Lebanon's revolution: How art turned into a political weapon

Lebanon's revolution: How art turned into a political weapon
On the first anniversary of Lebanon's October uprising, The New Arab speaks to the artists who used their talent to amplify voices on the ground.
8 min read
16 October, 2020
Lebanon's artists began lending their craft to amplify the voices of the protests. [Getty]
As the rain clouds cast shadows over Lebanon's capital on that October day, Tamara Nasr was making her way back home after a long day of protests in downtown Beirut.

As she went up the stairs just off Riad El-Solh Square, a thought struck her. "Where are we going?" she wondered, putting into words a concern felt by many of the protesters who had filled Lebanon's streets, and who all wondered where their country's future lay.

In late October 2019, Lebanese citizens took to the streets in civil protest. Having long faced bleak prospects of unemployment and poverty, and now angered by a collapse in the economy catalysed by mismanagement and corruption, they filled the squares of Beirut and other cities in their thousands.

As protesters clashed with security services and the country's governing class sought to dampen anger by both platitudes and violence, a swathe of banners and murals appeared on street corners and buildings, and social media platforms were flooded with photographs and illustrations, as Lebanon's artists began lending their craft to amplify the voices of the protests. 

Tamara was one of the many Lebanese artists who did so. Looking back on the first anniversary of the October Revolution, she remembers how she took to her canvas to try to capture the emotions pervading the streets at the time. 

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Revolution diaries - Days 8 and 2

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"Right from the start of the October 17 protests, art has asserted itself as a tool for social upheaval," Tamara tells The New Arab. "As people dared to yell out on the street thoughts they never dared to speak out loud, art in all its forms became a means to portray an anger and pride impossible to express through words or chants.

"The revolution was about breaking down all walls and refusing to silently accept incompetence out of fear. Artists had to become fearless, to use their work as a statement of the protesters' presence and determination to remain standing."

'Where are we going?'

The October protests brought the country to a halt as over 2.5 million people – half of Lebanon's population - took to the streets.

"Roads remained blocked. Institutions shut down. Banks closed. I had to come to terms with the fact that I was scared; scared of where it would all lead, if to anything at all," Tamara recalls.

"As an artist working during the revolution, I always felt the pressure of having to express the glory of the protests, the excitement; the hope for a better future," Tamara says. "This was the message blasted all over the media to keep up people's morale. But in that moment, I didn't feel strong, nor glorious."

Tamara's illustration, entitled 'Where are we going?' reflected how helpless she felt that rainy October day when she wondered where the country was headed.

"I felt the need to share my vulnerability and uncertainty in the face of what is to come, but also to encourage the viewer to reflect on their actions since the start of the uprising and think further, about what it truly is they are asking for, when they are filling the squares to let their voices be heard."

A rare show of unity

In a country defined by sectarian divisions, in which every discernible group flies its own flag, the sea of young people waving Lebanese flags was a rare sight. For artist Alexandra Helou, this striking display gave her hope of a better future.

"Seeing Lebanese from all generations, background, and religions fighting for a better future gives me great hope because it proves that they have stopped thinking in a sectarian way," she tells The New Arab.

"Sectarianism is what has brought the country to its current state, and it is by breaking those artificial walls built by greedy politicians and working towards a unified objective that the Lebanese can rebuild this country."

Alexandra's illustration, entitled 'Uni(ca)ted', is a take on the famous Lebanese chocolate wafer bar Unica. For her, it is a symbol of the 2019 revolution, portraying togetherness, solidarity and unity in the face of the corrupt political class. 

"Art in all its forms has played an essential role in depicting people's thoughts and feelings in an easily understandable and shareable way both on the streets or through social media," she says.

"It has been used as a sign of resistance to Lebanon's political oligarchy: by making fun of previously untouchable political leaders, it has liberated people's thoughts and freedom of speech in calling them out."

