Être Libanais est un métier
You are currently not looking at the culmination of three years of diligent practice, work, nor my artistic labor in transition as I attended this program for two and a half years with the help and support and constructive critique from wonderful teachers and mentors I met along the way. You are reading – in a way – at the culmination of three years of this program, and my journey through it.
I applied to the low-residency program at SAIC with no back-ups. If I wasn’t going to get in, I would wait another year and apply again. I was excited for many different reasons I won’t list here. I knew I wanted a low-residency program which allowed me to keep being a practicing artist in Beirut with the possibility to travel. My practice is very much rooted here [I’m still in Lebanon, and I’m sad to say I couldn’t attend the exhibition opening of the graduate show alongside colleagues and friends].
I came to Chicago for the first summer residency in 2019, and spent six weeks in a studio – for the first time in my life – I had a studio dedicated to my practice.
I went back home to Beirut and started to navigate the expectations and excitements of undergoing an MFA. In October 2019, the revolution started in Lebanon. The protests were triggered by planned taxes on gasoline, tobacco and voice-over internet protocol calls on Whatsapp, but quickly expanded into country-wide condemnation of sectarian rule, stagnant economy, unemployment, endemic corruption, legislation that shielded the ruling class from accountability and daily governmental failures to provide us from basic services such as electricity, water, and sanitation.
According to an old Phoenician adage, Lebanon dies but repeatedly rises from the ashes. We boast of our resilience. We’re “survivors”.
Well, I’m tired of surviving.
In October 2019, I wrote this introduction to an email to my fellow SAIC-ites:
A brief history, Lebanon has been ravaged by a so-called “sectarian” civil war (1975-1990) engineered by regional and international political schemes and executed by a corrupt political elite who favoured their own interest over that of the people who entrusted them with safeguarding their wellbeing.
The war has long gone, yet it is that same gang, along with their descendants and crooked allies who continue to govern without any accountability.
As a result, Lebanon has a national debt that exceeds 150% its national GDP, 37% is the rate of unemployment among people who are 35 years old and below, electricity and water rationing exceeds 8 hours a day on two thirds of the country, cancer rates are amongst the highest in the entire region due to the catastrophic break down of the garbage collecting structure which led to astronomical levels of water pollution, fires ravage the country but the government planes are out of order…
In the meantime, inciting religious hatred, discrimination against racial minorities, emboldening LGBTQ bashing (cancellation of the Mashrou’ Leila concert) and allowing aggression against women are some of the normalized ways of operation that this elite continues to uphold.
Last week, 3,700 acres burned and thousands of people from southern towns were forced to evacuate. The government was not able to put an end to any of the fires. The Lebanese Civil Defense did not have enough resources to put them out. The people came together, brought their cisterns, filled them with water, and tried to combat the fires. The government was gifted three Sikorsky firefighters (helicopters) around three years ago. They were kept at the airport and no money was spent on maintaining them, which rendered them useless. When fires engulfed Lebanon, we had to rely on neighbouring countries to send firefighting helicopters. Corruption has seeped too deep. It was a miraculous rainfall that saved us.”
In March 2020, we recorded the first case of Covid-19 virus. A week later; and with no prompt from the so-called government, bars, cafes, stores, institutions issued a self-imposed lockdown. We had to rely on one another for survival.
You live in fear every day. You stock up on items from the supermarkets. You expect the worst: because you know from your parents what it might come to. The war hasn’t been over for that long. So you survive daily. You know your money won’t be worth anything in the near future, your savings are stuck in the bank . You stand in line at the supermarket, you stand in line at the bank. You stand in line at the pharmacy. You stand in line, waiting.
Shortly after 6:00pm on 4 August 2020, an explosion ripped through the port of Beirut. It killed more than two hundred people, wounded over 6,500, and destroyed large parts of the city.
Succinct isn’t it?
A culmination of 30 years of corruption, theft, misuse of public funds, and blatant disregard for the lives of Lebanese citizens [not to mention all the non-Lebanese who have made this nation home].
What is there to say about that moment. What cannot be described in words.
Just screams. Gut-wrenching, heart-ripping couple of seconds that we, unfortunately, knew too well.
I can tell a bomb from an earthquake from the sound of israeli airstrikes from the sound of thunder.
Today marks almost a year after the explosion, almost two years after the start of the revolution and here are the facts: I had to think of the devalued local currency and re-think my commitment to undergoing an MFA, look at the flailing economy and make a decision to stay in Lebanon or flee for a better future. I look at the money I’ve saved working non-stop freelance jobs since I turned 19 rotting away in a bank with no access anymore. I look around me at the home I tried to build and remember that I had to pick up the pieces of broken glass for two months after the explosion. I remember that I went to Brazil for a short residency to regain a sense of normalcy and I remember sleeping days and nights away I was so exhausted. I remember being infected with the Covid-19 virus and being bedridden for three weeks, hoping every day that I wouldn’t need to be hospitalized because hospital beds were unavailable. I remember fearing infecting my father or my mother because they might not be as strong in the face of the virus. I remember having to wait four months after the explosion until I could close off my glass windows again. I remember having to send email after email to professors explaining the situation in Lebanon and feeling like I cannot keep up. I was thinking of securing food, or medicine, or the immediate future while my colleagues were thinking of their practice, the readings, or the assignments. I remember not being able to look at a book for months because nothing seemed as important as talking about beirut. I remember trying to book a flight to Chicago before the pandemic and not being able to pay the ticket, not because I didn’t have any money, but because no airline would accept my currency. I remember trying to book an apartment with Kelly but couldn’t pay an Airbnb from beirut. I remember having to change my plans for this exhibition time and time again because I couldn’t get access to materials, I couldn’t finish work on time, I couldn’t manifest my feelings into work, I couldn’t keep saying “I couldn’t” but it was the only thing I could do. Some days, it’s difficult to get out of bed, some days you wake up with the energy to change the world.
Today I’m in Beirut, faced with impending doom: electricity shortage, fuel shortage, medicine shortage, food shortage, water shortage…
It’s been inspiring to be a part of the SAIC community; and I’m overwhelmed by the support and criticism from mentors, colleagues, friends, and professors.
I’m happy with what I was able to produce and look forward to more opportunities in the future to work some more; hopefully with more ease of mind.
Thank you to my family in Beirut for their constant support, and without whom, even this text would not have been written.