Conversing with Lujain Jo: On documenting Lebanon’s revolution, filming jellyfish, and Bedouins
On a January afternoon, I found Lujain Jo seated outside her balcony, underneath a sprawling rubber tree. She was smoking a cigarette and looked as enchanting as always, in oversized black sunglasses and a Palestinian-patterned thobe cinched at the waist with a clunky, silver Bedouin belt.
I’ve known her for over two years now, having met through our work at Megaphone News, where she is a videographer. Lujain is an Iraqi filmmaker, content producer, and activist based in Beirut. Over the past ten years, she has produced TV series, short films, and online content with international and local media platforms and organizations. Since the beginning of the revolution, she has been on the streets every day filming protests, interviewing activists, and documenting violations by security forces.
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, she produced “بنات الشارع” (“Street Girls”), a moving two-minute video of women protesting on the streets. She captioned the viral video with a sentiment that reflects so much of what women fight on a daily basis:
When I was a kid I was warned about behaving in certain ways so I won't be called بنت شارع. I used to think of the word as a negative thing until I grew up and met the most amazing women in the streets and realized that بنات الشارع are the best kind of women. They're the ones who fight for their rights and the rights of others. Some of them fight until the day they die and even after then, their fights are continued by other women.
Lujain’s first feature documentary, Rahhala, will also be released to the public at the end of 2020 and a screening will be held in Beirut this May.
Nur: What revolution video or photo are you most proud of?
Lujain: I’ve been filming in the streets every day since October 17. There is so much precious footage, so it’s hard to pick one, but I’d say that the images of the flames and motorcycles during the first few days are my favorite – how the smoke would cloud over the mosque and church in Downtown Beirut. I’d look at those photos and videos and think, yes, this looks more like Lebanon.
Downtown Beirut before October 17 was like the salon el dyouf in Arab people’s homes. You know how that section of the house is always reserved for visitors? None of the family members actually use it but they continue to clean and dust it in anticipation of guests. The guests are no longer coming, but still, the salon el dyouf continues to be looked after as a reminder that – look, this is a classy home with a classy salon. But no, the home is actually rotten. So, these images of a run-down downtown are satisfying because here is the truth of this country, and it is finally out in the open for everyone to see.
Nur: At some point, people started taking some of your photos and videos and sharing them online without giving you any credit. You actually shot one of the most viral videos of the revolution – the one of a protester kicking tear gas right back at the police – and everyone was sharing it without knowing its source. The video became one of the revolution’s symbols. It was a shot from a Megaphone video and it was shared without Megaphone’s logo, and I was so excited it went viral but a part of me was like, I wish Lujain could be credited. How do you feel about that?
Lujain: Every artist has a strong relationship with their work, but during the revolution, I felt as though my work was for everyone, and anyone could go ahead and share. But what upsets me is when people put their logo over one of my images or use it in such a way where they rob it of what I had wanted it to stand for through, for instance, playing a misplaced song over one of my videos. Of course, I’d love it if my work could be for everyone, but sometimes there are things that I’d want to be used or done in a specific way and I wouldn’t want that to be taken away from me. I always worry, though, is that selfish? I try to kill that feeling of ownership but of course, at the same time, I am still protective over my work, you know?
But this is the issue with the internet I guess. You can't control where your work goes and how it will be used, and people treat any material found online as if it is free material to be taken and used in any way they feel fit. It is very difficult to control your work the second it is posted, and I guess it is good that work has outreach but at the same time, it is sad to see it misused. And also, if there are people in the videos I post, I believe they have equal ownership to the material because people should be able to own their image.
As for videos I take for Megaphone, they are for Megaphone. If something ever happens to me, Megaphone’s team knows that all my footage is theirs!
Nur: Working as a freelance artist in Lebanon is hard though. It’s not like we have a strong culture of respect for artists, especially with such a fluctuating financial situation. So sometimes I do think artists have to be protective of their work, you know?
Lujain: Exactly. Although, I mostly work with non-Lebanese institutions or entities, such as INGOs, because as an Iraqi, I’m not legally allowed to work in Lebanon except in a limited number of jobs, such as cleaning, agriculture, construction, and other services. It’s the same for Syrians and Palestinians too. I’ve always had this feeling that I am illegal in this country, and this is one of the main reasons I’m leaving soon.
Nur: True. Even if you have a strong community, when the state targets you, it’s probably hard to ever feel like you fully belong. Yesterday, I passed by a billboard in Achrafieh that said, “Feel like you’re the citizen of the world.” But honestly, what does that mean? What does citizen of the world mean when you’ve lived in Lebanon for seven years and you can’t even work legally in your profession?
