I write this the night before Ramadan, from my home in Tripoli. A night where families in Tripoli would have otherwise gathered at mosques to pray, gone to supermarkets to stack up on dates and almonds, visited neighbors and discussed what desserts they would prepare for the first iftar. Instead, people are desperate and angry. I see it right in front of me — in my mother’s face, as she tries to create some semblance of Ramadan by turning on old white plastic lamps. In my brother’s scrunched up face and tired eyes, glued to screens as he follows the news of the protests.
People in Tripoli are either on the streets, chanting that hunger will kill them before coronavirus does, or locked up at home with their mounting anxieties. This year, Ramadan has arrived with a sticky dread. As though we’ve waded halfway through a swamp only to realize the swamp is an entire continent. I write this and I tread, clumsily, in between economic collapse and revolution and pandemic. What do I prioritize, where do I dwell?
Two months ago, the first coronavirus patient in Lebanon was announced. Before we realized the ramifications of the virus on our lives, we would turn to each other — terrified, amused, self-indulging — and ask, what now? No, really, how much more can this country withstand? For too long, Lebanon has been a whirlwind and its people, like debris, have been picked up by it and thrown into the spinning funnel.
But six months ago, it felt like something was changing. It was the night of October 17, when we rushed to Martyrs’ Square, the site of the capital’s intermittent and often short-lived protests. Billboards were broken, tires lit, chants created. Like most revolutions and uprisings, it is hard to pinpoint the exact reason why it broke out right when it did — of course, there are always compounding reasons — but what remains clear, until now, is that on October 17, something broke. We wanted to kill the virus — the mafia ruling elite and their engineered sectarian and economic system — and we believed we could.
Since the lockdown, I wake up every morning to the sound of birds. I have barely stepped outside of the house in over a month. The weather is slowly turning into that familiar Mediterranean summer breeze: a silky scarf you want to wrap around your neck. Some afternoons, my mother and I sit outside on our small balcony to look at the streets of Tripoli, which had been home to some of the loudest and most resounding protests during the revolution. The city now feels like a rebellious cousin who has returned from boot camp — still angry and resilient, but with so much life sucked out of it. Staying home and watching protesters return to the street makes me sit with the weight of the revolution: how for someone like me, it is about being a part of a historical moment, while for others it is an absolute necessity.
Like the revolution, one of the dulling and foreboding truths of the lockdown is that it is not the same for everyone. Our privileges, those of us with a safety net, are glaringly obvious in a way that is as illuminating as it is haunting. Now, my sixteen-year-old brother, Diar, and I chant along half-heartedly from the safety of our home in Tripoli, pumping our fists out of the window. Diar begs my mother to allow him to go down to the protests, and my mother begs him to stay in, worried that he will catch the virus. It’s a daily back and forth that leaves him restless and angry. He paces around the hallway, muttering loudly, unable to sit down for more than five minutes. He worries about his city and its people, worries about how the economic collapse is affecting his friends and their families. Afterwards, Diar — who tells me his life has been completely changed by the revolution in ways he can’t fully articulate — strums his oud and comes up with new renditions for Hela Hela Ho, one of the Lebanese revolution’s most infamous chants, until my mother and I break into laughter.
For many of us, the revolution, much like the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, multiplied questions of remembrance and preservation. Nearly every time I was on the streets, during protests, there was something I witnessed that I hoped to never forget. The over-cited Joan Didion sentiment I’d toyed with for as long as I can remember would pierce through: We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. Human memory is disturbingly malleable. And human beings are disturbingly attached to their memories. So I would will myself to absorb as much as I could in fear that I would wake up one day having forgotten it all. I gathered all these moments, like the coins in my pouch, writing about them in dispatches to Nawal in New York. It always felt as though I did not know what to do with them. Now, with the endless time to stare at ceilings and travel internal mazes, I return to these memories in hope of making meaning out of them, of threading them into the current universal experience of uncertainty and grief.
One specific scene hangs on my neck like a pendant.
