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“We are a conscious collective” – inside Beirut’s revolutionary movement

Widespread protests in Lebanon have already led to the resignation of Prime Minister Saad Hariri. But, activists say, the revolution is just beginning.

“This energy you’re feeling,” says a friend and protestor who prefers to remain anonymous, “is from our graveyard.” 

We are standing on what has become one of the epicenters of the revolution in Beirut: the Ring Road, also just known as “The Ring”. The mouth of the highway that connects East to West, its nearness to where the old demarcation line used to be during the country’s 15-year civil war is not lost on me. My friend’s eyes, beaming and bright, scan the perimeter. “I have been waiting for this all my life,” he says.

What has been dubbed Lebanon’s October Revolution is now seeing the first rainswept days of November. Ministers have resigned (including Prime Minister Saad Hariri), sweeping reforms have been proposed, and politicians’ salaries vowed to be slashed in half, but the collective resolve of the revolution’s participants is as steadfast as ever. And though the city is abnormally quiet as I write this, I know it is anything but.

History will attest to the fact that the Lebanese people are extraordinarily resilient and adaptable. Breastfed geopolitical discourse and subject to socio-political crises from conception, they have fought back before. But there is something special about this uprising: this degree of fervor, this amount of bodies, this intensity of iconoclasm. 

Perhaps this is why, when I marvel at the display of somehow coordinated, somehow organised, randomness on the streets, I am left with the sense that people here have been rehearsing for this in their minds all their lives, and that the battle, though not as blazing as it was a few weeks ago, is far from over. As one young woman put it on Facebook: “We are not resting. We are organising.” 

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From my neighborhood of Geitawi in the East of Beirut I hear the clacking of the corn-man’s tongs, the murmuring of tetas (grandmothers) from the balconies below, and thunder. Splitting, guttural thunder. The sky, after all these weeks of come-hell-or-high-water mutiny, is breaking. Lightning bolts cut the blackness and I, for what must be the hundredth time that day, click the refresh button in my mind, as though the reality in front of me were a screen that could be reloaded, a feed that could be reconfigured, data that could be caught up with. 

I am reminded of the Gil Scott-Heron line as I refresh: “The revolution will not be right back after a message. The revolution will be live.” 

It is strange, for the first time in weeks, to not wake up to the distant chants of “the people want the fall of the regime” and “all of them means all of them” like church bells ringing in my ears, but I have heard variations of this silence before. It is the kind that, if you listen closely enough, you hear a noise so loud, so multitudinous, it becomes white. It is the sound of revolution, it is the color of genesis, and it is not just here in Lebanon – it is everywhere. 

In Chile, it is the banging of spoons against pots and the orchestral swell of “El Pueblo Unido”. In Iraq, it is a backdrop of live rounds and rubber bullets, 319 dead, thousands uprising in still unwavering persistence; and in Hong Kong, it is traffic cones trapping smoking canisters of tear gas and umbrellas unfurling. But it is the sound of thawra (revolution)in Beirut that I know best. The sound of my mother’s bloodline gushing in my ears. The sound of a language I have yet to fully understand, but whose phonetics and intention have made its message perfectly clear.

It was the proposed Whatsapp tax (which the government has since scrapped) that broke the proverbial camel’s back here, but like with every other country in the grip of revolt worldwide, from Haiti to Hong Kong, it was, and is, bigger than that. To localise the source of unrest to, say, a hike in metro fare or the demotion of an army officer, would be categorically wrong.

In Lebanon, for instance, it is rampant corruption in the public sector, staggeringly high levels of air pollution, mass deforestation due to an unprepared government, recurrent daily power cuts, and an outdated and odious judiciary system hoisted on the regime by the French. The litany of grievances goes on, and the rage that has been percolating for decades, like those coffee grounds in your rakweh, has finally frothed and risen up.

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It is important to note that not everyone has been waiting for this all their life. Certain Amal and Hezbollah (Lebanon’s main Shiite militia movements) supporters, for instance, feel that the demonstrations are not only an affront to their leaders, Hassan Nasrallah and Nabih Berri, but to themselves. 

More than that, they feel it’s a threat to the clout that the parties, of which they are staunchly a part, have for so long harnessed. Terrified of being cast into obscurity, ridicule, and worthlessness, they abandoned the cloak-and-dagger approach for a more menacing one and swarmed the perimeters of The Ring and other downtown encampments wielding sticks and stones, intent on destroying what they consider not an emblem of peace and hope, but of a future in which they can’t foresee their meaning or role.

The Ring, at its outset, was replete with the kind of objects you’d find in one’s living room and backyard: a flat screen television, rugs, couches, plants, inflatable mattresses, argileh (hookah). At different junctures during its development, there was even a bench and table set up for journalists, goalposts bookending the wide, laneless road for midnight football matches, and a projector erected for live-drawing.

When Amal and Hezbollah supporters ransacked it all, the people were shaken, but undeterred by this belligerent display. Hands in the air, they chorused the Arabic word for “peaceful” and stood their ground. Even when the army and internal forces coerced them to evacuate, the people came back in droves. Fridge-less and furniture-less, but with feet firmly planted, they would move when they decided it was time to.

In this way, The Ring is reflective of the extemporised nature of the revolution itself. So too does it reflect its organism-like qualities. Leaderless and biotic, its people communicate with one another the way cells would, separating and rejoining according to the demands of the moment as opposed to the demands of a superior. 

