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Guest Feature: Rachelle Bonja
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Today marks three years since the blast in Beirut took place. Many survivors of that day continue to feel the devastating impacts of this horrific tragedy, and Lebanon still has yet to hold anyone accountable for this crime.
Despite families of the blast victims continued advocacy and efforts for some kind of accountability—they’ve protested every month since the blast—nothing has happened.
In the time since the blast took place, the judicial process that was supposed to bring about some kind of justice has started, been thwarted, completely stopped, started again, and completely stalled. Fadi Sawwan, the original judge leading the investigation into the blast, was removed after two former ministers he had charged requested the case be transferred to a new judge. Tarek Bitar, the judge who succeeded Fadi Sawwan, has been hit with travel bans, charges against him filed by Lebanon’s top prosecutor, and many more roadblocks that continue to impede his work.
On top of that, the country continues to endure a complete economic collapse and political stagnation. The Lebanese lira continues to lose value at warp speed, while people hold up banks just so they can access their own money. The rising costs of food, medication, and other basic services have made existence a luxury in the country.
Lebanon has been operating without a president and with a caretaker parliament, and just recently saw the removal of the corrupt leader of the country’s central bank (who is still wanted by other countries).
All of this barely scratches the surface. So where does this leave us?
Frankly, I’m not sure. Impunity has been synonymous with Lebanon for decades. And personally, I doubt anything will ever happen.
The people in Lebanon will continue to be held hostage by their own government and continue to be trapped in this paradigm. The growing wealth gap, the lack of social services, the collapse of healthcare, the rapid depreciation of the lira, the inconsistent access to electricity, the self-interested bickering by political leaders and factions, the racist kafala system and abysmal treatment of Syrian and Palestinian refugees—all of these things and so much more feel too embedded into the fabric of Lebanon.
There is no end in sight.
Thanks, friends. I know that was heavy and today is an emotional day for many, but I do want all of us to find ways to experience happiness and joy. And there’s no better way to do that than getting to know this week’s incredible guest feature: Rachelle Bonja!
Rachelle is a journalist at the New York Times. She is an audio producer and music composer, and works on The Times’ leading podcast, The Daily. She has covered migrants being stranded in the Aegean sea, repression against protests in Iran, and Queen Elizabeth, among many international stories. She grew up in Aleppo in Syria and moved to Beirut with her family at the start of the Syrian war in 2012. She is a graduate of Georgetown University and is currently based in New York City. Out of all the places she’s lived, Aleppo will always be her home, and she draws inspiration from it in everything she does. When she’s not covering the news, Rachelle can be found singing or playing piano with her band—or just nerding out about music.
Rachelle is one of the most thoughtful journalists and storytellers out here, period. Her work for the New York Times is invaluable, and she carries her identity with so much care and pride. Rachelle’s go-to music truly represents her passion for music and her love of culture:
1. What is your favorite song right now?
I have a musical and aesthetic obsession with the 1960’s, and so I’m always listening to some music from around that decade. Right now, it’s the summer and I’m feeling fun but also sentimental, which brings me back to Bossa Nova - visually Brazil, emotionally floating. This one is a jazz standard, but I think Donato’s version is so soft and light. Just puts you in the right mood.
2. What’s your go-to song for all your feels?
I owe my love of music to my dad because when I was growing up, he would always play records around the house, mostly jazz, rock, and classical. And his musical choices were a little different from the music I heard elsewhere in Aleppo, so these genres feel really close to my heart. I also have always played classical piano, and so throughout my music education from both my dad and school, I found my way to some beautiful classical pieces that have kept me in great company throughout the years.
This is one of them. When I think of feels, I think of music that draws you in, commends your attention, and asks you to cotemplate those feels. I don’t know of anyone that can do that that better than Romantic composers, specially Russian ones. This Tchaikovsky waltz is one of those, and the Yo-Yo Ma rendition makes you sit with each breath and note, it’s equally heart-wrenching as it is beautiful.
3. Name a song that reminds you of home.
Like I mentioned, there was always this gap that I felt growing up in music between the music that played in our house and the more traditional Arabic music that played around me in Syria. I discovered Levantine Jazz as a teenager and it was such a special moment because it sounded a lot like me and truly felt like “home”. These two tracks I think are an example of that style. First, Ziad, because, of course. I could write a dissertation about what a revolutionary musician he is, I’m so astonished by the way he combines stylistic elements from both jazz and Levantine music. And second, I had to add this jazz remake of “Alf Layla” w Layla by Ibrahim Maalouf, that’s part of his “Kalthoum'' suite. It’s the classicism of Um Khultum with the chaos and dissonance of jazz and I find it to be so artful, I had to share it.
