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NOTES ON BEIRUT

Two perspectives on what currently matters in Beirut, Lebanon.

All of them means all of them: The task of taking down the Lebanese politicians

by Dany Tsuruta

On the fourth of August 2020, as I am sitting comfortably listening to music in my apartment in Berlin, I suddenly receive a gush of text messages, photographs and voice notes from my friends and family group chats in Lebanon. Upon hearing the voice notes, my heart started racing with the cries, the shock, the pain and the confusion that I heard from my friends and family as they are all asking each other if they are safe and alive. With their photos of shattered windows and glasses, broken doors, minor injuries and a giant red cloud floating in the air, we could not comprehend what was happening.

Since Lebanon has endured so much war and instability throughout the years, my first assumption was that another war was suddenly taking place. As more people started reaching out to each other, checking up on the well-being of their loved ones, more pictures and videos started to emerge on social media. All of the videos follow a similar pattern starting with grey smoke coming out of a building near the port with sounds similar to loud firecrackers. Suddenly, an extremely powerful blast completely destroys and vanishes the building. This is instantaneously followed by an exponentially growing cloud of smoke with different shades of orange and red that reach the sky, while simultaneously creating a circular wave that spreads in all directions shaking the entire city to its core. The captured video footage similarly ends with the person documenting the explosion falling due to the intensity of the shock wave.
 

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(c) Gabrielle Segura

This explosion, which was felt in Cyprus and estimated to be a fifth of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, resulted in at least 150 deaths, 5000 injuries and 300,000 homeless. Keeping in mind how small Lebanon is, everyone knew friends and/or friends of friends that either passed away, got injured, had their homes broken or demolished. In order to get a clearer idea of the intensity of this tragedy, let us revisit some of the events that took place since last year Back in February 2019, Lebanese banks began hiking up interest rates. Considering the consistently high unemployment rate and the unstable economy that had defined the post-civil war era, Lebanese citizens in the country and abroad deposited their meagre incomes in the desperate search for a safe investment.

 

"This explosion, which was felt in Cyprus and estimated to be a fifth of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, resulted in at least 150 deaths, 5000 injuries and 300,000 homeless."

 

Fast forward to the 17th of October 2019 when the increased taxes on tobacco, gasoline, internet and mobile applications (Whatsapp) ignited the Thawra (revolution). The Thawra ended up becoming one of the biggest revolutions ever experienced in Lebanon (with reverberations all over the Lebanese communities around the world). The Thawra was not sudden however, it had been boiling for a while, especially with the garbage crisis from 2015-16 when the government turned a blind eye to all of the dirt piling up on the streets as the main political “leaders”, as usual, nonchalantly relaxed in their palaces surrounded by bodyguards. Nonetheless, even without the garbage crisis, for such a small country, Lebanon manages to be one of the most corrupt places on the planet. The entire country’s politics operate on a religiously sectarian system where each sect receives a limited number of seats in the parliament, and Lebanese citizens can only vote for candidates from particular sects that are designated for their districts. Lebanon’s president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of the house a Shia. Moreover, Lebanon, as well as its capital Beirut, contain a lot of geographical divisions in accordance to various sects and communities. The distinct geographic spaces each associated with their designated communities and each hosting schools which promote specific cultural and religious values, end up creating a diverse landscape of identities. And although this segregation was supposed to be beneficial for everyone to live in peace and harmony, Lebanon has still not recovered from the 1975-1990 civil war. In addition, since the 1990s, the aforementioned divisions weakened the labor movement which was then monopolized by sectarian actors who control workers and prevent them from mobilizing.

With only a few hours of electricity per day and no clean water available, the Lebanese government and its politicians have discarded most (if not all) basic human rights. For as long as most Lebanese people remember, so many citizens have fought over sectarian differences in support of the main politicians that represent them. These divisions have served to cement the power of parasitical sectarian politicians as they carve out spheres of economic and political dominance. They created a system that makes it seem as if they are rivals so that the masses can be divided while they steal from them. Fortunately, it appeared that the Thawra in October was going to change when most citizens united chanted “kellon yaane kellon” (“all of them means all of them”). As it became the biggest revolution in Lebanon, it seemed that the people had been finally freed from the shackles of religious division to fight the real common enemy: the powerful politicians at the top (President Michel Aoun; Leader of the Free Patriotic Movement Gibran Bassil; ex-prime Minister and Future Movement leader Saad El Hariri; Parliament Leader and Amal Leader Nabih Berry; Leader of Lebanese Forces Samir Geagea; Kataib Leader Samy Gemayel; Progressive Socialist Party Leader Walid Jounblat; Marada Movement Leader Tony Frangieh; Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah; and most of the deputies and ministers of the government). The Thawra’s attitude towards no longer fearing the ruling class was also a chance for new labor organizations to emerge; several groups of workers unionised with the formation of syndicates such as the Lebanese Association of Professionals, the Association of Independent University Professors, and the Alternative Journalists Syndicate. However, labor organizing is still deficient since industrial workers, farmers and other workers have not been able to properly unionize.