“We are a conscious collective,” says Beqaa Valley native Hamza Shamas, as we look at swirling figures in front of us dancing, drumming, and chanting. “There is no past or future right now. No leader or time. Only now. Only the street.” 

I consider this, the street as binding agent for the people, as I walk through what has become a semi-permanent revolutionary settlement in Beirut. Once monopolised by Solidere (Hariri’s company for the development and reconstruction of Beirut) and made into a homogenised, lifeless version of its former self, downtown now belongs to the people.

Old men sit on plastic chairs in circles and shoot the shit; hawkers and peddlers wind through throngs of smiling people, shouting in singsong for someone to purchase their wares; shirtless boys wearing Anonymous masks dance en masse, contorting their bodies into calligraphic shapes. There is kaake (Lebanese pastry), espresso, mankoushé (Lebanese flatbread), and pomegranate juice. But perhaps most importantly, there are faces that remember you.

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It is true that there have been moments of factionalisation concerning the tone of dissent (while some embrace the air of jubilee, others exhort them to behave in accordance with the seriousness of the protest’s demands; some swear by road-blocking, others oppose it), but this is a momentous occasion nonetheless. 

People, sick of the sectarianism that has been imposed on them, fed up with austerity and the falsehoods that have robbed them, are finally telling the system that has enshrined confessional rule and corruption for decades to (put bluntly, but accurately) go fuck itself. 

“For the first time in my life, I feel Lebanese,” says protester and business owner Roy Hankach, his face turned up in a way that almost expresses disbelief at his own words, while we perch on concrete roadblocks in what feels like the center of the universe. Fleets of motorbikes honking their horns in unison with the chants swoosh in endless loops past us; organisers and mobilisers, lawyers and activists gather and deliberate under LED lantern-lit tents beside us; and beyond, cedar-emblazoned flags and flares dot the sky. Around us, children play.

“For Lebanon’s rulers,” writes Dominique Eddé in The New York Review of Books, “salvaging the present requires destroying the future, and their own survival depends on maintaining their internal conflicts,” but the people, a considerable portion of them, at least, know better. Now, they are banding together in an unprecedented show of solidarity across 18 religious sects to do something about it. 

“I cannot think more than an hour ahead” has become a familiar expression in this revolution, but that is no longer because a future cannot be seen. It is because there is such close proximity to it: the future is now. And while improvisation can become an impediment without strict vigilance and adaptability, Lebanon’s people, from Nabatieh and Sour to Tripoli and Beirut, have shown over and over and over again these past few weeks that they know that. 

“There is an elasticity to this revolution that has never been seen before,” record producer and activist Jawad Chaaban tells me as we drive through Rue Spears in the West of Beirut where employees of Hariri-owned media Future TV are gathered in front of its brick-and-mortar outpost demanding long-overdue wages. 

Chabaan lights his Gitanes, takes a drag, and continues. “Since the trash crisis four years ago, the community has grown more mature, developed better tactics, and the millennials are the real fuel behind it. Even us veterans of protest and politics of yesteryear are looking at them in amazement. They are peaceful, but they are daring and they know what they’re doing.” 

We stop at a red light. He looks at the soldiers loitering on the sidewalk and then back at me. “I want to tell you something for sure. This is not stopping anytime soon.”

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Now entering its 4th week, the revolution is still leaderless and biotic, but infinitely more structured and with a solidity of spirit and mind that has made the protesters seemingly indestructible. Whereas before, in Beirut, the movement was spatially centralised – downtown being its primary stage – people have now taken to dispersing and launching into a series of tailored demonstrations to match each of their grievances. 

To rise up against the ruinous electricity crisis, they gathered and camped out in front of Electricité du Liban; to condemn the privatisation of public spaces, they stormed Eden Bay; and in a bid to hold the regime and all its key players accountable for their corruption, they assembled near the Ministry of justice.

Like all organic matter, this revolution, in its current iteration, has a lifespan. One day, the tents at Martyr’s Square in downtown will be deconstructed. The Egg, an unfinished cinema structure just north of it, will no longer be the site of daily discourse. And The Ring, the ne plus ultra of roadblock sites, will not be filled with this mass of humanity. But the revolution will forever change the course of the country’s history – though what exactly that will look like, at this moment, is unclear. 

“This is your revolution to fight,” says Marya Barrage, mother to one of the protestors, as we stand in the shadow of Beirut’s Blue Mosque glowing gold and bright against a perpetually moving frieze of people. “We cannot adopt it; we can only support it.” 

There is a wistfulness in her tone, one that communicates her generation having had their time. “This is your country, not ours, and who am I to tell you what your country should look like?”

I know she is not talking to me when she says this. I know that my roots are Lebanese and Armenian, amongst a myriad of other ethnicities, but that I will always have been born and raised in America. That said, I cannot help but consider all the revolutions worldwide that are taking place right now, in Haiti, Iraq, Chile, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Spain. And I cannot help but feel that she is talking to all of us. 

The world is ours. Now what are we going to do with it?

Angela Brussel is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York whose non-fiction and fiction have appeared in The Awl, Nylon Magazine, Electric Literature, The Wrong Quarterly, and Brooklyn Magazine. Her website is here​.