On Sound, Violence, Postcolonial Legacies and Urban Spaces in Beirut

In this post, Maria M. Rijo Lopes da Cunha reflects on the sonic politics of musical life in Beirut. The piece speaks in dialogue with a sound piece by Abed Kobeissy, ‘The Crusades According to Tamim’, also presented here. Together, these pieces signal the connections between sound and street life, tradition and experimentalism, conflict and coloniality, and how the violence of everyday life in the city becomes a creative resource. These reflections are taken from a forthcoming journal article by Maria, to be submitted in September 2019.

‘The Crusades According to Tamim’, by Abed Kobeissy

This reflection emerges from a series of online communications with Lebanese musician Abed Kobeissy between 2013 and 2014 in which he sent me the sound piece entitled ‘The Crusades According to Tamim’ [1] (الحُرُوبُ الصَّلِيبِيَّةُ كَمَا رَوَاهَا تَمِيم or, Les Croisades Selon Tamim). Kobeissy is an influential musician in the Lebanese contemporary traditional as well as experimental music scene.  We met in Beirut in 2012, when I started fieldwork for my doctoral research on contemporary traditional Arabic music, particularly that which was inspired by the music of the Arab Renaissance period, or Nahḍa (1890-1932).

Kobeissy was, amongst other things, a member of the Aṣil Ensemble, led by ‘ud player and singer Mustafa Said and, alongside a wider group of musicians, music amateurs and musicologists, he was part of the movement I came to designate as the Tajdīd min al-Dakhil, or Renewal from Within movement [2]. This Lebanese-Egyptian-based movement aims to create contemporary music according to the precepts of the Nahḍa era whilst attempting to evade, for ideological reasons, the musical legacies left by western colonialism in the Arab region. It was our shared interest in this contemporary music movement that led to our continued online communication long after fieldwork had officially ended in 2014. But the eerie and evocative piece ‘The Crusades According to Tamin’ requires some further contextualisation.

The summer of 2013 marked the intensification of conflict in neighbouring Syria, leading to the announcement of a proposal by the U.S. and its European allies to carry out air strikes in neighbouring Damascus. Beirut changed. Its streets disturbingly empty from the usual overcrowding of people and cars with its constant beeping of horns and noise had disappeared. Beirutis sheltered in their homes, only venturing out for work or other tasks that could not be postponed. That same day, qanūn player Ghassan Sahhab told me “you cannot make plans in this country; everything may change at any moment”, whilst attempting to reassure me that this was the Lebanese ‘normal’ daily life. That summer, several musicians of the Tajdīd, including Abed Kobeissy, started new musical projects – some of which directly engaged in socio-political commentary. [3]

Faced with the resurfacing of a possible new international violent conflict, these musicians showed a type of ‘cognitive dissonance’ toward the notion of ‘tradition’. In an email exchange, Kobeissy stated: “In music I trust violence more than anything else […]violence being the most present aspect in our cities and daily life”. (Kobeissy 20 March 2013) . Kobeissy’s statement illustrates how Tajdīd musicians strive towards creating and performing music that not only represents or evokes, but actively embodies and efficiently addresses the socio-political context of violent conflict – latent or otherwise – from which it emerges.

Original text:

أوّلُ مَا عَلِمَهُ الناس، مِنْ أَمْرِ غَزْوِ الإفْرِنجِ بِلَادَ الشَّام، أنَّ أسْرَابَاً مِنَ النُّسُورِ رَاحَت تَرْمِي بِخَوَاتِمِ مَنْ أَكَلَتْهُ مِنَ المُسْلِمِينَ عَلَى البِلَاد، وَكُلُّ خَاتِمٍ عَلَيْهِ اسْمُ صَاحِبِه، فَغَرِقَتِ البِلَادُ بِأَسْمَاءِ النَّاس.

Translation (by Abed Kobeissy):

“ُThe first sign that the people of the Sham countries had of the fall of their border cities in the hands of the European [sic.] armies, was when flocks of eagles started dumping over their cities, the rings that were in the hands of corpses of the muslims [sic] that the eagles had eaten, and each ring had the name of his bearer on it, thus the cities drowned in names of men.

Writing by MARIA M. RIJO LOPES da CUNHA

Sounds by ABED KOBEISSY


[1] Tamim al-Barghouti (b.1977) is one of the most renowned contemporary poets of the Arab world.

[2] For further details  see Rijo Lopes da Cunha 2019.

[3] Namely the group called Firqa Rahel el-Qabir who shot to regional notoriety through their online videos of the song ‘Don’t Mixi’.


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