Beirut: The Idle Observations of a Revolution
The world feels like it is reaching the boiling point with protests bubbling up in all corners of the globe. Our on the ground reporter serves us the lighter and heart-warming details of Lebanon’s critical revolution. Lebanon's political situation is rapidly and constantly changing, but here are Isabella Sainty’s idle observations from the protests last week:
October 23rd, 2019
Beirut has been heralded the ‘Riviera of the Middle East,’ but this passé description rings true for a bygone era: before the national trash emergency, power cuts, and lack of clean water. My - all too irregular - runs along the Corniche are flanked by unlit and uninhabited glass high-rises, largely owned by the off-shore super-rich. The empty caverns are reminders of Lebanon’s stark wealth imbalance, a system only benefiting banks, property developers, and politicians, with slums only a 10-minute drive away. The proposal for a daily $0.20 tax to use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Apple's FaceTime, (now revoked) was the straw that broke the camel's back. One more attempt for the government to plunder the pockets of their people.
The revolution is addressing it all, dancing and chanting into the headlines, with no sign of slowing down. The Lebanese are holding their corrupt government to account, shouting at the men that have let them down, the same warlords that created the mess. The country is united; everyone waves the Lebanese flag, not a political party banner nor a religious sect’s insignia, but demonstrating as one, under The Cedar.
Someone wise once told me that, if you understand a Lebanese history lesson, you had a bad teacher. I can safely say I’m perplexed. Lebanon is complicated, divided, and their Civil War has left fresh bullet holes on the country’s architecture and in the citizens’ memory. I can’t pretend to have authority on discussing the political climate, but I can speak to the reality and lighter side of the protests. The chanting, honking and merriment have been my lullaby for the past few nights.
Acts of compassion have shaped these past nine days. Strangers have hitched lifts with strangers straight from the airport to the protests: sharing a moped (to avoid the road blockades) and dragging a loaded luggage trolley behind them. A toddler, scared of the chanting, was played Baby Shark over the club-worthy sound system in the main square. Restaurants are offering a free beer to those sporting a Lebanese flag. Early morning cleanups have been organised every day, with volunteers recycling and sorting the rubbish more effectively than 30 years of government management.
University lecturers are holding classes in the hollow of a war beaten ruin, teaching about the corruption and barbarity of the parliament only a stone’s throw away. Women are holding hands and acting as human barriers between the male protesters and police, to inject a bit of estrogen into a potentially volatile confrontation. On Sunday, protesters formed a human chain, which stretched the length of Lebanon’s coastline. And though cases of violence have reared their ugly heads (as I write this, reports of some protesters clashing with the police are being published), let not the actions of the few be the voice of the many. This revolution is, first and foremost, a peaceful protest.
The history of a country trembling with a new direction is being written and after each sentence is an ellipsis waiting for a comedy scene to complete it. When a line of burning tyres made a billowing wall of gritty smoke, it was made the backdrop for an influencer’s once-in-a-lifetime Instagram (even a revolution doesn’t relieve an Insta-husband of his duties.) When Miss Lebanon posted a full-glam selfie in the middle of the crowd, I couldn’t help conjuring the trope of a beauty pageant contestant proclaiming that the social cause she cares about is ‘world peace.’ The protests’ language is humour. Each banner and chant betters the last, one particular gem reads “Free condoms to f**k Gebran Bassil” (the First Minister’s name decorated with Durex freebies.)
My favourite reaction, however, was born out of romance. Cast your mind back to Eat, Pray, Love where over wine and breadsticks in Rome, Julia Roberts and Co. try to choose one word for each city. London gets ‘stuffy’, New York ‘ambition’, and for Rome, there is a unanimous chorus of ‘sex.' However, for this last title, I believe Beirut is a strong contender. In the midst of a revolution, an Instagram account has emerged: @thawracrushes (“Thawra” being the Arabic for “Revolution.”) You can send in a photo with a circle around who you have the hots for, so the account can help identify your crush. Only the Lebanese would consider a country’s revolt a moment for love.
I am only qualified to focus on the moments that warrant idle chit chat, but the brave and unwavering message, from the Lebanese people to the government, demands action. The demand is for all the politicians to resign. What happens next is the million-dollar question. Who, if anyone, will write a manifesto for this movement and lead the protests into a political overhaul? And will I be able to find my thawra crush?
- Isabella Sainty