It Felt Like Love

Lebanon's uprising failed, but it changed everything for me

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It Felt Like Love
Anti-government protests, Nov. 10, 2019/ Photo by Amir Makar/ AFP via Getty Images/ Newlines

On the morning of Oct. 17 last year, my husband Tarek woke me up with the news that the government had decided to impose a monthly tax on our WhatsApp calls. We’d been hearing reports about the government’s massive debt for months, as well as the austerity measures it planned to implement to unlock a foreign loan that would help offset it. But this — a tax on something meant to be free when we already paid extortionate phone and internet rates — felt spit-in-your-face audacious. “Fuck this country,” I said. “They won’t let us have even an inch of breathing space. Not even a free park to go to or a goddamned tree to sit under without some security guard chasing you off! Let’s leave.”

That evening, we left our house and walked down the hill of the Grand Serail, heading to the Beirut souks downtown to watch a film. We walked through Riad el Solh square and past the Parliament building, the streets quiet and eerily empty, and bought our tickets to watch “Joker,” yet another retelling of the origin story of Batman’s archnemesis. Some critics had read it as a film justifying mediocre white male rage, but as we came out, all we could talk about was what seemed like its anti-capitalist message. The real villains in the movie are the cruel bosses who fire the disenfranchised, the system that makes much-needed healthcare and medication unavailable, and above all, the indifferent rich, to whose wealth everyone is made subservient. The riots at the end of the film were an exhilarating catharsis — no reform for this broken state of affairs, only revolution. “That’s what we need in Lebanon,” said Tarek. “To bring the entire system down by force. Can you imagine?”

I could not.

But I didn’t need to: We had emerged from the theater and into the realm of the unimaginable.

We walked out to find rows and rows of riot police blocking the roads we had taken so easily before and army trucks barreling through downtown, and as we escaped to the smaller streets looking for an unobstructed way home, the night was lit by countless fires. We slept to the sound of whooping and shouting, of motorcycles zipping through the city and the deafening booms of dumpster after dumpster being dragged and knocked over, and even through the closed windows there was the smell of burning garbage and tires all night long.

Those who had heard the same news about the same brazen tax, and who did not have the luxury or cynicism to say, ”Let’s leave,” had instead started a revolution.

That first morning I was afraid. I called the fear disdain. “This is bullshit, this will lead to nothing,” I scoffed. “This will reveal itself as yet another disguise for sectarianism, like 2005.” In truth, it was more that I was afraid — terrified — of crowds. In 2005, during the mass protests that followed the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, demanding the ouster of the Syrian regime from Lebanon — protests that quickly divided the country into two rival political camps — I had been nearly trampled by a crowd. I remember suddenly being lifted off my feet by the force of the bodies around me; being unable to draw breath through my crushed ribs; the feeling of suffocating beneath an open blue sky. No one around me wanted to hurt me, but the crowd was a different entity altogether, with a mind and power of its own. After that I couldn’t even take a bus at rush hour.

I was also afraid that whatever was happening outside, growing public anger, was the precursor to sectarian violence, maybe another civil war. I remember a lot of people feeling that way at first, especially those of the generation slightly older than mine, who had been teenagers rather than children during the worst of the war. Any tremor of instability, any political upheaval and the old nightmare would come slamming back into waking life, making it hard to think out beyond that wall of fear.

I spent the first day watching videos, even as I could hear the commotion down in the streets below. Short clips of people transformed instantly into warriors, and icons. The woman executing a perfect kick to the groin of a politician’s armed bodyguard — right where we’d been the night before! The man in Akkar shouting on the news that next the politicians would put a meter on our asses to charge us for every shit. There were clips of people taking to the streets in every village, every town and city, from north to south, burning down the giant pictures of the zaims (chieftains) who presided over their areas, trampling on the faces while enumerating a list of everything these men had stolen, every luxury they enjoyed at the people’s expense.

They were cursed at, jeered, and humiliated by their own partisans, deemed fucking thieves and shit-stained pimps, and told they had gone unpunished too long.