 

"For as long as most Lebanese people remember, so many citizens have fought over sectarian differences in support of the main politicians that represent them. These divisions have served to cement the power of parasitical sectarian politicians as they carve out spheres of economic and political dominance. They created a system that makes it seem as if they are rivals so that the masses can be divided while they steal from them."

 

The army and the militias that work for the aforementioned politicians took to the streets to shoot and beat protestors. When the people did not give up by standing their ground and remaining peaceful, the banks that reopened after eight days of closing no longer allowed people to withdraw freely from their accounts. Since Lebanon uses both the Lira and the U.S. dollar as currencies, inflation took place and the Lira became very weak. Banks said that they  no longer had American currency and people could only withdraw in Liras, making the dollar very precious and rare. All of the people that had previously put their money in lebanese bank accounts (as mentioned earlier with the high interest rates) no longer had access to them; years of hard work and savings were all snatched from the corrupt politicians that “borrowed” the cash from the central bank.

When the Covid-19 outbreak entered the picture, matters became even more complicated, especially since protestors were no longer allowed on the streets. The combination of the authority imposed from above, the pause of the Thawra, the economic collapse and Covid-19 rose the unemployment rate with many people getting laid off; the government was only providing two hours of electricity per day, prices at the supermarkets became so high and people were starving. Furthermore, with previous defective governmental policies, this led to the collapse of the agricultural sector with many farmers quitting the industry as they could not handle any further losses. Meanwhile, migrant laborers and the domestic workers who have always been highly mistreated and abused by the Kafala system were not receiving any payments for their services; and due to the pandemic, they were stuck in Lebanon with no pay and no room to escape. In addition, the 1.5 million Syrian refugees that Lebanon is hosting, are also not receiving the proper care they need.

Amidst all of the chaos, the explosion took place. Why there was 2,750 tons of hidden/forgotten ammonium nitrate in such a vital part of the city is no longer a question that Lebanese people are expecting an honest answer for. The mountains of lies, like the previous mountains of garbage, have hidden any element of truth and clean slate for the politicians to explain themselves. Everyone is beyond angry, desperate, hungry and traumatized. Kids still in shock were not able to sleep at night. Beautiful people, homes and restaurants in Beirut have disappeared once again.

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(c) Gabrielle Segura

As the sky bleeds and with Covid-19 still prominent, we find true heroes on the streets volunteering and helping rebuild Lebanon. Organizations like Impact Lebanon, the Lebanese Red Cross, Nation Station and other NGOs have been very helpful in rebuilding and rejuvenating the heart of Lebanon with donations, food, relief and support for the victims. Activists, volunteers and protestors have been using social media applications like Instagram to their advantage to instantaneously update people on all the help and information they need. It is very hopeful to see the international community finally giving Lebanon its much needed attention. The love and pain that Lebanon suffers from has been felt throughout the world, and many people have been very generous and caring in that regard. However, as the Thawra resumed stronger than ever after the explosion, police officers have been throwing tear gas and shooting protestors with rubber bullets. Protestors succeeded in invading the ministries of environment, economy, the foreign ministry and the power ministry.

One of the most astonishing realizations was finding out that all the offices and rooms in those ministries were fully lit, knowing very well how everyone has been receiving only two hours of electricity during the global pandemic. The next few days were met with even more violence. Michel Aoun’s puppets, Hezbollah and Amal militia members joined the police to beat, kidnap and shoot protestors with actual bullets. Hospitals have reported as many eye injuries during one day of protesting as the day of the explosion. How could anyone have the audacity to shoot their own citizens that are still traumatized from such a massive and scary explosion? News that some ministers have been resigning may appear hopeful, though it cannot count as a victory, because in the past, the government has resigned several times; and each time they pretend to have a new one, the parliament seats end up being filled by the same puppets of their previous respective sects. 

