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Benjamin Rubin

Lebanese rapper El-Rass gives artist talk in Toronto

The Arabic rapper Mazen El Sayed, whose stage name is El Rass (“The Head”) lives in Tripoli, Lebanon, just 300 km north (as the crow flies) of our winter home in Tel Mond, Israel. And yet it was only by flying 9,000 kilometres west to Toronto, on his first North American tour, in the Dark Horse Cafe in downtown Toronto, that he and I were able to sit in the same room, and I could hear El Rass speak, in his articulate accented English.

El Rass’ discography includes eight albums and more than 200 singles in collaboration with other musicians and rappers from around the Arab world, where his work has received recognition. ArabNews.com included his most recent album, “Ard El Khof” (“Land of Fear”) in its survey of “Best Arab Alternative Albums of 2022” and (reading like a gourmet restaurant review) had this to say about it: “El Rass is known for not mincing his words…One of the region’s most inventive hip-hop pacesetters delves into the themes of economic collapse and hardship in his native Lebanon, with bruising wit and eye-watering lyrical legerdemain… Deal[s] out verse upon verse, cadenced to perfection, and accompanied by a searing entourage of pulsating beats and lusciously dark synth.” I was excited to discover Ard El Khof is just one, of NINE, “Best Arab Alternative Albums of 2022”. As I begin my exploration of the Arab music world, it sounds like it may be as vibrant and creative as I know the Israeli music scene to be.

As Toronto Rabbi Frydman-Kohl notes, Oliver Sachs has pointed out that, biologically and physiologically, we are not so different, one human from another. But our personal STORY – our external actions and discourse, and the interior narrative of our thoughts – is different for each one of us.  What’s the story of El Rass?

Before becoming the rapper El Rass, Mazen El Sayed worked as a journalist for two Beirut newspapers. He carries with him a journalist’s sharp eye and sharpened pencil, used to compose the driving forward motion of a newspaper’s beat: history as it daily happens.

And before becoming a journalist, Mazen El Sayed worked as a banker in Paris.  He carries with him the invaluable experience of working in the Western world of commercial arrangements, technology, production, distribution and publicity.

But before becoming a banker, Mazen El Sayed had the formative experience of going away from home.  And then coming back.

At 16, in Tripoli, Mazen El Sayed received a scholarship to study math, statistics and economics in Paris. How could he turn down such an opportunity? Since childhood, he had absorbed the local cultural understanding that, if you really want to go for the good life, you must leave the country. In Lebanon, emigration has been a cultural norm for more than a century. But if the talented ambitious intelligent people who can change the country, leave the country, who will transform Lebanon?

Paris was shocking, both the city’s physical scale and the city’s social modernity. The young El Sayed adopted different strategies to try to “fill the gap” between Arabic Tripoli and French Paris: mimicry; obedience; request to be accepted. First and foremost: speak a new language.  Sometimes trying to fill that gap felt alienating. But he finished his studies at an elite French school and got his first job in banking.

There’s much labour involved to fit into another society. Living as a Parisian banker, a graduate of France’s ENSAE (National School of Statistics & Economic Administration) you no longer really belong in your old Tripoli home. But being a Lebanese Arab, even THOUGH you’re a graduate of ENSAE, you don’t REALLY belong in French society, either.  And since France was the colonial power in Lebanon, El Sayed’s Paris was not just any Western city, but the imperial capital. A big struggle of identity. After a couple of years, in 2008, El Sayed went back home to Lebanon, and started working in Beirut in journalism.

Perhaps El Rass’ principal field of exploration is Arab civilization’s relationship to modernity. On one hand, with albums on Apple Music and Spotify, and rap videos on YouTube, he really belongs to the global world – why else would he be giving an artist talk, in English, in Toronto? But buried in the archeology of his emotional consciousness are scars of disappointment from his encounters with the modern Western world.

