My favorite revolutionary pastime is just sitting in the Egg. For those unfamiliar with Beirut, the Egg is a strange, dilapidated structure in the middle of downtown Beirut. Once upon a time, it was a cinema, and my ex-father-in-law remembered seeing THE SOUND OF MUSIC play there in the late 1960s. During Lebanon’s Civil War, the whole downtown area became a no man’s land, and the Egg’s location right next to Damascus Street, the green line separating East and West Beirut, meant it was strictly off-limits. There were apparently efforts after the war to turn it into some sort of art gallery. Rafic Hariri’s company was supposedly funding such a renovation project, but after his assassination in 2005, everything was put on hold. Over the last decade, the building has just been abandoned–a strange eye-sore in the middle of Lebanon’s capital. Without any use, it is easy to forget that it’s even there. Almost as soon as these new protests began, the Egg was liberated. Why not? Nobody was there to stop you from entering it, and I immediately went inside to explore. Each day, more graffiti appears on its walls. Yesterday, I noticed several freshly painted slogans demanding trans rights and others protesting kefala, Lebanon’s racist slave labor system. Last night, Noor Haydar brought speakers and a projector inside to show her experimental film on the Egg’s walls. Sitting inside this space, I enjoy watching the locals’ faces when they first come in. No matter what age they are, they look all around them in wide-eyed wonder. I imagine the older ones have faint memories of this place from before. Some people might even remember breaking into the Egg with friends in their youth. But for most people, it’s their first time inside one of Beirut’s signature architectural landmarks. This protest has allowed the Lebanese to explore hidden, forgotten spaces–both in the form of abandoned buildings like the Egg and also in the form of social relations. In the protest, people simply relate to each other differently. I can’t say it’s a perfect, utopian society, but from what I’ve seen and experienced, it’s certainly a more joyful, egalitarian world than any of us are used to. There are always other possibilities, other modes of being, hidden just underneath the surface of the everyday monotony. Like the Egg, we just tend to forget about them, even though they are right in front of us. This protest has allowed these more egalitarian possibilities to come to light. Who knows where this revolution is heading–maybe into a better reality, maybe into utter defeat. But no matter what, I am certain that thousands of lives have been touched and maybe even transformed–I know mine has.
My cab driver tested me last night. He asked me if I liked the revolution, and I said yes. He then sang the first lines of the new popular chant, “Hela hela ho,” and then just stopped and silently waited for me to finish. As soon as the name “Gebran” came out of my mouth, he busted into loud hysterical laughter and started offering me high fives. I didn’t even have to finish the chant to join his revolutionary club. It’s the new passphrase.
Does anyone remember that scene from PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE when Pee Wee is in San Antonio and he sings, “The stars at night are big and bright” and all of the Texans who happened to be near him respond in unison, “Deep in the heart of Texas!” (the lines from a patriotic Texas song)? That kind of call-and-response among strangers is currently taking place in Beirut. Numerous times I’ve heard random people start the chant and strangers across the street respond. But instead of singing about stars and states, the popular chant here is a vulgar curse about Lebanon’s foreign minister and his unfortunate mom.
Every time I wander through the crowds in downtown Beirut, someone will tap me on the shoulder and say, “Hello Professor!” I’ve only been teaching here for four years, but apparently all of my students are at the protests. It’s heartwarming.
Beirut protesters come across a kid in a car and start spontaneously singing (and performing) a popular children’s song. Exhibit A in my argument that major protest movements are equivalent to collective acid trips.