Lujain: [Laughs]. When I first moved to Lebanon from Syria, I noticed that the country was so packed with billboards. Every one meter, you are bombarded with images, colors, and information.
Nur: There's so much saturation and it doesn't even make sense – this is such a small country!
Lujain: This country is just a highway somewhere in the Middle East, by the Mediterranean Sea. [Laughs]. There is so much visual and sound pollution and I wanted to make something out of it, so I started filming billboards. Luckily, the universe gave me the best gift for my billboard film: parliamentary elections. Do you remember the number of billboards during elections? I was driving and filming all these billboards.
Nur: Did you decide to make this film independently?
Lujain: Yes, I mostly take on these projects by myself, and my target audience are my friends. If my friends like what I’ve done, then I’ve succeeded. If they don’t like what I’ve done, but I enjoyed doing it, then I’ve done it for me! The idea of the film changed more with the elections and revolution, and it became more political. Through it, I wanted to show the timeline of Lebanon – especially now, with a lot of the billboards being smashed during the revolution. I have this shot of a billboard advertising the Jaguar car being ripped off. Now, you drive along the highway and it’s filled with empty billboards.
Nur: How good was it to see the Alfa and MTC billboards being brought down?
Lujain: So good. They were completely destroyed! Also, during protests, you’d be standing in between burning tires and flames, and then look up and see a random billboard of a movie screening – surreal.
Nur: This revolution is filled with surreal moments. Can you share what happened on December 15?
Lujain: I went downtown that day because I was meant to film my friend Dayna, who had been hit by the police a day earlier, and I remember already feeling dizzy because of all the teargas I had been exposed to the previous night. I was filming close to the barriers outside the parliament while waiting for her. A group of teenagers threw water bottles at the barriers, and were trying to remove them, and the police responded by running after protesters and hitting them with sticks.
The police threw rocks in my direction, and one of the rocks fractured my ankle. I was filming then – and in the middle of my shot, you can hear me growling. Such a weird sound came out of me, and I started cursing the police. I tried to continue filming, but the pain was too unbearable. My friends from Megaphone News immediately came and took me to the hospital. I had to be in a cast for three weeks and in lockdown – it was so frustrating, and I was so angry because I could no longer film, which I had done until then on a daily basis. The next day, I learnt they were building a wall over the parliament, so I tried to go down and film it. I actually ended up seeing Dayna there! We were both fuming. I had “fuck the police” on my cast, and security forces were reading it. At least that was satisfying.
Nur: That’s so frustrating!
Lujain, you lived in Syria for a while, and both of us agree that the Syrian government is fascist, brutal, and dictatorial, but one of the comments we’ve heard in some of the larger conversations we’ve been a part of, is that at least there was “stability” and “security” in Syria. There is that comment that, ah, look at Lebanon, look at how “democracy” leads to chaos. How do you compare the experience of being an artist in Syria with being one in Lebanon? Given the chaos and the mess of sectarian power-sharing, is there a space that exists in Lebanon where you could somehow be free with your art?
Lujain: In Lebanon, there is definitely a strong sense that you are in a jungle, but the chaos is such a double-edged sword. It’s fun sometimes but it’s also completely dysfunctional and harsh. There are some things people need in their daily lives to function – and Lebanon robs us of them. When you wake up every day, and having hot water is a struggle because there is no electricity, then your day already begins on an anxious note. The revolution in Lebanon showed how depressed and angry we all are, and the extent to which these emotions were triggered by the country’s dysfunctionality.
In 2013, when I was a student, I went to souk el ahad to film a project that was also on pollution – you find chickens right next to a tattoo maker right next to a knafe seller. I was taking photos of garbage right next to the souk when police suddenly appeared and asked me a hundred questions about why I was filming – they wanted to arrest me for filming garbage. So, it’s not like there’s complete freedom here to film anything although this changed during the revolution, and I felt so safe filming in the streets before my injury.
In Syria, though, it’s on a completely different level. Yes, it was more functional but there is also this scary, authoritarian doctrine. From a young age, in schools, you are taught to love the system and you are taught that you are a part of it. We all become part of this political party and system. We say we love Bashar el Assad so much that in the end, we believe it. The power of words is unbelievable!
Nur: One of my favorite political texts is by political scientist Lisa Wedeen, and it’s about the Assad regime’s insane social control. She coined the term of Syrians living their lives “as if” they believed all of the absurd lies of the regime, and it was to show that even if people didn’t believe everything told to them by the regime, they were forced to make it seem like they did, and this was the regime’s power.
