This summer has been super productively spent gigging and recording. I had my first single with David Pastor in June (check it out here), and later with the wonderful Emoción, we finally recorded our first album together between London and Germany. This is the second summer in a row where I tour with them and it’s always such a humbling and fun (yet exhausting) experience. Sharing so much time in very close quarters with a group of very strong characters and personalities can be quite stimulating and challenging. And I love every bit of it, the good, the bad, the ugly, the gorgeous, the creatively impressive and the creatively-sucky-we-absolutely-need-to-talk-about-this-and-veto-it-without-hurting-your-ego kind of moments…
But this post is about one particular instance of this entire trip.
On July 27, we were performing at Riem Kulturetage, a cultural center in Munich. Before our scheduled concert at 20h, we were able to secure a slot at 16h to perform a set to an audience made up of immigrants and Syrian refugees. See, this wasn’t a charity concert where ticket fees go towards helping refugees. It was for refugees. They were the audience. I had been thinking about this since I got the news a couple months before… and man, did that take me back to the past…
You see, I’ve been on that side of the world stage. The side where you only exist as part of a larger group, where everyone seems to overlook you. Where you’re just another face in a sea of faces, and no one seems to want to take the time to look at your features, personality, dreams, hopes, fears, memories, pet peeves. Where people on the other side seem to forget that you have a favorite song or color or dish, that you have your own memory of what grandma’s house smells like, of what your first day at school or your first kiss was like.
It took me around 30 years to start talking about my experience of the war as a child. I had silenced the memories, the sounds, the smells, days and nights without water or electricity, the radio newsflashes, the names of all the politicians and world leaders who were fucking up our lives and deciding our fate with every whistling bomb that fell just next door, or sometimes on our floor…
This post isn’t about growing up in the war… Or maybe it is…
It’s just that during this Kulturetage concert experience, looking at these faces, eyes full of stars and hope, smiles, when they understood what I said, tears, when they heard a song I had specifically translated to Arabic for that particular concert… I saw who I used to be…who I might have still been today, under different circumstances, or if my passport had had the ‘wrong’ color or birth country on it. Seriously, world? Really?? Haven’t we learned anything in the last 50,000 years?
I of course, got the usual request to sing some Fairuz. This used to annoy so much, when I was younger. I never understood why, when audience members heard I was Lebanese, they’d immediately jump to ‘You’re from Lebanon! Well, then, why don’t you indulge us with some Fairuz’? when I spent so much energy trying to convince them it’s not what I do, that I’m a fully ‘Western’ singer… I only get it now, though. Hearing someone from the same country or a neighboring country sing in their mother tongue was only a way for them to reconnect with home… home.. the idea of a place that probably only still existed in their minds… a mere construct of distorted memories, melancholy and saudade… a place they were probably never going to go back to….
Why did I ever feel so offended and insecure about my roots?
During the Lebanese civil war, my only means of escaping the reality of the bombs was through the tv screen and the radio. I’d binge watch Chantal Goya shows, sing along to all her tunes, and dream of being with her on stage, creating and unveiling this wondrous world of fairies, cartoon characters, all kinds of animals that always won against the mean humans who were out to harm them. There was so much poetic justice in Goya’s shows. No one was corrupt, and if they were, they rightly got what they deserved.
Trees, birds, rabbits, cats, everyone was quirky, funny, sweet, and they could all SING. They all made me sing. Chantal Goya is the first person who taught me that art is the most powerful weapon against the ugliness of this world. That art is a magic wand with which the artist reinvents and recreates worlds that are different from the one we know. Art became this super power I wanted to possess, and thankfully, did…
I love that I can connect with people through singing. I love that vocals, more than other musical instruments , carry a more direct and honest set of feelings, emotions, empathy and compassion… until this year, I had never understood or grasped the extent of the responsibility that falls on every one of us to do at least some good in this world, by spreading our talent. And if we can’t do any good, at least, we can make the world a little more beautiful for the people who come to support us and experience our work…
I got a first hand experience of that responsibility and connection on July 27. When I faced these people who were all someone that I once was. These people whose shoes I’ve walked in. Because I knew the courage, the savings and paperwork it took my parents in order to pack our bags and leave our home, our country, to go start a new life on an island where we didn’t speak the language. An island where we had no family members waiting for us at the airport. An island where our family was significantly reduced to just mom dad, my brother, my sister and me. That was it. No cousins to play with, no uncles, aunts, grandma or grandpa. We had to start from scratch. Only now am I able to grasp just how hard that must have been for my parents. the pressure and responsibility of feeding 3 kids, putting a roof over our heads. Learning new skills or simply applying for jobs they had zero experience in, just to be able to make rent and put food on the table.
What ensued was a set of marvelous years where we all grew up and grew close. Our bond and love were strong as a rock. My friends were from all 4 corners of the world - my school was tiny with the best education I could hope for. My parents both became teachers - excellent ones at that - and we had an amazing quality of life where we were able to finally shelf our war memories and create new ones where the main protagonists were the sun, the beach, the ice cream truck, the neighborhood pizzeria (I had my first pizza at age 12), the smell of coffee which we, Lebanese, as well as the Greeks and the Turks keep claiming is ours…. I’ll never forget that smell. It had cardamome in it that first morning (my mom couldn’t find the regular kind at the store), and I remember thinking it smelled like freedom. It smelled like the sun. It was coffee they weren’t going to drink while listening to the news bulletin in literary arabic, blabbering on and on about the same stuff, blurting out the same names and the numbers of casualties on the ‘khtout el tamess’ or Sodeco or ‘Ring el mot’…all within a 1km radius of where we lived in Beirut.
A lot of other refugees aren’t as lucky as my siblings and I were. We were truly blessed. Will these children I saw in Kulturetage that day grow up with the same blessings my family and I had in Cyprus? Will this new foreign country ever feel like home to them? Will they become true full fledged citizens of this country their parents chose for them? Will they understand that this is the only future their parents were able to provide for them? Will they ever grasp just how fortunate they are, growing up away from the bombs, the violence, all this death? Simply having the chance to actually grow up?
Warsan Shire’s words have never rung truer:
‘No one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
and even then you carried the anthem under
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.’ *
*Full poem here.