Culture

Five Lebanese novelists talk about the "revolution"

What words and concepts are these brilliant authors using to analyze the protest movement that has been shaking up Lebanon for the past month?

Illustration Ivan Debs

Charif Majdalani: The revolt for a better future against the past

It was clear from the beginning and has been fiercely and vividly confirmed in recent days: Lebanese youth are at the heart of the country’s revolution. They have risen up and have been protesting every day against corruption, unemployment, emigration, the absence of productive outlets for their skills and talents, the miserable state of public schools and the pitiful standards of official educational programs.

On a deeper level, the youth are revolting against political and social practices that they believe belong to a bygone era: communalism; the almost feudal allegiance to sectarian leaders; paternalism. The norms that have governed the country for a century no longer match up with the younger generation’s view of the world and life.

Teenage and young adult Lebanese are constantly connected to their peers elsewhere on the planet. Their notions of public space, relationships with others and communication are totally different from the political class, which has set the norms for decades. In other words: there is a major gap between the younger generation and its elders. Lebanese youth are in an all out revolt against the older generation and against a Lebanon with which they don’t identify; a country of civil war and the devastating, endless post-war period, which these young adults are obviously no longer willing to pay the price for.

We have always been proud of the Lebanese people’s resilience. Without questioning Lebanon's amazing ability to be reborn from the ashes, resilience, as a way of reacting to and recovering from a traumatic past, has allowed us to adapt to a degraded political and social reality. In other words: to accept all the above and make the best out of it.

But now, the youth are clearly refusing to accept and adapt. Even though the traumas and calamities of the past––which we are still tangled in––are not theirs, on several occasions during the past month, the younger generation has shown that it is well aware of the need to avoid returning to the conflict that caused those scars. On a daily basis, they are showing a kind of maturity and lucidity that their predecessors did not possess or maybe did not learn to exercise.

* Charif Majdalani is a Lebanese French novelist. His last book, "Des vies possibles” (Possible Lives), (Seuil), was published in January 2019.


Salma Kojok: the revolution through language has yet to be achieved

Writing about Lebanon’s popular uprising requires rethinking language. How do we label what is happening? Revolution; rebirth; disorganization; dream; chaos; revolt; turmoil; upheaval; subversion; shake-up? What should the popular uprising be called? What are its symbols and symptoms; its scars and its omens?

For several weeks, Lebanon’s major cities big have been living to the rhythm of their streets. Their inhabitants have taken over public spaces. Beirut, with its city center built by warlords and seized by the business elite with their social vulgarity and opulence, has been transformed by the mere presence of the Lebanese people. The space is more welcoming, happy, smiling, alive and electrified by the words and slogans that are being voiced and acts of solidarity.

In public squares, people munch on “turmos” (lupin) and “foul” (beans); they discuss, fall in love and chat. Lebanese men and women have taken over the streets in an act of re-appropriation, calling for a better life and a more egalitarian political system that would protect rights and freedoms. There is a creative energy, a joie de vivre, an expressed desire to be the writer of one’s own history and a collective project aimed at building a better country.

The revolution through language has yet to be achieved. Speeches are still cautious in their choice of words and the meanings hidden behind their messages. The language itself must be redesigned from the bottom up. The potency of the patriarchal system and tradition forms of domination are still apparent in some of the jokes and slogans that are going around. It is time to design a ‘thawra’ (revolution) our way, in our own language.

* Salma Kojok is a French Lebanese novelist. Her novel "Le dérisoire tremblement des femmes” (The Derisory Tremor of Women), Editions Erick Bonnier, was published in 2019


Mimosa el-Arawi: if the new generation is the flame, the war generation is the fuel

It is very difficult for me as an artist, writer and journalist to summarize in a few words what this revolution represents for me.

Looking at it is like looking at an everyday life picture, provided that the picture was taken in a bright light, the colors exploding and almost burning. It brings back painful memories of loved ones killed, other ones exiled, of aborted dreams and unfulfilled wishes. This revolution is the driving force of a nation long subjected to the authority of the warlords who damaged it twice: the first time during the war, and the second time when they returned to power.

Belonging to the generation of the war means to be at the center, but also to be the (often absent) link between the generation that lived and knew Lebanon before the outbreak of the war and the new generation that is on the move today through its participation in the liberation of Lebanon from its obscure past. Public squares and revolutionary songs are instilling in this young generation a sense of citizenship. As a result, the young people are raising important issues and questions.

If the new generation is the flame of the revolution, the war generation is its fuel; the previous generation being a sad reflection tainted with the nostalgia of the golden years. The open space revolution has become an area where old scores are settled with many repressed and well buried memories of the past, which are not dead but remain in a long lethargy fueled by successive authorities, sectarianism and total administrative corruption.