Perhaps here is a big difference with the Jewish experience of integration with Western modernity. Perhaps that is because the modern State of Israel, where more than half of the world’s Jews now live in an autonomous Hebrew-speaking society, is a project of Enlightenment Judaism, which already two centuries ago began the process of integrating Jewish civilization with modernity. That Enlightenment Judaism project really began in Berlin in 1783, when Moses Mendelssohn, the “one man band” who was the Haskalah’s founder, translated the entire Hebrew Torah into German, but German written out in Hebrew letters, so that pre-modern Jews, who were literate, but only in Hebrew, could read the Torah in German. Translation + definition = language.

Today it is totally normative for an English-speaking Diaspora Jew to be fully engaged with their Jewish identity, through Jewish history and culture, through the language of the Jewish bookshelf, without being premodern, religiously observant or fluent in Hebrew. And it is totally normative for a Hebrew-fluent Israeli to be a totally secular Jew, and yet stand in the mainstream of Jewish history and culture, through the language of television interview shows, the poetry of popular music, and other everyday experiences of living in modern Israel.

(But then there’s the issue of politics, isn’t there? Also for El Rass; and also for me; and also for you, no? One cannot escape politics.)

Perhaps its fusion of Modernity, Modernism and Modernization was part of Zionism’s “secret sauce”.  As David Ohana points out, “Zionism was a three-dimensional project. It was a political movement arising at the end of the nineteenth century (modernity as a historical category), setting itself the aim of creating for the Jews dispersed in their dif­ferent diasporas a modern nation-state. It was a national ideology that was operative in [language and] all areas of art and culture (modernism as an aesthetic category) especially in the emerging Hebrew-speaking Jewish community in Palestine. And Zionism built political and economic institutions, cities and… technological projects (modernisation as a sociological, economic and scientific category).” The result — the Hebrew State of Israel — was the integration into traditional Jewish civilization of modernity, modern­ism and modernisation.

El Rass says that he is engaged in an Arabic attempt to end the duality of modernity vs. premodern/religious, and instead create some kind of fusion. But if El Rass looks at the West as the “standard”, he feels lost. “We must create for each other, not for foreigners.” But if he were to go full nostalgic fundamentalist, “I would end up as a fossil in a museum.”

One of El Rass’ key insights: “Language is an action”. He recalls that in 2011, during the Arab Spring – which was an absolutely watershed political event for Arabs of his generation – there was a debate. What do we call that which the West dubbed “the Arab Spring”? A revolution? An intifada? A conspiracy? This abstraction-naming debate turned out to be important. We think words for abstractions have absolute meanings; but, no. Words belong to a web of meaning. El Rass sees his rap as creating new manuals for looking at the Arabic world’s web of meaning.

From my point of view, based on his Toronto talk in English to a mostly Arab diaspora crowd, he seems to be stuck in a web, in which he sees himself as a victim: still colonized by imperialists!

Though he didn’t say it expressly, I don’t think he was referring to the imperialist Ottomans, whose leader, Suleiman the Magnificent, took Jerusalem in 1516 and built its great stone walls, and whose empire lasted 400 years, until December 1917, when General Allenby walked through Jaffa Gate’s opening in Suleiman’s walls into the Old City of Jerusalem.

Nor do I think he was referring to Saladin, who in October 1187 besieged and conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, and who then returned to the sultan’s capital to rule Egypt and Syria from Cairo.

Nor, for sure, was he talking about the Muslim imperialism from 637 with the siege and conquest of Jerusalem from the Byzantines. According to Islamic tradition, Caliph Umar (634-644) traveled to Jerusalem in person to receive the submission of the city.  The Muslim conquest of Palestine resulted in the death or forced conversion to Islam of many non-Muslim indigenous people – might we anachronistically call those victims Palestinians?

The Byzantines inherited Jerusalem from the Romans, who had taken it in 63 BCE from the Hebrew Hasmoneans, whose predecessors, the Maccabees, took Jerusalem from the Macedonian Greeks in 164 BCE, who had taken Jerusalem from the Hebrew high priests in 332 BCE, and before them the Persians (614 BCE), and the Babylonians (586 BCE), and before that, in approximately 1000 BCE, King David and the Israelites took the city on a hill from the Jebusites, and made Israel’s capital Jerusalem.

