The following is a personal essay on being in Beirut in a time of sandstorms and protests, on the language of contestation and the way in which the demonstrations prompted by the ongoing trash crisis that grips the country are imbricated within broader tussles over the role and capacity of the state and the use and misuse of space—public and private alike.
On Monday 20 July, they stopped collecting the trash in Beirut. Three days earlier, on Friday 17 July, Lebanon’s main landfill had closed. Though opened in 1997 as a temporary facility, the site, near the town of Na’meh, had been operating continuously for close to 18 years. Taking in more than 2,500 tonnes of refuse per day at its peak, it now contains some 15 million tonnes of trash spread over 200,000 square metres. Images of the site show a landscape made of waste, fields and hillocks seemingly alive with decomposition. Na’meh, however, did not close because it had long exceeded its capacity, initially set at 2 million tonnes. 17 July simply was the end-date of the contract granted to Sukleen, which for twenty years has held the monopoly over rubbish collection in Beirut and Mount Lebanon, and whose sister company, Sukomi, manages the landfill. In full knowledge of the fact, the government had formed a ministerial committee in 2014 to devise a plan. But, as so often in Lebanon, no solution was found, and Sukleen’s green-uniformed employees—the vast majority of them Indian or Egyptian labour migrants—for two decades a familiar sight, stopped their work. Within a matter of days, roads were over-spilling with bursting, leaking bags of rubbish. The inhabitants of affected regions quickly resorted to other means to get rid of their rubbish, fly-tipping or burning the mounting piles of plastic bags. One friend recalled the absurdity he felt, stopped at a traffic light in a neighbourhood of Beirut as a dumpster slowly rolled down the hill into the middle of the intersection, its innards alight, churning out black smoke.
Rapidly, civil society activists began to mobilise in response. Many at the centre of the movement that began to coalesce in the last days of July had committed their energies to other causes for some years—from the rights of migrant workers and refugees to the preservation of Beirut’s few remaining public spaces in the face of rampant development, and from the reform of Lebanon’s defective personal statute, citizenship, and domestic violence laws to the abolition of political sectarianism. But while many of these demonstrations and marches and gatherings had remained relatively small affairs, the issue of rubbish hit a nerve with a public wearied by summer heat and exasperated by the stench of the streets. Those Lebanese who can afford it—and those who can’t—try as best they can to surmount their country’s sclerotic infrastructure, paying for generators to provide electricity to their buildings and resorting to private car parks set into wasteland because of the absence of spaces on Beirut’s streets. But rubbish, it seems, is another matter, and one for which all were entirely dependent on the state and its subcontractor, with its monopoly over collection. Under the hashtag banner of tal‘at rihatkum, ‘you stink’, the protests began to gain ground, culminating in the mass demonstration held on Saturday 29 August, when some 250,000 crowded into Martyrs’ Square, in the centre of Beirut. And around the movement’s core demands there began to sprout, rhizome-like, a number of different desiderata—for accountability and transparency, for the resignation of the Minister of the Environment, Muhammad Mashnouq if not the entire cabinet, for an end to the political corruption and patronage and graft that has seemingly turned Lebanon into a Tammany Hall of a country and, even, for the overthrow of the post-war regime. Increasingly, those at the core of the movement—young, exhausted, energetic—began to resort to a range of different tactics. On 1 September, activists occupied the Ministry of the Environment, calling for Mashnouq’s resignation; they were ejected by force. One of their leaders, the filmmaker Lucien Bourjeily, was hospitalised, photos of his bruised face making the front pages of the newspapers. Dozens of others were arrested. Many remain in detention. On 3 September, they taped off the parking meters on Beirut’s seafront Corniche, which they claim as a public commons unfairly exploited for private gain. In response, Lebanon’s politicians, ferreting like Mary Poppins through their bottomless bags of delaying tactics and swerves and diversions, called a round of ‘national dialogue’ for 9 September. Though this sempiternal exercise in futility has been going on since 2006, it has yielded little but missed deadlines, postponed meetings and deferred objectives. But still these men, experts in extemporisation well practised in the exploitation of uncertainty, aver that only such conclaves can provide a solution to the crises afflicting Lebanon—not the least of which is the absence of a president, the last incumbent, Michel Suleiman, having left office sixteen months ago. In response, tal‘at rihatkum called a demonstration for that evening, under the slogan mustamirun—‘we continue’.