There were clips of people tearing apart the very stone of the fancy, empty buildings in downtown Beirut and smashing up billboards that advertised diamonds and trips abroad, the symbols of the rotten, inaccessible world being broken piece by piece. There was the delightful news that protesters had broken into the Puma store downtown and stolen all the new shoes, leaving their old ones behind on the display. No one was chanting sectarian slogans; no politician, no zaim was spared. By name, they were dragged through the mud on TV; by name, each and every one of the former warlords, the politicians who still rule us now, were hauled down to the court of public opinion in their own towns and villages. They were cursed at, jeered, and humiliated by their own partisans, deemed fucking thieves and shit-stained pimps, and told they had gone unpunished too long. It was as though the have-nothings were coming for the have-everythings, and that retribution belonged to the people and the people had had enough.

It’s impossible to explain the feeling of that which has been unvoiced for so long suddenly being shouted from the rooftops by everyone all at once. It’s a cacophony so loud and furious it even reaches back into the silence of the past, redeeming its every repressed sorrow.

Still, that whole day I did not go down. But Tarek and our close friend Fadi did. They came back late at night, shimmering with excitement. Was everyone already calling it thawra (revolution) by then? I’m almost sure. “You have to go,” they said. “You can’t imagine, you can’t imagine what it’s like down there.”

I could not; it had to be lived to be understood.

The next day was bright and beautiful, and I joined myself to the flood of bodies that had been streaming all morning down the slopes of Zokak el Blatt toward Riad el Solh and Martyr’s Square downtown. The hill of the Grand Serail was now closed to us with soldiers and barbed wire. Tires were burning everywhere. The Ring highway — the Ring highway! — was wholly empty of cars and filled with people instead. Some had scrambled up onto the road signs high above the asphalt and spray-painted them with new words. This tunnel no longer led to Hamra, it was the way to the thawra. Every road across the city, across the country, north to south, east to west, was now the way to the thawra.

To be out in the streets during a time of revolution — it is a feeling, like love, or grief, of which it is difficult to speak without echoing some variation of what has been said of it a million times before. All meaning is upended; everything becomes possible; the first revolt is that against fear; a seismic shift has taken place; things will never be the same; all the givens forever changed.

I’d heard all of those things before, but again, like love or grief, nothing can truly prepare you for what it’s like to inhabit the wholly new reality the experience creates. Lived, it is a feeling so electric that it charges everything it touches with meaning, even cliche. In fact, the need for cliche becomes evidence of the feeling’s unspeakable vastness, for it is the only expression large and loose enough to contain this gargantuan thing perpetually in motion. I can only describe it in fractal parts, each small snatch of memory containing a blueprint for the whole.

There was the night march down Ramlet el Bayda beach to storm the gates of the illegal Eden Bay resort. The bass drum keeping time, the people cheering from their balconies as we went past, the ecstatically profane chanting, and all the while accompanied by the vast velvet stretch of the starlit sea. A balmy, romantic night, perfect for a walk, only here I was walking with what felt like my entire people. And when we got to Eden Bay, those people joined hands and pushed forward, breaking through the line of riot police and barbed wire, smashing through a concrete wall with a sledgehammer, rushing down the sandy dunes that were once public, once ours, to have a bonfire on the forbidden beach.

There was the day I woke up to the sound of drums and chanting at 7 a.m., and went down to find crowds and crowds of students — teenagers, kids! — striking outside their school, psyching themselves up for their march to the Ministry of Education. I followed them down Mar Elias street, residents showering them with rice from above, my heart bursting with pride, as though I had raised every one of them myself. And outside the Ministry, wave after wave, bus after bus of schoolkids kept arriving, and they planted themselves down in the middle of the street, blocking traffic, rushing at the riot police snarling to snatch back every classmate the police tried to drag off.