Throughout my life, my parents’ and grandparents’ lives, we continue to hear how Lebanon has been in an endless loop of corruption and wars, becoming almost “normal”. Most of my family members including myself suffer from some form of PTSD and we no longer question it. In such a bottomless pit of hopelessness, as I am also feeling helpless from abroad, I thank the people who are helping and fighting everyday; let us take down the ruling class and eliminate sectarianism.

 

Interview with Founder/Organiser of Beirut Pride, Hadi Damien, on 21 April 2020 (excerpt from "The Fluidity of Space: Queer Identity and the Third Space")

by Nour Hamade


1. How do you believe Beirut Pride serves as a margin to freedom?

In a country that interprets legal texts in a fashion that criminalizes same sex relationships, the existence of Beirut Pride, even as a social media page, is defiance. The three yearly editions that we so far organized despite internal and external pushback testify tonthe perseverance and willingness of people to come together and express their visibility. The nature of Beirut Pride as a collaborative platform invites people to pitch in and introduce their own events, topics, venues and aspirations. The leading organizers (leading because of their events expertise and knowledge of LGBTIQ+ realities in Lebanon) thrive to shape all entries in the most cohesive way and suggest an intersectional program. By opening up spaces and broadening their contribution to LGBTIQ+ visibility, we multiply venues where LGBTIQ+ individuals can be. We conceived the title “Beirut Pride” with the awareness of the media impact it will drive. This has been securing a massive media visibility (more than 330 articles in 18 languages). It has also expanded the LGBTIQ+ network. in Lebanon and opened it up to global availabilities. Beirut Pride has also been carrying LGBTIQ+ realities to the world stage, and has been a very active contributor to the Pride network over the world. It is for us about setting precedents that people can build on and reproduce as they please: models of work; existence of work beyond the NGO system; various profiles of people; use of multiple languages at once; new collaborations with various sectors (hence the development of Beirut Pride multi-sectoral framework); action through celebration; the involvement of arts and the intellect, etc. In a nutshell, Beirut Pride is Beirut coming out. Beirut coming out to the world and to itself.

 2. What constitutes a ‘brave’ space within a sociocultural environment that deems queer existence?

Event and space organizers operate within a set of guidelines they consider and implement to secure a venue in which participants have a pleasant experience. Generic measures that contribute to creating an event that tends to being safe and secure shall be informed by recommendations of the participants, especially individuals who feel scrutinized, their safety challenged because of perceptions of sexual and gender diversity, and/or because of trauma they experienced. Participants are entitled to feeling safe, comfortable and having a pleasant experience. Every event must seek to provide this, especially in strenuous conditions. Recommendations come from holding focus groups in which participants discuss their safety concerns and find relevant and informed ways to address them. Willing participants can work closely with the organizers to make sure generic safety measures respond to their needs. Safety within an event is the interconnection between the safety of the logistics, that of the space and that of participants. It unfolds simultaneously with no hierarchy in implementation. The logistics safety concerns using encrypted software to prevent malign surveillance of communications, securing that the event website and the social media outlets are resistant to hacking, abiding by an encrypted data storage of a high level of security. The space safety concerns the structural safety of a place, the load by m2, the fire safety, the access to and exit from the space, the emergency exits, the security alarm. The participants’ safety concerns hiring a private security firm for door screenings of illicit products and material, training participants for “peer-safety”, recruiting proactive hosts, liaising with paramedics such as the Red Cross for on-site presence, connecting with the police to secure the surroundings of the space, monitoring alcohol quality. The whole governed by a code of conduct, a relevant policy insurance that covers the venue, the participants, crew and equipment, as well as the on-site presence of lawyers, and a continuous communication with officials informing them of the event for immediate action in case of trouble.

This effort does not negate the risk factor. And when the event is open to a larger public, be it a friend, an ally, a family member, the risk factor grows. Despite massive communication of the code of conduct and the safety measures, any accident compromises the safety of an event, of a space. To which extend do we have control over a space and its safety? We mitigate risk, but never nullify it. When a venue becomes the scene of abuse or aggression, how do you respond to the deception of people who were encouraged by your event because it was dubbed a “safe space”? How could credibility be found back and safety measures trusted again? Therefore, is it ethically considerate to speak of a “safe space”?


"I deem expressions such as “safe space” deceptive. The expression is even more deceiving, given the automatic, thoughtless and therefore reckless use people have been making of it. There is no safe space, but a space that tends to be safe for the people in it. We thrive for a “safer space”, but we can never guarantee it despite all our measures."