I arrived in Beirut, after two years’ absence, on 1 September, for a fit of research. The morning of 9 September, I wake up late, after a night of unreliable sleep. Having got through my usual gargantuan breakfast—I can’t help notice the hotel waiters have started to clear each plate after I’m done with it, first the fruit, then the labneh and mint and olives and tomatoes, in the hope it might put me off getting another—I head down the hill to the American University, to find everything shut because of the sandstorm that hangs like an ochre pall over the city. A day in the archives lost, I think, in one of those fits of panic quite particular to historians. A couple of seething messages dispatched to my long suffering in Cambridge, I decide to walk down to the Corniche. The air clings to the body, hanging dense, palpable around one’s limbs like a second layer of grey skin. The seafront is almost empty. A Syrian father and son—the man in his forties, portly, his striped shirt stretching over his belly, the son about twelve, already as tall as his father, the same shapes blossoming under his loose t-shirt—walk briskly ahead of me, pausing every once in a while to take a selfie on the son’s iPhone; its cover is decorated with the Union Jack. Down below, a few fishermen throw their lines out into the dark water, drawing isosceles triangles with the seafront skyscrapers and the low cloud cover. Shapes ordinarily stark against the blue sky are hidden in a dense, granular smog a filthy shade of grey. Out at sea a single boat sits still on the unmoving surface. On the rocks below lie a few sunbathers—the word feels wrong, but there they are, stretched out on flattened cardboard boxes just like the ones Syrian mothers crouch on in the streets behind them. They have with them all the necessary accoutrements—their little vanity pouches full of sun oils and creams sit next to them, amidst a mess of newspapers, watermelon, and crisp packets. A couple have brought argilehs, and smoke as they chat. A group of Syrian boys swim in their tracksuit bottoms, too shy to undress any further, catcalling each other from the slimy rocks as they take turns to dive in.
I walk south along the seafront towards Rawshe, the ‘pigeon rock’ that has gifted Beirut a thousand postcards. Proceeding slowly in the enveloping heat, I stop every few minutes to wipe the sweat that builds up on the inside of my sunglasses—entirely superfluous today, except as a film against the dust—or to photograph the outline of some old hillside mansion, its insides long since divided up into small flats whose current inhabitants—migrants from the south, Palestinians, Kurds, Syrians—drape their laundry on the balconies to flap dry in the dirty wind. Along the way, I come across a man, the back of his old Toyota pick-up laden with fresh oranges and pomegranates from the southern coast, pressing juice into small bottles he chucks into a Styrofoam cooler. I make as if to take his photo, but he turns around alarmed. No photos, he tells me, he is a member of the Amn al-Dawla, state security—one of the many agencies that proliferate in Lebanon, satisfying its politicians’ tireless appetite for patronage. Thinking he is undercover, I defer hurriedly and walk on. It’s only on my way back, when I buy a bottle of juice from him, that he apologises, explaining he can’t be seen doing this; his salary is no longer enough to get by on. Eventually, I get to the pigeon rock. A Turkmen couple in their fifties ask whether I will film them standing still before the sea. I agree, panning from one to the other and back as they try to smile, the rock behind them just close enough to be clear-cut. When I show them the video they look bemused, somehow unhappy with the results. By the rock, on a low point that protrudes seawards is the Dalieh, a patch of grass and rocks on which fishermen had built homes and restaurants to which families from the popular neighbourhoods of West Beirut would flock at weekends. The place has also long had a particular significance for the city’s Kurdish community, who descend there every year to celebrate Nowruz, their flame-coloured flags in tow. In 2014, the Dalieh became the centre of a series of tense standoffs between its fishermen and their supporters, a loose coalition of architects and environmental and social activists, on the one hand, and on the other developers and security forces, when the latter erected a barrier enfencing the foreland. Many feared this was only the prelude to yet another littoral development project, which would wipe away one of Beirut’s few remaining common spaces, closing off the sea to the people. The day I’m there, the place is empty of life, closed off behind its fence, into whose iron cells someone has woven wicker climbing figures, frozen in their act of resistance. A few days later, the storm has cleared, and a crowd of activists and local inhabitants cut away at a portion of the fence under a resplendent September sunshine, rushing down to the shore to sit and eat their picnics, as they had once done so freely.
