Profiles / Lebanon
Power to the people
The recent protests in and around Beirut have dramatically altered the fabric of the city – but the more sustained change is in the mindset of the citizens.
On 17 October last year, something changed in Lebanon. It started with a proposed tax rise on internet-based voice calls. The idea was soon scrapped but people had had enough. The proposal came on top of months of economic decline, not to mention fires that raged through the country’s beloved cedar forests made worse by the fact that authorities hadn’t paid for maintenance on the helicopters needed to extinguish the blazes. For many, it was yet another sign of the incompetence of a leadership that largely hadn’t altered in 30 years.
Protests broke out in cities across the country and continued for more than three months, forcing former prime minister Saad al-Hariri to step down. Beirut remains forever changed. Though protests had subsided when monocle went to press, authorities have erected walls around government buildings and cordoned off areas of the city centre. Banks have built metal barriers around their branches to protect themselves from people’s ire and a new prime minister, Hassan Diab, has been appointed.
But the bigger change is in attitudes, with the Lebanese becoming more aware of their rights as citizens and empathetic with each other’s struggles. In the streets they realised that everyone was struggling with the same job losses, bankruptcies and lack of basic services. We interviewed people from different walks of life who, in one way or another, have been drawn into this major turning point in Lebanon’s history.
Rana Salam’s distinctive work, which draws heavily on Middle Eastern pop culture, has an original voice with a strong message. Whether working with international clients, such as British restaurant chain Comptoir Libanais, or Lebanese companies such as hotelier Arthaus, her eponymous design and branding studio is all about colour, celebrating Arabic heritage and a passion for life. For Salam, it’s been a way to counter the negative stereotypes of Lebanon in the news. “I’ve spent 20 years trying to show Beirut in a positive light,” she says.
When the street revolution erupted last October, the former Londoner was both surprised and not. “This is something that had been bubbling for years,” she says. “It brought to the surface this idea that ordinary people have been suffering and no one is listening. They have had enough – and I can relate to that.”
Salam’s story is familiar: due to the worsening economic situation in Lebanon, business became increasingly hard. Last summer she was forced to give up her Gemmayzeh studio and work from home but she’s still using her skills to help wherever possible. When Dutch food writer Merijn Tol came to Lebanon to host a pop-up kitchen for protesters, Salam assisted. She also helped Tol find the city's lesser-known gems for her Beiroet cookbook “to keep a positive image of Lebanon abroad, despite the revolution.”
Although things aren’t looking good, she’s clear on what needs to be done to bring about change. “Fixing the economy,” she says. “But also a government body really supporting culture is so important. Culture can be exported; it carries an image to the outside world that is positive and creates tourism, design and architecture. We need to invest in this.”
Over the past few months, hundreds of Lebanese protestors and activists have been detained. Some have been charged with vandalism, others with inciting sectarian tensions. This is where Nermine Sibai comes in. With a private practice in human-rights law, Sibai felt compelled to defend protestors who didn’t have the means to fight for themselves. She is one of 40 attorneys who have banded together as the Committee of Lawyers Defending Protestors in Lebanon.
Sibai offers her counsel pro bono and, although she still has to sustain herself financially, she admits that it has at times become a full-time job, particularly as she plays an active on-the-ground role too. “We distribute ourselves in different streets and areas so that if the police take any protestors, we are there,” she says. “We take their names and we have guidelines telling protestors what to do when they are arrested.” She says that her paying clients have been “very considerate”.
For Sibai, more critical thinking and greater awareness of civil rights are among the uprising’s greatest achievements. “People are questioning, being sceptical and debating constitutional and economic issues,” she says. Even if the protests don’t return, that mindset is sure to stick.
Ahmad Ghaddar is pragmatic about life as an artist; he has multiple income streams to stay afloat. He sells delicate watercolours of Lebanon’s cityscapes and teaches graffiti painting at a school in Beirut. “It’s a day-to-day struggle for us to make a living and survive in this city,” he says.
Artists such as Ghaddar (who goes by the moniker RenoZ) began painting murals in purple, green and orange on the security walls that were erected around Lebanon’s parliament and other government buildings. He says that artists’ participation in the movement reflects the challenges they face in their own lives.
“I was never into politics before,” says Ghaddar, 26, who studied fine art at the Lebanese University. “But Lebanon’s economic situation and living standards were affecting me. So as soon as the protests started, I felt it was time to rebel against the high cost of living and fuel shortages. It was a build-up of pressure.”