(Perhaps Israel should adopt the Canadian practice of a “land acknowledgement”, of the kind recited before every theatrical performance or public event in Canada, including at our synagogue’s Shabbat service, and modify it to recall that Jerusalem was once the home of the ancient Jebusites).

But 1516 and 1187 and 637 and 164 BCE and 586 BCE are facts of history. And history is not just facts.  History is the memory of the survivors of history.  History is not just “the lies of the victors”, as Julian Barnes notes in “The Sense of an Ending”. History is also “the self-delusions of the defeated”. History is not the facts, but the story: the web of words which give meaning to abstractions.

From my point of view, El Rass’ ideology seems to be straight-ahead bonking of Western imperialism, Western colonialism and maybe a touch of Western racism. He seems stuck in a web of meaning that looks back over 3000 years, and sees himself as colonized and victimized – but only by the modern West. But I can see how, from his point of view, it tells a certain story, a story that, in his philosophical musings, he seems to be wrestling with.  However, speaking to a mainly Arab diaspora Toronto audience, he wanted to signal his virtue and conform to social norms and political orthodoxy.

Yet El Rass is not an agitprop thinker. In his excellent extended two-hour in-depth interview, (“Rap, Arab Identity, Metaphors, Psychosis & Rebirth through Language – Sarde #53”, with English subtitles, available on YouTube here: https://youtu.be/Vz_Qf0Zk_rA ) one of the “chapters” is entitled:  “Arab Melancholia, Culture of Defeat and Toxic Relationship to the Past”.  Despite his baseball cap and ghetto leisurewear, his is not street rap, but educated, sophisticated, philosophical rap. After all, El Rass means: The Head.

Language is identity, says El Rass. We are submerged in language, it’s all around us: on signs, on the radio news, in the lyrics of your playlist, in daily conversation, so we don’t see the forest for the trees. We don’t see the utter centrality of language in our psyche. Language defines everything; and that’s just one purpose of language.

Language is full of normative values that soak right into words’ marrow. Tree is female in Arabic, but tree is male in French. Whereas moon is male in Arabic, and female in French. To El Rass, Canadians take for granted that their understanding of the world is somehow normative.

He still struggles with the mix between English and Arabic. He noted that in 2011, with the Arab Spring / Revolution / Intifada / Conspiracy, suddenly writing on Facebook in English was no longer required.  Writing on Facebook in Arabic was cool. And yet, English is how the title of his albums, and even his Arabic rapper name, are written on Apple Music and Spotify.  And if his excellent two-hour interview did not have English subtitles, I would have understood nothing.

He also struggles to balance between expressing poetically/aesthetically versus delivering political messages. Thus, after the credits roll at the end of his definitely-worth-watching poetic/aesthetic “Vodka with Cerelac” on YouTube: https://youtu.be/ez1jFlyU7nc , there is a placard reading “Save Sheikh Jarrah / Free Palestine”.  Maybe I’m naive, but to me that placard, at the end of a 3-minute rap video, is the Lebanese equivalent to when the president of our synagogue makes the weekly announcements, at the end of Shabbat morning services, and she begins with the Canadian land acknowledgement, that the synagogue sits “on the traditional territory of many nations, including the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples”.  I don’t believe that she is going to do anything beyond making this pro forma public pronouncement.

Sometimes El Rass feels like a fatherless child of modern culture. And he finds, in “the problematic of the father”, one way in which Arabic rap connects to some themes in black American rap.  But his lyrics use rap as a tool; they do not copy black American subculture. “Rap is a globalized form of art, but everywhere infused with localized identity.” Everywhere: in Israel, just as well as Lebanon; in Hebrew, just as much as Arabic.

The styles of Arabic rap vary according to geographic zones. El Rass is part of the “lyrical” rap of the Levant: Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel and Jordan. There is also the Gulf bloc; Egypt with its huge population of 110 million; and the Maghreb (North Africa: Tunis, Algeria, Morocco).

Zionism is nothing if not “identity oriented towards achieving something”. So I found of interest this statement of El Rass: “Identity, if not oriented towards achieving something, becomes nostalgia and folklore, illusion. An unhealthy relationship to the past. There is an establishment trying to convince us that the past was always better.”

