On a warm, sunny morning in Beirut, the Lebanese singer, songwriter, and architect Mayssa Jallad appears gracefully from within the corridors–or dahaliz–of the high-rises of the Lebanese capital. The plan is for Jallad to take me on a tour of her city which, in a way, is also a tour of her new album: Marjaa: The Battle of The Hotels, released on the Lebanese label Ruptured, dives into the history of a conflict that unfolded during the Lebanese Civil War, documenting the five-month period from October 1975 to March 1976 that gives the record its title. Jallad grew up in Beirut, and had a sense from a young age that something significant had happened there. “I always felt like something was really wrong, but couldn’t put my finger on it,” she says. “The city itself was giving me clues, with all the bullet holes in the walls, but I was only getting snippets.”
Jallad is referring to the Lebanese Civil War that tore the country apart and lasted from April 1975 until October 1990. The history of that war is not a part of the Lebanese school curricula, and when the topic does emerge, it’s in the background, like a whispered secret. “When the turmoil came to an end, the lines dividing the city between east and west disappeared [overnight], and militiamen turned to members of prominent political parties and the parliament,” Jallad explains.
On The Battle of the Hotels, Jallad documents one battle of the civil war, creating a musical work that serves as both a historical document and a musical map. “Many people were displaced, moved from east to west and vice versa,” Jallad says, “The east being majority Christian and the west being a leftist area. And by ‘leftist,’ I mean a diverse community which included the Lebanese National Movement, the Lebanese communist party, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization), and some Syrian nationalist parties.”
The album, like the city at the time, is divided into two parts. The first part “Dahaliz” (“Corridors”) leads listeners through Beirut as Jallad tries to compare the present-day Beirut to a 1930s map of the city she used to find a very specific Holiday Inn; “The Holiday Inn is one of the first skyscrapers in Beirut,” Jallad says, “and it’s the main focal point that I’m studying in my album. I was looking for the hotel on the map and I couldn’t find it. What I did find is in the third song on the album, ‘Baynana.’” What Jallad found was the St. Charles Hospital which, in the early 1970s, had transformed into a luxurious hotel that eventually became a killing machine. The album’s at times serene, at times dramatic music is constructed to reflect the spaces and events being described in the text. Jallad’s vocalizations specifically stress the consonants in the words, stripping out the vowels, “I’m trying to remove any spaces in between, and leave the void to resonate,” she says.
The album brought together a group of players who have been the cornerstone of Beirut’s music scene for the last two decades. Lebanese oud player and composer Youmna Saba accompanies Jallad on “Etel” and “Kharita” as she tries to make sense of a city in chaos. Fadi Tabbal, who produced the album, was equally instrumental in shaping its sounds. The album’s second half plunges into the depths of the battle—or “Maaraka”; its tracks are structured chronologically to reflect pivotal moments within the five-month span the album covers.
During our stroll through Beirut, Jallad and I eventually end up in front of another significant building in Beirut: Burj El Morr. The monstrous building’s dark windows look down on us threateningly as the sound of trucks rolling over asphalt, car horns, and people talking surround us. These sounds can also be heard on the track named for the building. “I imagined Burj El Morr as a space where you had to climb up the stairs, so the sounds [on that song] are very truncated,” Jallad says. “Whereas in the Holiday Inn, the sounds are more ‘flowy,’ to reflect on the abundance of space and its wealth.”
Both historically and on the album, the divisions in the city are embodied by two groups: The “reds” and the “blues.” As Jallad explains, “The reds are the left. They were against the blues, who were the Christian militias who believed that the Palestinian cause was not theirs. My lyrics explain a lot of the dynamic, and the way I sing describes the tensions. In the lyrics, I become the buildings. So I sing: ‘A red hides in my body/ He climbs my spine/ He breathes heavily down my lungs/ He reaches my head/ Looks through my eyes,’ [which is] an allusion to the Burj El Morr building.”
The two buildings—The Burj El Morr and the Holiday Inn—were part of a luxurious hotel district, but they became the center point of urban warfare; nearly 200 people were taken hostage in the Holiday Inn. Together, they embody a looming presence of the past. “It’s the most difficult thing that I ever had to write,” Jallad says. “The research was difficult too because I found out things that I had no clue about. It made me feel like I’d been lied to all of my life. One of the main moments for me was when I discovered the details of a massacre that happened near the port. It wasn’t organized—it was started by the father of a Christian phalangist [a member of the Lebanese Social Democratic Party]. He had lost his son when someone kidnapped him That father was convinced that [his son was kidnapped] because he was Christian. Two months later, he found out that his second son was kidnapped and killed. He went insane and started a massacre where 300 Muslims were killed based on their religion in an hour and a half. I found that out when I was at grad school, and this was totally devastating for me.” That story is embedded within “Markaz Azraq,” where deeply sentimental strokes of electric guitar—slowly escalating and intermingling with the distant drones—serve as a reminder of the lingering violence.
The album’s penultimate track was produced with the electronic musician Sary Moussa. “We kind of thought of it as a howling track,” Jallad says. “There are 15 vocal layers on it, and there are echoes following echoes—some of them you can barely hear, and some of them are very deep and dramatic.” As the album draws to a close, Jallad takes on the role of first-person narrator to summarize the legacy that has been left to her generation. She tells listeners that, “This was the first high-rise battle, and they study it in the American military. We have inherited it, while they tried to erase it.” In the end, the album, like the city on which it is based, feels like an infinite loop of history, relayed through the brave yet saintly voice of an artist who has taken the task of documenting the past through music.