Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n' Roll in a Failing State

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Marwan Naamani / AFP / Getty

Lebanese youths party in a nightclub in Beirut.

Despite a jihadist uprising in the north, a political crisis in the capital, and rumors of war swirling all around, it's business as usual in Beirut's packed nightclubs. The good-looking people in this good-time town have long partied to a familiar soundtrack of popping champagne corks, clacking high heels and the generic beat of computer-generated dance music — whatever it takes to drown out the sound of Lebanon's continual crises. But for a relatively small number of Beirut hipsters, there's another soundtrack, evoking rather than denying the instability of their lives.

Many of them gathered last Thursday for a performance by Scrambled Eggs, four nerdy-cool local guys in tight jeans and high-tops who strangle their guitars and have onstage seizures as if this were Manchester in the '80s or Seattle in the '90s. "I was locked in a cellar but it became my shelter," sang frontman Charbel Haber on "See You in Beirut Whatever Happens," one of the band's original songs that convincingly channels the post-punk era of Sonic Youth and the Cure, but which seems somehow appropriate in the current Beirut setting: a subterranean nightclub called Basement, which coined its slogan "It's Safer Underground" during last summer's Israeli air raids.

For the past ten years, Beirut has been home to a small but artistically significant rock scene, where a handful of bands with names like Soap Kills, the New Government and, of course, Scrambled Eggs, have tried to put this tiny country on the musical map for something other than sexy Arab pop divas. As such, they've been part of a creative subculture of artists, architects, and designers who've tried to reconcile Eastern and Western cultural forms, as well as tradition with modernity.

A foreign visitor might find it strange to find a rock subculture in the Middle East, but Haber, a former Catholic schoolboy, sees a similarity between rock's golden age during the 1950s and 1960s in America, and the Middle East today — sexually repressed conservative societies dominated by religion and an ideological cold war. Interviewed last week at the band's studio in Gemmayze, a formerly working-class neighborhood of garages and crumbling townhouses that's become ground zero for Beirut's young and restless, Haber places the Beirut rock scene in a wider Mideast cultural context: "At the end of the day, sex, drugs, and rock and roll means freedom."

Rock and freedom — if not necessarily sex and drugs — got a big boost in Lebanon in 2005, during what outsiders called the Cedar Revolution, when huge crowds gathered in central Beirut to demand an end to the Syrian occupation and an end to the country's sectarian divisions. But the creative and intellectual frenzy that accompanied the Syrian withdrawal was cut short after the country's ruling sectarian political class co-opted the Cedar Revolution, and turned Lebanon into battlefield between regional superpowers. Spurred by last summer's war with Israel and by the current struggle between Iran and the U.S. over Lebanon's government, talented young people have been leaving in droves. "We're not a country that can handle big missions," said Haber. "One side wants us to spread democracy in the Middle East, the other side says that we're the country that's going to bring about the downfall of the Israelis and the Americans. They have been pushing the country into a state of survival, and in a state of survival, art doesn't survive."

The music of Scrambled Eggs isn't overtly political. But Haber's lyrics, which focus on his "entourage of completely wasted people" reflect what it's like to live in a society fraught with uncertainty and violent change. "We do everything as if the world is going to end tomorrow," he said. "The Syrians might come back, Israel might attack, Hizballah might start another war. In a situation like this, you do a lot of self-destructive things." One recent song, "Let It Go," is both a rousing exhortation to ignore one's mounting problems, but also an elegiac farewell to the city's golden moment that followed the Cedar Revolution. Its haunting melody is meant to conjure the orange and violet melancholy of a Mediterranean sunset. "It's an Arab thing," explains Haber. "They always go back to the ruins and cry and remember their lovers. In Beirut, it happens every decade, the city is destroyed and then rebuilt. It disappears and then appears. That's why it's raw."