Lebanese probably have the funniest humor in the world. Is there anything these guys can take seriously? Maybe they should get serious this time. Amidst all their joking and partying the Lebanese have come to a point where “rien ne va plus”. Everybody is sitting on a razor’s edge. Stress levels are skyrocketing and anxiety has become the nation’s characteristic disease.
The dysfunctionality of the Lebanese state and its political system was made obvious for all when trash wasn’t discharged anymore in mid July but started to pile up in Beirut and elsewhere in the country instead. Two months into the crisis and there is no end in sight. Lebanon stinks and many people have had it. Out of the garbage the ‘You Stink’ movement was born, protesting against the mafia-like families that are governing Lebanon.
The ‘You Stink’ campaign called for several rounds of protests in Beirut so far. After the demonstrations everybody talked about the police brutality and the many funny slogans that the crowd was carrying. “Politicians are like sperm,” a hilariously phrased poster read, “one in a million turns out to be a human being.” The poster was carried by Racha Dernaika, as I soon found out, a young woman from Tripoli. Racha is 26 years old, she is a Ph.D. student living in France and if all goes well, she will have her doctor’s degree in cancer biology at the end of this month.
“How did you come up with this slogan?” I asked Racha when I talked to her on Viber. “How dared you bring it to Martyrs’ Square on August 29?”
“The sperm slogan was actually not my invention,” Racha admitted. “I wanted to bring something concise, something classy to the protests. It had to be right to the point, hitting at the main goal of the protests without offending anyone.”
BEFORE GOING to the protests Racha googled for days, searching for “political humor” until she struck gold. At first, her parents were not comfortable with the sperm slogan and didn’t want her to go to Beirut with it. But Racha is a scientist and there are no taboos in science. The argument was convincing and soon thereafter Racha’s photo went viral.
“The slogan talked to me a lot, particularly as a biologist,” Racha said. “In biology we have many sperms and it is the leader sperm that will fertilize the egg and create a human being. In Lebanon we are lacking real leaders who go to the streets, listen to the people and find good solutions. A leader sperm, creating a human being, assures the continuity of the human race. A Lebanese leader inseminating the population will assure that Lebanon will survive and continue to exist.”
Lebanese humor is the humor of free spirited people. It always has graphic metaphors. The humor is inspired by the Lebanese’s daily lives and aims at turning misery into sweet misery. Not everyone gets Lebanese humor though, as Racha has realized while living in France. For the outsider it can be too direct and too crude.
Very often fun in Lebanon stays just that: fun. The Lebanese have a tendency to joke about a problem and working around it instead of solving the problem. Not Racha. “My aim is to promote an independent, secular Lebanon. A Lebanon with socio-economic justice. A Lebanon free of the corruption of the sectarian system.” She is dead serious and passionate about this.
“I went to the ‘You Stink’ protests,” Racha told me, “because I have one goal: I want the Lebanese to believe that change is possible. I want them to understand that you, as a Lebanese citizen, can actually do something.”
“There is that saying,” she went on, “they didn’t know it is impossible, so they did it. Lebanese have stopped to believe. They must learn again that nothing is impossible.”
Racha’s grievances towards Lebanon are many. They are shared by a great number of Lebanese I have talked to over the years. Lebanese must fight for basic human rights every day. In many Lebanese households drinking water is not available. The electricity is on and off. Lebanese pay for the tap water and they pay for the mineral water that they need because the tap water is not drinkable. They pay for the electricity and they pay for the generator to jump in when Electricité du Liban, Lebanon’s national power supplier, goes dark for several hours per day.
“We always pay twice in Lebanon!” Racha complained.
However the worst that is happening to Lebanon today is the constant brain drain. The brain drain will eventually kill Lebanon. Lebanese are bright people and many of them live successfully abroad, excelling in business or in science. They cannot do this at home. The Lebanese system doesn’t allow for it, suffocating many good ideas and initiatives.
“I didn’t leave Lebanon immediately after I got my master’s degree,” Racha said. “I worked in a hospital until I realized that there wasn’t any possibility for me to grow within this society.”
