Iain Akerman ventures beneath a motorway in Beirut to find a treasure trove for Arabic vinyl
It’s just gone midday when we enter the chaos that is Souk Al Ahad. Loud, incessant and bizarre, people's lives are littered across its cramped and disheveled floor. Old letters, photographs, paintings, telephones, bells that don't ring, faded postcards and the detritus of life lie for sale alongside chickens, canaries, and the kind of plastic that China produces without end. Stallholders sell sweets and nuts and corn on the cob. There are shoes everywhere. Shoes and clothes.
To all but a few in the Middle East it is perceived as an obsolete medium; an art form worthy only of consignment to history. It is, therefore a digger’s paradise.
Held beneath a motorway flyover in Beirut’s Sin el Fil, the weekend market is more popular than ever. Amidst the noise and intensity we head to the far end of the market, through a heaving throng of masculinity, almost to the main concrete supports that prop up the flyover, and turn left into a canopied area running parallel with the road overhead. More sedate than the mass of people directly beneath the flyover, the tented area is filled with stalls and clearly defined thoroughfares, along which we weave our way towards an enclave of book sellers and antique dealers. We are looking for one thing – vinyl.
Not many people collect Arabic vinyl. To all but a few in the Middle East it is perceived as an obsolete medium; an art form worthy only of consignment to history. It is, therefore a digger’s paradise. Unlike many African countries, where all but a handful of records have been snapped up and fought over by hungry collectors, the Arab world remains virtually untapped – un-dug even. Nowhere is this more evident than in Beirut and the madhouse market that is Souk Al Ahad.
Some stalls among the enclave of book sellers and antique dealers stock only a few records, hidden amidst playing cards, religious icons, clocks, pocket watches, coins, gramophones and the occasional vintage movie poster, but others hand us bag after bag of 45s, many of which are out of their sleeves and in poor condition. Some, however, are worth the hours of listening and digging.
There’s a copy of Abdel Halim Hafez’s Mawood, a 56-minute masterpiece composed by Baligh Hamdy; Asmahan’s Emta Ha Teraf on scruffy and scuffed 45; and Fairuz’s Aatini al Nay, which, although in near mint condition, has a crack running alongside part of its label. Fairuz’s Ya Hala Ya Habibi, which I have been searching for for years, is nowhere to be seen. An instrumental version of Laylet Hob lies sandwiched between two copies of Oum Kalthoum’s Enta Omry, while The Latins’ Habibi Twist, a bizarre produce of RCA Italy, is worth the three dollars being asked.
Naji, a portly man who buys us heavily sweetened coffee and watches patiently as we place a Vestax portable turntable on a plastic chair between his stall and the one opposite, feeds us Arabic 45s from the early 60s to late 70s. Occasionally he hands us a selection of albums. Some are immediately discarded, many are listened to.
After almost two hours, we leave, heading back through the worsening throng and eventually on to Bourj Hammoud and Basta, two lucrative and sprawling areas capable of giving up their secrets to those willing to invest the time. En route, Enrico Macias sings Beyrouth Nous. In Beirut, no taxi ride is wasted.