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The Shade of The Cedar Tree - ASHA.FM X HIBA

Updated: Sep 4, 2023


Sounds of Our Past


In PART I of ASHA.FM’s new three-part documentary series 'Sounds of our Past’, Lebanese DJ Hiba presents a touching exploration of a patch-worked sense of Lebanese identity and history which is pieced together, made sense of and embraced through an artistic journey across Lebanon’s rich musical tapestry.


The documentary, made in late 2021, sits in a backdrop of an empowered and inspiring journey channeled through music, which has seen Hiba perform across the UK and increasingly abroad. Following the film’s premiere on ASHA.FM, Cameron Evans (aka Zenrei) sat with her to discuss her work and her thoughts.


Bi’l harb

The root of Hiba’s exploration of her Lebanese identity and history revolves around her experiences of growing up in a Lebanese household outside of the country, an experience many can resonate with - the Lebanese diaspora is in fact larger than the population of the country. Those growing up in the 1990s and 2000s lived in wake of a harrowing civil war which took place from 1975-1990:


“There’s a huge generational gap. During the war, they just had to keep going. My mum’s dad worked three jobs to keep the lights on. They went to the beach though bombs were falling.
When I learned about the war myself around the age of 18, I contrasted the horrible stories I read about to my mum's casual tone. “Bi’l harb” - “during the war”, was a phrase used so much it lost sense and power.”

Exposure through dinner-table discussions on the topic and TV reports led to a quest for understanding. But Hiba’s exploration of Lebanese identity has a different frame to those of her parents, she explains - in common with much of the younger generation and the younger diaspora:


“Music has been my conduit for understanding my parents’ experiences, and the experiences of a country I haven’t stepped foot in. I’ve always had empathy for my mum, and I always will.”

Given these shifting dualities of tone, age and attitude: casual and serious, younger and older, interested and indifferent; how do her loving parents relate to her public-facing exploration of her identity? I pose her the question, half-imagining it may be a bridge for healing and understanding:


“I think there’s elements of resentment there; they don’t understand why I want to go to Lebanon and to see these things. It doesn’t bring me closer to them, really, as I can’t understand their experiences. It just helps me to understand myself.”

She offers a final thought which drives home the generational divides with regard to identity:


“It’s not socially acceptable for my family that I’m a DJ. To them, being here is about my studies.”

Politics of Space


The quest for understanding in the private family and individual space is a huge undertaking, but to take it to a public domain and present this exploration to the world offers different experiences. I ask Hiba about how crowds relate to what she plays:


“Well, I started things like my EHFM show to showcase Arab music. When I was starting out, people approached me who knew nothing about Arab music or that it sounded this way, and I wanted to share it.”

I ask whether she feels appreciated in these performance spaces, and she offers these reflections on some of her negative experiences:


“Not everybody knows about it [the music], which is fine. But not everybody respects or resonates with it either. And not everybody is aware of the space they occupy.”

She offers the other side, too - rare times where music has provided a space to feel unity, catharsis and empowerment, and as she speaks, I can hear her re-experiencing and cherishing these moments:


“There have been events, particularly in Paris and Glasgow, with more POCs and Arabs. And the levels of experience there have been different - a kind of collective nostalgia and experience - and not feeling commodified.”

The Graveyard of Our Dreams


In 2020, Lebanon was hit with multiple crises - an economic crisis, coronavirus, and a huge explosion of ammonium nitrate at the Beirut port whose consequences reverberated throughout the country, literally and figuratively. One reporter in the documentary describes Lebanon as the ‘cemetery of our dreams’. I think of how communes often have the idea of the utopian ideological ‘dreamers’, and the ‘diggers’ who work the land for it to become a reality. Here, the logic is inverted - the diggers are those who destroy the land, making a cemetery of dreams.


Documentary still: excerpt from Télé Liban.

I ask Hiba how the situation feels to her now around 18 months after she made the documentary, given the stalling investigation into the tragedy and her previous academic work, which focused on civil action after the explosion:


“Where there’s tragedy, eventually, indifference grows. My mum went back last year, and it’s depressing. Things are getting worse, and people are becoming more indifferent. People are grieving and leaving.”