Lujain: Exactly. We treated the president as a father figure, and you can’t defy your family, you know. And there is always so much suspicion because anyone can report you. This is why people were scared to share anything controversial with one another – the fear was not only from the regime, but also from your community itself. When I read 1984, it was as though the regime had gotten its blueprint from it.
And change can be so difficult. Also, because I’ve seen so many different revolutions unfold in the region, and although I support them with all of my heart –
Nur: But there's fear, right?
Lujain: We just don't know what will happen and, in this region, things just seem to worsen. The authorities who are in power make things so bad that people are constantly nostalgic for the past – to the point where people in Iraq even say Saddam Hussein was better than what we have today.
Nur: I was so attached to the Syrian revolution, and for me, the Lebanese revolution was also somehow an extension of the Syrian one. During protests, when we’d gather and chant for Palestine and Syria and Yemen, I would immediately tear up.
Lujain: Exactly, because we're all in this together – in this shithole – under different ruling elites who are all inspired by each other’s authoritarianism.
Nur: But we also get inspired by each other’s revolutions!
Lujain: Yes, we borrow from each other – this is the power of seeing revolutions happen online. You sit back and see people rise in a country and you cannot help but think, If they're doing it, why aren't we doing it? If they have the courage to revolt against their system, why don’t we?
Nur: True, especially in Lebanon, there is almost this sense of responsibility that if our comrades in Syria, Egypt, and Yemen went down to the streets when there was a much more serious threat of death, then we owe it to them, on some level, to fight.
Lujain: And in Iraq! In Iraq, they get stabbed during protests. Imagine walking down your streets, chanting for your rights, and fearing that you might get stabbed at any moment. The state messes with people on such a psychological level, and this is why revolutions whither – it's because there's psychological warfare on people, and the human body gets tired. A human body going down to the streets every day will become exhausted at some point.
Nur: I always wonder, how much of the human body can hold all of this shared pain and hope? You, for instance, you live in Lebanon, you lived in Syria, your family is from Iraq, and something is breaking in all of these countries.
Lujain: Sometimes, you cannot keep up. But the revolution in Iraq has equally been so heartwarming. At the beginning of the revolution, I kept zooming into all of the protest pictures, and there were no women at the beginning. But now, and I think it has a lot to do with Iraqis being inspired by women’s revolutionary role in Lebanon, there are so many women when I zoom in.
Nur: Remember the Sudanese woman who became the icon of the protests in Khartoum? She was such an inspiration to me.
Lujain: Same. One of my favorite photos from the Iraqi revolution is this photo of male and female protesters gathered in a tent in Baghdad, watching a movie together, and one of the female protesters is smoking a cigarette. This photo breaks so many taboos in Iraqi society and it is an image that I never imagined I would see.
Nur: And I think this is what we always need to return to... When our hope wavers, we have to return to this: that the revolution broke down so many barriers, that we took over the streets, that we occupied public spaces.
Lujain: Exactly. This revolution brought all of these issues to the forefront and we need to remember this because honestly Beirut is so harsh. I remember when I moved into our apartment here in Furn el Chebbak, I fell in love with this rubber tree. I love this tree more than anything and I told myself, if anything ever happens to this tree, it would be my sign to leave this country. A few months ago, there was a project to convert the piece of land right next to our building into a parking lot, so they wanted to cut down the tree – because a couple of branches would close in on the construction workers! When I was fighting with them to not cut it, they thought, who is this crazy lady defending a tree? Someone from Beirut’s municipality kept telling me, what do you even want from the tree, it's crawling into your house, isn’t it better if we just cut it?
Nur: How do you escape from this city’s harshness when it is everywhere?
Lujain: Music. When I sing, even if it’s just to myself, I feel so much serenity. It puts me on a wave. One of the most beautiful treasures of Lebanon is its community of artists. Onomatopoeia Hub is like therapy for me. I practiced singing there and my teacher, Mira, is the most wonderful person. Singing helps me survive. I’ve dealt with a lot of depression, so when I sing to myself, I send feelings and messages my way.
Nur: What's your favorite song to sing?
Nur: Tarab is so wonderful because it’s about sharing euphoria with the people around you.
Lujain: Yes! It feels like tapping into magic. Before, when I’d sing, I would close my eyes because I felt so shy. But when I sing with my friends, like with my friend Basam, and we look into each other’s eyes as we play music, it’s a connection so incredibly deep. It’s like when me and you dance together.
Nur: It’s this feeling of surrender and finding your way through.
