Carmen Yahchouchi is a very courageous person, no doubt. This young photographer from Lebanon is not afraid to take risks when she tries to tell the story that she wants us to know about. When it gets dangerous, Carmen Yahchouchi keeps going, embracing the rush of adrenaline that goes with it. She secretly entered the rooms of sleeping migrant workers when working on a project called Vulnerable Visits. For Beyond Sacrifice, she won the hearts of women who stayed single all of their lives - most of them against their desire. Carmem Yahchouchi shot intimate portraits of proud yet deeply sad women sitting in their bedrooms who were able to exactly analyze when and why their lives’ journeys had taken a turn onto a road they hadn’t planned to follow.
Until this point in her career –we are at the end of the year 2016 - Carmen Yahchouchi mostly had taken photos of women and of persons either sleeping or in their bedrooms. Her photos often had two different angles: either her camera looked straight into the eye of the person that she photographed - as in her most famous photo, the intriguing Victoria from the My Mother’s Gun series - or her photos were stolen moments with a voyeuristic feel to it. Carmen Yahchouchi doesn’t deny this side of hers at all. “I love voyeurism!,” she says when I interview her in Beirut. “I always have. I took many photos of my entire family, and of my ex boyfriends too, being a voyeur. Often I caught them while they slept or in other intimate moments.”
When a voyeur and adrenaline junkie meets a narcissistic, attention seeking exhibitionist, things get interesting. When Carmen Yahchouchi meets Suleiman for the first time, she instantly feels that she comes across a somewhat dangerous and perverse man. King Soleil Man, as he likes to be called, had repeatedly posted naked photos of himself on Facebook, sometimes together with African women. Facebook shut down his page as soon as they became aware of it, however Suleiman kept reopening it, posting more photos. Originally Carmen Yahchouchi had looked for single men to complement the many women of Beyond Sacrifice. She soon learned that Suleiman, an 80+ senior from the coast of Lebanon, actually was married with children (although neither his wife nor his children talked to him anymore). “I will tell you everything,” he said to Carmen, “I have nothing to hide.” Suleiman didn’t qualify for the project, Carmen Yahchouchi knew that, but he fit the crispy, out of the box profiles that she likes to get involved with. The exhibitionist had shown his potential and the voyeur had taken the bait.
When Carmen visits Suleiman in his house for the first time, she meets two African women there, Sandrine and Rosy. They are migrant domestic workers. Sandrine, from Cameroon, is a warm-hearted and open person and very soon Carmen starts taking pictures not only of Suleiman but also of her. “When Sandrine was there,” Carmen tells me during the interview, “there were no limits. Suleiman and her were in love.” Suleiman opens up to Carmen right from the start. He loves to have her and her camera around and poses naked almost immediately, with no shame at all.
Quickly the situation at Suleiman's home deteriorates. Sandrine is arrested in a night club without her residency papers on her and must quit Lebanon on short notice. She leaves Rosy behind, alone with Suleiman. Rosy has a different character than Sandrine: she is calm, shy and very religious. Suleiman had picked her up from the street a few months earlier where she had stranded because of problems with her former employer.
And then one day, Carmen receives photos from Suleiman on her WhatsApp, photos that Suleiman had taken, showing him having sex with Rosy.
The fate of migrant domestic workers in Lebanon is a very difficult one. Lebanon is home to over 250’000 (female) workers who come from African and Asian countries and work in private households. Stories about them being exploited and abused are widespread. A report published by Amnesty International in April of 2019 titled “Their house is my prison” revealed significant and consistent patterns of abuse. Employers force their domestic workers to work extreme working hours, deny them rest days, withhold their pay, severely restrict their freedom of movement and communication and subject the women to verbal and physical abuse, as well as denying them proper health care. All migrant domestic workers, Amnesty International writes in its report, are excluded from the Lebanese Labour Law and are governed instead by the kafala system which ties the legal residency of the worker to the contractual relationship with the employer. If the employment relationship ends, even in cases of abuse, the worker loses regular migration status. The excessive power employers have in this system over their employees and the strong dependency the women have towards their employers are very obvious.