It is November 6, the 21st day of the revolution, and I arrive with Lara and Nour to the square, where a feminist candlelit protest is taking place. Around this time, pot-banging has become increasingly popular in Lebanon’s street protests. The noise — even from a distance — is explosive. A harsh and inexplicable concoction of shouts, chants, banging pans, drums and tambourines, rocks on railings, kicks on metal walls. Overwhelmed and trying to make sense of what is happening, I lose my friends in the crowd. It feels as though the crowd has merged into a big, beautiful, angry monster who is as relentless as she is patient, as forgiving as she is unforgiving. Goosebumped, I tear myself away from the scene for a brief minute. I want to become a spectator because even in my presentness, I am scared to forget what that maddening sense of joy, of limitless solidarity feels like. And so I climb onto a cement block to stare at what seems like thousands of people, back to back, screeching, dancing, panting — all strangers I love, strangers who are replications of a shared internal landscape. Two shirtless young boys carry an older woman on their shoulders to fulfill her request to bang on a specific wall . A grandmother dances as though she is the drums. A couple kisses. A young girl, barely thirteen, is tearing up. I am all of them.
In autumn, the revolutions that swept through Lebanon, Iraq, Chile, and Hong Kong had seemed — to me, at least — uncontainable. We shared images of revolutionaries, many of whom were in masks to protect themselves from teargas, in a bid to keep the momentum going. We looked to other revolutions to inspire ours. The masks were reminders of relentlessness, of standing up to oppression, of anger. Now, updated news and reports tell us to wear different kinds of masks when we step outside of the house. My mother follows up with the debate on masks intently. She points at Dr. Nasnas, a famous Lebanese epidemiologist, speaking on TV. Look, even he is wearing a mask. She wants to make sure everyone wears a mask, everyone is washing their hands. Everywhere, masks have become a reminder of disease, of contagion, of fear. Of inequality, when many cannot even afford them.
December 15. The revolution is less candlelight and pot-banging, more batons and teargas. My elder brother Abudi, Nour, and I are heading to the protests. Nour, gifted with foresight — and who has, since October 17, been documenting violations by security forces — reminds us to take masks and onions to protect ourselves from teargas. She knows what we’re up against. We don’t have masks or onions at our disposal, but I find cheap knock-off keffiyehs in my lower drawer and pack them in my bag as we rush out of the house. On our way there, my parents text relentlessly, begging us to return home, just as three months into the future, I will relentlessly text my forgetful father to remind him to wash his hands. Abudi and Nour push me onwards until we arrive at the apocalyptic scene in the square. I’m scared and I want to control the situation and our safety as much as I can, but I do it again. I remove myself from the scene for the purpose of serving my memory repository, and step on the edge for a minute, my keffiyeh mask wrapped tightly over my nose. This time, I want to remember not because the scene fills me with awe and reminds me of limitless solidarity, but because I am brimming with anger and dread. Remember, I tell myself, how the smoke from teargas fills the night like low-lying clouds. How the shards are strewn everywhere as though someone has ripped a huge studded necklace. The groups of protesters moving towards the security forces who respond, every couple of minutes, by firing back. The protesters tripping, running, shouting. Remember a woman carrying a protester suffocating from teargas. The onions everywhere. Until the last hit by security forces makes us all reel back and there is no room for remembering. No room for anything other than running. At this point, as the security forces move in on us with batons, we genuinely fear for our lives. We run and run, holding each other’s hands, until we find a way out, a corner to jump through. Knocked out of breath and coughing, we are finally safe in a street on Gemmayze. All around us, protesters take off their masks and check in on each other. Remember the anger, the fear, the dread.
Since the pandemic, life everywhere has become a game of speculation. We spend our time wondering what comes next, what news we will wake up to tomorrow, what the statistics are telling us. Even though we know none of us can answer the questions, we call each other to ask, when do you think things will be okay? When do you think I’ll see you? When will we return to work and what will happen to our revolution? It simultaneously breaks my heart and makes me smile when I realize that during these times, it sometimes feels as though all we can do is turn towards each other and ask if things will be okay.