I return to the hotel, trudging back the way I came. Bored and hemmed in and uncertain, I spend hours following the lead-up to the demonstrations unfold on Twitter and Facebook. Despite the vacillating internet connection, I watch a group of kids—eighteen, nineteen—their faces covered up in black scarves and keffiyehs, throw eggs at the blacked out armoured insulated Mercedes that sweep in to Nejmeh square, where the Lebanese parliament sits, cordoned off from its country by high steel barriers erected over night. In the tenebrous insides of these vehicles sit the leaders of most of Lebanon’s main parties and factions and movements, gathering for their dialogue. In May 2013, the members of Lebanon’s parliament, unable to find a new electoral law agreeable to all parties, agreed instead on putting off the elections and extending their own terms for seventeen months. As the expiry date on their bargain drew nearer, they hastily prolonged their terms in office by another thirty-one months, citing the fear of a spill-over from Syria—a phrase that suggests a sort of upsetting domestic incident, a tap left on, a bathtub that overflows, a floor that collapses, flooding the neighbours. This new deal will keep them in place until well into 2017. Now they meet again in parliament, with its cavernous car park full of SUVs and Humvees and its dysfunctional internet, as isolated physically behind their iron barriers as they are impervious to the slingshots of public opinion. Over and over the video loops. Shouts of haramiyyeh, haramiyyeh—thieves, thieves; a quick flick of the arm; a leg stretched out in an angry kick. Twenty-one seconds, and again it starts, decades of seething frustration distilled into a third of a minute. Finally, at half past five, I decide to go down to the demonstration. To see, in my prurient way, to listen, to be there, to be counted.
I walk, again, along the seafront, this time moving north and east past ‘Ain al-Mreisseh towards the downtown district. Along the way I pass more signs of the continuing confrontations over Beirut’s shoreline. Here, though, the contesting visions etched out on the promenade like overlaid graffiti are rather different. On the shoreline stands the St George Hotel, seemingly turning its back on the Gulf-like hyper-modernist skyscrapers on the other side of the boulevard. Its 1960s façade scarred by the explosion that killed Rafik al-Hariri, the dominant political figure of post-war Lebanon, on Valentine’s Day 2005, it has remained empty for close to twenty years, caught up in a bitter dispute over the rights to the seafront. In 1994, Hariri, then Lebanon’s prime minister, established Solidere—the name stands for Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth—to rebuild the city’s central district, torn apart by fifteen years of war. Despite its name, this was a private company, listed on the Beirut stock exchange; in return for undertaking to reconstruct the gutted heart of the Lebanese capital, it was granted ownership of 291,800 square metres of Beirut property. But the St George’s owners have stolidly refused to accept this bargain, entering into a tortuous legal battle with Solidere over its plans for a new marina adjacent to their hotel. On one side of the empty box that is now the St George has long hung a banner proclaiming ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ in stark, sans-serif capitals, marked out against a red stop sign stained grey by years of pollution. In the meantime, the long feared marina has been built—Zaitunay Bay, an opulent new development replete with ‘executive apartments’ for the Middle East’s ‘cultural and social elite’, moorings for that elite’s yachts, and a range of restaurants that includes, somewhat incongruously, branches of Starbucks, Paul, and the US strip mall stalwart PF Chang’s. Overhanging the St George beach club, now hemmed in on all sides by this complex, is a new banner. It reads simply, in Arabic, French, and English: ‘You are in the St George Bay’. On one level, this can be interpreted as a protest against the transformation of the public space of the promenade into a private enclosure, controlled by a corporation which seeks to police the bodily comportment of all those who step foot on its land, forbidding the walking of pets, skating, cycling, begging, eating and drinking, arghileh smoking, and even loud speaking and shouting—activities to which the littoral has lent itself for decades and which, in the case of loudness, seem so natural to Beirutis their prohibition appears inhuman, not to say impracticable. It’s no coincidence that the protest that culminated in the retaking of Dalieh began with a riotous demonstration of public energy at Zaitunay Bay before moving west down the coast. But