Lujain: This is why I am so in touch with the Bedouins and why a lot of my outfits are Bedouin or Bedouin-inspired. Bedouins spread music and art with their movements, with what they wear. Notice their belts and necklaces, they make so much noise! When a Bedouin woman enters a space, you know she has arrived because of the sound she makes. Now, instead, we’re taught to be quiet as women, to not take up space.
Nur: Where do you get all of your pieces from?
Lujain: All sorts of different places. I know this Afghani trader in Turkey, whose mom also makes some amazing pieces. There's also someone I know in Sharjah, and I also love buying from Moroccan streets and shops.
Nur: Is there an accessory piece you could never do without?
Lujain: That’s so hard! Probably my headpiece. I made it, and it took a lot of time – it’s made up of different necklaces I have, and I’ve sewed onto it pieces, from Pakistan and Morocco and Afghanistan, and attached to it a braid I made as well.
Nur: You also once told me that your grandmother was a Bedouin?
Lujain: Yes! You should see my grandmother, she is filled with tattoos. She is so strong and free.
Nur: Are you and your grandmother close?
Lujain: Not really, because we lived apart all our lives, and there were family feuds that affected our relationship. But I admire her so much and I respect everything she’s done. I identify with her a lot. I don’t think of myself as an Iraqi, or Syrian, I don’t identify with borders, but I relate a lot with Bedouins because they are nomads moving from one place to the other. If one place does not fit you, then you’re off to the next. And you know, my grandmother built her own house.
Nur: Wonderful! If you could build a house somewhere, where would it be?
Lujain: I don't know if I'd ever want to live in one country and build a house there – but if I had to choose, it would probably be Granada in Spain. When I visited, I felt so much belonging. I must have lived there in my past life!
Nur: Maybe you’re the descendant of Wallada Bint Al Mustakfi. She was this defiant Andalusian princess, who was famous for going out in public with beautiful clothes that had her poetry inscribed onto them.
Lujain: [Laughs]. Maybe!
Nur: But to go back to what we were discussing earlier - we all have such complicated relationships with Beirut and its harshness. Is there a relationship between feeling suffocated and being an artist? There is this strange romanticization we all sort of have that in order to be an artist, you have to be “unwell.”
Lujain: No! You can be happy and produce art. [Laughs]. You don't have to be miserable to be an artist. My first feature film, Rahhala, actually gave me so much joy. During the editing process though, I was dealing with depression and Rahhala became an outlet. Some friends were able to know just by watching that I was in a bad place when I edited it. But other than that, I have done so much work while being very happy. Art can be a great outlet for any negative emotion one has, but it doesn't mean you have to be unwell for the work to be sincere.
Nur: It was going to be screened in Metropolis Cinema, right?
Lujain: Yes, on October 23, and then when the revolution happened, of course, it was postponed. But now Metropolis closed, because of the financial situation. When I found out about Metropolis closing, I cried for over forty minutes.
Nur: A friend of mine told me the same, that when he found out about Metropolis closing, he felt so angry and it somehow also felt like a sign that he should leave the country.
Lujain: It was my dream for Rahhala to be screened there.
Nur: Can you tell us a bit more about the film?
Lujain: It wasn’t at all planned, but I’d been randomly filming lots of jellyfish. Jellyfish are magnificent creatures – they look like aliens floating.
During that period of depression, and especially after my friend in Syria was detained, the only thing that calmed me was watching jellyfish. And so, I have this deep relationship with them, but I was always filming them, and other creatures, through aquariums. It made me pay more attention to human being’s relationship with animals – how we move these free-floating creatures and lock them up within aquariums, with pretty colors and lights, for people to come and enjoy them for an hour. I began doing edits to my footage with the music of Fadi Tabbal, who is one of my main idols and one of the reasons I love this country so much. His music flowed so well with the film and so I contacted him and asked whether I could use his music – and he agreed. Eventually, the narrative of the film became clearer – it showed humans' exploitation of different creatures for entertainment, and it is split into four parts that follows the evolution of creatures, beginning with jellyfish and concluding with robots. Look at how we create robots who resemble us, to be slaves to us.
I filmed in Barcelona, Paris, Granada, London, Manchester, Valencia, Cape Town, Stockholm Istanbul – and I wanted to film in so-called first world countries – where we should supposedly aspire to be, where citizens there are “civilized”, unlike us – and point my cameras at them, just like they point their cameras at our miseries.
Nur: Why is it called Rahhala?
Lujain: Because I am a rahhala [laughs]. Rahhalas are travelers – who leave and return home with many stories. When I film away from home, I can’t wait to show my friends and tell them all about what I saw.