Documentary stills showing building damage from the 2020 disaster.

She adds some reflections on the effects of these crises on the Lebanese cultural scene:


“It just seems like it’s getting worse. And that reflects in the cultural scene. The music scene isn’t booming compared to places like Palestine, for example. Everyone left, or they wonder why they do it, and what for, especially as they have no help from the state - Blu Feifer’s [whose song ‘Sint El Ew’ features in the documentary] label, for example, is called ‘There is no budget.’”

The cultural brain-drain is a reflection of a wider feeling amongst younger generations of disenfranchisement, Hiba explains:


“The young are sick of being called martyrs - whether by colonial-sounding news agencies like the BBC, or by our indigenous parties. Our country’s poison is sectarianism and elitism. But the younger generations have access to the outside world, and they have a different perspective. And they have had enough.”

There has been a sense of disillusion for Hiba, too - but a sense of engagement still remains:


“When I was doing the dissertation [on the 2020 explosion], I realised that my dream of a normal experience in Lebanon was a total illusion. But I want to experience it for what it is.”

Later, I am struck by an image which binds those who leave and those who stay; unpacking. The physical act of packing or not packing as a result of hopelessness, and unpacking - both physically and psychologically, elsewhere. The former may not take long - a few days, perhaps, weeks, or months. The latter is a never-ending process which seems to bind both parties in a dance of shattered glass. Hiba offers:


“There is trauma to process, and it’s deep and generational. Mental health stigma is less of an issue for our generation, but we have to work to unpack generations of it, and the generation before is not equipped to help us.”

On the topic of hope, Hiba concludes:


“If I can sometimes have hope, it’s because I’m not traumatised. I didn’t experience these things directly.”

Thinking and Futures


I ask Hiba about how she envisions her future as a DJ:


“I don’t think about the future. I wasn’t raised to. So I don’t know about the DJing. But music will always be with me, and as long as it is, I’m good.”

I note how different Hiba’s engagement with Lebanese identity has been from that of her parents. I ask how she thinks this could affect the identity and heritage of future generations within her family:


“I don’t know how my children would engage with their heritage and identity - we like to think we won’t repeat the mistakes of our parents, but the truth is that we will make our own. I do know that my processing will only continue.”

People Hiba has interacted with in her academic work and people in the documentary speak to the strange liminal state of the diaspora. One respondent called it ‘a toxic relationship’, where everything positive you try to do for the country is thrown back at you. To some, the ‘answer’ and ‘hope’ is in the diaspora, who are ‘holding the trauma’ of many generations.


Given these ideas, I ask Hiba if she feels she embodies the role of a change-maker to some degree, and counterpose this with the elements of self-doubt and legitimacy in her Lebanese identity expressed in the documentary:


“What Lebanon needs is radical systematic change. I can’t do that, as I have no passport. The diaspora who can vote is the future."

However, she does balance this by noting the power of music as a cultural tool, and the importance of culture for driving social change. At the same time, Hiba explains that the diaspora has its own issues, such as feelings of illegitimacy, powerlessness, and romanticisation. For Hiba, music is a form of the elusive ‘answer’ to the identity question that she, like many others, faces. But what part of the answer may lay inside the country’s borders? I ask Hiba about her plans to visit:


“I haven’t been yet, and when I do, I want it to be on my own terms. After the explosion, I realised my hope for a normal experience there was a pipe dream. But I do want to settle down there.”

Such is the interplay between expectations and hopes that plays out across the generations of the land. It’s an interesting comment from someone who was not raised to project into the future.


Later, as I think through and write through the article, I see an image - a cedar tree, the symbol of Lebanon. It casts a heavy shadow over a scarred land. Its dancing branches stretch in different diasporic directions; a cradle, a soft song. I wonder how Hiba will feel when sat under its shade.


If you haven’t checked out Hiba’s documentary yet, watch it here.


Cameron Evans is a writer, poet, and Russian to English translator. He also releases hip-hop as Zenrei. He can be contacted at zenrei.reizen@gmail.com.






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