This applies not only to history and politics, but also to Islamic exegesis.  There is no equivalent in Islam to Reform Judaism.  And the Nahda, the Arab Awakening or Enlightenment, triggered by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, but that really got going culturally in the second half of the 19th century and the start of the 20th, seems to have stalled, trapped by Arab political culture and Islamic fundamentalism. The same forces that stalled the earlier Andalusian era Arabic Enlightenment.

The failure of Islam to yet have its Arabic Moses Mendelssohn results in a shortfall in scholarly translation and modern interpretation, which narrows El Rass’ cultural self-understanding. For example, El Rass is interested in Sufism, a mystical tradition in Islam, but he finds even common knowledge of Sufism in the Arabic world ends up coming in through translated texts by Western scholars writing about Sufism.

One Western modernity which El Rass fully embraces is technology. It gives him the ability to have a home recording studio on his laptop, and to edit a video that he makes on his rooftop.

He’s critical of privileged people in Lebanese society, living in bubbles, using language to signal social class, their degree of liberalism, their attitude towards religion, etc. merely by the way they pronounce “bonjour”.

But don’t we in North America, privileged people, living in bubbles, use language to signal OUR social class, OUR degree of liberalism, OUR attitude to the political beliefs that, for us, have replaced religion?  In Lebanon, it means saying “bonjour” with a slightly exaggerated Parisian letter “r”.  Here we use English to type “Latinx”, or talk about the “marginalized”, or recite hollow land acknowledgements to trumpet our virtue and to conform to social norms and political orthodoxy.

As Ahmed Naji, an Arab visual artist living in the US, whose work was on display at the Toronto art gallery exhibition accompanying El Rass’ artist talk, writes, “I have found that obedience and conformity in the United States are not strictly enforced or heavily guarded [as they are in the Arab Middle East] by armed soldiers or prisons; Instead they present as a whisper, a sound vibration that crashes into your consciousness…”

I put “Vodka with Cerelac” on my Apple Music, on repeat, and let its sound vibration crash into my consciousness.  Even after listening to it forty times, and even knowing by heart some of the verbal sound sequences, I am unable to understand any of the Arabic words that weren’t, to begin with, taken from English. But I am able to hear, loud and clear, “verse upon verse, cadenced to perfection and accompanied by a searing entourage of pulsating beats and lusciously dark synth”, just as ArabNews.com described it.  So I’ll have to take it on the authority of Arabic speakers that his rap is “a mind-blowing deep dive into the Arabic language”.

I learned a lot from El Rass’ Toronto talk. Politics matters. Language matters. As someone learning, from up close, Israeli politics and the Hebrew language, it is useful for me, as a Zionist, to meet the highest expression of the culture in a poet rapping in Arabic from among the cedars of Lebanon. It opened my minds to how differently one can use language to embed the same historical facts in a different word web of meaning.  How language is identity, full of normative values. How language can be an action. And how, despite politics and a different emotional archeology, language, once translated and understood, can be a bridge.

About the Author
Benjamin Rubin was Chair of Limmud Toronto 2018, elected to Zionist Congress, and VP of Canada-Israel Chamber of Commerce. Under his pen name eBenBrandeis, he composes YouTube poems, translated from Hebrew a pre-war Pinsk biography, edited and published a book of contemporary Jewish humour, and created NewHouseOfIsrael.net, a Zionist conceptual art project. Since retiring from the practice of law, he and his wife split their time between Toronto and Tel Mond. He has an abiding interest in Israeli contemporary music, the Golden Age of Hebrew poets from Andalusia, and the Muslim-Christian-Jewish convivencia of Spain. Writer, producer and director of the Zoom teleplay series, “Golden Age Travel”, about 12th century Hebrew poet and Arabic Jewish philosopher, Yehuda HaLevi, travelling through time. Episodes of the series have been performed online at Limmud Festivals in Toronto, Boston, Seattle and Winnipeg. GAT episode VI, "Berlin 28, Paris 38, Jerusalem 61" was premiered at Limmud Toronto November 2021. www.ebenbrandeis.com
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