Present Tense: The Alternative Pulse of Ras Beirut

To live in Beirut today is to live with a perpetual sense of nostalgia, a longing for a bygone era that may or may not have been experienced firsthand, yet is invariably perceived as superior to a grim present. 

“Before October,” “before 2020,” “before the coronavirus,” “before the collapse in 2019,” “before May of 2008,” “before June of ‘82,” “before ‘75,” and numerous others — the litany of reference points is exhaustive, each inviting us to delineate a moment in time from which to wistfully look back.

Hamra’s Heyday

Antoine Kabbabé, a septuagenarian merchant from Beirut, humorously acknowledges his wife’s observation that he lives almost entirely in the past. Recently, he produced and starred in a documentary about Hamra Street, one of Beirut’s most storied thoroughfares, capturing its pre-1975 splendor. 

This film, presented at Hook, a café in Furn El-Chebbek, juxtaposes footage Kabbabé shot in 1973 with a Kodak Super 8 camera against a faded streetscape of 2023. 

Once the cultural and entertainment heartbeat of the city, bustling with restaurants, cafes, bars, and theaters, Hamra’s vibrancy, at least that of the 1960s and early 1970s, has been irrevocably lost. Musicians from around the world once graced its venues, but today, most are mere memories. 

When queried after the film screening about the pivotal moment of change, Kabbabé unhesitatingly cites 1975, the year the war began. 

Though the 1990s saw efforts to rejuvenate Hamra with new establishments, for Kabbabé, the essence was irretrievably gone. Nonetheless, the consistent decline of Hamra over decades catalyzed the rise of new cultural hubs around the city—today in Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, and Badaro for example—heralding a fresh era for subsequent generations. 

Yet, Kabbabé remains resolute, anchored in a past he believes was usurped by the onset of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990).

Generational Fortunes Diverged

My childhood gang of friends and I came of age in the post-war Ras Beirut of the 2000s, with Hamra serving as one of our cultural axes. We attended the annual Hamra Street Festival, where the Beirut Municipality would close the street to vehicular traffic, turning it into a vibrant pedestrian promenade. 

Stalls offered an eclectic array of goods, while local bands provided live music, creating an atmosphere of exuberant festivity for people of all ages. 

Across its eras, Hamra has been immortalized in studies, stories, fiction, poetry, film, and art by many before me. I will therefore refrain from belaboring its significance, except to add that there was an ineffable magic in walking along a closed-off Hamra in the summer, during those years, enveloped by the sounds of live music—a joy that was profoundly cherished.

This same joy is why I deeply appreciated the annual student festival a couple of streets north at the American University of Beirut (AUB): “Outdoors.” Born in 1982, in the crucible of the Civil War, during which AUB valiantly kept its doors open and its classes running amidst the surrounding chaos, “AUB Outdoors” is organized each year around May or June. 

For two days, students transform the university campus into a festive ground, open to the public, replete with food, games, entertainment, and continuous live music. Various student organizations operate stands at the festival, raising funds for both the event and their activities for the coming year, with a portion of the earnings often donated to community charities.

Outdoors introduced us Ras Beirut kids to numerous local bands, many of which covered hard rock, heavy metal, or alternative rock, alongside their own original compositions. We eagerly anticipated this festival each year, and as young enthusiasts discovering 1960s–1970s hard rock and the 1990s Seattle alternative sound (i.e., grunge) at our own pace, we idolized the Outdoors performers. 

For us, Outdoors became a benchmark and rite of passage, epitomizing what it meant for a band to play a proper show in Ras Beirut. Reflecting on Outdoors in the 2000s, one may recall local bands delivering powerful renditions of anthems like Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun,” or Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll.” 

There was always a Metallica band that emerged every other year, which we enjoyed despite not being the biggest metalheads—our affinities lay more with alternative rock in its various expressions. Outdoors at that time meant electrifying guitar riffs and exhilarating vocals. 

As we transitioned from children to teenagers in Ras Beirut, this sound struck a primal chord in us, evoking a sense of rebellion and raw, unfiltered emotion. It was musically-harnessed chaos against the backdrop of the sociopolitical chaos of the city.

Our generation of 2000s teenagers, who became university students in the 2010s, was decidedly more fortunate than those who endured the decade before us. In the 1990s, alternative rock and metal enthusiasts faced fierce opposition from the more conservative factions of Lebanese society. 

