03.12.2005A German Brass Band in the Middle EastTouring the Orient with a Trumpet and a NotepadBeirut
Flight from Teheran to Damascus. The next day marks the start of our bus trip adventure – Damascus to Beirut by land in a minibus. We have two choices with respect to air conditioning: either have it turned on with the ice-cold breath of death coming out of every crack or turn it off and sit in a sauna and be broiled.
The largest part of Beirut, to Moll, looks like "a wet dream come true for investors and real-estate developers" We have already been waiting for an hour at the Syrian-Lebanese border. There is a lot of traffic here, but everything is taking its course – slowly. Raimund has already been approached by the chief border guard. Fitting his station, the guard proceeds to scare the wits out of him.
It seems to me that in this region, the little game of making clear who is boss - part of the standard repertoire at every border crossing around the world - is staged here with particular passion and an appreciation for theater.
Behind the veil of a thoroughly sincere and polite demeanor shimmers the possibility that at any moment the slightest signal of displeasure from the local powers-that-be could prevent our entry. And this was only the departure from Syria! We just assume that everything is fine.
We rejoice too soon. There remains another border station and here unfolds the first border crossing drama of our trip. It is a quiet, slow moving drama without any actual dramatic moments. After we fill out the omnipresent embarkation cards, they don't want to let us pass. The head guards are called in and discussions begin.
The actual problem only becomes clear bit by bit. It has something to do with a missing work permit and whether we are there as tourists or engaged in some sort of business. Our visas state the reason for our visit as "concert musical," so we can't claim we are traveling for purely personal pleasure. In any case, the visa as it stands is invalid.
There is no indication whatsoever that they want to harass us. It is simply that no one wants to make a mistake. A German band crossing from Syria to Lebanon is apparently a special case without precedent.
So we wait in an air-conditioned kiosk at the border, drink tea, and sample a selection of Arab cookies and chocolates. The TV is airing an Egyptian soap opera about girls in a judo school. Absurd overacting by all involved.
Meanwhile, a border soldier makes friends with us and wants to come to our concert. We politely decline his invitation to visit his home in Beirut due to our tight schedule. After four hours, we are finally issued new visas and can continue our journey through the desert-brown mountains towards Beirut.
The largest part of the city currently looks like a wet dream come true for investors and real-estate developers. Construction is going on everywhere – glass palaces, Potsdamer Platz-like environments, and even a section of historical Beirut circa 1920 is being faithfully reconstructed.
In the evening, we go down to the "Barometre," a bar and underground meeting place for local young people. We sit packed together at a round table and drink Arrak. Everywhere here people are subjected to the icy breath of an air conditioner. The locals seem quite used to it, but I am starting to feel ill. Arab pop songs are sung at our table and we are right in the middle of things. All at once, I feel good again.
The next day's concert is held in an old former movie theater. The building is rather ugly, but enormously large. It stood empty for years and now the plan is to bring it back to life, culturally speaking. We are the opening act for the new cultural series.
After the concert, I meet with Mazen Kerbaj, (presumably) the only trumpet improviser in the Middle East. We have a very pleasant and animated conversation about the heroic battle by the handful of improvisation musicians in Lebanon against the ignorance and abuse of the daily press. Mazen is the first person I have ever met who can cover his shirt in red wine stains faster than I can.
Next stop: Damascus (click 4)