The few days that reconciled me with Lebanon
I made a promise to myself not to set foot in Beirut ever again. I didn’t even attend my grandmother's funeral in November of last year. Refusing to go back (even for the holidays) seemed to me the only way to forget Lebanon, to erase it from my mind, to not walk the same path as my parents, who immigrated to Paris in 1975, but never stopped going to Beirut every summer, hoping to return one day for good. Forty years later, they are still in France and I cannot envision them coming back to live here.
However, at the age of nineteen -and in love with Beirut’s art scene-, I chose to settle down in my parents' homeland. I became a photographer, a columnist, a videographer, a writer and even the director of a film festival. All my time was spent looking for funding to support an artistic event in a country with an uncertain future, where no sponsor wanted to invest long term for fear that a war would break out overnight with our Israeli neighbor. Ten years later, I decided to return to Paris, exhausted from chasing after the money needed to fund my work, and most especially, tired of seeing the same politicians in power. I felt that I was treading water, that nothing would ever change, that nothing would shake the feudal family dynasties that have governed us for decades. Political power passes from father to son, from step-father to son-in-law. All the progressive, promising speeches they make before an election collapse and disintegrate the day after. The mere act of writing their names makes me cringe: Jumblatt, Geagea, Aoun, Berri, Nasrallah and all the others. I always wondered how those who tore the country apart during the civil war were still the makers of its destiny.
With the first images that emerged on Friday, something touched me deeply. The feeling was abstract, it was definitely very distant from me, but I saw myself in everything, both in the violence on display as well as in the peaceful rally. A wide feeling of discontent finally emerged from amid all those years that had been stolen from us, all those shattered years. My heart was pounding. To me, this uprising seemed unprecedented, unhoped-for.
People from every political party and movement , of all confessions, of all ages were taking to the streets. I wondered whether to join the movement or not. It took me less than forty-eight hours to decide. I booked a one way ticket for the modest sum of one hundred and fifty euros. I’d never done this before!
Before traveling, I went to kiss my parents goodbye. I had the urge to convince them to join me. But after only a few words, I realized that it was not going to happen. We were in two different worlds. I expected to arrive at their home and attend a party with their friends amidst a sea of balloons in the colors of the Lebanese flag, but it wasn’t the case. My father was watching a French film starring a young Vincent Lindon and my mother was asleep. My plan to have them travel with me turned into a polite masquerade. They used every possible excuse in order to convince me to stay in Paris: they asked me to wait for Saad Hariri’s speech; or that on Tuesday Hezbollah was likely to take on the streets; the airport was going to shut down. My mother even promised to cook ‘kebbeh’ the next day, and my father promised to give me money.
At Rafik Hariri’s airport, many people were sporting the Lebanese flag on their backs. This was one of the few times in my life that the presence of a flag did not frighten me. It even reassured me. Avis, Europcar, City Car, the car rental companies were all repeating the same sentence: "We are currently not renting because of the situation. Take a taxi or a scooter”. I avoided the men who were snatching at me, and I ordered a scooter via the WhatsApp number that was sent to me before arriving in Beirut. Without a helmet on, I hopped on behind the driver and we headed towards our family home in Zalka, on the outskirts of Beirut. The highway was blocked by army checkpoints, and huge banners were displayed on both sides of the road. The slogans called for the resignation of the government and the collapse of the sectarian system. One of the banners merely called for a better life… I have never seen Lebanon in such a state of revolt. I feel that this is the time; that the country will go all the way. A friend wrote to me, "Welcome home”. He is right, as this exactly how I felt: I was finally back home even though I have always been perceived as a "Lebanese from abroad", an insult that suits me just fine. I felt like an outsider in my own country.
Upon arriving at the family home, three books winked at me: ‘Provocation a la Desobeissance’ by Jerome Lindon, ‘Le livre de la sagesse arabe’ by Elian J. Finbert and ‘Le sens de ma vie’ by Romain Gary. Collectively, these three titles summarized my current state of mind. I threw them in my bag and after a cold shower, I decided to walk from Zalka to Beirut. On the street, smells of the protests intermingled: garbage, burnt rubber and others that I could not recognize. The roads were empty except for a few men blocking access to the bridges. I joined my friend Nour in the Downtown area. She took my hand. We hadn’t seen each other in three years: she was in London with her English boyfriend, but had to come back for a few months because of visa issues. The Lebanese passport remains one of the most ineffective passports in the world ... To think that only last week she praised me for having kept my promise to not come back. She had said to me: "This is the first time that you stick to your word."
She dragged me from Martyr’s Square to Riad el Solh. She made enter buildings that were normally inaccessible, like the Grand Theater and The Egg. She told me to take in the view from this spot, then from that one. She offered me a cigarette (a Marlboro red): "What now?". We did not know. In the midst of the protesters, I was not able to capture the mood that I had seen in the images of Sunday. My friends who were there felt the same way: "It's not the same”. Saad Hariri had just delivered his speech. While listening to him I felt uneasy. I had the impression that he was playing a strange game. There was something wrong in the way he talked, laughed, used his hands. It was not a Prime Ministerial perfomance, he did not measure up. He lacked poise. Three days later while listening to Michel Aoun, the President of the Republic, I had the same feeling: they are not taking us seriously.
