Credits: Light shining on rock formations during Resonate by The Ballroom Blitz, The first 2 day solo outdoor festival. Feytroun, Lebanon, 2022. Photo Courtesy of Stephani Moukhaiber.
Feytroun, Lebanon, Summer 2022. Somewhere in between the region’s most amazing rock formations with mere hours separating us from sunrise, an arm extended itself over the crowd of dancing people and passed me what looked like a lollipop. Dazed and confused, I grabbed and opened the strawberry Chupa Chups. And then came along the sugar rush I didn’t know I needed to make it past sunrise.
This was my first night out like that in Beirut since I had left it a decade ago. My body, mind, and soul were vibrating, moving along with the DJ’s beats. As adrenaline rushed through my veins, I couldn’t believe I had missed out on this feeling for 10 years. I felt free and alive, surrounded by strangers that oddly seemed like longtime friends. There was a special kind of energy flowing among the partygoers: people exchanged smiles as they bopped their heads to the music and took care of each other on the dancefloor, like how my friend took care of me by giving me that lollipop.
One of my goals for my 2022 trip to Beirut was to get lost in the music and in the party scene to compensate for all that I had missed out on while away. I dove head first into that escapist mentality within my first three weeks, and overindulged in what the scene had to offer me. Upon my return to Montreal, I had many questions about my experience and the environment that I had been deeply entrenched in during my stay. So, I sat down with some of the biggest names in the industry to delve deeper into the multifaceted world of Lebanese nightlife and understand its role in the escapist mentality most Lebanese youth are participating in today.
In a country so small like Lebanon, the different spaces within the art sphere are all somehow correlated and intertwined. Ziad Nawfal, DJ, radio host, music promoter, and producer, explains that both the club and music scene are connected: though they do have the same audiences to some extent, they ultimately are different bubbles as different groups of people founded, nurtured and scaled them. However, no matter how different each of these cliques are, the notions of escapism and hedonism are felt everywhere, just expressed in distinct forms.
Credits: Video Courtesy of Beirut Jam Sessions
Individuals usually tend to ‘escape’ or resort to ‘escapism’ when they are in a constant state of disappointment and/or depression, and decide to occupy themselves with their imagination, entertainment, and even substance use. Hedonism however, is the notion that happiness and pleasure in life come before anything else. In Lebanon’s case, people mostly experience escapism by attending a ‘happening’ party, and in parallel, experience hedonism by indulging in whatever pleasures the party has to offer, from music to substances, in order to numb their anxieties.
Lebanon’s Evolving Music and Club Scene and their influence on the community
In my chat with Anthony Semaan, cofounder of Beirut Jam Sessions, we discussed the music scene in Lebanon, and how it had changed as a result of existing circumstances. Anthony shed light on how the current situation in Lebanon is translated in the content created and produced by musicians and independent artists. “[Y]ou can feel their pain and challenges through their lyrics and music, a lot of it is very dark.”
In the club scene however, escapism took on a different form and this can be seen in the ‘partygoer’ behavior. Whether it be through the (over)consumption of sex, drugs, and alcohol or by taking advantage of the ‘safety’ these spaces offered, people were coming together to feel a sense of belonging and to let go of their stresses together.
The club scene started to form in the early 2000s with The Basement, Uberhaus and B018 Karantina. The Basement hosted not only electronic acts but also regular live bands such as Scrambled Eggs and Mashrou’ Leila. In 2014 folks behind The Basement formed Factory People, a Beirut-based group of artists and music enthusiasts, and did what they do best: cater to their crowd. With the opening of the Grand Factory and other venues, the group has been very successful at defining what dance music and house music looks like in a club in Lebanon, through the creation of recurrent themed nights such as House of Pop, Love Night, C U NXT SAT, Habibi Club, and 2nd Sun. During the October 2019 Revolution, they took a very firm stand and pioneered the movement within their industry. Using all of their platforms they encouraged people to take the streets. This resulted in having to shut down their operations for a while to incentivize their teams to join the protests, all while ensuring pay checks are extended at the end of the month. When speaking to Jade, founder of Factory People, he mentioned that everything they do is very linked to the people around them and reflective of what they need at a given time, which leads club goers to feel more connected to the music and comfortable with the atmosphere in their venues. Their spaces were unfortunately completely damaged by the August 4 Blast and are still under reconstruction, but will be opening their doors again very soon. With the reopening, Factory People plans to relaunch community driven initiatives such as BBX, an artist residency program that consists of a series of workshops and competitions taking place across different clubs over a three month period. The winner of BBX will get to travel to Berlin on all expenses paid trip and produce an album with a renowned German producer. On January 27th, another exciting concept is launching, Friday Night Live, a weekly concert series supporting local bands at their venue Reunion.