The religious establishment, ever zealous in its hunt for scapegoats, denounced the music, associating it with the tragic suicide of a teenage boy and calling for its outright ban. Albums by Nirvana and Metallica were proscribed and confiscated at customs. (Good luck banning anything today, in the era of high-speed internet!) 

Although this draconian record banning eased somewhat by the 2000s, long-haired metalheads were still occasionally accused of Satanism and dragged off by the authorities throughout this decade. Arbitrary censorship continued sporadically, often targeting local performers, of various other genres, for their social views into the 2010s.

Outdoors Today

Presently, in 2024, Outdoors asserts itself as the premier student-led event in Lebanon, and arguably, across the broader Middle East, consistently attracting thousands of attendees each year. 

Since the turn of the millennium, Outdoors has maintained its prominence, yet encountered cancellation twice: first in May 2008 amidst the tumult of armed militias seizing control of Beirut, and subsequently during the three-year span between 2020 and 2022 due to the restrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. 

It’s lamentable that many students who commenced their studies at AUB in 2019 and graduated in 2022 missed the opportunity to partake in Outdoors firsthand. And despite the endeavors of the post-pandemic cohort to rejuvenate the festival in 2023, it appears that some misstep occurred in the process. 

While the festival remains under student jurisdiction, a discernible decline is observed in the number of student organizations managing food or game stands, with an increasing proportion now overseen by external businesses or corporations. 

There’s furthermore been a perceptible deterioration in the quality of decorations and costumes donned by students, as Outdoors typically selects a theme for each iteration.

Despite these apparent shifts in student life, young local bands, both from AUB and the neighboring Lebanese American University (LAU), continue to emerge and thrive. A new generation, in spite of—or perhaps because of—the enduring economic collapse, the pandemic, and the ongoing tumult and conflict, have taken it upon themselves to carry the torch of raw emotion and heavy music performance, even in the absence of explicit mentorship from students who came before them. In the face of adversity, the rhythm of life indeed finds a way.


In the echoing corridors of AUB, a new auditory sensation emerges in 2024—“Bliss,” a self-proclaimed grunge trio enveloping listeners in melancholic reverie, with a shoegaze allure that eludes easy categorization. 

Consisting of three AUB students—Julie Abou Kasm, an impassioned vocalist and bassist; Ribal Abu Fadel, a guitarist admired for riveting solos; and Ibrahim ‘Bob’ El Khansa, a drummer infusing depth with every beat—Bliss’ melodies resonate as a poignant navigation of intimacy and estrangement. 

Their name, ”Bliss,” serendipitously echoes the iconic Nirvana (literally “blissful state”), though it was chosen for its resonance with local geography; Bliss Street is precisely where AUB resides, and where many alternative students convene over a cigarette these days. (Smoking, now outlawed at AUB, for your own good, naturally.)

Recently, Bliss stepped into the limelight with their April debut EP, recorded at Tunefork Studios—a hub in Burj Hammoud fostering alternative music since 2006. The collaboration between these young talents and Tunefork is testament to the nurturing essence of Beirut’s music scene, where veteran musicians and producers converge to elevate emerging talents. 

Such communal backing proves indispensable in a city like Beirut, a city where the encouragement of artistic expression is ever-crucial. Tunefork’s influence extends to alternative bands like the seasoned trio Postcards, who not only found acclaim at home but also made significant strides in the European music scene. Postcards notably graced Outdoors in 2013, when lead vocalist Julia Sabra was a student at the university.

Captain’s Cabin

Bliss chose Captain’s Cabin as the venue for their EP release party in April, paying homage to another Ras Beirut landmark steeped in musical lore and beloved by generations of nightlife enthusiasts. Though no longer pristine, as it was in its early 1970s heyday when Antoine Kabbabé roamed Hamra’s streets, Captain’s Cabin (opened in 1964) exudes an unapologetic gritty ambiance. 

The bar’s walls are now covered with felt-marker pen markings by friends and travelers who shared a night at the venue over the past twenty years. 

Revered as one of the few establishments in Ras Beirut operational throughout the Civil War, and even discreetly (rumor has it) during the May 2008 conflict, it remains inseparable from its longtime proprietor, Andre, who sets its rock and blues soundtrack. 

While the Cabin no longer hosts nearly as many live music events as it once did, Bliss’s choice of venue serves as a nostalgic nod to bygone eras. All members of the AUB Music Club, Bliss have showcased their originals both in Hamra and on campus. In May, it was their turn to make their Outdoors debut, performing, among others, their standout track, “Rain Is Loud.”

