A Conversation with Roy Dib on Blocking Roads, Chanting, and the Vicious Lebanese Political Cycle
Roy Dib is an artist and filmmaker. But like everyone else who took to the streets on October 17, his “day job” took on a different description including specialized skills such as: blocking roads, organizing a group of activists, learning the ins and outs of pertinent revolution topics, and helping connect a network of revolutionaries in the squares. And like all things that began on October 17, ever-continuous spontaneity fed into the daily roil, including that of building the revolution-born Qantari group. Founded by Rawan Nassif, who would handpick people from the squares to join, the Qantari group’s first task was to close the Qantari road and later became an integral instrument for mobilizing people on the ground. Roy was an early member of the group.
The following interview took place at Roy’s house just when the country was slowly reopening after lockdown, when people were still wrapping their heads around the past seven months since October 17, emerging bleary-eyed to a much quieter and cautious place, and hands on hearts as the Lebanese pound was making leaps toward its freefall.
Note: The following are Roy’s views and are not spoken on behalf of Qantari group.
RR: How did the Qantari group start?
RD: It started spontaneously. People saw each other every day in the squares at the beginning of the revolution. In a small group of 15- 20 people (now we are nearly 90), we started thinking. We said: let's meet, work together, organize. We were going every day, but at some point, we didn't know what to do.
The first action we decided to do was to close the Qantari road. That's where the name came from. We didn't have a name nor an official group. But what happened was that on that day, there was a call to close roads all over Beirut. It was the first week. We decided to close the entrance of Hamra on the Qantari side. So people started to refer to us as the Qantari group because we closed it three times in a row.
When the group started getting bigger and doing different actions, and when we started meeting with other groups, people would ask: "What group are you from?" We were like, "Yea, we don't have a name but we are known as Qantari group," so it became official at some point. There are a few of us who live on Qantari. But at some point, we thought we needed to change the name because it sounds a bit like warzones, or I don't know what. To be affiliated with the name of an area is a bit awkward. Then we thought: It's like changing your phone number and having to call everybody. We would have to tell everyone, "We are the group that was called Qantari." So whatever -- Qantari, Qantari.
From the original group, I did not know most of them. We decided from the beginning that if someone wants to join, they just needed two of the current members to "vet" them. There were no hard rules to be in the group. The person who really made the effort to gather people was Rawan Nassif. She was the person on the streets all day, trying to understand what was happening, and gathering people. She would be like, “You're an interesting person, let's meet.” She's someone who does this in life. It happened that I was there from the beginning. And Rawan and I were the two who were trying to manage this group as well as go to meetings with other groups to represent Qantari.
RR: How did the group develop?
RD: It's an interesting model. At some point, we realized that we were interested in what was beyond the street, so we thought let's sit and talk and try to share our ideas and readings of what is happening.
Then we formed "units." There were units responsible for research, writing new chants, there was a unit responsible for direct action -- all the acts that needed to be done anonymously. There was a unit responsible for PR and meeting with other groups. So when there was a need to do a demonstration at EDL, the research unit did the research and got us the info to be distributed to the media, to the people, and to be promoted. The EDL demonstration was actually the first one we organized. We prepared fliers with numbers and distributed them to the protestors and we posted them online and then we made some GIFs and posters related to the info we had researched. What was good was that the Qantari group was not known in this phase. Even today there is nothing official -- we don't have a Facebook group, we just have a WhatsApp group that gathers us. Our strategy was that it's better to be anonymous. And we coordinate with groups that already exist. We coordinated with feminist activists and groups like LiHaqqi. And then we began to coordinate with almost all of the groups.
We have lots of artists in the group, but we also have lawyers, architects, people who work in agriculture, economists. And those people had very interesting input. We would do long topic-centered sessions amongst ourselves. Such as: What does the Eurobond mean? Or, how can agriculture work? We worked very closely with the lawyers’ group. So when there were arrests, we would think about where there was a protest needed. Sakanet el Hilou? Or Qasr el 3adel? And we would coordinate these calls.
One of the interesting points occurred when we started participating in meetings with other groups. Rawan and I and some others realized that we can easily play the catalyzer in the group -- because we are not a political group. We didn't have the burden of an image to sustain. And there weren't many expectations. So it was easy to be moderators and catalyzers amongst groups like LiHaqqi, Beirut Madinati, Kuluna Watani, all these big groups who have to go back to their members and discuss. It was easy for us to play on this. We were able to be parasites, pushing them to do things they wouldn't normally dare to take a decision on. We had the backup of the street because we were very involved with the direct action groups. All of the tents and groups, such as the Ring, Jal el Dib, Martyrs’ Square, Mada, we were working together on a daily basis. At some point, I said, "You guys are political groups and are taking days to make a decision. You need to move quicker or you're out, because the street is beating you." So we started writing statements together and making decisions more quickly, and no one could say, "What's your agenda?" Because we didn't have one.
