Show me yours, I show you mine: Lebanon, love, war and parties.

Words by: Jenny Lee
Posted: 11/10/07 13:46

It's a land of opportunity. Anything can happen here, says Leila Sarkis, a gregarious, stylish Nigerian-born Lebanese DJ and one-third of party promotion company Cotton Candy. And she doesn't mean England, or France, or Spain, or - god forbid - America. She's talking about her home, Lebanon, a country rooted in Western imagination as "home of Hezbollah" or simply a target for an awful lot of Israeli firepower.

Europe seems largely disinterested in any story coming out of the Middle East that doesn't involve the familiar themes of bombs, refugees, oil and religious fanatics. As a result most of us know as much about what life is really like in Lebanon as we know about the dark side of the moon. The loss, I suspect, is ours. Even a cursory glance online (or through a guide book) will inform you it is a prosperous, highly educated country, studded with tourist attractions, where Christians and Muslims mix freely. It is also - as Leila tells it - home to one of the hippest underground party scenes imaginable.

Just listen to Leila's business partner Carma Andraos's description of Cotton Candy's first anniversary party. "The invitation was a pink key - if you were invited you had a key which opened the door to the venue. Inside we had champagne, vodka, Bacardi… everything was free…" That sounds like something out of a fairy tale to those of us inured to paying €15 for a vodka in clubs. Unsurprisingly, they invited 500 people and wound up with more than 700 at the party, and kept turning more away. "People don't care about the future they just want to have fun." Before there was Cotton Candy Leila was DJing and Carma and Jimmy Francis (the third part of the triumvirate) were throwing house parties. "In Lebanon, everyone knows everyone, it's very easy to make connections," Leila explains. As a result, word spread fast about the themed parties. Good news for the clubbers, bad news for Carma, whose house became a target for police raids. After various run-ins with neighbours and the authorities she realised she had to stop using her home as a club. So she and Jimmy (who both work in advertising) banded together with Leila - who DJs at various clubs in Beirut - to start Cotton Candy.

The aim? To keep the vibe of their infamous house parties, but move them somewhere they wouldn't wind up being served with eviction notices. Luckily the tightly woven fabric of Lebanese life has made their mission relatively easy, and in its first year Cotton Candy has thrown its monthly parties in underground theatres, photographers' studios… anywhere they create a space to party.

When asked if what they do is strictly legal Leila laughs, "We do the paperwork…." As further insurance against official interference they use places where Carma says "no one would ever dream of having a party." And - in common with old school ravers - they never use the same venue twice, and locations are only announced a day or two before the party. This has the double effect of ensuring privacy and making the events hugely sought after and strictly word-of-mouth. "We don't advertise," Leila says. And they don't need to… every month "more new faces turn up. We can't fit them all," she says. Tellingly, they are so successful Lebanese club owners are badgering them to put on events in their clubs, or take up a residency. "We don't want to go commercial, though. We want to keep it underground," Leila explains.

"Everyone is very open. The younger generation is wild! We have a mix of everyone - Christians, Muslims - you can't tell any difference."

Financially, it's a tough call. All three work full time (Carma actually lives in Dubai now, and flies back every month to help with the parties) but none of them see sticking to their itinerant existence as a sacrifice. "It's not about the money, it's about the fun," says Carma. "People wait impatiently for the parties. We want to continue to be sexy, desired, to have people follow us. Sponsors sometimes get fed up with us being so spontaneous, but we have to do it from the heart."

This is, of course, what all promoters say but coming from Cotton Candy the words ring truer than most, because they have a special relationship with their punters. When asked if clubbing is easily affordable or "elite" her shrug is almost audible. "If someone has $100 wage they'll spend it on nightlife. If they have $1000 on a credit card they'll spend that. People don't care about the future they just want to have fun."

Case in point: during the Israeli war last year clubs in Beruit shut down because of the bombardment but outside the city, in the mountains clubs were still packed with partiers. "Two days after the war was over, all the clubs in the city were full again," Leila says. "This summer has been very tense, politically, but if there's an explosion one day, the next day people are back in the streets, the cafes and the clubs. During the bombardment [last year] people were calling us up asking when the next party was... "

"One party might be electro, the next deep house. We don't want people to get bored."This attitude is the rule, she says, rather than the exception. Is the wider community very conservative? Leila snorts. "Everyone is very open. The younger generation is wild! We have a mix of everyone at our parties - Christians, Muslims - you can't tell any difference. They're all wild. They way they interact is very open. Our last event was an underwear party - which they scene isn't quite ready for - but it was crazy. Very sexy."

M y mind's eye, trained to see a Middle East awash in hajibs and turbans, the concept of an underwear party in Lebanon seems fantastical. But it just goes to show there's more to Lebanon than you might see on the news. Cotton Candy's playful daring attracts a hipster crowd - rock singers, producers, media types. In a spirit of mutual hedonism and respect, the promoters provide ice and cocktail shakers at the parties, encouraging people to bring their own booze and mix their own drinks; all in perfect keeping with the house party vibe.

For now, the scene remains largely local - Leila headlines most parties, with the exception of the first anniversary which was headed by their first-ever international guest, Shonky. "I'm infatuated with his music, also with Jamie Jones… but we play a mix of things. One party might be electro, the next deep house. We don't want people to get bored," Leila explains with a smile.

With their determination to put on limited, intimate parties in fantastic venues it's hard to imagine the pleasure-hungry clubbers of Lebanon getting bored any time soon. The trick will be to keep Cotton Candy a private affair - should they so choose. "We've been asked to start putting on parties in Dubai," Carma reports. They're holding off though.

"We love what we do, we want everything to be fantastic," she adds....
So pack up your preconceptions and - if you want a taste of truly underground clubbing in a unique atmosphere - open your eyes to the possibilities beyond the London/Ibiza/Berlin triangle. Remember, the more unlikely the destination the more unforgettable the night…


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