"What they had for a brief moment, what they had and what they lived through without even knowing it, were the golden age of Beirut," writes Who Killed Bruce Lee (WKBL), one of Lebanon’s top rock bands, in a post on Facebook.
They. People like Georges M. Bostani – a fictional character in WKBL’s universe – who had a car dealership and dreamt of making a career in politics. People like Theresa who for her baptism had uncles flown into Lebanon from all over the world, uncles who’d become lawyers and doctors soon, drinking many bottles of Arak for the joyous occasion.
And people like a group of young students from the south of Lebanon who attended boarding school in Saida together, friends for life they thought, influenced in their behavior and demeanor by the rise of cinema and the Western movies they were exposed to.
The golden age of Lebanon lasted from 1943, when the country gained its independence, until 1975, when Lebanon descended into civil war. It culminated in 1971 when Lebanese beauty Georgina Rizk was crowned Miss Universe. However, ‘la dolce vita’ on the Mediterranean was a mirage all along. The signs of decline had been written on the wall, the bombs were ticking.
In 1958, the Lebanon crisis had brought a first taste of civil war to the country and a presence of foreign troops on domestic soil. In 1967, Israel became the strongest military power in the Middle East; with the Six-Day War, all calculations in the region were recalculated. While the Lebanese and foreign tourists enjoyed the sun, the beach and the skiing, Yasser Arafat and the Israelis were busy making Lebanon their new battlefield. A few years later the house of cards that the Lebanese had lived in came crashing down. The fault lines in their societies had become too large, exacerbated by regional political earthquakes that never seem to spare Lebanon.
When war broke out, Georges’ cars – the fictional character again – were stolen by militias or acquired by them at gunpoint. He fled to Sweden with his family, never to be heard of again.
Theresa grew up to be a tomboy, aggressive but with a soft and tender side. She later became a leading female fighter in the war, distinguishing herself with her vigor and her resilience.
The boys from Saida, so WKBL’s story goes, all followed different paths. Some fled the country, others carried arms. Some would build a future on foreign soil, and some would die defending theirs.
Fast forward to Beirut in 2010 when Who Killed Bruce Lee enters the scene. WKBL is singer and guitarist Wassim Bou Malham; Malek Rizkallah, who must be the world’s hardest hitting drummer; Pascal Sarkis on bass and Hassib Dergham on keyboards. ‘Distant Rendezvous’, their first album, is dedicated to that lost era when everything seemed possible and nothing remains the same.
WKBL are one country and one people in one band. They represent four different characters of Lebanon’s psychology, they know a good party, they are shrill and sharp. WKBL drives you to tears and sometimes crazy. The band left Beirut and moved to Germany to find an environment that matches their professional ambitions. Skilled people outgrow Lebanon quickly in the post golden age.
Who Killed Bruce Lee recorded ‘Distant Rendezvous’ in Berlin. They currently tour Germany and the reception is overwhelming. Fans and critics like the band and their sound. WKBL don’t even need the Exotenstatus – the fact of coming from an exotic country – that some want to decorate and promote the band with. They are a most exciting band from the most cosmopolitan city in the world, Beirut. That’s it.
“Actually, Who Killed Bruce Lee could be the mayors of Beirut,” said Lea Haddad, bassist of Lebanon’s all-female indie rock group ‘Iklil’ when I asked her about the band. “Everybody here loves them and they have very eccentric ideas about everything.”
“If you are a bass player,” Lea continued, “you’d love their bass lines. If you are a drummer, you’d love their drum lines. If you are graphic designer, you’d admire their artwork.”
I wanted to have the WKBL-experience myself and went to see the band at one of their concerts in Germany. Before the show I was able to meet Wassim and Hassib backstage.
“You were all born after the golden age of Lebanon,” I asked them. “What did your parents or other persons tell you about this time?”
“Hashish was legal and Lebanon was the cultural hub of the Middle East,” said Hassib, always the funny guy.
Wassim was more serious. “During these times,” he said, “a lot what Dubai is today was Beirut. It was even sexier because Beirut is natural. Dubai is just a plastic beach.”
“When the war started,” Wassim continued, “a lot of things happened, a lot of people left, the middle class quickly disappeared. The rich stayed because they didn’t give a damn, and the poor couldn’t leave because they didn’t have the resources.”
“Lebanon always seems to dance on the volcano and you are the sound they dance to. What does it take for the Lebanese to finally wake up to reality?” I continued the interview.
“It would take another war,” Hassib said, dead serious this time. “Unfortunately we are in a sleeping state.”
“You say when we will wake up?” Wassim added. “I say when will the world politics change? Lebanon and Beirut will never change. It will always be that controversial land where the wars of the world are fought.”
“In Lebanon, do you party to forget?”
“Everybody has characterized the Lebanese as dancing to forget but that’s not true,” said Wassim, decidedly.
He explained his point. “How is a woman who every night wears her high heels, together with the best dress in the world, how is she doing this to forget? She is doing it because she loves doing it. And we go to the club and spend a ton of money every night because we love doing it.”
“Beirut has no limits,” WKBL’s singer proceeded. “Put any human being into a place where there are no limits – I bet you he will become an extremist. And that’s why the Lebanese are extremists and are going to party till they die. If we gonna learn and educate ourselves, we gonna learn and educate ourselves till we die. With us it’s always extremism.”
“You said that ‘everything we write about, it is always sexy.’ What exactly do you mean by that?” I went on talking to Wassim and Hassib. “How would you write sexy about the garbage crisis in Lebanon?”
Hassib was quick again: “Did you ever stick your penis into a garbage bag?”
“Seriously,” Wassim took over, “when you are telling a story in a very sexy way, everybody will listen to you. Our music has to be presented in the best way possible. It has to be controversial, it has to be sexy. It has to be something that gets people asking questions. The best book that you will ever read is the book that will leave you asking a lot of questions at the end of it.”
“How do Lebanese, who are perfectionists, put up with the often imperfect world around them?”
“They adapt,” Wassim said. “Lebanese always adapt. It’s one of our best qualities and that’s why we do well in other countries. The Lebanese are not aggressive to changes.”
Wassim knew the reason why. “I think that’s because of hundreds of years of struggle,” he said. “You look at yourself and you say, I don’t want to struggle anymore. Yes, the struggle is still there, it’s fine, but now I want to see how I can live with it and make the best out of it. Because otherwise you go crazy.”
WKBL’s album is a nostalgic look back at Lebanon’s golden age from a dancing-on-the-volcano perspective. For Wassim Bou Malham art is about intensity. “It doesn’t matter if art gives you a good or a bad feeling. What’s important is that it gives you a feeling at all.” On stage Who Killed Bruce Lee certainly live up to this credo. WKBL are anything but a ‘wham bam thank you ma’am’-act. Their show in Germany was an energetic ride from A to Z and the crowd was enthusiastic.
“I made a mistake,” Wassim sings on the album’s title track, “thinking that I knew; all alone I wait for a distant rendezvous.” Sometimes it’s better to forget and move on. And when you move on, do it like a Lebanese, do it like Who Killed Bruce Lee: sexy.