The Balkans, Mashrou’ Leila & Being on the Road

I have finally bid goodbye to Münster, the quiet little German city that everybody constantly raved about but I just couldn’t warm up to. Since the start of April, I’ve been travelling across the Balkans, soaking in the diverse culture, cuisine, hospitality and unpretentiousness of the region. I’ve finally checked Sarajevo off my bucket list and discovered several other interesting places in the process: Tuzla & Mostar (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Split (Croatia), Skopje & Ohrid (Macedonia), Prishtina (Kosovo) and Tirana (Albania).

And thus, an itinerary that initially consisted of a round-trip flight to Sarajevo has stretched into a month-long journey around the Balkans. I’ve taken buses across several borders, which incidentally reminded me of the fact that the US tourist visa in my Indian passport is valued more than my passport itself. Sigh. Despite the conflict-ridden history of the region, being here has restored my love for travel in a way that parts of Western Europe did not.

In many ways, the Balkan region is the opposite of Germany. It’s poorer, yes. But it’s also more easygoing—people smile, strangers chat freely with each other, rules aren’t always meant to be strictly obeyed and you take things as they come. Plans don’t always go… as planned. At times, you’ll have to act spontaneously, devise a new plan, approach people (who are always willing to help).

“It’s the Balkans,” they’ll say with a smile and a shrug.

Towards the end of April, I took a little detour, returning to Germany for ten final days to work, replenish my bank account and attend a concert.

Mashrou’ Leila performing at the Ehdeniyat International Festival in Lebanon [Reuters]

Mashrou’ Leila‘s songs have dominated my Spotify playlists for a while now, and the concert, held at the Kölner Philharmonie in Cologne, was phenomenal. The five-member indie band from Lebanon, whose lead singer Hamed Sinno is openly gay, renders spirited and soulful songs in Arabic about politics, identity, gay rights, Lebanese society, sexuality and, of course, love. The group also frequently addresses the oversimplified representation of Arabs in Western societies.

Mashrou’ Leila’s bold, erudite lyrics have sparked controversy across the Middle East and even resulted in them being banned from performing in the largely conservative countries of Egypt and Jordan, but even so their music has paved the way for emerging dialogues on identity and sexuality in the Arab world. Oh, and did I mention it’s also just plain fun to dance to?

In short, do give them a listen.

Presently, I’m in Tirana, where it has been pouring rain all day. I’m enjoying the sound of the rain from my cosy balcony on the third floor of a building in an old Albanian neighbourhood, while spending far too much time trying to get some coherent writing down. There is plenty more to see in this region and I hope to return someday. But for now, Tirana is the last stop on my Balkan trip. It’s time to head to Italy in a couple of days.

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