The revolution also gave optimism to a generation that has mostly known struggles, unemployment and frustration. A second illustration by Alexandra, entitled 'Mental Health and the Revolution', reflects how the October uprising gave hope of improved social relations for young people who had been suffering from anxiety and depression.

"Solidarity and believing in a better future can be superior to drugs that are often easily prescribed and get you highly addicted while not treating the root cause," Alexandra says.

Revolution at the tip of a brush

The October uprising also saw an explosion of murals appear on the walls of public spaces and protest squares. Murals by Roula Abdo especially became famous, expressing the Lebanese protesters' determination to pursue their revolution until the end.

Entitled 'We Shall Pass', the mural is of a pair of hands forcing open the high concrete panels erected by authorities around parliament to ward off protesters.

"I painted this mural in January, a few days after the new walls had been added to Downtown Beirut to close all entrances leading to Nejmeh Square," Roula tells The New Arab.

"What I wanted to show through this particular mural, is that no matter how tall the walls they build to block us, the good will always prevail and we shall pass."

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We shall Pass โœŠ๐Ÿป ๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ง ... ุณู†ุนุจุฑ New mural i painted yesterday at Riad l soleh! As part of the revolution walls with @artofchange.global โค๏ธโค๏ธ Thanks for everyone who shared this! The good will prevail and we will be stronger than their walls and schemes โœŒ๐ŸปโœŒ๐Ÿป๐Ÿ‡ฑ๐Ÿ‡ง #ู„ุจู†ุงู†_ูŠู†ุชูุถ #ุซูˆุฑุฉ #ู„ุจู†ุงู†_ูŠุซูˆุฑ #ุซูˆุฑุฉ_ุงูƒุชูˆุจุฑ #lebanon #revolution #lebanonrevolution2019 #lilwatan #art_of_thawra #thawra #thawraartists #artofchange #lebanonprotests #Ru #roulaabdo #resist #activist #artactivism #protestart #beirutart #artoninstagram

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Like many other countries in the region, the coronavirus crisis hit Lebanon hard. As the already beleaguered healthcare system came under unprecedented strain, repeated lockdowns to stem infection rates further paralysed the economy.

For the protesters, the state-imposed lockdowns led to a wide dispersal, with the majority complying with the stay at home orders, taking on board the civic responsibility to keep others safe. 

In the aftermath, keeping the spirit of protest alive became a concern for many protesters. For Roula, the artist comes to play a special role in the protest movement, especially in keeping spirits high. 

"I've been painting murals for the revolution since the protest broke up, and I believe that dissent art is playing a significant role in this revolution, by keeping people motivated, giving them hope and reminding them why they went to the streets in the first place."

Lebanon's unique sectarian system of government has long been an issue for citizens of the country, who see the entrenchment of political parties along religious lines as providing a fig leaf for much of the corruption in government. 

At the same time, the alliances of different political parties and religious groups with regional powers – from Saudi Arabia and the USA to France and Iran – often sees critiques by figures from all sides that the 'other' is only fostering the interest of their 'great power' sponsor.

From the beginning of the protests until today, one of the major challenges facing protesters were accusations – from different sides of the political spectrum – that their movement was motivated to advantage one group instead of another. More common accusations included that the protest movement at large was moved by 'foreign hands'.

With genuine dialogue a feature often missing in the political discourse, Roula tells The New Arab that art can play a pivotal role in fostering discussion.

"The stances I was personally taking on the walls reflect not only my personal opinions and demands, they actually are also a reflection of people's thoughts that went on demonstrating in the streets," she says.

"And, since I believe that often visual statements leave a bigger impact than speeches and words, these artworks are meant to provoke a dialogue, and open a conversation and make people ponder about the state we are in.

"Art plays a central role in the revolution. In all revolutions across the world, you would find protest art, which pictures the visual demands of people and the statements of the protesters through street art," she says.

"It becomes another side to the revolution, which shows that the revolution is thought and creativity."

Sarah Khalil is a journalist with The New Arab.

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