running through this is another strain of invective, more troubling and more difficult to unscramble. For here too, for some, is resentment not so much of such displays of corporate sovereignty, but rather of the ‘Islamisation’ of Beirut and the eradication of its Christian character by a band of piratical Sunni capitalists bent on transforming the city into an outpost of Dubai or Riyadh—a rancour that swells up to the surface like a nasty blemish in polite conversation in well-to-do gatherings, when talk suddenly turns to how ‘they’ stole Beirut, irrevocably tearing out the roots of its old cosmopolitanism. In such ways is the language of Lebanese politics made of a rough weave of different strands, frayed and forever threatening to unspool.
Eventually, I reach the bottom of Martyrs’ Square, from the nineteenth century the centre of Beirut’s life, with its public gardens, depicted in late Ottoman postcards as a manicured expanse of neat lawns and gazebos, its cafes and cinemas and tramways and bustling crowds, now nothing so much as a crater-like car park. I follow the sound of speeches, trailing a small trickle of people climbing up the hill. In the square there is a crowd—smaller, no doubt, than the demonstration held on 29 August, but bigger than I had expected from the live feeds. Later, journalists and commentators will be coy about the numbers—some speaking merely of thousands, others, more boldly, of tens of thousands. For many, the sandstorm and fears of violent police reprisals seem to have been enough to stay away. But the crowd remains a motley one: youngish middle-class parents with their designer eyeglasses and t-shirts, children in tow, older well-to-do couples wandering about taking in the sights, students with their facemasks—as much a badge of protest against the ambient stench as a measure against sand particles—wizened trade unionists holding up their placards, groups of boys from the working-class Beirut neighbourhood of Khandaq Ghamir with their derbake drums and teasing chants.
What is surprising—and, for some, disappointing—is not so much the turnout as the odd combination of the slick and the disorganised, the desire to turn a demonstration into a spectacle jarring awkwardly with the unbiddable energies of some of the crowd. Tal‘at Rihatkum, now an umbrella organisation as much as a slogan, has done its best to turn it into a multimedia extravaganza, with a stage, a large video screen, speakers suspended precariously in front of nearby buildings. We are treated to speeches not just from representatives of the areas most affected by the garbage crisis and the various schemes put forward to resolve it—most of which seem to consist merely of creating more landfills in localities as far away from Beirut as possible—but also from two soap stars wheeled out for the occasion. Some of the speakers are distinctly more impassioned than others. One of the ‘artists’, an actress best known for playing melodramatic romantic roles, elects to repeat over and over into helwin—‘you are beautiful’. One senses not everyone in attendance is won over. It would be tempting to read this lazily as a typically Lebanese display, one that combines righteousness, ostentation and schmaltz in equal measure. There is, however, another pulse running through the crowd and through some of the speeches—angrier, but also more irreverent, more mocking in its satire. Many harp upon a discourse of patria, citizenship and state, that the demonstrators ironically share with the politicians against whom their ire is directed—but, then again, what is so odd about opposing protagonists claiming the same discursive terrain—or echo the slogans of revolutions elsewhere. But others occupy rougher rhetorical ground. Chants break out of arba‘t‘ash w tmene ‘amlu al-balad dekene—14 March and 8 March have turned the country into a shop—and, to the tune of Jingle Bells, leilet ‘eid, leilet ‘eid, haida majlis al-zbeleh majlis al-tamdid, pairing the parliament’s inability to provide solutions to the trash crisis with its readiness to prolong its own life. Vernacular, unruly, mocking, they ripple through the crowd as night falls. Later, some complain on social media that the demonstration was too much like a carnival—by which they seem to mean its organisers were too eager to turn it into a carefully choreographed festival of dissent, but also too controlling and too bumbling in their execution. But there seem to be two visions of the carnivalesque at play here—one neatly stage-managed, a sort of video music awards of protest, working within the worn grooves of technocratic reform, the other more wilfully chaotic, more biting in its scorn, a Lebanese ‘rough music’ designed to humiliate a seemingly impervious political class into submission.
