A jungle of signs painted on Beirut’s walls gives voice to the demands of a population exhausted by thirty years of misgovernment. In October 2019 the graffiti were angry and hopeful, like the people out on the streets. One year on, they tell the story of a now dramatically impoverished country
Last update: 2022-04-22 10:04:47
One hundred years after the birth of Greater Lebanon and 30 years after the formal conclusion of the bloody civil war, it is not just Beirut’s port that was blown sky high on 4 August 2020: the political, economic and health crisis that began in October 2019 culminated, quite literally, in the explosion and implosion of the old social contract. In North-East Beirut’s worst hit zones, only the walls remain standing. Graffiti-covered walls yelling everything that has been held back, that people wanted to silence or that has been hushed up for a long—too long a—time. Were we to zig-zag together between these stones and read their graffiti, we would hear that the Lebanese people are still, obstinately, speaking today. And if they are forced to keep silent, it is the walls that are speaking for them.
Geitawi Quarter. The writing hurriyya (“freedom”) intertwined with a flying bird (not a phoenix!). Authors: Quetzal and Quetzilla
Autumn 2019: we Want it All
Let’s begin with the walls in Beirut’s city centre, a ghost zone (because of an elitist real estate speculation) even before the explosion and the various lockdowns through which Lebanon, too, has responded to the coronavirus. This was the epicentre of the Lebanese popular uprising in October 2019; a space that the protesters had partly re-appropriated. Selim Mawad, a Lebanese artist and activist, also lays a claim to this zone through his murals depicting bulls (thawr in Arabic, echoing thawra, revolution). Highlighting the difficult relationship between sectarianism and citizenship, his works call for the wholesale resignation of a political class in power for 30 years and accused of misgovernment, cronyism, corruption and conniving.
Downtown. “Confessionalism is not your religion. Suppress it. It has ruined your life and mine”. Notice the wordplay between religion (din) and the expression haraqat dīnī wa dīnak, litterally “it has burnt my religion and yours”. Author: Selim Mawad
Ring (strategic road bridge in the centre of Beirut). The first writing, in green says “Oh, my wonderful fatherland”. Below, in black, someone has added: “Confessionalism has ruined us (litteraly burnt)”. Photo: Nohad el-Hajj
And yet, when we come to the “Revolution Wall,” a stone’s throw from the Lebanese parliament, it’s clear that the walls are no longer the same as they were during that mild Lebanese autumn in 2019: over the months, the anti-protest cement blocks have been shifted by the army to meet the needs of the moment in dyslexic displacements that have broken up some of the graffiti, inverting letters and leaving gaps in the writing. The result, visually, is that one of the many graffiti invoking thawra (“revolution”) seems to have become tharwa (“wealth” or “opulence”.) An unfulfilled wish? The murals no longer seem the same, either: if, at the end of 2019, they were colourful, ironic, angry and hopeful like the people out on the streets, now they are naturally a bit faded and covered with new graffiti: responses and counter-responses to the original graffito.
Downtown, among the wrecked glasses, Muhammad al-Amīn Mosque. “From Baghdad to Beirut, a sole revolution, that does not die (mā bitmūt)”. Photo: Riccardo Paredi
Reading this jungle of signs, what hits the eye is the great variety of messages and demands: expressions of solidarity with other protests in the world, with the Syrian refugees and with the foreign female domestic workers trapped in the slavery-like sponsorship system (kafāla); insults hurled at political figures and the banking system; anti-capitalist slogans; demands for fundamental rights and freedoms (particularly equal rights for women and LGBTQI people); references to class struggle; and, obviously, calls for the fall of the sectarian system and the resignation of the entire political and banking “caste.” The resignation of Saad Hariri, the prime minister, came at the end of October 2019. It resulted in a government formed by Hassan Diab, who resigned in his turn on 10 August 2020, incapable even of creating the illusion of a real political change. A change that seems relegated to an even more distant future by the recent Gattopardesque return of Hariri himself, ready to form a new government exactly one year after the first protests. In the meantime, from one October to the next, the walls are still shouting out what has been the limitation and the strength of the Lebanese autumn: badnā kill shī (“we want it all”.) But “all” is a very great deal. Where to start? How to transform the cry from these stones and streets into an alternative to “everything, really everything”? If you look around carefully, there’s still one pristine wall in downtown Beirut and no graffito has a response to this dilemma for now.