Rosy finds out that Suleiman had sent pictures of her making love with her employer to Carmen. She yells at Carmen. She is outraged. Rosy suspects a plot of some sorts where Suleiman and Carmen had conspired against her. The dynamics of a destructive triangle begin to work: Rosy is very angry with Suleiman because he had sent the photos to Carmen and she is very unhappy with Carmen having "accepted" these pictures. Rosy starts to get bossy with Suleiman. He in turn is not happy with Rosy making such a fuss about the pictures. Suleiman's relationship with Carmen starts to go frosty too. Whereas Suleiman was very open in the beginning, allowing Carmen to take very intimate photos of himself, he now backs up, “starts to go crazy on me” (as Carmen tells me), insults her and even tries to break her camera. Did Suleiman already regret to have agreed to this project? Had Carmen entered his life and his mind more than he was comfortable with?
Are we correct in saying that Suleiman is an exhibitionist? Is that his pathological condition? This writer is not a psychologist to answers these questions competently and we shouldn't jump to easy conclusions either. Certainly Suleiman has exhibitionist traits, like we all have - think the many selfies on Instagram and Facebook. Exhibitionism, and the addiction to exhibitionism, is similar to any other substance addiction. Often exhibitionism starts with emotional wounds; it becomes a way to numb the pain from these wounds and a substitute for real intimacy and connection - something the addict both longs for and fears. For adolescents, who are about to discover their bodies and their sexuality, staging and photographing themselves how they like themselves to be seen - and posting it online - strenghtens their self-confidence. It is a well documented behavior which leads us to the follow-up question of what is the level of self-confidence of elderly persons such as Suleiman who experience their bodies slowly “expiring”?
Some other things that Carmen Yahchouchi knows about Suleiman at this point of the story: he has a lot (really, a lot, she says) of images on his phone. All photos are from black women, all different women. He is mad about black women. He stays 24/7 on his phone, constantly sending out virtual hearts and flowers. Also to Carmen.
With time, Rosy understands that Carmen Yahchouchi is a friend, not an enemy. After all, Carmen is an African woman too. She was born in Bamako, Mali, and lived there until the age of 18. Rosy entrusts herself to Carmen and tells her that she is mistreated by Suleiman. Carmen goes out to buy a suitcase for Rosy so she can pack up her things and leave. Suleiman is furious. Carmen starts to become an actor in her photo project, not just an observing by-stander. She can't remain neutral and choses her side. The line between the art and the reality becomes blurred and actually stops to exist.
Does this photo project say more about Carmen Yahchouchi than about her subject, King Soleil Man? What is her motivation to keep visiting Suleiman when he clearly becomes threatening to her? Suleiman sends her WhatsApp messages and writes that he wants to make love with her. One day, while she is with him, he shows her how he googles for “sex Carmen” on the internet. I must be strong now and not show any sign of weakness, Carmen says to herself, when on another day Suleiman starts to caress her neck while sitting next to her on the sofa. “What was this obsession that you had with King Soleil Man, Carmen?,” I ask her when I talk with her in Beirut. “Well, as you know,” she replies, “I like the dangerous and the adrenaline. But with Suleiman it went further. I was not able to get a hold of him. With the women that I had photographed for previous projects, it was easy for me to enter into their hearts. Now with a man… I went mad. I kept telling myself that I must finish what I had started.”
To finish what? We all have these father-figures (literally or figuratively), these king-like figures that we put on a pedestal, particularly as a child. Suleiman could easily be one of them, he perfectly fits the profile. And why not put him there? After all, he is a well respected person in his community, a bit strange maybe, but not far off the mainstream. And then at a certain point in our lives we search to demystify these imposing figures and we want to throw them off their pedestals. They have done things that we know of and they know that we know. For a long time we were not able to talk about it, but now we are. However something holds us back. It’s not the right moment maybe, it’s not the right occasion to really turn a desire into action. What are the benefits, what do we have to lose? So we may take aim at another person instead because someone has to fall. You are no king, King Soleil Man. My lenses can see through you. You have become transparent to me.
Some of Carmen Yahchouchi's photos may feel uncomfortable to look at. They take us out of our comfort zone. We may think that these photos go too far, that the photographer didn’t stop where she should have. Did Carmen Yahchouchi overly intrude in Suleiman’s private life, can she even be qualified as a stalker? But then again, it was him who invited her into his bedroom, it was him who sent very explicit photos to Carmen. Let me introduce you to one of these “to the point” German words, Fremdschämen. The concept of Fremdschämen means that we are embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn’t notice, or - even more vexing maybe - doesn't care). Usually we try to avoid this kind of situations, we look the other way, we turn the TV off. Only to turn it on again, to zap until we have found another “The Bachelor”, another “I’m a celebrity get me out of here”, or any other TV show that makes us feel better about ourselves, because these shows provide us with so much material to feel embarrassed about other people. We love to see other people fail. If we feel awkward, even embarrassed by Carmen Yahchouchi's photos, her project was a success.