There was the day Amal and Hezbollah’s thugs stormed through the protest sites in downtown Beirut, smashing tents, beating people, overturning vats of food at the soup kitchens and burning books at the children’s tents, all while the police looked idly on. But after they had left, protesters swarmed back in, and within two hours, everything had been cleaned up and restored to order. The tents were rebuilt, and the food and books replenished by countless volunteers. At night there was singing, and people dancing the dabke, ferocious and defiant, throughout all the squares, the drums booming deep into the night. That was the day we brought Saad al-Hariri’s government down.

It felt like love, that initial part of the thawra. Like love, there was a total transformation of consciousness from the solitary I to the rapturous we

It felt like love, that initial part of the thawra. Like love, there was a total transformation of consciousness from the solitary I to the rapturous we, only here we was the people, al-shaab, al-shaab al-lubnani. Each one of us had spent years cursing al-shaab al lubnani, as though we alone who invoked those curses were separate from that mindless they. Al-shaab al lubnani are stupid. Are sheep. Will take any scraps you throw at them. Are bootlickers to their zaim. Deserve every ill they get because they brought it upon themselves.

And suddenly here, for a brief time, al-shaab al-lubnani were brave, defiant, creative, brilliant, hilarious, selfless, organized, scrappy, and endlessly inventive. We were no longer resilient — passively taking blows and absorbing the shock without breaking apart entirely. No, we were pushing forward with everything we had, we were taking whatever they threw at us, stuffing it into a bottle, lighting it on fire and lobbing it back.

Of course it wasn’t an all-encompassing we. Of course there were those kept outside of it, felt outside of it, maligned or sidelined by it. Even those who chanted in the name of that shaab each had their different ideas about who it encompassed, whether it encompassed, for example, the Palestinians and Syrians who were citizens in every sense of the word save for their rights or the foreign laborers who carried the country on their backs, raising its children and caring for its elders.

But it felt like the broadest possible we this divided country had ever experienced; one that could, would, through revolution, eventually include us all. A we that pulled us together across sectarian and class lines, stitching shut some of those wounds. So hard to explain the full-body jolt of how, after 15 years of civil war and then 30 years of silence about it, cities and towns across the entire length of the country, enemies of old, would chant and call out to one another in the squares, especially after any attack against protesters. “For you, Tripoli,” chanted Beirut. “For you, Nabatiyeh,” chanted Tripoli. “For you, Akkar,” chanted Nabatiyeh, “for you we remain in the streets” – and I remember being so choked up by this I could sometimes no longer chant along, only stand there and try to take it all in, letting other people’s voices become my own.

Again and again in the squares I ran into Bashir, who was the watchman at the construction site next to our old building. Bashir used to spend his days enveloped in a crazy-making din, during the rare lulls cursing at his yapping mop of a dog, Happy, and his nights sleeping in the site’s lung-ruinous dust and debris. One day a steel beam fell on him, breaking his collarbone and rib cage. His friends had to take up a collection and beg charities to pay his hospital bills; it certainly wasn’t going to be paid by the developer who had provided no safety or insurance for him in the first place.

He spent months recuperating, and when he came back, he seemed broken in more than body. But out in the squares, he was nearly unrecognizable in his new guise as revolutionary: he stood tall, his face beamed, we shook hands and he shook my hand without the socially prescribed deference he had been taught to owe. He was always dashing off to where the riot police were attacking: “I can take a beating,” he’d say, banging proudly on his chest. “Don’t you know that broken bones heal stronger than before?” More than anything it is the memory of that Bashir, the Bashir who wore his new dignity as a matter of simple fact, the Bashir so different from the stooped man I occasionally stop to chat with now, that pains me most to remember, that makes me angriest at our loss.

Our loss: The consensus now is that it was inevitable. That it was stupid to believe otherwise in the first place. And it’s true, whatever the organizational or strategic failures of the thawra — and there were many — the odds were stacked against us from the start. We were fighting not a single regime or figurehead, but the hydra-headed monster of sectarianism. We were fighting several security apparatuses, those of the state and that of Hezbollah. We were also fighting the banks and the economic system, the despair of realizing our money, whether the savings of an entire lifetime or the tiny funds set aside for tuition and emergencies, was gone. Our withdrawal allowances shrunk by the month, all while the lira devalued steadily and prices rose exponentially, leaving people scrambling for food and basic sustenance, trying to quickly reorganize their lives around their sudden new poverty.

and then sending troops down to the hospitals to pull people out of the emergency rooms and into interrogation cells

Who had the time or mental energy now to be down in the streets and squares? Certainly not those who had the highest stakes in the fight. And as the crowds thinned out, the police and army grew more and more vicious, shooting people with live ammunition and then sending troops down to the hospitals to pull people out of the emergency rooms and into interrogation cells, beating them senseless.