I deem expressions such as “safe space” deceptive. The expression is even more deceiving, given the automatic, thoughtless and therefore reckless use people have been making of it. There is no safe space, but a space that tends to be safe for the people in it. We thrive for a “safer space”, but we can never guarantee it despite all our measures. Just like the term “inclusive”. Nothing is inclusive. We tend to inclusion; we make an event more inclusive than another one; we progress on the path of inclusion through a speech that is accessible to the individuals we are addressing, through the use of displayed pronouns, through a different location, but that’s it. “Inclusion” and so-called “safe spaces” are a continuous process, never reached, and it’s okay – but let’s not make promises we already know we cannot keep.

Safe spaces are best called brave spaces. They are brave because participants understand the risks associated to their participation, even though organizers have mitigated them through a participatory set up of safety guidelines and that a support system is in place. Their participation is an adult decision they freely, willingly and consciously make, as they understand their presence is needed, for themselves and for the collectivity. As we celebrate the Stonewall Riots and repeat that “Pride is a riot” or that “The first pride was a riot”, we understand that nothing is mitigated in a riot, and we embrace courage and bravery. All environments deem queer existence because of the lingering misunderstanding and prejudice. What differs from an environment to another is the way governments respond to abuse and aggression. When public institutions are efficient, policies implemented, law enforcement officers trained, and local CSOs allowed doing their work, attacks and discriminations are halted. This is not the state in Lebanon; ours accrues vulnerabilities. This is why opening channels of communications with officials allows them to understand LGBTIQ+ realities (which they absolutely do not know). As change happens in the heart and in the spirits of people, officials will react to the realities they understood. We all create our space, and courage comes from within us. It spreads, and when it reproduces, it expands, becomes a greater force that supports us in dealing with the hostile environment that we eventually convert into a better space. Our public visibility, as much as we can afford, our informed work and courage are the best drivers that lead to spaces we feel safe in.

 3. Events like these allow politics and rights to be implemented, tested and challenged - tackling the issues and ultimately (hopefully) leading to a change of the law. How important do you think that public reception is in enforcing change?

Everything is perception. People understand the work we do when they relate to it, when they see our perseverance, what drives us. This is when they listen and engage with us. Be consistent and never lie. Accept differences, regardless of how acute and toxic they may be, and build on commonalities. This is the only way to move forward when the balance of power is not in our favor (which is almost never). Use the cultural references of your interlocutors. The more people relate to your work, the more they will defend it and the work will expand. If public perception is misshaped, the work will backfire.

"I do not relate to the “helping, charitable, altruist” approach. It’s important that we all understand that we want things to move forward because discrimination and hate concern us all. Discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people is not the sole responsibility of LGBTIQ+ individuals."

4. What role do you think that bodies that do not identify as queer have in helping queer rights? Is their inclusion a schematic approach which allows us to fight the norms with people who are considered ’normal?’

I do not relate to the “helping, charitable, altruist” approach. It’s important that we all understand that we want things to move forward because discrimination and hate concern us all. Discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people is not the sole responsibility of LGBTIQ+ individuals. Regardless of how you position yourself on the sexual and gender diversity spectrum, we all care for a parent, a sibling, a cousin, an uncle, a grandparent, a brother, a sister, an aunt, a neighbor, a friend, a teacher, a colleague, an employee so we refuse hate against them based of their sexual and gender diversity. LGBTIQ+ individuals have been at the forefront of the struggle because they are
primarily concerned. However, the more awareness grows, the more we are invited to bring in voices from all over the diversity spectrum to speak up and be proactive protagonists of our work. I don’t need to be a tree to speak against the destruction of the forest, or identify as a woman to speak for the rights of women. The inclusion of everyone is mandatory, especially when it serves a strategic goal that addresses the power balance, and multiplies voices and impact.

5. How do you envision space to be fluid? (more of an abstract question in meaning that how can we ultimately create spaces where everyone can feel safe and be included)?

I suggest the following methodology. The first step would be to meet participants to identify their safety and inclusion-related concerns and apprehensions. Then, individuals with the experience to work with spaces, as well as willing-participants, come together to conceive the space in an informed way that responds to the elements of safety and inclusion. This cooperation informs the implementation of all the generic safety measures mentioned in Q1. Spaces are fluid as they are environments we create/shape/mold as we please. I’d like to look at spaces as an artwork that serves a specific function in which we evolve. Make it appealing and useful.

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