Lebanese politicians are failing to grasp the consequences of the system they have established and continue to nurture. They are bound to rule over a country where the heartbeat of the youth will be absent. “It’s a shame,” my interlocutor told me, “our parents pay a lot to get us educated. A bachelor degree from the American University of Beirut costs approximately $40,000. And then we have to leave the country and pursue our careers abroad and we don’t pay anything back to the country.”
“We always pay twice in Lebanon!”
What the Lebanese want is peace. Racha grew up in a country where peace doesn’t exist and war never ends. In 1989, the year of her birth, the Lebanese civil war was on its last legs. Since 2011 there is a war raging in neighboring Syria that is affecting Lebanon a great deal. And in between there were wars with Israel, assassinations of journalists and a prime minister, suicide bombings in Beirut and constant fights between the neighborhoods of Bab al Tabbaneh and Jabel Mohsen in Tripoli.
The challenges of the ‘You Stink‘ movement are huge. Essentially, the group confronts an entire political, sectarian and economical system, not just an authoritarian ruler or a regime, like in other Arab countries. A system where the Lebanese people are also a part of and responsible for. A system where private interests always trump the public interest.
How to do this? How to battle yourself?
“The ‘You Stink’ people love Lebanon,” Racha told me. “They are here for the purpose of saving the country.” The movement unites well-educated citizens who have read books and have traveled abroad. “Is ‘You Stink’ an expat movement, not representative of the Lebanese living in the country itself?” I asked Racha. “That would be unfair to say,” she replied. “I’d rather say that ‘You Stink’ has used the social media in a very positive way to draw the attention of the Lebanese people abroad to the fact that their country is on the brink of the cliffs.”
How much staying power the movement has is an open question. Will the movement be able to exert pressure on the political elite? What if the politicians keep hiding behind barricades and ignore the calls from the street? There is no figure outside the political establishment to whom the movement can turn to like Alexis Tsipras in Greece. No one in Lebanon can be trusted and no one wants to burn his fingers.
For a revolution to be successful the middle class must be the driver. In Lebanon there is only a small chunk of middle class left and most of them live abroad. Some of them are affiliated with parties or sects – and therefore no “material” for ‘You Stink’.
What remains to be mobilized to make it a true people’s movement are the poor and the rich. A recent survey showed that Tripoli is the poorest city of any city around the Mediterranean. A good percentage of the Tripolitans live below the minimal wage.
“These people are not ready for a change,” Racha explained. “They are afraid to lose their lifeline.” And indeed, poor people in Lebanon have a vital dependency on political or sectarian leaders. They pay for their schools, they cover their hospital fees and they get them a job. In turn these bondsmen vote for their masters. “I will make you poor to make you submissive,” Racha commented. For the rich, Lebanon works just fine.
IN ORDER TO endure the ‘You Stink’ movement needs a quick win real soon. The people of Lebanon have to realize that the movement is functioning and is set to become a success story. No one will bet on a limping horse. For the campaign’s survival generating a snowball effect is key.
So far ‘You Stink’ hasn’t delivered any tangible results. The trash is still in the streets – even though a vague plan to end the garbage crisis has been adopted – and the ministers continue to occupy their offices. Worse even, the movement has been divided into different sub-movements with competing goals.
“As a protester, the strategy of the ‘You Stink’ movement is not clear to me,” Racha told me. “I think that we have to stick to our first priority which is to have the garbage problem solved.” After that plans are murky. The failures of the Lebanese system were identified but the solutions are not. Humorous slogans alone don’t propel a change. Ordinary Lebanese keep intending to leave their incurable country rather than fixing it.
Certainly the first ‘You Stink’ protests have driven the message to the palaces that something is rotten in the state of Lebanon and people know it. “We must raise our voices,” Racha said. “We must make the government know that we are not asleep, that we are aware of the problems. We must tell the government that we exist!”
The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, Eleonor Roosevelt, American First Lady, diplomat and human rights activist, once famously said. “So why shouldn’t we dream of this little heaven on earth that is Lebanon?” Racha asked me, rhetorically, before we hung up. “We cannot lose hope just yet. We cannot abandon the country of Khalil Gebran and Amin Maalouf.”