May 4th, 2021, 11:30 PM

Thawra. Beirut. 2019.

By Maria Karkour
Image credit: Maria Karkour
Thawra, the Arabic word for revolution. Beirut, the capital of a lovely piece of land called Lebanon. 2019, the year where I felt the most alive and safe in my city.

This photo series you will look into today reminds me of an exhibition of works by François Sargologo I saw while visiting the Institut du Monde Arabe, here in Paris, last semester. His work consists of small vignettes of pictures he took around the fragmented Beirut in the midst of the civil war. Underneath those shots were small lines of commentaries about the photographed scene. There is this sense of a nostalgic aura around these pictures presented by Sargologo. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour


This same fleeting sensory experience is present for me when I see today the snapshots of pictures I took along the days of the October 2019 uprisings in Lebanon. A revolution where the people of Lebanon held hands protesting for the fall of the confessional system and corrupt system of nepotism and political class. In 2019, unemployment reached half of the population, the parachuting economic decline was around the corner, taxes on gasoline and tobacco added to no potable water, electricity cuts lasting almost all day, and a lack of basic human rights and needs, which were ongoing issues for years now.

Sometime before the revolution, a wildfire ravaged a large surface of land across mountains in the west of the country. I'm saying this to tell you how low it reached, Lebanon's own helicopters responsible for extinguishing fires were lacking maintenance and were unable to fly over the area to stop the fire. 

But the final straw was when authorities wanted to implement a tax on calls via platforms such as WhatsApp. This is not as banal as it sounds, most people in Lebanon who own a cellphone call each other via Whatsapp. Not only that, there are millions of Lebanese ex-pats around the world, and so family members and friends dispatched all around. Whatsapp calls are essential ways to communicate with one another. 

So, after that announcement on this tax, following years and years of accumulated laisser faire of the political class, the people from every corner of Lebanon, went to the streets asking for the fall of the government and demanding the end of this system. 

Having said that, here are some pictures to share with you my experience of the protests, the days when I felt the most alive. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour


Gathering of the Secular Club of the American University of Beirut in front of the Al Amin mosque in downtown Beirut. In 2021, the secular club got the most votes during the university elections. In this picture, we were regrouped around different members of the club chanting, "The people demand the fall of the regime!" Members were screaming out an enumeration of reasons why we, as a people, are out in the streets today. The youth of Lebanon played a big role in protests.

Image credit: Maria Karkour

A few meters away, as more and more people gathered around the main square, different vendors with their trollies offered their services. This here is a pomegranate juice vendor where he squishes the fresh juice out of the fruit. You can also spot behind him a corn on the cob vendor. Before the protests, these individuals would have never been allowed to practice their work in the streets of downtown Beirut.

Downtown Beirut was the place where mostly the upper class gathers and where street vendors would not be so welcome by the security forces. But during the protests, one could feel the switch in the dynamics of the streets. People appreciated vendors and appreciated the moment where a cup of pomegranate juice was given to them. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour

Right behind the pomegranate juice vendor laid this field of land in the middle of the city. It is separated from the main street by panels as you can see at the other end of the picture. This sort of barricade around this ground is put up because what you see here, between the bushes and trees, are the vestiges of Roman Ruins.

Beirut comes from its ancient name Berytus, a central city in the near eastern Roman Empire. You can still see parts of the structure of what was once there. Beirut is a city with huge historical patronage that is more and more eclipsed under the cityscape. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour

Another building that has been forgotten in the cityscape but played a central role in the revolution. This structure right here is dubbed by most of the population as, "the Egg" because of its shape. What is interesting to know is that it was once a cinema, it has a very futuristic brut architecture.

After the civil war hit the city, the Egg was left damaged but still resilient and did not collapse. It was just sitting there for years after the war. But during the 2019 protests, students, professors, artists, intellectuals, all people, gathered inside this old movie theater and joined talks, debates, movie screenings, reviving the lieu and making the Centre of many talks and discussions regarding the current contemporary times. With the protests, the Egg has been dismantled of its stagnant status as a passive structure witness of the war and has been revivified to its original purpose, gatherings. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour

This is the view from the inside of the Egg. The back wall of the structure is torn down, but that just gives way to a unique perspective of the city in the background. I was sitting there with a friend that day watching a movie projection and she told me, "You know? This is the time where I feel the most alive in this city." And I could not agree more with that sentiment. We started crying. 

Image credit: Maria Karkour

Street protests were ongoing for months, and throughout those months more and more violence was witnessed on the streets, especially from thugs who would come and attack protestors, but also from the Security Forces who were becoming more aggressive with protestors. This uprising resulted in the resignation of the prime minister and the creation of a so-called technocratic government in the eyes of the political elites. The people however knew that this technocratic government, having been elected by the previous corrupt government, would never be a secular one.

Then, the coronavirus appeared. Then on the 4th of August 2020, one of the biggest non-nuclear explosions in history emanated from the Beirut Port and destroyed a large portion of the city and its neighboring districts. This happened because 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate exploded in one of the port containers. Ammonium nitrate that's been sitting there since 2014, in the middle of Beirut.

What did the political class do then? Nothing. What did they do post-explosion? Claim that they did not know about this ammonium nitrate. You can see here a small vignette of a shattered gas station taken a week after the explosion. The epitome of this is when the previous fallen prime minister, came back to power after this explosion. 

You grow tired of being resilient sometimes. 

That day at 6:07, I thought that this was the last day for me on this earth, as I saw my home implode on me and my mom. 

How can you not grow tired of being resilient after this? 

4K footage of Lebanon explosion shows Beirut Port blast unfolding in slow motion

I just want to say that as a Lebanese person, I ask you reader, to stop normalizing violence in the region of the Middle East. There is nothing normal about this event. I ask you to make the people of the region's voices heard as much as you can, about the daily life injustices. 

Lebanon is at its lowest point. But the hope for better days is still there, even if it's only at 1% right now; it is still there.