26 August 2008

Alternative in all but substance

Posted in Lebanon Diaries tagged , , , , , at 2:54 pm by lilithhope

Last weekend was my penultimate one in Lebanon before embarking upon a “Beirut to Beijing” overland trip, which is due to begin in mid-September (I intend to document my travels on this blog, so stay tuned!). Appropriately, the occasion was rendered more memorable by a psychedelic trance music festival, Forestronika, that took place up in the Chouf mountains, at the (apparently) eco-friendly camp-site, Eco Village.
I had been looking forward to this weekend for a while: in my mind, it represented a last moment of indulgence release before assuming the responsibilities of packing my backpack and setting out on yet another nomadic ramble across this vast planet… (For some reasons, contrary to other times in my life when I have gone traveling, this impending journey does not seem like a release. Obviously, the prospect of traveling into Iran, and through Central Asia in order to cross into Xinjiang, China, is a highly thrilling one, but it does not fill me with as much giddy anticipation as one would expect… )

So this weekend: I imagined that Forestronika would be the Lebanese equivalent of Glastonbury, complete with organic food, wooden cutlery, rhythmic beats, live impromptu jams floating up from here and there… How far off the mark I was!

First of all, there was the tedious homogeneity of the music. Ok, yes, it was an ELECTRONIC music festival, specializing in psytrance, so obviously I didn’t expect anyone to be getting on stage with an acoustic guitar and a harmonica. But on Friday, apart from a great drum and bass set, the mediocre and boringly repetitive psytrance beats continued unabated throughout the night, all the way into the morning, and by Saturday noon the diabolic pulsating was showing no sign of relenting! So, at 12 when I stirred from a 4 hour sleep, keen to munch some carrot cake and sip a coffee against some soft chill out tunes in order to recover from the previous night’s excesses, the hard core trash trance was hammering my already hammered brain into nauseous pustules of insanity… How NOT to cure a hangover?

Apart from the music, I was disappointed to see that no activities had been organized. With a venue like Eco Village, which boasts fruit orchards, rock-climbing, sandpaper toilets and other nature-friendly characteristics, one would think that, similar to other music festivals, the virtues of engaging in eco-friendly activities would have been promoted. I imagined workshops on how to grow your own organic fruit and veg, or information encouraging people to recycle at home (recycling is a quasi-alien activity in Lebanon: when my Significant Other recycles our glass bottles in the bins down the road, the nearby army personnel look on with a mixture of amusement and disbelief). However, instead of those activities, there were generators spouting thick, black smoke into the air, limited recycling, NO ashtrays, and more generally no attempts to fuse the alternative music scene with an alternative lifestyle scene (see here for a Daily Star journalist’s regurgitation of my ideas about this; yes, ‘tis I that vacuous “one partygoer”).

This joined in with a broader failure that left me dissatisfied with the festival: the sense that a potential platform for forging a deeper sort of alternative identity had been sorely missed. More precisely, I experienced none of what I would call the ‘festival ethic’, one of creating a fun, community- and learning-centred environment. An environment in which music is a driving force for not only partying, but also the nexus for being part of a larger group that attempts to disassociate itself from social norms in more ways than just loud music and long hair; namely, by imparting potentially ‘alternative’ values: ecological awareness, non-violent protest, direct action, communitarianism.

Obviously, the meaning of ‘alternative’ will change from one place to the next. The best example of this is the fact that Glastonbury, once a small-scale hippie bumpkin fest, is now the most popular weekend in the U.K., attracting well over 100,000 people. But although Glasto has made the shift from ‘alternative’ to ‘mainstream’ (like so many before it: Che Guevara, the kuffiyeh, punk…), the sort of socially responsible ethics that it is expounding would be quasi-revolutionary here in Lebanon, where only rarely are people capable of thinking outside the confessionalist box.

I suppose the crux of the issue has to do with the reluctance of the Lebanese who are active in the alternative scene to consider themselves as the basis for some sort of civil society that could potentially shift identity away from those of creed or sect that ruthlessly dominate here. Instead of seeing an attachment to underground music as a gateway to forging a different social identity, it seen as a complete escape from the factors that define Lebanese identity. Therefore, the potential platforms for manifesting social discontent or asserting a different sort of identity from the mainstream Lebanese quagmires are engaged in with a certain shallowness, a frivolity, a reluctance to push the envelope too far. That attitude could be summed up in a phrase that was included in Eco Village’s “Rules and Regulations” notice that was posted on the inside of our (kindly shared) mud cabin:

“Rule 1: No Politics”.

Literally, before any mention of sensible waste disposal, noise, fire hazards or other potentially dangerous practices, the activity that was prioritized as being of most threat was political discussion!

Admittedly, perhaps my own analysis is symptomatic of that relentless desire to link everything that occurs in Lebanon with politics (I have previously even linked the weather to politics… perhaps it is pathological. Those who party party hard hard hard in order to distance themselves from such an inextricably political existence could, legitimately, hound me for once again falling into the everything-under-the-lebanese-sun=politics trap. In my defense, I just wish to raise the question of why the Lebanese underground has not assumed counter-culture characteristics, as so many other movements have done in the past: the hippies with their civil rights and anti-war agenda, les 68-ards with their workers solidarity, the punks with their anti-establishment rebelliousness. Even the rave movement of the late 80’s early 90’s had an element of rejecting private property and reclaiming public space to it…

But perhaps it is me who has to modify my analytical lenses. Perhaps, in a country where every single aspect of life is mired in politics, the act of pure rejection of politics is in itself the height of revolt. In Lebanon, being a-political could be construed as the most brazen act of dissidence…

And maybe it is. But the feeling that I am left with after last weekend is one in which Lebanon’s nascent alternative community is spending too much time on the dance floor and not enough time creating a counter-culture identity that could be the beginning of solving some of this country’s problems. With a little less intoxication and a little more well-placed dedication, the potential for subversion is indeed fertile.





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