Europe should not be afraid of being Europe. Edi Rama

Creating beauty from anger and despair

Why Dayna Ash should have been “Person of the Year” 2014.

Dayna Ash despises sentimentalism – so maybe I better keep to myself that listening to her perform poetry on stage, on this December night in Beirut, almost makes me cry. But then again, she appreciates honesty – so I guess it is okay to just admit it.

It is Dayna’s last performance with “Haven for Artists”, the organization she founded three and a half years ago. “There is not enough poetry to say how much I am going to miss you, Beirut”, is how she commences her reading. As she recites her poem, along to the guitar-playing of Antonio Hajj, word and sound melt together in a synesthetic storm whose overwhelming immediacy is inescapable. It tears down the frontiers between the performer and the audience, between one’s own subconscious fears and dreams and those of myriad alter egos that any of the attendees could encounter as she goes along. Dressed in a ragged Ramones shirt, Dayna seems somehow displaced among all the artsy-fartsy bohemians graciously hovering around the place.

And yet one cannot shake the emotion that her voice carries in it the yearning of a whole generation in the Middle East. The expressiveness and the beauty of her poetry are amplified as its echo resonates from the work of every single artist who exhibits tonight.

Discuss, flourish, inspire

“Haven for Artists” is a community for young underground artists in Beirut and the Middle East. Its genuine idea is to create a space for these artists to be encompassed in a place where they can have critical discussions about their art and art forms. Anyone who has anything to say is more than welcome to say it on stage. At Haven, artists are invited to expose themselves to the constructive criticism – and even more so to the appreciation – of their fellows. The most important goal is thus to generate an atmosphere in which the artists guide one another; Dayna explains: “The point of Haven was never to limit or to judge. It was to give them as much push as we possibly could and then allowing collaborations that could happen by simply just being around one another. It is to make them flourish within themselves and inspire others to flourish around them.”

In Lebanon, where the majority of young people grow up with a sense of never knowing what might happen tomorrow, and where one can watch the truth rope-dance over the abysses of nepotism and the artificial religious fragmentation of society; the task of building a creative community is indeed far more ambitious than it may seem at first glance.

Fuck politics, do art: escapism in fast forward

“The Middle East is so desperately in need. We want to speak. We are sick of revolts, we are sick of revolution – I mean at least me personally, and I do not want to fight anymore.” Dayna is not alone in saying this. In a country where revolt and resignation are two steps on the same staircase to nowhere, art has become one of the last living spaces for many. “Haven for Artists”, in this sense, is more than just a name.

However, one thing that Haven has never harbored, and never will harbor, is fatalism. Instead of clinging to a glorified past, like others do – to the times that Lebanon was associated with and admired for landmark personalities like Khalil Gibran or Fairuz – Haven’s intention is to accompany young artists in their strife to “grasp the fundamental basis of what we are now”, as Dayna says. The entire kaleidoscope of the struggles of young people in the Middle East is refracted through the individual trajectories and mirrored in the work of the artists that Haven hosts: their anger and despair – but even more so their yearnings, their unabated hopes and dreams.

If art is a revolt against what Milan Kundera called the “categorical consent with existence”, then Dayna and every single other member of the Haven team are rebels. They are rebels who have armed themselves with visions and specific tools – be it the typewriter, the guitar, the camera, or the paintbrush – to fight the inescapable absurdity of the here and now. Their revolt is something far more constructive than any political endeavor, let alone fight, could ever attain: a common idea, expressed in the universal language of art.

An artistic revolution against Middle Eastern madness

Amidst all this Middle Eastern madness – the invisible traces and concrete manifestations of which can be found everywhere in Beirut – Haven for Artists is as much a refuge as is it a space of active contestation. And Dayna Ash is the very real, unpretentious, tattooed incarnation of art’s most genuine capacities: to create beauty from anger and despair, and to explore ways to create meaning where rational explanation fails.

But despite everything that she has achieved together with others and for others, she is still convinced that she is a coward. And even though sometimes, in the course of a spontaneous jam session, she believes herself to be “fuckin’ Jim Morrison”, she believes far more in the talent and work of her fellow Haveners than she does in her own.

Dayna stands out exactly because she is, for now, only one of those countless talented, courageous, nonconformist voices of the Middle East. This is due to her unwillingness to compromise in doing what she believes in: making these voices heard. “I think it’s time for the Middle East’s artistic revolution”, she says. The revolution that she and Haven have started is both strikingly simple and fundamental: individual empowerment through art, a fast-forward escape from political apathy.

So forget about “positive vibes” and all that jazz and bullshit. Get yourself another beer, indulge in what Dayna describes as the “magnificent melancholy of existence”, and accept that life is a bitch. But at least she’s a damn beautiful one. It is this attitude that makes Dayna – and all the Haveners – my Person of the Year 2014.

Read more in this debate: Mark Briggs, Julia Korbik.

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