It has taken years for me to become comfortable with my Lebanese identity. A notable example of this struggle has been my journey with consuming and appreciating Arabic music. “We are so lucky to be Arab,” my partner proudly proclaimed as she closed her eyes and listened to the croonings of Umm Kulthum. Even though we are both Lebanese, I remained silent on the subject. In the early 2000s, when the likes of Nancy Ajram, Fares Karam and Haifa Wahbe reigned supreme, I would be bombarded with their music. Listening to these icons would be unavoidable at engagements and weddings. Although I understood the lyrics, it just sounded like loud noise to me. One song would just blend into another making the night endless. My cousins would try to force me to dance and then laugh at my lack of rhythm. The abrasive notes of “El Tanoura” mocked me.
But in the year 2022, when the first notes of “Li Beirut” escaped Maissa Alameddine’s throat and reverberated through the Utzon Room, I felt a pang in my chest. As one of the lead vocalists of Dandana (meaning ‘to jam or to strum a few notes’), Alameddine was joined by her counterpart Hussein Kahil and a newcomer, Ubaid. It was at the Sydney Opera House that “Li Beirut” opened for an event titled, “Voices for Lebanon”. Alamaddine was there to perform alongside a strong cohort of Lebanese musicians, poets and performers. All proceeds from the fundraiser went towards UNHCR’s efforts in Lebanon to support people in need as the current crisis gripping the country worsens. Hearing Alameddine sing in that theatre room changed something within me. For the first time, I found myself agreeing with my partner and I felt my heart begin to open to appreciation of the music of our people.
Alameddine’s angelic voice is only second to her charm. She has a quiet confidence to her, and her small stature leaves an audience quite unprepared for her large stage presence. I visited Alameddine’s home to speak to her more about the event and about her work, and found myself easily falling into conversation with her, over warm tea, and dark chocolate. I was astounded by the olive trees and areeshi vines she had cultivated in her garden and found myself rapt for attention as she described the way her neighbours came to help her with the harvest. I could see myself being roped in the same. It would be hard to resist her.
“Voices for Lebanon” was one of the highlights of the year for Alameddine. In her own words, “The presence and the togetherness. Being in a space where people are there for a common purpose. For Lebanon. Listening to young people and the older generation as well, it was a cross-generational event.” As a fellow performer at the event, I felt and still feel the same. Alameddine also remarked on how “Voices for Lebanon” allowed her to collaborate with new artists and experiment with her sound. “When we [Ensemble Dandana] do it, we do it with something different. The spaces make us and allow us to reach the community we are part of. Everybody yearns to listen to folk and traditional songs, but not everyone wants to sit in a cafe or a restaurant and partake in shisha or arak. We want to make culture accessible outside of traditional settings.”
Ensemble Dandana is an Arab Theatre Studio (ATS) musical project. ATS is an independent organisation of contemporary artists and creative producers based in Western Sydney. Alameddine has worked alongside creative producer Alissar Chidiac since 2016. Together, they developed the foundations that led to ATS being incorporated in 2019. Part of these foundations was a successful application to “Western Sydney Making Spaces Initiative”, and for both Alameddine and Chidiac, space-making will always be integral to ATS. “Space is so important. Having a space; it gives you permission to create and work.” ATS aims to have critical conversations and creative spaces for Arab-Australian artists to network, collaborate and produce contemporary work. The team has also grown to include other respected SWANA artists, academics, and professionals as their work has expanded across the sector.
As part of their collective work, ATS has always had a clear vision to look at themselves from a settler mindset, and to recognise their own settler-colonial privilege in their work. “At every project we do and where we create, we try to set the bar straight away from a First Nations perspective. We invite a First Nations artist or Elder to inform us of where we are and how we are.” A recent example of this is involving Aunty Rita Wright as an Elder in Residence for a major ATS creative project that has just finished creative development, called “Open Dar”, inspired by the idea of an open village with a focus artistic experimentation, language, and multiple art forms.
Reminding me of the aunt I wish I had had when I was younger is Chidiac. She is eccentric and jubilant, full of laughter but also wisdom. Her expressions and mannerisms are very much like her work; theatrical but meaningful. Even over a webcam, she still commands the attention of the room in all her grainy glory. Chidiac has a solid history of experience within socially engaged creative practice and has viewed the practice from multiple sides: as performer, writer, creative producer, program director, and workshop facilitator. Her background is in community arts and cultural engagement. She understands the power of collectives and what collectives can create together intrinsically. Over the years, she has developed her own brand of advocacy through community and cultural engagement and in curated events. “We don’t do things in conventional ways. We don’t aim to please the mainstream either. We narrate our stories in our own ways.”
ATS’ vision is to be the leading platform for Arab Australian contemporary artists in Australia. They strived to reiterate this mission in a book launch of The Diasporic Condition, authored by the renowned and critically-acclaimed professor, Ghassan Hage. It was held on June 9th. Within his book, Professor Hage engages with the idea of the diasporic Lebanese community as a shared lifeworld, defining a common cultural atmosphere that transcends spatial and temporal distance; a collective mode of being he terms “the diasporic condition”.
Alameddine and Chidiac do important work through ATS by creating alternative spaces and collaborative productions that assist in bridging diasporic gaps, consciously and unconsciously building on Professor Hage’s concepts and theories. The book launch was no different. By allowing the audience to witness a curated reading between Hage and key guest speakers like award-winning writers such as Dr Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Dr Randa Abdel-Fattah and Sara Saleh, members of the diaspora (like me) were able to reflect on their experience and gain new understandings to apply to our own condition.
This book launch was special to ATS and the broader Arab Australian community. Alameddine shares her own experience of hearing Professor Ghassan Hage speak, after his time in Lebanon when the revolution of 2019 was in full swing. “He described how, as Lebanese diaspora, we have a chronic injury. I understand chronic pain so well, on a personal level, and the minute he characterised it as a chronic injury it really made things clear to me. Chronic pain is always there but you’re not always conscious of it until you are.”
By engaging in this knowledge sharing and meaning making, ATS is helping to soothe the sorrow of existing within the diasporic world we share together. Through language, through community, and through song.