes the extremists with the very things they despise: with art, with culture, with the achievements of civilization.
The band’s material plays on what Soubeih knows best, having grown up in Lebanon’s long civil war. The son of an Egyptian teacher and a Lebanese government employee, he was surrounded by the wit of the Egyptian-Arabic dialect and the multiculturalism of Lebanon. His songs play on those elements.
Soubeih doesn’t need the new threat from Iraq and Syria, he explains, as Lebanon’s suffering is already everywhere. The scars of civil war that tore up the small country from 1975 to 1990 haven’t yet healed. Shelled houses in Beirut’s center stand next to construction ruins, which contractors cannot complete for lack of money. Yet in this urban mess, young people navigate a society more politicized and more free than perhaps any other Arabic country.
Our dreams have become nightmares. All that remains for us is our downfall, destruction and idiots.
Freedom aside, war and terror have made a deep impression on the young. “So deep that many flee into extremism,” says Soubeih. For this reason, the band not only turns against Islamists in neighboring states but also the politics in its own country and the sectarian tensions that divide Lebanon: Christians against Muslims, Shiites against Sunnis. They’re deliberately stoked from abroad. Who assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005 is still unclear, although the United Nations report pointed toward the Syrian and Lebanese secret service.
“Our dreams have become nightmares. All that remains for us is our downfall, destruction and idiots,” Soubeih writes for his band.
Is the band in danger? “The frightened sultan stood up and set his dogs upon us,” says one song. The musicians are not naïve. Not everyone in Lebanon likes what they are doing. But as long as the audience laughs loudly and in public, they’re determined not to worry.
The songs from Al-Rahel Al-Kabir are everything the Islamic State group is not: tolerant, clever, happy. Soubeih puts absurd, mirthful words in the Islamists’ mouths: “Because Islam is merciful, we shall butcher and hand out meat. And because we need to reduce traffic, we will blow up human beings.” Soubeih speaks of today as “a surreal phase of humanity.”
Less than 100 kilometers from Beirut, people in Syria are dying, their suffering long since spilling onto the streets of Beirut. More than a million Syrians have fled to Lebanon. Children beg, with the usual words: “I’m from Syria. I’m hungry.”
The terrorists ramble on about how compassionate God is, only to behead someone a moment later.
Most of Lebanon is calm. In August, however, the Islamic State group crossed over the Syrian border and set fire to the refugee camp in Arsal. When the Lebanese army intervened, the Islamists captured more than 20 soldiers. Two of them were beheaded on the spot. Abbad Medlej was a Shiite from Baalbek and Ali al-Sayyed a Sunni from Akkar. Terrorists from the Islamic State group don’t care who they execute.
“The terrorists ramble on about how compassionate God is, only to behead someone a moment later,” says Soubeih. “It’s completely absurd.” The band can only draw attention to the contradictions to prevent the virus from spreading. They don’t even shy away from the Quran. “Why should we?” asks Naim al-Asmar, the singer. One of the lines for which they reap the most applause begins with a quote from the holy book: “There is no duress in religion.”
Are the band members religious? “That doesn’t matter. It doesn’t interest anyone here,” says Soubeih. Religion plays no role, at least not for those who shout for encores in the evenings at the band’s concerts. And the fact that the female singer Sandy Chamoun performs here without a headscarf? An absurd question for young, modern Lebanese. “How else should I perform?” she says, smiling, sipping her whiskey.
“No one should forget,” Soubeih adds, “that it is not the Islamic State alone that is threatening our freedom.” The political leaders of the region are not much better.
Eva Marie Kogel writes for the German newspaper Die Welt.