Carmen Yahchouchi’s photos of the self appointed King Soleil Man also teach us another important lesson: the more we see the less we know. It is not by watching pornography that we learn about the joy of sexual love. It is not by booking a “see all” holiday package to China that we will know more about the inner workings of a society governed by an authoritarian regime. It is not by following Kendall or Kylie Jenner’s Instagram feed that we understand the true personalities of these model-entrepreneurs.
Suleiman showing off his erection shouldn’t make us look past his many personal conflicts, his weaknesses, his anxieties. What we see is what he wants us to see. The message he tries to convey is the mirror he would like to see himself in. When Suleiman says “I will show you all I have”, he actually means “I will hide everything”. The last photo of the series shows Suleiman sitting on his bed, all dressed up in winter clothes, confused and lost. His encounter with Carmen Yahchouchi and her camera had made him drop his shield, his facade had disintegrated and his soul was laid bare. Within a few weeks he had gone from close-ups to closed-up. For a long time Suleiman had clung to a distorted image of himself. We all do when it seems to serve us. Because it is too painful to try real intimacy for a change and to finally start healing our emotional injuries.
For an even deeper dive into the world of King Soleil Man, here is a selection of additional photos taken by Carmen Yahchouchi.
photos by May Arida
“I want to see what will happen if I only do what feels right,” says Frida Chehlaoui - who on stage is simply Frida - to an audience eager to discover this emerging singer/songwriter coming from Lebanon. “I want to see what will happen if I just go ahead and try. And now I see where this attitude got me,” Frida continues, “it got me here to play my first concert in Europe. I am really very happy to be here."
The here is Café Marta in Switzerland’s capital of Bern, a cosy cellar made of medieval brick walls in the city’s old town, turned into a café and an occasional concert venue. Frida is accompanied by Marc Rossier on guitar and David Steinacher on percussion, two well known musicians in the Bernese music scene and beyond. Frida had met them just a few days before the concert and two short rehearsals were all it took to make it a well tuned trio. Tonight Café Marta is the hottest place in town: the cellar is crammed with people - and so are the stairs leading down to the cellar and even the steps behind the stage -, it is hot outside and sticky inside and the incessantly revolving fans, despite of all their efforts, cannot make it any cooler.
Frida was announced as Arab Soul from Beirut. But what was it exactly that brought such a large crowd to Café Marta on a midweek summer evening? The words Arab, Soul and Beirut all have their own particular connotations, an almost magical promise to discover an emotional territory not usually accessible to Western Europeans. However Frida is much more than what she seems to represent. Starting with a warm and slightly smoky voice, and the natural ability to talk to an unknown audience and make them listen to her, Frida’s universe mainly relies on three pillars: connecting to one’s higher frequency, co-creating and experimenting. All of this is topped by a roof that Frida calls “the role of joy in the creative process”. Why suffer to create when you can walk the path of least resistance and thus bring out the creator that lies in all of us?
“I know things beyond the physical realm"
As a child Frida signed her first poems as Free-da and thirty something years later this makes more sense than ever. “My connection with the audience is that they see someone on stage who is absolutely free in that moment,” Frida tells me when I interview her after the concert. “I am free to say what I want to say, free to do what I want to do, free to allow myself to feel what I am feeling without thinking if this is going into the right direction.*
“What allows you to be this free?,” I ask her.
“I know things beyond the physical realm,” Frida replies.
Frida’s freedom doesn’t even stop when facing Nina Simone’s Sinnerman, a monument of black American music and one of two cover versions that Frida has in her repertoire. Not happy with the original lyrics (on Judgement Day the frightened Sinnerman goes to the rock, the river and then the sea, desperately looking for protection and finally turns to the Lord who refuses to help him and sends him to the devil instead), Frida added her own twist to the song, because after all the Lord is love and not supposed to send anyone to the devil, no matter how much this person may have sinned. “I see you,” sings Frida in Arabic, “I see the fear in your eyes, I see the chains you’re carrying, but you seem to have forgotten how you were the one who put them there. It is now time for you to see your power, the power of a thousand suns shining from within you, shining to remind you: don’t you know that you and I are one and the same?” This is extremely powerful and beautiful at the same time.