And then there was the pandemic, which forced the last stragglers off the streets.

And then, the explosion. The 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate that exploded at the Beirut port on the evening of August 4, 2020, leveling half the city. In the course of a few seconds, the blast created the material — and psychological — damage of years of war.

We now know that the whole time we were protesting in the squares, against what we thought then was the most egregious sort of government neglect and failure —no electricity, no water, no social security, no health care, no public space, no labor unions, no beachfront left unpolluted or undeveloped, no trash or sewage infrastructure, no helicopters to put out raging forest fires, no news of the war’s thousands of disappeared, no accountability for warlords and crooks —that all that time we were not even a kilometer away from neglect so outrageous that none of us, even during that time of unbridled revolutionary imagination, could have imagined it.

A year ago, I was dreaming of a life that included parks and trees. Parks and trees! Now I just want to wake up without a sense of overwhelming dread, the fear that today is the day that one of my loved ones dies as a result of some ridiculous accident caused by a state falling apart at the seams. And still, their hoary old talons remain sunk into the seats of power. And still, no one has been held accountable for August’s 200 dead, thousands wounded, and 300,000 made homeless. As of this writing, there is very much the possibility that Saad al-Hariri, the same incompetent, corrupt, barely literate daddy’s boy whose government the thawra ousted in October 2019, will be named our new-old prime minister. We have not come full circle. We have circled down the drain, into the mucky depths where it is impossible to see more than a few paces ahead.

Our loss, the greatest, most devastating one, is any sense of possibility, of hope for a better future.

This is why, on this first anniversary of the thawra of Oct. 17, I am not interested in offering a list of where it went wrong, and why. Much of it is just the difficult work of politics. Our initial coming together, so spontaneous and exhilarating, was over an imagined utopia fundamentally defined as not this. Not these guys. No more. But when it came time to define what that utopia looked like, it became clear that everyone had a completely different idea, not just of what it was or who would be included, but of who or what had to be destroyed to arrive at it in the first place, and what approach would be most effective. It takes a lot of work to define, by consensus, what form an equitable society might take. And it is perhaps impossible to arrive there without massive and likely violent upheaval.

But the alternative to the jolt of a spontaneous revolution is a dreamless, sleepwalker’s life. And after this monstrous year of monstrous cruelties, I want to take this occasion to remember what it felt like to be awake, to be awake together. To be so wide-awake to the possibilities that the ordinary streets were made extraordinary spaces of redemption. Spaces where it was possible to imagine that we were laying all the ghosts of the civil war to rest, breaking apart the old nation in order to make of ourselves a new people.

In this country of forgetfulness, where there is no agreed-upon history, no accountability, and no memorials for so many of our dead, the work of the witness is too often consigned to keeping a record of our sorrows. So much is lost to time and neglect; we hope that our suffering, at least, is not forgotten. We remember so as to honor, so as to preserve. We try, as Mahmoud Darwish once wrote, to “date [our] wounds and [our] estrangement.” But it is imperative, too, that we date and remember our joys, our coming together. Because we did come together, and we did feel joy, and it was that collective joy in a sad, sad country that felt so radical, so revolutionary.

To allow the darkness of the present to cast its shadow back on to the past will leave us with no light by which to see any way forward. And quickly we will forget what revolution felt like, and with it we will lose the memory that we were capable of it in the first place. It will be as though none of it ever happened.

As for that elation, that fearlessness, that transformative love, that sense of unity in the squares? I lived it, we lived it; it happened. That remembrance of it is the only map we have of the way back.

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