Revolutions are just as much a game of speculation. During the revolution, we’d turn to each other and whisper, in bars and protests and taxis and waiting lines, what do you think will come out of this? You give so much — physically, mentally, emotionally — without knowing the outcome. You are burnt out, you are preoccupied and obsessed, you can’t put your phone down. All this, and you know that the road ahead is long and dusty, filled with holes. All this, and you know that in the last decade of uprisings alone, the fight for freedom and justice has been translated into lives lost, homes turned to broken bricks, trauma, the crossing of seas only to find doors shut. Even now, as I yearn to return to the streets, to line up like matchsticks next to my people in the squares, I remember that there were many days I’d felt sweaty and flustered during protests, wanting to return to the comfort of my bed. I ditched some meetings for dinner dates or lagging work deadlines, even though I’d preached revolution over everything. In the weeks preceding the outbreak of coronavirus, many of my friends and family who had been on the frontlines since the beginning were also growing tired. But we kept reminding each other that it is worth it, that there is a lot to fight for, and a lot of work to do. We thought we knew what we were up against.
It’s early February, four months since the start of the revolution, a couple of weeks before the lockdown in Lebanon. Abudi and I are walking through the streets of Hamra. We pass by an old homeless man — whose face is familiar to most of Hamra’s inhabitants — sleeping on the corner, and Abudi stops in his tracks, breathes out a long sigh, and asks, “How much more weight and grief can this world carry?” I paraphrase Anne Carson’s translation of Euripedes to him: “Your grief is as great as your splendor was: Some god is weighing the one out equal to the other.” I feel stupid.
That night, and perhaps over the past year, Lebanon felt half-broken and half-fragile, and if you weren’t roaming through the broken parts shouting in anger, you were tiptoeing on the fragile parts, wondering when the glass underneath you would break. Although I ended up returning home and sleeping early, this last memory — of a painful scene that is normalized across the world, of my brother’s reaction, of a night so heavy the city felt forced into a hunchbacked position — stands sharply in my memory because it reminded me, as I was becoming unconsciously detached from the revolution, of how hopelessness can seep back in and stay.
I look at pictures of protesters returning to the squares, despite the genuine fears over coronavirus, the fears over the country’s weak healthcare sector, and then I read comments on social media, of people sitting at home, criticizing protesters: there is a pandemic, go home, stop spreading the virus. But for many of these people, home is not an alternative.
Over the past two months, it feels like we’ve become awkward characters in a foreign and absurd film, trying hard to make sense of a new (and shared) language we are forced to speak, a strange reality we’ve found ourselves trapped in. It seems as though we are in slow motion. Caught in limbo.
The country has collapsed and I worry that I will come out of lockdown tired and forgetful, eager to return to “normalcy”. I can sense it in my body, how it yearns to experience time as something linear — moving from point A to Z without distractions. With an ending I don’t have to work for, but simply walk towards, one unperturbed step after the other.
Novelists and scientists and activists tell us that it is on us, during collapse and pandemic, to visualize a new future. Instead of clumsy characters, we should become directors reimagining a better world. This is what our revolution has been about, I want to childishly shout back, but things are not that easy, okay?
Stuck inside, my character spends a lot of her days rewinding to the time right before lockdown. A time so rushed and overlapping that many of its lessons can only be learnt in retrospect. How strange, to think of the Lebanese revolution as something in the past while it is still ongoing. This is where my privilege, again, kicks in: I am given the time to sit, cross-legged, and sift through memories of the revolution.
Remind me, I want to beg everyone, to not forget the grandma dancing, the security forces firing teargas, the old man, the protesters risking their health when they return to the squares. Remind me that there is no normal in Lebanon. That there is no normal in many countries and for many communities. That time has never been linear and never will be, and that revolutions, like swimmers in breaststroke, will continue to move in between hope and hopelessness, even when the finish point seems thousands of breaths away.
Nur Turkmani is a Lebanese-Syrian researcher and writer in Beirut. Her research looks at climate change, gender, social movements, and development in the Middle East. She is also Rusted Radishes' Webzine Managing Editor and currently studies creative writing at the University of Oxford. Her creative work has been published in London Poetry, Muzzle Magazine, The Adroit Journal, Discontent Magazine, and others.