Frida’s songs are meant to remind us who we truly are and that we should forget about the restrictions that we limit ourselves with, that we can be much more than we think. In “Out and About”, Frida describes how our bodies must open up to embody the light that we truly are. In “Aala Mahli” (going slowly) Frida tells us the story of the heart that must be our guide, the only guide we ever need. Frida herself is “Bint el Kol” (the daughter of everything); her homage to the divine feminine will also be the title track of Frida’s first album set to be released in September of 2019. Frida is the daughter of the wind, the daughter of the sun and of the waves (“like the waves I can be calm, like them I have been fierce”), she’s the daughter of the earth and the daughter of ether (“unseen and omnipresent, weaving us all into one”).
Frida’s concert in Bern was a success beyond expectations. The audience was thirsting for her message of self-love and collective empowerment and for her well tempered dose of spirituality that many of us are lacking in our get-up-and-go lives. Visiting Bern has enabled Frida to meet musicians such as the exceptional accordionist Mario Batkovic and ECM recording artist and bassist Björn Meyer to talk about their approach to music and about possible future collaborations. Already Swiss rapper Greis joined Frida on two songs at Café Marta, subsequently inviting her to be his guest at his own concert later that week. Frida sang Ya Sadi’i (my friend) on this occasion and this song’s story “about the courage to chose the less traveled path to experience the magic unfold so we become the makers of our destinies”, is a story that speaks to all of us, regardless of our mastering the Arabic language or not. Frida’s message is an universal one. We need her to be the companion of our lives for many years to come.
from The Open Enso archives.
Photos: May Arida
Three concerts in a row in one of the music capitals of the world: that’s why Sandra Arslanian and Sam Wehbi came to London in this early September of 2018. Sandra and Sam are members of Sandmoon, an indie pop/folk and sometimes rock band from Beirut Lebanon. Sandra founded the band eight years ago, a few years after she came back to Lebanon from Belgium where she grew up; she writes all the songs, sings and plays the ukulele, the guitar and the keyboard. Sam plays the lead guitar, particularly when Sandmoon perform live. The rest of the band couldn't make the trip to London, not least because of visa issues.
We arrive in a sunny but windy London on Friday afternoon. We: that are yours truly reporter from Switzerland and May, a photographer who is originally from Beirut, like Sandra and Sam. Both of us have known Sandra for quite some time, closely following her career, from releasing three albums and an EP to winning a Lebanese Movie Award in 2017 for composing the score of Philippe Aractingi’s Listen.
We meet Sandra and Sam in Katja Rosenberg’s apartment in Walthamstow in northern London. Katja’s flat is small and well stuffed, but this is London where space is rare and expensive. For this weekend the apartment is Sandmoon’s home base.
Yesterday’s concert in a chapel was amazing, Sandra gives us the update after we all sit down. Two dozen persons only, but the place was sold out. We played for eighty minutes and the people wouldn’t let us go. Now we are curious what tonight’s concert will bring. It will be a Sofar event at a private place in Bethnal Green.
"It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music."
On our way to the Sofar concert Sandra hands out Stimorol chewing gums to everybody. Tonight, Sandra says, I will be the great unknown. Nobody this evening will ever have heard of Sandmoon or Sandra Arslanian. I like the idea. Our music, she explains, might not work in Spain. But in Portugal, with all their Fado, it might. Here in London our music definitely works, people like what we do and how we sound.
Are you fed up with Lebanon and the Lebanese audience?, I ask Sandra. Not really, she says. But of course Lebanon is a very small market for English lyrics pop and rock music. And there is another thing: unfortunately in Lebanon only a few people go to see concerts because of the music. They go because others go too and it then becomes a social event. It’s like a herd moving from place to place. It is really nice to play in front of people who actually listen to the music.
Sofar tonight takes place at the loft style apartment of Casey and his girlfriend Rachel. Sandmoon start their concert with Home, one of their trademark songs. Sandra sings without microphone, without nothing, to an audience on the floor and on sofas with all eyes on her. Sam is her ideal musical partner, getting the best out of a rusty acoustic guitar that he had to borrow from a friend.