Downtown, heart of the protests. “We want it all”. Photo from Instagram @wallsofthawra
Spring 2020: from Hunger for Justice to Just Plain Hunger
If it was, presumably, “a tax on WhatsApp” that triggered the Lebanese rage in October 2019, the causes behind a drastic rise in suicides during the first months of 2020 have been, rather, starvation and the impossibility of making ends meet, aided and abetted by the exponential worsening of the country’s economic and financial situation and the Covid-19 health crisis: approximately 50% of the Lebanese population is now living below the relative poverty line, the unemployment rate is over 35% and the Lebanese lira (which has been in free fall for months) has lost more than 75% of its value—in a country that imports approximately 80% of its national requirements. On the walls facing Karantina, as in the streets of Hamra and inside an abandoned cinema in the centre of Beirut, you can read the same graffito: “Tell me, which is stronger: sectarianism or starvation?” It’s a quote from the Syrian rapper, Hani al-Sawah, alias al-Darwish. Another song, this time by the famous Lebanese artist Ziad Rahbani made a sad comeback during the same months: Anā mish kāfir bass al-ju‘ kāfir (“I’m not a disbeliever, hunger is disbelief”) was written on a piece of paper fluttering in the breeze beside the corpse of a sixty-year-old who committed suicide in very central Hamra Street last July. On the same day, walking along Armenia Street, on the other side of the city, one could spot a graffito on a large rubbish container that read, sundūq i‘āsha, “survival packages.” A father and son were rummaging about inside. In many districts the walls are incessantly shouting out a danger that is still around the corner for now but threateningly close to the poorest people and the by-now defunct Lebanese middle class: starvation.
Downtown, on “The Revolution Wall”. An immaginary WhatsApp conversation among some prominent Lebanese politicians concluded by an anonymous Lebanese number (a demonstrator?) who renames the group “Lebanon 2”. Notice that the name of Nabih Berri, since 1990 President of the Lebanese Parliament, was first cancelled (in red) and then insulted (in black). Author: Phat2
In between Gemmayzé and Karantina quarters, less than 100 meters from the port. “Tell me, which is stronger: sectarianism or starvation?”. Author: Moe
Mar Mikhael (St. Michael) Quarter, a few steps away from the old train station, disused for decades. Two large rubbish containers read “survival package”, the same ones that are allocated by some political organization to the population, with political controversies and sectarian asymmetries, during the most acute times of crisis. Photo: M. Labash
Summer 2020: the Point of No Return
The disastrous events that have been occurring in Lebanon for a year now are certainly not limited to material matters; they are also hitting the whole of the Lebanese people’s spiritual and psychological sphere, re-awakening in many a still partly incomplete reckoning with the traumas of the civil war, the war with Israel in 2006, the bomb assassinations and much else besides. Many of the October graffiti celebrated not only the fall of the regime of fear (ya‘lan Abū al-khawf, “a curse on the Father of fear!”) and paranoia towards the (religious, political and ethnic) other but also the end of anxiety about the power vacuum and chaos, of the terror of a new civil war and concerns about foreign influences; all bugbears ably exploited for decades by the various politicians, warlords and zu‘amā’ (“local leaders”) in order to stay in power. The very walls were proposing that Lebanon should question itself and convert (thawra ‘alā anfusinā, “revolutionizing ourselves”—a necessary prerequisite for the creation of a new social contract). They were inviting to self-expression in group-psychotherapy sessions so as to be freed from the ghosts of the past and sweep away those of the future.
