Lebanon 2019: Impressions of a culture of revolution

Now in its second month, the uprising in Lebanon is revealing its nature and cultural character.

The word inscribed upon the wrist of the iconic 6-metre high fist in downtown Beirut — which was firebombed early Friday morning but was rebuilt the following day — is ثورة (thawra); meaning revolution, and this is what is going on here.

The first demand of the revolution is “all of them means all of them”. The popular chant demands that the entire divisive, self-serving and corrupt government must resign, as Prime Minister Hariri has, or be removed by the will of the people. The revolutionary drive here is widespread, complex and humbling to witness.

I had the opportunity to visit the occupation of downtown Beirut over a number of days this week and these are some of my impressions. As an artist organising around climate justice and social issues within Australia, I paid particular attention to the creative roles within Lebanon’s revolution.

The occupation of downtown Beirut stretches from Martyrs’ Square to Parliament where people hold meetings night and day and where they regularly defend themselves, unarmed, against sallies by the army — and sometimes the militia. There are tents that represent the regions of Lebanon, tents for the aspects of the women’s movement, for student groups, and for many hybrid assemblies; of young and old, and people of all the 18 religions here.

The beautifully unfinished and yet war-ravaged opera house called The Egg is now adorned by the colours of pride streaking down its sides, and it is ringed by a photographic exhibition from the early moments of the now 39 day-old revolution. Half conceived when the 1975 war broke out, the public had ever been allowed inside The Egg. It has now been reclaimed by the revolution and meetings and performances are sometimes held inside. I was immensely privileged to enter this embryo of a future that never was, but might now be something so much more powerful. Upon its interior walls the poetry of rebellion and dreams of justice are written and painted; with a particular emphasis on LGBTI rights and the rights of the poor.  

 https://lh3.googleusercontent.com/cu_5sSwVV9kQxrfR6ZQcML0dpYDAuO_y6mwDpS1t3fTeda0L8bw2ajSJBDmtvJFge_qb8ODLfvPgqmWKMmc7YQa8H_KRukfeWZ9zTdBjt2uqB5n4ZcH1vAD5DFlQjjr2dLkukv3Rhttps://lh6.googleusercontent.com/3ilar8RWv0UKTfbi2ujGqItMrcB6fvzn-NV5IGj-2B3X6k_ctuWkLSoVP4Q_wIryrumaah_RzInQ2m938P54b3Sma2RzntISLkGy_LCnFk50LbASOU6xmHyMWpU4bsXKxMtppxEBhttps://lh4.googleusercontent.com/7PTKGGWQ5LnnpzywP8h3xK_RHQN7gB7k2J0o7Dmxz49gC-4zNyYlKHSFl2RTCdX3_PIVPd_yseGOG0j78d2bbkupOl3j5qN12Q7Zr-eLY_ikgFH91Vqg__yOnGC1Dcei1Nkio38l

The downtown area has a long history of political struggle. It features ancient ruins, the epic Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque next to the Marounite Church of Beirut, and its namesake statue dedicated to the martyrs who died during the Ottoman occupation that was overthrown in 1908.

The sculpture is a symbol that has been laden with further struggles the country has gone through. But under the alliance of political leaders in government, who have become a mutually supportive oligarchy across religious lines, this cultural space has been given over to a private corporation called Solidere.

The corporation has instituted commercial developments that have killed the cultural vitality of the area. Yet under incredibly favourable terms, Solidere makes excellent profits by running waterfront hotels and leasing the port’s ocean real estate to tourists and the region’s elite. It comes as no surprise to people of Lebanon that the family of the recently resigned Prime Minister Saad al-Harir is a major shareholder in Solidere. The corruption here is unconcealed and on display.

Walking among the buildings that were once sterile institutions but now proclaim “End Solidere” and “Revolution” in graffiti and shattered glass, I wondered whether the links between corporation and state here are so different to those in Australia.

The obvious difference is that the government here has been lazy. They have failed to provide enough for a middle class to become trapped by their comforts and relative prosperity. In a place that knows the horrors of war, they have taken advantage of people’s desire for peace and stability but, with the economy decimated and with nothing to lose, the citizens have risen to take back power. And they are taking back their cultural rights too. Where they were previously barred by security, people now fish with their children in the harbour where the boats are moored and an enormous stop-sign banner has been hung from an unfinished construction to face the windows of the lavish Hotel Riviera.