With the small combo, Sandmoon depend even more than usual on Sandra’s voice and performance. The audience is like spellbound, particularly when Sandmoon perform The Answer, a song from last year’s recording session in Berlin. Then they play Walk, an old favorite, but not Temptation, a newer song that wails like a prayer. It’s Friday night and the audience asks for something "more party".
After the show Sandra is sweaty and exhausted. The public slowly leaves the apartment, they very much liked what they got. We pick up some Chinese food at a takeaway in Walthamstow. Then we all huddle again in Katja’s apartment and eat.
"Me improvising on Bach, what the hell!"
The next day, when we meet again, Sandra is in a good mood, offering Belgian chocolate to everybody. Sam lies on the bed and fingers around on his electric guitar before he goes into a catchy rock tune from his own Uncle Sam band in Beirut. In the meantime Katja is busy doing some household work, watering plants and hanging laundry. Katja was born in Germany but lives in London since 1998, working as a freelance powerpoint guru and an organizer of art events. It is thanks to her that Sandmoon play three concerts in London.
Katja sits down at her piano, jammed between the bed and the wall, and plays Bach. Sam plays along on the guitar, still on the bed, his eyes staring at the ceiling. Me improvising on Bach, Sam says afterwards, what the hell!
Saturday night’s venue is the Hornbeam Café, an organic, authentic neighborhood café and also a community center. The Hornbeam is a place similar to the Onomatopoeia in Beirut where Sandmoon like to play. What is Sandra for you?, I ask Sam outside the café, just before the show. Sandra is like a mother to me, Sam says. She is a great teacher; it’s three years now that I am playing with her. She makes me control myself better, musically and also in general. I am still relatively young, Sam explains, and therefore I have a tendency for wanting to storm the sky.
Even without the full band, Sandmoon cover a lot of musical ground with their performance this evening. Sandra clearly has made the transition from recording artist to performing artist. She is at ease on stage, displays a lot of self confidence and is closer to the audience than I had ever seen her.
During Sandmoon’s concert all their videos are projected in an endless loop on a screen behind Sandra and Sam. The audience sees images of Beirut in the 1960s and of people protesting the political order in recent years. The video of Sandmoon’s 2017 single Shiny Star passes by and Pierre Geagea dances in Beirut Mansion to the music of Time Has Yet To Come. Seeing it like this, from A to Z in one sequence, it is an impressive body of work.
On our way back to the apartment we stop for a late night dinner at Thainese, an Asian restaurant on Walthamstow’s main road. We talk about Prince and Bowie, Sandra’s musical heroes, and also about Fentanyl and discuss if pain killers should be classified and treated as drugs.
For Sunday lunch we again go to Walthamstow’s pedestrian area and to a Bulgarian steakhouse. What is the way ahead for Sandmoon?, I ask Sandra. Could hiring local musicians in London be possible, to play future concerts here with a full band? It could, Sandra replies. However it is hard for me to play with strangers. Sam and me for instance, that’s like an osmosis.
In addition to not being strangers, Lebanese musicians are all shaped by the same experience: Lebanon. Could musicians from London emulate this experience? Often this is an experience of war and it is also reflected in Sandmoon’s current setlist going from songs off the first album raW to Masters of War, a Bob Dylan cover. I don’t know the war that well myself, Sandra says, at least not first hand. In 2006 I was abroad and when my family left Lebanon because of the civil war, I was only seven months old.
Does it matter? Despite not personally being there, war and the consequences of it are profoundly anchored in Sandra’s DNA.
Back in Switzerland Sandra messages me that Sandmoon will soon start to record new songs, with an aim to have a new album out in 2019. Sandra has been very creative lately, also inspired by the good experience she had playing in London. She was in a flow and has written many songs that now need to be developed, refined and recorded. And: We clearly aim for an another Sandmoon visit to London soon, Sandra says.
Londoners dig the melancholic side of Sandmoon’s music and they always love a good storyteller. And that’s precisely why Sandmoon came to London: to find a new audience and new opportunities to spread their message and their musical love. Sandmoon will be back in London; new concerts are scheduled for August of 2019. As for the new album: all the songs have been written - it will be somewhat of a new direction for Sandmoon - two songs have already been recorded and "Fiery Observation", the first video off the forthcoming album "Put a Gun/Commotion", has just come online. For Sandmoon, it's a road that never ends.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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