His work incorporates mascot-like sparrows, some of which carry a dark message. A mural of a three-eyed bird on Martyrs’ Square is a reference to the brutal force sometimes used by the security services to disperse protestors. “At times they were shooting people in the eyes with rubber bullets,” he says. “The bird [represents that] we’ve created immunity and grown an extra eye in case they want to shoot us.”
Ghaddar hasn’t ruled out emigrating if opportunities arise elsewhere but he also has a stake in what happens in Lebanon; he says that people have been emboldened by the protests and are unlikely to ease up. He refers to the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, resigning under pressure from the street: “We learned that we can make a change.”
Rachel Karam was supposed to have the day off on 17 October 2019. But that evening, the senior reporter for Lebanese TV station Al-Jadeed got a call from her editor. Large protest groups were gathering in central Beirut and she needed to be there. She finished work at dawn the next day.
Karam was then dispatched for two months to the northern city of Tripoli, which became a centre of the uprisings. Covering events there was a challenge for the 33-year-old, whose employer aired live coverage every day.
monocle’s meeting with Karam on Martyrs’ Square is interrupted several times by people wanting to take pictures with her. She has become known not just for her role as a journalist but also because she uses her wide reach for the greater good, sharing job adverts on social media.
Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese have been laid off as the economy worsens. “This is the least I can do if I know that a company needs employees, especially Lebanese employees,” she says. It’s hard not to get involved when your country’s future is at stake. How does she balance journalistic impartiality and empathy with the protesters? “For me, it’s more important for a journalist to be truthful than objective,” she says. “If I know you did something wrong, then I need to say it. And if I know you did something good, then I need to say it.”
To Karam, there are reasons to be hopeful for Lebanon’s long-term future. “It’s true that things are chaotic at the moment,” she says. “But I believe that Lebanon is heading towards a really wonderful place.” If it helps bring in fairer elections and less fake news, and makes people aware of their rights, Karam is ready to accept more dawn finishes.
With two children to support, taking time away from her job as an HR manager in the real-estate sector to partake in the protests wasn’t easy for Rayan Khatoun. But as Lebanon’s economic situation deteriorated, she looked for another way to be an active member of society.
With four like-minded individuals, she set up a network to distribute clothes, food and household essentials to people in need. Using social media to publicise requests and solicit donations, they called themselves Kilna ya3ni Kilna (All of Us Means All of Us).
Khatoun is motivated by a recognition that financial suffering is something that “could happen to any of us,” she says. “Right now I have a job but what if I don’t tomorrow? What if I get evicted? It could be anyone.”
Khatoun has also learned her own limits. “About a month and a half ago, we realised that we can’t save the whole world,” she says. “We will help with what we can. It could be that we help only one family a month but we make them happy, safe and healthy.”
If there’s one positive to come from the protests and economic turmoil, Khatoun says that it’s an increase in people’s willingness to reach out for help. “It was there before but we didn’t see it,” she says.
The food entrepreneur
When Kamal Mouzawak’s Tawlet restaurants were impacted by the turbulent times, he was forced to cut the pay and hours of staff, including the women who cook for the group. So in December he got creative and teamed them up with 15 female donors known as the Tantet men Lebnen (Aunties from Lebanon), led by his old friend and events manager Asma Andraos. They hosted a Christmas meal at one of Beirut’s main protest sites and since then, every Friday, four of his restaurant’s cooks – together with the tantet and a diverse crew of volunteers – prepare and distribute tasty meals of chicken, green freekeh, zingy tabbouleh and citrus fruits to up to 600 people in 12 under-privileged parts of the capital.
The initiative reflects Mouzawak’s belief that any sustainable business or social initiative needs to provide benefits and opportunities to as many people as possible. “For us, this is not only about feeding the neediest,” says Mouzawak. “It is also about providing salaries for the cooks [who are paid through donations for the meal-distribution day as well as the preparation]. We always think that the poor or the neediest are on the other side of the valley or the mountain,” he adds. “But they are us, or the people around us.”
Born into a family of fruit and vegetable farmers in Jeita, north of Beirut, Mouzawak has long advocated using smart business sense and Lebanon’s rich food heritage to bring people together. In 2004 he established Souk El Tayeb, a network of Tawlet restaurants, farmers’ markets, guesthouses and high-quality catering services that promote Lebanese cuisine while creating ties between different classes, religions and communities.
The network has survived because Mouzawak reacts quickly, finding alternative means to support his cooks when times get tough. All the while he believes it has helped to burst what he describes as the “bubbles” that prevent people in different Lebanese communities from interacting with each other. “They are not only feeding people,” he says. “They are discovering another reality that they didn’t think existed.”