4. Name a song you know all the words to.
This is impossible to pick because my brain is 90% song lyrics, but in terms of lyrics I think about all the time, I often come back to the jazz standards because they really have some of the most timeless lyrics. I especially gravitate towards female vocalists because I sing jazz, but also because they really are melodrama, the sad girls of the 60s. This is one of my favorite songs ever, and it just illustrates that perfectly I think…“walk my way, and a thousand violins begin to play”. Ugh!
5. Name a song that gets you really hype and ready to go.
Okay, I’m realizing all of my song picks have been classical and jazz which is frankly what I listen to most of the time.. But when it’s time to get hype, I will morphe into a different musical being. I shamelessly admit that I love Saint Levant, and his songs always really get me ready to go. It's hard to pick a favorite but I think “Nasser” and “By The Sea” will always get me jumping. I love how he uses old Arabic samples and draws from so many genres. And my final pick is one I actually found thanks to you Danny, who got me into ElGrandeToto who I always listen to now to get hype. So I’m glad to be giving back recommendations to a newsletter that gives me so many! Thank you for having me. :)
Big shout out to Rachelle for joining and sharing her song selections! All of Rachelle’s songs will be included in this week’s playlist, so be sure to take a listen. Make sure you follow Rachelle on Twitter and Instagram and keep up with all of her latest stories here!
Rachelle also wanted to convey the importance of continuing to remember the people who lost their lives in the earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, and to honor them and their families in any capacity. Let’s continue to hold their memories close to our hearts and minds.
What I’m Listening To
🎧 Middle Eastern, North African, & Diaspora Flows 🎧
Keda Keda Bayza - Mahmoud El Esseily featuring Aly Fathalla
Riyam Isabhan - Anas Yan featuring Marwa Lnd
Doko - Hleem Taj Alser
Btwhashni - Felukah
MajaneeN - Tayeb Santo
Sans Papiers - Didine Canon 16 featuring Daly Taliani
BYE - Muhab
Mirage - Louss
Alone - Sanfara featuring Ily
ZOK - Bo9al
Son Style - GIHED
ONE OF A KIND - Skorap
Twahachtek Barsha - Samara
Minnak - Shroof
Junoon Almal - Seera
Guerilla - Raste
khowly - nabeel
Lonely - Xena Elshazlii
Wayyak - Noel Kharman
Parara - Rita L’Oujdia
🎤 Latinx & Hispanic Vibes 🎤
Olvido - Kiddtetoon
Caramelo - Bumont featuring Mezz and RIAH
Chulita - Aleesha
QUEMA - Ryan Castro featuring Peso Plum and SOG
Muñekita - Kali Uchis featuring El Alfa and JT
Bicha - Chesca featuring Mariah Angelique
EL RELOJ - Blessd featuring Maluma
VENTE CONMIGO - Feid
No Pare - NATTI NATASHA
🎼 Other Good Music 🎼
Flow State - Casper Sage
Bug Like An Angel - Mitski
GO GO GO - Jorja Smith
Eastside Girl - VIC MENSA featuring Ty Dolla $ign
Water - Tyla
Rush - Hamzaa
Yaji - Yemi Alade featuring Slimcase and Brainee
Click of My Fingers - Clavish
LIMBO - June Freedom
Lil Fish, Big Pond - Tobe Nwigwe
What I’m Reading
🇱🇧 Lebanon 🇱🇧
Three years after Beirut’s apocalypse, no one is accountable - Lina Mounzer, The Washington Post
The perpetrators of the explosion that killed 200 and left 300,000 homeless have yet to answer for it.
Lebanon’s central bank governor ends 30-year tenure under investigation during dire economic crisis - Kareem Chehayeb, Associated Press
Riad Salameh stepped down on Monday under a cloud of investigation and blame for his country’s economic crisis as several European countries are probing his alleged financial crimes.
Disabled survivors of Beirut port blast long for support, justice - Aya Iskandarani, Agence France-Presse
People hurt or disabled by the catastrophic explosion told AFP that Lebanon, bankrupt and politically paralysed, has failed to deliver adequate medical care, financial support or justice.