A New Guard Arises

Bliss by no means stands alone. This rising generation of bands includes Gliddeee (pronounced Glide), a punk quartet that performed original songs like “Supertaster” and “Temporary” at Outdoors this year. Marco Bazerji (vocals/guitar) and Chris Aoun (guitar) met in Ras Beirut just as the coronavirus pandemic ended, while students at LAU. They were later joined by Younes Rizk (drums) and then Ali Hamdar (bass). 

Bazerji credits music with helping him navigate Lebanon’s collapse and pandemic restrictions, during which live music was shut down for extended months. Through it, he emerged with a newfound confidence, shedding shadows of despair. 

Gliddeee draws inspiration from punk bands like Fugazi, whose song “Shut the Door” they also performed at Outdoors this year. The Washington D.C. band was renowned for their relentless 1990s touring, refusal to sign with corporate record labels, and their ethical stance on setting the lowest profitable admission price for their concerts. In addition to his work with Gliddeee, Bazerji collaborated with Tunefork Studios on a solo project in 2024.

This generation also includes new cover bands, which have once again emerged as a feature of Outdoors, with quartets like Sourgrass leading the charge. Formed by longtime friends, and including recent alumni from both AUB and LAU, Sourgrass comprises Lorena Saab (vocals), Lama Tauk (bass), Andrew Abou Jaoudeh (guitar), and John Haddad (drums). 

Named after the tristylous yellow-flowering plant (hommayda) prevalent in Mediterranean climates like Beirut, Sourgrass has rocked various venues around the city. Through heavy performances, they seek to revive the rock and psychedelic genres.

At Outdoors, they delivered commendable performances of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” and Collective Soul’s “Shine.” Sourgrass emerges as a quartet of exceptional individual talents that coalesce into a synergy greater than the sum of their parts. The true measure of their appeal lies in your palate for the sour. 

Outdoors this year also showcased a variety of local alternative acts (like Pao) and funk bands (like Highjack). It additionally featured a Coldplay tribute band, Sparks, and—true to the festival’s long traditions—a Metallica cover band, Aeterna. 

Intriguingly, the latter couple featured the same lead vocalist, Jad Badr, who is the vice-president of the LAU Music Club, and the same drummer, Bob El Khansa (who also plays for Bliss).

Rhythms of Continuity

Bliss, Gliddee, Sourgrass, Aeterna, and their peers, whether they realize it or not, transcend mere performance. They add their distinct sounds to a tradition of artistic expression that pulses, once again, through the city’s northwestern tip in May, this time for Outdoors’ fortieth edition. 

Their music offers another generation a fleeting respite and a way to articulate feelings of frustration and aspiration—be it through original compositions or timeless anthems. 

These groups stand as a testament to a new generation following in the footsteps of predecessors, some of whom continue this pursuit within the country, while others now seek new beginnings on distant shores.

To be perfectly clear, these bands represent only a fraction of the vibrant music scene in Ras Beirut, let alone Beirut as a whole. The city, and the country, boasts a rich diversity of musical talent. 

Whether in English, Arabic, or French, across genres spanning pop, rock, alternative, hip-hop, electronic, there’s a wealth of music yet to be explored and celebrated in Beirut—a topic deserving of countless other discussions. Nonetheless, these bands encapsulate a longstanding essence of Ras Beirut. 

Beirut’s Choice

To live in Beirut today necessitates a conscious choice: to steep oneself in nostalgia’s depths or to break free from its immobilizing hold. Unless one is keen to emulate the melancholy of Antoine Kabbabé and dwell in the shadow of the past—his choice admirable in its own right, as it preserves history through his literary and documentary works—one must instead endeavor to identify and foster the emerging wellsprings of inspiration within the city’s fractured landscape. 

These nascent sources of sound and light, if fortunate, often follow the path laid by predecessors, inadvertently becoming part of history and offering us a contemporary reflection of our former selves. In their melodies and rhythms, we discern echoes of earlier brilliance, echoes hinting at a future that may surpass the achievements of the past, but for now showing us the enduring power of artistic lineage and the ever-evolving nature of cultural expression.

I am not suggesting that the choice to focus on the new is either simple or comfortable; it demands a deliberate act of will to embrace the potential for renewal and creativity amidst the decay. 

Beirut, often a cruel city, challenges its inhabitants to transcend their yearning for a romanticized yesteryear and to engage actively with the possibilities of the present, however tenuous they may be. Or, in simpler terms, to borrow from Eddie Vedder, “it makes much more sense to live in the present tense.”