The Ballroom Blitz, another top underground landmark in Beirut, also invested in artist development and became one of the most ‘happening’ places in the city. “Clubbers don’t have a lot of money to come to club events, sometimes they can’t afford to drink, but because you’re not in control of anything in this country, the only thing that resonates with you is the now and hanging with people that are like minded. People are ultimately searching for a place to belong, and they don’t want to be alone. More often than not, clubs offer that,” says Moe Choucair (AkA Bakisa), cofounder, director, and resident DJ at the Ballroom Blitz. The Ballroom Blitz is thriving at showcasing local talents by reinvesting in the community and by making their venue an open space for artists from different collectives to rent the space and use it at lower costs. According to DJ and producer William Mahfoud, more commonly known as Rise 1969, “the Ballroom Blitz has been doing a great job at keeping prices relatively low while also providing quality underground talent.
The Current Situation’s Impact on the Music and Club Industry
When trying to understand the effects that the recent events in Lebanon have had on the industry, I quickly started to see the changes towards community engagement on all fronts, even amongst the biggest competitors in the industry. Jana Saleh, music producer, musician, and DJ, explains how it wasn’t just the revolution that brought people closer, but the Beirut Blast even more. The blast affected the entire scene, because it happened where the recording studios were located and where most of the musicians and DJs lived. The results of this horrific event created a sense of unity and community, and led to fundraisers being launched. Saleh noted that “competition in the industry decreased, people were starting to collaborate with one another, things calmed down on the ego side, and rivalries were let go of.” This engagement also opened a lot of doors for representation and brought a new progressive wave to the center stage. Both Jana Saleh and Rise 1969 mentioned how the revolution prompted conversations about what it means to be a woman and to be queer in our society today. “I do have hope for the scene here: LGBTQ rights have improved over the past 20 years, and substance abuse laws have been loosened. There’s a lot to talk about,” says Rise 1969.
The October 2019 Revolution and the Beirut Blast had major impacts on the club and music scene in Lebanon. Not only did the longing to escape increase but it also morphed, specifically in terms of the politicization of the dance floor. Because people in Lebanon have quite literally nothing left to lose, they are redefining what escapism is on their own terms. Clubs are taking on the role of being the safe spaces people seek to surround themselves with others who share the same values. They have become environments where individuals find peace and harmony in their differences and help translate these new understandings of others and propagate them across different communities. But most importantly, they still remain venues where folks indulge in all kinds of pleasures that these moments of euphoria include: great music, alcohol, drugs, and a whole lotta love.
The Reality check
The common denominator with every person I spoke to about escapism and its relation to Beirut’s nightlife is that in a country like Lebanon, more often than not, you’re going to have at least one drug or alcohol-induced night. While this does not apply to everyone living in Lebanon and while partying has been normalized as a scapegoat, we should face the facts that drugs and alcohol have joined the party too and have become, in one way or another, ‘mainstream’. From what I’ve seen through my own partying adventures, hash, weed, and/or all the beautiful letters of the alphabet are served on a silver platter, [almost] any day, any place. In speaking with Bakisa, we shared the same views on how alcohol consumption seems to have decreased due to its affordability, which consequently led to the country being flooded with drugs instead. “People are numb, and things are more relaxed, but not in a good way,” says Bakisa. He’s absolutely right, but what can we expect after all that they have endured? As Rise 1969 puts it, “here in Lebanon, there is always this energy you rarely find abroad. I think it has to do with the fact that we never know what will happen tomorrow. We might wake up to gunshots and bombs any day, and it’s almost a widely accepted truth that investing in Lebanon is a fool’s dream. Kind of like YOLO (You Only Live Once) culture, but way darker.”
In a country with no proper government infrastructure to address mental health, there are bound to be more places to let all the darkness of the past three years go through different means. Substance overuse and abuse has subtly become normalized, being woven into many people’s routines as a means to escape life in Lebanon, if only for a few hours. But this begs to ask a question — at what cost?
When I set out to write this article, I didn’t realize the million-layered onion I was peeling. One of these layers spoke to me louder than the others. It’s the community feel and togetherness that the three stooges in Lebanon bring to the table. Never did I think that I would find myself feeling such a heightened sense of belonging on these dance floors.
It all started with a lollipop. To the simple eye, it was a small piece of candy that could be purchased from any mini-market on the street. To me, it was much more than that: that lollipop represented support, community, and the safe space I longed for to escape, to be, and to live.
In Beirut, I saw dance floors roaring with escapism but people escaped alone, together.
Acknowledgement: This article would not have been possible without the support of Ziad Nawfal, many thanks and big hugs.
Stephani Moukhaiber is the Publisher of Al Rawiya. After living abroad for 10 years, she co-founded Al Rawiya as a means to offer the Lebanese diaspora engaging, independent and accessible content that fosters connections between them and their homeland. Stephani is also a seasoned Human Resource Strategy Consultant and currently works at Canada’s top tech e-commerce firm.