What I am living today can be summed up by the words of Gaston Bachelard: "The poetic image is not subject to a thrust; it is not the echo of a past. It is, rather, the opposite: through the brightness of an image, the distant past resonates of echoes."

* Mimosa el-Arawi is a Lebanese writer, producer and Lebanese director. Her novel "Nawwara" was published in 2019 by Rimal editions.


Rawi Hage: The notion of profanity in our revolution

The profane element, the insults and the sexually connoted, blasphemous speeches carry a sacred aspect. Yes, sacred! This is how people have separated the sacredness of what has been historically erected as unbreakable, and thus to lump together the failure of the State and the institutions hitherto considered as impenetrable. It is by introducing a grotesque aspect that the people celebrate as a newly liberated body.

These are the seeds of a new form of religiosity that no longer treats the body as an object of submission and devotion, but as a way to challenge the austerity of our former god through joy and laughter. It is a religiosity whose sacred aspect is shaken by the very fact of the disclosure of the essence of the profane.

Our revolution is Rabelaisian. The street movement has emphasized the culture of the poorest social strata to the detriment of the rigidity of our leaders.

The carnivalesque celebrations and the abundance of creativity that were witnessed during the demonstrations are in themselves revolutionary. The "rave parties" of Tripoli––a city historically stigmatized as an Islamic stronghold––are a manifestation of this. Men with beards, veiled women and people from different backgrounds swaying to the rhythms of a young DJ.

The carnivalesque aspect is a fundamental part of our revolution. The Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin summed up this aspect by emphasizing that "a new functioning of man (and woman) in relation to man (and woman) has now developed.”

The carnival is in itself a counter-culture compared to the official culture. In Lebanon, this official culture is the very foundation of the collapse of the State.

* Lebanese-Canadian English-speaking author, photographer in the visual arts and curator among other professions, laureate of several literary prizes.


Jabbour Douaihy: the uprising has no definite face, but it has a big heart

Historically a patchwork, drawn around a center that is unable to integrate its different regions, Lebanon has always given the impression of a narrow country that struggles to define itself. An authentic museum of community and tribal affiliations, it has been politically and militarily invaded by regional powers and has often been governed by chiefdoms which, short of a Fouad Chehab, have worked to make it disorganized and prey on its public goods.

In a country where clientelism reigns, everything has been done so that a good part of the population becomes a component of this widespread corruption. Once again, we were faced with what Georges Naccache called in an editorial in L'Orient more than half a century ago "the distress of things ungoverned".

We no longer believed. We could not believe in it anymore. We put our children through schools only to later see them off at the airport. We would be looking––in vain––for a job, a small, wretched job if we were born in Akkar or Tripoli. Afterwards, we would go through the contempt of the henchmen of the Syrian regime, followed by that of Hezbollah's followers. We get asked to vote, but we end up reappointing the same leaders along with their fake smiles and their impunity, fully aware that the recent people in the political arena are usually the most voracious and the biggest demagogues.

Yet, in 2005 a new breath of life blew into this fragmented country. But it took the dramatic assassination of Rafik Hariri for the Lebanese to take charge of their own destiny and take to the streets armed with anger and frustration todemand the withdrawal of the Syrian troops. The people won, but the "wake up call" ended because of the absence of a national consensus (the Shiites were absent) and because community leaders quickly took over political parties.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came on October 17, 2019, with the dubious decision to tax WhatsApp communication. The political class is now totally taken aback and has so far failed to find a coherent solution to calm the streets. The uprising has no definite face, but it definitely has a big heart. This time around, everybody is there. It is a kind of national "happening" where, from Nabatieh to Tripoli, and from Beirut to Baalbek, DJs compete with graffiti artists.

A new generation (the vast majority of whom did not participate in the March 14, 2005 uprising) is seeking to get its country and its dignity back. We must share everything with them, but we should never give them lessons of "wisdom". This is their future and their country. They are seeking ways to reconcile with both. Just pray for them.

*Jabbour Douaihy is a Lebanese novelist and a literary critic. His latest book "Toubiaa fi Bayrout" (Printed in Beirut) was published by Dar al-Saki, Beirut, in 2016, and “Le manuscript de Beyrouth" (The Manuscript of Beirut) at Actes Sud "Sinbad" / L’ Orient des livres, in 2017.


(This article was originally publihed in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 20th of November)


Charif Majdalani: The revolt for a better future against the past

It was clear from the beginning and has been fiercely and vividly confirmed in recent days: Lebanese youth are at the heart of the country’s revolution. They have risen up and have been protesting every day against corruption, unemployment, emigration, the absence of productive outlets for their skills and talents,...

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