Though the dialogue yields no agreement, an extraordinary cabinet session is held that evening, as the protestors move towards the Ministry of the Environment to manifest their support for the hunger strikers camping outside the building, calling for the resignation of Muhammad Mashnouq, the minister whom they deem woefully unfit for the momentous task at hand. The following morning, the newspapers are dominated by talk of high political tractations and of yet another ‘solution’ to the crisis, put forward by the Minister of Agriculture, Akram Shehayeb—one that proves almost immediately controversial for suggesting reopening the landfill at Na’meh, and creating four more in other areas of the country. Almost a week later, the talk continues, as Shehayeb engages in seemingly endless rounds of consultation with municipalities, environmental activists and engineers. In the streets of Beirut, the trash is piling up again, spilling out of the Sukleen bins and trailing out into the road.
After the demonstration, I take another route back to my hotel through the Shari’ al-Bunuk—the street of the banks, where many of the country’s most illustrious financial institutions have their offices. Along the way, a private security guard, beating the palm of one hand with a truncheon, asks me, is it over? Almost, I think, I answer. As he stands in front of me, I ask can I walk on? Only if you take off your glasses. My glasses? He points to the Ray-Bans hanging from my t-shirt, stretching its collar out of shape. In that unthinking way that comes with surprise, I take them off, holding them dumbly in my hand as I return his half-smile. As I walk away, I can hear him laughing to his friends behind me. I move on, through Wadi Abu Jamil, the city’s old Jewish neighbourhood, emptied of its inhabitants after the 1967 war, and up towards Qantari, where the road separating east and centre and west narrows and traffic slows a little, even deigning to stop at the traffic lights these days. The stillness and silence are uncanny. These are wide boulevards, as deliberately elegant and conspicuously spacious as can be. Artful displays of Beirut’s vaunted capacity for reconstruction, they are empty at night. All I hear as I head up the hill is the sound of the cars at the intersection below, a steady hum broken up by scraps of conversation that float away from the clumps of security guards who sit in their plastic chairs in their washed-out blue short-sleeved shorts, keeping watch over the uninhabited luxury apartments and empty shops. Their eyes are doleful and tired and surprised as they look up to watch me pass. Another foreigner, they think. Idiot to be walking in this heat. Some, nowadays, are so distracted by the constant flutter of their fingers up and down their screens that they scarcely notice me, their faces illuminated from beneath by a faint icon-like glow. As I climb steadily, a light film of sweat covering my limbs, I snatch a look at the apartment buildings to my right, their entrance dissimulated by high gates and careful hedges. Clean white constructs, they are lit up by floodlights that show up the trills and touches of their mock-Mandate facades, like cathedrals whose details must be celebrated. Inside, the lights are off, giving the building-front the look of a child’s gap-toothed smile. The apartments sit empty.
Andrew Arsan teaches Modern Middle Eastern History at Cambridge University, and is a Fellow of St John’s College. He is the author of Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora on Colonial French West Africa.
On Twitter: @andrewarsan