On the terrace of a restaurant in Mar Mikhael, a woman wearing a long black dress is sitting alone, smoking a hookah. She looked me up and down: I had the look of a two-bit protester. She was a queen. I am an unknown amongst the people. I love these encounters, these meetings. They convey stories about Lebanon. Like this man sitting next to me in a cafe, who tells the waiter that he cannot join the demonstrations because he cannot get there in his Maserati. Behind me, trendy ‘Beiruti’ people are speaking about Instagram. According to them, everything is happening through Instagram. A white Chrysler drives by with its chauffeur shouting: "Revolution, revolution."
Throughout the events and the encounters of the week, moments of joy and confusion were everywhere. Every meter you walk through the city, the demonstrations in Beirut take on a different facet: of resistance, of opposition, of fierce debates, even of a town fair. At some point, I got angry at the overly cheerful mood. It was irritating at times, with boring songs being played over and over again through poor quality speakers. Again, I was not the only one feeling it. Some of my friends were also irritated. Some even decided not to come back if things didn’t change. Nevertheless, expressing one's melancholy and unhappiness through joy is incredibly gratifying. As long as the army does not open fire, as long as militiamen do not attack the protesters, why protest in any other way? Dancing does not stop you from rebuilding, from thinking. Events of a completely different kind come to mind: the ones in which Lebanese men all-dressed in black proceed to march in ranks.
By communicating with acquaintances living in the outskirts of Beirut, I sense that the same old parties have reoccupied their positions since Monday. For many of them, their analysis of the movement is old fashioned, done through an interpretive framework that to me seems outdated. Some see in this uprising the fingerprints of the West, others of Iran. It depends. I no longer know who to believe. Supporters of the Lebanese Forces tell me they want to stay on the streets until they disarm Hezbollah. Others close to Hezbollah talk about Geagea's management of American money. I get three videos of hundreds of Hezbollah and Amal supporters on scooters that make everyone around me panic. I hear different comments and opinions. According to a militant friend from Hezbollah, the small scooter parade took place the day before. The LBC, a TV station, says it took place the same day. According to a journalist friend in Al-Akhbar, Hezbollah and Amal’s leadership are denying that they sent any one to infiltrate the demonstrations. According to an acquaintance and a loyal reader of L'OLJ, these bikers would never dare to wave their flags without the approval of their leaders. Listening to all the opinions, from every side leaves me entirely confused. One no longer knows who or what to believe.
These fears are not only seen through the analysis, but also through well-engrained reflexes: the mother of a friend told me how horrified she was when on a checkpoint, a ‘lambda’ -a man on the street- asked who she was and where she was coming from. It reminded her of the worst periods of the civil war. I sympathize with her, but I tell myself that a revolution without chaos, is not really a revolution. If we really want to bring all these ‘zaïms’ (the leaders of political parties) with their paternalistic speeches down, we must go all the way. But this is the self-righteous dream of a man living in another country. I cannot encourage people to revolt if I do not stay here, if I do not also take the risk of losing everything. To the question "What to do?” I answer, "I do not know”. Here, many want change, but they also need to get around, to live, to make ends meet. The economic situation of the country is catastrophic. Most of the friends with whom I worked in Lebanon have gone back to live with their parents. They can no longer afford to pay rent rent. Some are trying to find work abroad, in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Africa. Others simply want to leave the country and live in Europe: London, Paris, Berlin, wherever, but they want to leave Beirut for good.
In downtown Beirut, in tents planted by civil society organizations and the movement ‘Citoyens et Citoyennes’, in the State of former minister Charbel Nahas, this is a time for unity. This unity was sorely lacking during the uprising of 2015, triggered by the garbage collection crisis. These united movements are the most relevant representatives of the anger being expressed over the last week. I hope to find among them a figure that can embody change and lead the country. They also need to find ways to spread their ideas to as many people as possible. Here the law of the strongest and the wealthiest still rules. One can not deny it. From just channel surfing, I notice that the TV channels are still biased each with their own political affiliations. Some try to minimize, to quiet down the movement. Others are riding the wave, but I have the feeling that none of them is in line with the real issues of the revolt. Lacking the necessary funding, the civil society and its sympathizers should infiltrate all the television channels, and most especially, not limit themselves to the microcosm of the educated Beiruti elite. They should travel to all the villages and cities of Lebanon, even the most distant ones, in order to make their voices heard, just like this lawyer from Beirut who headed to Nabatiyeh in order to defend the citizens’ right to demonstrate. The challenges remain significant.
I look forward to seeing progress in the days and weeks ahead. After a long period of hesitation about extending my stay in Beirut, or even staying for good, I finally booked a plane ticket for Friday morning. This patriotic movement that started last week and is still ongoing in all corners of the country has already left a permanent mark in Lebanon’s history. I am going back to Paris because my life, my work and my girlfriend are there, even if I know for a fact that once I am back in France, I will feel useless, out of place, lonely around friends who cannot really grasp what is at stake in Lebanon. But after the few days spent in Beirut, I have regained hope. I have somewhat reconciled with this country, and I made a promise to myself that I will return very soon.
Sabyl Ghoussoub is a chronicler, writer, photographer and curator. Last book: "Le nez juif” (L’Antilope, 2018).