Updated: Sep 22, 2020
By Willabel Grindley Bennett
Last year Willabel travelled to Lebanon to study at the American University of Beirut as part of her International and Global Studies degree where she studied Arabic, Journalism and Political Science. She has now graduated and hopes to pursue a Masters degree and at some point return to Lebanon. Below she writes about some of her experiences.
Tuesday 5th December 2019
BEIRUT, LEBANON - Until last month Beirut’s postwar Downtown had a glitzy and garish aesthetic, its ostentatious buildings shielded from unruly graffiti and loud popular messages sprayed across the bruised and battered walls elsewhere in Beirut. The October 17 uprising changed all that. Activists and artists invaded pavements outside gleaming office buildings, glamorous luxury brands, and the private mini-manicured lawns of hotels.
Loud horns and squealing brakes shriek into the ears of passersby. Walking through Beirut’s Downtown, the jungle of graffiti can be a sensory experience. However, there is more to the murals than meets the eye.
In the last month, irate Lebanese protestors took to the streets to call for revolution. They shouted for the ousting of government, economic reforms and an end to corruption.
Lebanese youth have been denied access to public space in Beirut for decades. Mobilised by the 2019 October and November revolts, a young generation of activists have taken to the streets to reclaim the function of city squares and gathering spots to spray their graffiti. In the past, graffiti and political posters were used by militia groups to mark their turf. Whether by right or not, the markings in their territories’ symbolised physical divisions that characterised the city during the Lebanese Civil war.
Joey, 20, has been an aspiring graffiti artist for two years and business student at the Lebanese American University. His work so far vividly depicts comedic caricatures of Lebanese politicians. Recently, he armed himself with $400 USD worth of spray cans to join protests. Graffiti artists have been emboldened by the scale of public outrage. Joey dared to be first, he said, to spray his discontent on the wall framing a polished UN glass building, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN ESCWA). Such areas were off limits until the start of the thawra, Arabic for revolution.
Young people are using street art as a tool of resistance. Artistic expression has spread its truths across the city, a culmination of what hasn’t been addressed in Lebanon. Both online and on the streets, art is being used as one of the tools of airing grievances, resisting and exposing a tortured reality for the people of Lebanon.
Lebanese artist Fadel Sabbagh, 30, talked about art as the quiet resistance, “I think art is a very important aspect in this movement...what’s more peaceful than people doing art.” “It expresses the feeling of the people without raising their voices,” he added. “Art is stronger than words.” The permanency of art makes it stick in history, “Honestly it [art] will leave a stain,” he explained. Whether the Lebanese uprising achieves its goals remains an open question. It is indisputable, however, that art is one of the main vehicles of the uprising. Through public art activists have made a strong statement. “We are living in a curse,” he said. “This is ours, this is for the people and not for the government,” he insisted. For Sabbagh, “behind each piece of art there is a story.” In the context of Lebanon’s wrought history, art is a form of healing, “When someone sees someone else’s work, this might tap into their own feelings too, and it might be healing. It’s like reading a book, you read someone’s thoughts and you feel connected to these thoughts,” he explained.
Artwork by Mohamad Nohad Alameddine (aka Nougat).
Farah Jizzini, 25, is a freelance painter with a Masters degree in Interior Architecture. Her art, which emblazons walls along the streets of Beirut is inspired by the stories of others and by her own emotions and experiences. Farah said that through her visual commentary she is hoping to remind people, “what the protest is about, and what will we get in return for this tough period of time.” “Everyday people need to see creative artistic ideas picturing the streets, the angry people, the poor families, the martyrs,” she emphasised. For Jizzini her role as an artist is enacting change, through reminding and empowering people through visuals. For her art is a form of protest, especially the street art in Downtown Beirut, where street art is forbidden. Walking through Martyrs Square or Riyadh Al Solh, she said it is evident that street art is a form of uncovering suffering. “The street art there, it speaks about the people and their hard times.” Going forward, Farah doesn’t have a clear vision of how the protest will end. “Maybe it will end badly, and maybe not, I hope not,” she added, “But all I can say is we have to stay on the streets and we have to proceed in asking and demanding our basic and minimum human rights no matter how much time it will take.”
Mohamad Nohad Alameddine is a Lebanese illustrator who has won awards for his press cartoons. His main source of inspiration, the daily difficulties he faces as a young man in Lebanon. The main platform for his satirical caricatures is online on Instagram. Alameddine says, “I see illustration as a weapon to express my ideas visually and spread them as much as I can.” “Since the beginning of the revolution, we saw an uprising in the expression of the Lebanese’s sufferance through art, so I decided to print my illustrations and join the manifestations, to share my ideas with the general public.” For Alameddine an instigator for change his mission is to make people start to question their rights, “As an illustrator I see that arts is one of the major pillars that can influence as many people as possible in the fastest way, and I believe that art can not only leave an impact but also lead the revolution through the path to their fulfilling their basic demands.”
Lebanon is reeling after two explosions occurred at the Beirut Port in the early evening of August 4th, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Crisis upon crisis have compounded; Lebanon is currently fighting off COVID-19, political unrest, an unprecedented economic crisis and famine. Since October the Lebanese Pound has lost over 86% of its value. The inflation rate is the 3rd highest in the world. Lebanon is on the brink of starvation as the cost of basic necessities has soared. The World Bank estimates that 75% of the population will soon be living below the poverty line.