The entire city is covered in the art of the revolution and the national flag has become a sign inextricably tied to revolution. Anthems of the movement have been created and the (literal) dance party atmosphere of many of the demonstrations have become the phenomena of social media. The revolution is dynamic: sometimes incredibly loud — jubilant or powered by outrage, at other times it is quiet, understated and deeply thoughtful.

Late one night I spoke with two graphic design students who are living at the occupation and who are subsequently failing their university courses. One of the students told me how she ‘won’t miss this chance’. They explained how one of their friends had painted much of the area we were standing in and had given over her tools to homeless people, teaching them how to use aerosols to create their own graffiti and murals.

I sat in one assembly where a detailed proposal for a new railway system was outlined. In another I heard—via translation— a woman eloquently argue the needs of the next phase of the revolution.

Some listeners sat on carpets inside the tent with older people seated in chairs. The ring of people listening stretched out in the darkness beyond the light of the open marquee. Beyond them, many children played on the carless streets and stood around fires among adult citizens. https://lh4.googleusercontent.com/rDAqSXEUk3oc75Z83CYrlHFOjLRYwuuAVRJMT3ItR4IKA6nqYP3Pm1Fz68Yd1FiKiDK8ItMBlenjIqCPmfFlF8SGLmw_w-goUQIXI7OybdGJQFzitfVRbPkHo0NujS6z_q0oGa4hhttps://lh5.googleusercontent.com/ru4TcKz1bibHzF6kKMdpH7M09R6SPpwXkRtOSIagReIRugvgKMZ9VHNK1RXrHER4zr8ctmpuP6lLYSjYOKL_RxZE70kRTs2nX3fkIRWUIBmD-Mozcp7F5vKoEY5DJnCT--CRYG8d

Everyone here is committed to living in a non-sectarian way and noone knows exactly how to do it. That doesn’t hold anyone back. They are doing it, they will figure it out. There is no turning away from it. Lebanon's revolutionaries recognise that things could shift at any stage and that there could be terrible horrors coming but I didn't meet anyone who was deterred. The students of the movement can remember the war of 2006 and the murderous airstrikes straifing the city. Their parents and grandparents are survivors of a 15 year civil war. They know in their bodies and lived experience how bad things can get but they are committed.

On the morning I arrived the government attempted to resume parliament, even though they had no Prime Minister. One of their intended purposes was to pass legislation that, according to some people I spoke to, was both designed to make empty concessions to the revolution as well as legislating a form of amnesty for corruption. But the session did not go ahead because thousands of citizens strategically blocked the roads and stared down the army, even when an MP unleashed his security guard to fire his automatic rifle into the air.

A friend spoke to me about wanting to act on climate change, but they acknowledged they could do little until they secured clean water, basic employment, healthcare and affordable, reliable electricity. How peopled balanced the needs of the revolution with work, study and family duties was incredibly interesting. While I was there things seemed to stabilise a little and some of the universities resumed classes after 3 weeks off. I was invited to run a dance improvisation workshop at one of the unis and, because the revolution was so uncontroversial and everywhere, the dance became a reflection upon the dynamics and relationships of alliance within the movement.

The students and young people are a considerable force. They have a list of things that the revolution will achieve and they are prioritising them in a strategic fashion. Many people of different ages and backgrounds talked to me about how removing the government was just one step, that the goal was a total change of the system. I have been part of some brief utopias before but nothing with the all-or-nothing commitment such as this. The time here has affirmed for me that artists have a huge role to play in transforming society, but our work is needed on the street, with the people, and it needs to be explicitly tied to change. Art can’t just exist in studios or galleries or theatres where it can be institutionalised and ignored.

Thinking about home more generally, it is shocking to think how much opportunity for transformation we have and that we are alienated and unhappy — or at least we will be as climate change destroys the illusions of prosperity and bullshit egalitarianism. We are possessed of all the advances and technology of the modern world, all of the freedoms and political agency that can exist under capitalism (contradictory, unfairly distributed and conditional as they are), and we have a bounty of ecologically vibrant land to share. Anything less than a full transformation of our society won't provide safety and justice for our young people and ourselves.

All means all.

[Sam Fox is an artist and activist based in Boorloo/Perth — the lands of the Whadjuk People of the Noongar Nation. He is a founding member of Arts & Cultural Workers for Climate Action.]

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