Downtown. “Express yourself! Collective therapy session. For the first time after the civil war”. Author: Selim Mawad
What was swept away on 4 August 2020, however, was the North-Eastern part of the Lebanese capital. A lethal combination of negligence, irresponsibility, incompetence, “inter-sectarian” economic interests stated with varying degrees of explicitness and 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that had been neglected for six years: this seems the most plausible cause of an explosion that, with a force equal to a 3.3 magnitude earthquake, left more than 190 dead and 6,500 injured, whilst making approximately 300,000 people homeless, damaging 128 schools and four large hospitals and destroying the port of Beirut, epicentre of the conflagration, as well as the transit point for 73% of the goods imported into the country and the Lebanese capital’s raison d’être in the modern era. Unfortunately, it did not sweep away the out-dated and irritating clichés about Lebanon that obstinately reappeared in the international press from the day following the tragedy onwards: “Switzerland of the Middle East” and “Paris of the Levant,” “Lebanon, Message of Peaceful Co-existence” and, above all, “the Phoenix of the East that rises from its ashes.” The Lebanese people do not want to be particularly resilient. They are, above all, angry and shattered, like everything surrounding the port. And the graffiti, too, confirm that this, and this alone, is the message they want to convey. Alongside the walkway overlooking the disaster area, someone has written, “It is my state that has done this” and, a little further on, “Justice for the victims (dahāyā), revenge against the system.” “You have literally made us explode, we live to kill you” sprawls across the wall of a bank. An old mural depicting a hanged politician sums it up: al-i‘dām (“death penalty”.) The explosion has created a crater that brings Beirut closer to its etymology: a deep well. Rich in water, certainly, but requiring much time and effort to get out of.
Port of Beirut. Dawlatī fa‘alat hadha, “It is my state that has done this”.
Beirut Has Spoken
The tour of the walls has ended, although there would still be plenty more graffiti to read or, rather, listen to. They abound and one feels like saying, “Thank goodness!” We are not in Syria: writing “Down with the regime” on a wall does not, for now, trigger a merciless crackdown. And yet, these graffiti really get under your skin if you look at them. Some whisper of disappointed hopes, unfinished revolutions and projects that have lost their lustre. Others shout out blind rage, profound pain, cyclical fears and unresolved traumas. Near the Statue of the Lebanese Migrant—a fallāh (farmer) with his lubbāda (conical hat) and shirwāl (wide-legged trousers), even more solitary now that he is contemplating not only the sea and the generous sunsets of the Lebanese coast but also, and above all, the rubble around him—someone with a spray can has written bukra, “tomorrow.” Is this a wish to depart? Or a tragic premonition about a land that has already experienced high levels of emigration? Bi-l-nisba li-bukra shū? “And as for tomorrow, what will it bring?” asks a play by Ziad Rahbani. Everyone is talking, analysing, explaining and calculating. Politicians are rushing to Beirut with their rediscovered humanitarian soft power, greedy vultures are speculating on the ruins of the traditional Lebanese districts and a kleptocratic neo-liberal élite is impatiently waiting to see which mask it should put on in order to pull through once again. The Lebanon that is used to letting other people speak—offering safety to the Arab press and a rendez-vous for exiled intellectuals—is now speaking for herself. This is the message communicated by Fish and Phat2, two fathers of Lebanese graffitism. In 2007, shortly after the end of the war with Israel, the former painted a wall with the huge phrase, “If Beirut could speak.” In 2012, together with Phat2, he wrote an equally enormous “Beirut is speaking.” In October 2019 came the last, lapidary communication: “Beirut has spoken.” Lebanon has spoken, the citizens who want to be treated as such have spoken and if the explosion has left everyone speechless, then the stones will take it upon themselves to cry out, “Leave Lebanon in peace,” leave us free to be something but not your present-day expectations, not your past golden memories or your future expansionistic aims. However, even in her current state, Lebanon pleases too many people too much to be truly left in peace.
Downtown. Bayrūt hakit, “Beirut has spoken”. Author: phat2
Ring. hallū ‘an Lubnān. “Leave Lebanon in peace”. In the background, the Church of Saint Joseph, a traditional Lebanese house left abandond for decades and the newest skyscraper Sama Beirut, the hieghest building in Lebanon. Photo: Riccardo Paredi