The aftermath: how the Beirut explosion has left scars on an already broken Lebanon - Dalal Mawad, The Guardian
Three years ago, a huge explosion ripped the city apart – and with it people’s hopes for rebuilding. The most vulnerable, many of them women, are bearing the brunt of Lebanon’s endless disasters.
Aline Salloum: Embracing inner peace, rebuilding hope after Beirut blast - Yasmina Abou-Haka, L’Orient Today
Market owner Aline Salloum made the conscious decision to stay in Lebanon and rebuild her Gemmayzeh shop after the blast, but she still struggles with the changes that affected the neighborhood.
🌍 Middle East, North Africa, & Diaspora 🌎
On Silence and (In-)visibility: Whither Black Tunisian Mobilization in Post-2011 Tunisia? - Houda Mzioudet, Arab Reform Initiative
This article attempts to focus on the limited scope of Black Tunisian activism and its dynamics, the impact of Saied’s inflammatory rhetoric on Black Tunisians, and post-independence Tunisia’s official state policy of assimilation and marginalization of the Black Tunisians. It also looks at what activists are doing to get ahead despite the current political climate and the challenges of a state policy that engaged in a nationwide black hunt campaign.
Sudanese aid workers face hundreds of job losses - Jacob Goldberg and Haydar Abdelkarim Ibrahim, The New Humanitarian
“Most of my colleagues are all displaced, they all lost their homes.”
In Cairo, paving paradise to put up a parking lot - Yasmine El Rashidi, The Washington Post
One by one, the lush green spaces in Egypt's capital are turning into construction sites as the president and the military "develop" the city.
A Climate Warning from the Cradle of Civilization - Alissa J. Rubin and Bryan Denton, The New York Times
How extreme temperatures and dwindling water are pushing the Fertile Crescent toward the brink.
Algeria's scorched earth leaves state searching for answers - Chanel Tohme, The New Arab
Algeria is on the frontline of the global climate crisis. Affected by forest fires, drought and a shortage of fresh water supply, the Algerian state has scrambled to invest in desalination projects as a possible solution to their woes.
🎶 Music, Arts, & Culture 🎶
How Boston quietly triumphed as a seminal rap city - Dart Adams, NPR
From beginnings so humble that local labels left their addresses off the liner notes, New York's northeast neighbor grew into a sister city, guiding taste and incubating talent.
In war and peace, the oud never leaves this Syrian musician’s side - Ali Haj Suleiman and Husam Hezaber, Al Jazeera
Hassan Hamza preserves the traditional craft of making the musical instrument in a country that has seen more than a decade of war.
The Sudan Tapes Archive: Preserving the Sudanese Music Imprint - Khalid K. Osman, GQ Middle East
A pile of old cassettes and discs live with us in a digitised format.
AM radio served the country for 100 years. Will electric vehicles silence it? - Stephen Battaglio, Los Angeles Times
Bipartisan legislation that would require car manufacturers to keep the AM band in their dashboards is moving forward. It’s also united an unusual coalition representing conservative talk radio hosts, immigrant communities and rural workers.
Can a Rapper Change Italy’s Mind About Migrants? - Alia Malek, The New York Times Magazine
As the country’s right-wing government takes a hard line on Mediterranean immigration, the hip-hop artist Ghali has become a prominent voice of compassion.
📚 Other Reads 📚
‘It’s a crisis’: Maternal health care disappears for millions - Alice Miranda Ollstein and Megan Messerly, Politico
New data from the nonpartisan health advocacy group March of Dimes shows that the U.S. saw a 4 percent decline in hospitals with labor and delivery services between 2019 and 2020.
Can Professional Cricket Thrive in America? - Ed Caesar, The New Yorker
Scenes from the opening night of a new major league in the U.S.
Young Americans who identify with gun culture are more likely to believe in male supremacy, research shows - Jennifer Gerson, The 19th
A first-of-its-kind study surveyed over 4000 14- to 30-year old Americans and highlights the role that social media is playing in misogyny — and the U.S. gun violence epidemic.
Like father, like daughter, for son: Haiti’s trailblazing new generation honors its soccer roots - Tara Subramaniam, CNN
“Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always wanted to play for Haiti because my father played for Haiti. And he always used to tell me the stories about how they were trying to qualify for the World Cup.”
What You’re Saying When You Give Someone the Silent Treatment - Daryl Austin, The Atlantic
Social ostracism has been a common punishment for millennia. But freezing someone out harms both the victim and the perpetrator.