At some point, we were able to play both hats. We were on the street, but we could also be part of the political discussion. I remember at one point that we did something that was a bit shocking to the political groups. But they had no choice to negotiate. What happened is that blocking the roads was getting negative feedback and was eventually working against us. So we made intensive meetings with all the tents and the people working on blocking the streets, and we felt that okay, they are willing to stop blocking the roads, but they didn't know where to start. So we sat in units in the Qantari group and we drafted a manifesto that said that we decided to stop blocking the roads, but we claim the right to close any moment if there is a need. But now, for this and this reason we are not. And we distributed it to the groups, including the political groups, and everyone agreed on it.
RR: You organized many protests. What was your process?
RD: We realized very early on that there's a trick that works very well. We tested it with EDL for the first time. We created about five different invitations for the protest with the same info addressing different topics for EDL. People then got the feeling that there were many groups calling for the demonstration.
We called for many other demonstrations -- one at MTC / Alfa. In any case, we used the same strategy every time and no one would know exactly who was behind these acts. We would be ready with the info to give to the media. And our song-writing group later worked with the feminist activists because they were also creating lots of chants. We wrote the songs for the banks and we even created thawra Christmas songs which were sent by WhatsApp.
We were happy that we were writing songs and we would call for “peaceful” demonstrations. On the other hand, there were things we did that we cannot talk about...People would say, "You're the nice cute people who do songs. And we would say, 'Yes, sure.’"
RR: How did the bank songs come together?
RD: The banks were one of our main concerns. We were doing research and trying to figure out what was going on. Because we worked closely with researchers and lawyers -- and there was the idea that the circular coming out of the Association of Banks was illegal -- we wanted to let people know they had the right to say, "I want my dollars."
So the actions that we did in Bank Audi Sofil and Blom took time to prepare. We had gathered the information, but we asked ourselves, "What's the easiest way to communicate our message?" We could post about it, create fliers, but let's also do songs! So we wrote songs about the banks to familiar melodies so that people would enjoy them. But at the same time, there was info regarding numbers and who benefits from the banking system.
RR: Without the songs and chants, we may not have enjoyed going down as much. How did your own experience with song-making play a role? How did the artists play a role?
RD: The subject of song-making is very important, in my opinion. But I am not a big fan of tying it with the idea of "artists.” True, there were some musicians, but most people had never written a song. It's not directly related to the idea of whether you are an artist or not. But at the same time, the presence of artists helps. There are tools we can use. For example, when we walked on Independence Day from Metro al Madina to the square, we knew there was an easy tool to use with people: musicians. We were walking with an accordion and percussion and mismar, and Abed el Karim el Chaar singing during the march. I remember really well because I was coordinating with someone from the security forces -- when we reached Sanayeh, and I told him we are going to go through Zarif, the guy said, "Are you crazy? Keep going straight." I told him, "Don't worry. We are going to go to Zarif and nothing bad is going to happen, and then we will go through Basta." And it was the first time during the revolution that a march passed through that neighborhood. "We have musicians," I told him, "Don't worry." We walked. People came out onto their balconies and threw rice.
This experience is what helped us when we were thinking of making songs about the issue of the banks, even though people were putting posts and calling us the "Thawra Singers Group" and referring to us as being in lala land. It was so stupid in my opinion because, in fact, it's a tool you're using. There's a goal you are trying to reach, and you use the tool that is best suited.
If you make a song and then you film it, and you put it online, people will watch it. And it will be easy to spread because it's a song, and people will get the message. And whether or not someone likes a chant like "Thaw-thaw-thawra…," there were many people who were dancing and singing to this chant in the squares. The people who came up with this chant were three or four feminist activists in Beirut. Most people have no idea who created this chant, but they were jumping and singing in the streets to it. This is interesting.
When we started writing chants, I remember that the feminist activists insisted that they wanted to chant songs that I thought would be super awkward in Beirut -- ones that are anti-homophobia, anti-transphobia. The first time I heard them, I was like, "What!" But then they were sung in all of the marches. And they would sing them strategically. Like when there would be political chants that were call and response, they would throw theirs in. Several times people would ask me, "What's transphobia?" So we would be in the squares explaining transphobia. Of course, this is not what is going to solve the problem, but once it's in the public discourse, you are starting somewhere. Just like the chant, "Gebran is gay [louti]." We would go to people and say "Shabab, sabaya, louti mish msabbi" [Guys, girls, “gay” is not a curse word”]. And they would be like, "Oh yea mazbout, okay. We will change the chant."
Those small discussions were interesting. Those chants, you need them because you cannot always do a silent march, you have to get people excited. On the other hand, the good thing that was happening was that they were communicating messages that were not only political, but also social. There were chants against the Kafala system, there were always intersectional issues. In Qantari, we spoke about needing to keep doing this because during the You Stink protests, people's biggest issue was that they went down to speak up against the waste issue but then they started talking about changing the regime. And that's why they failed. Where October 17 succeeded was that it didn't just stay on the issue of a WhatsApp tax. People now understood that you cannot solve problems with one issue because in fact it's a whole system of corruption. It's not realistic to focus on just one issue. October 17 allowed us to prove to people that no, you have to talk about the Bisri dam and fuel and garbage and health.
So, artists played a "nice" role, not an important role, a nice role. Many artists, at the beginning, were trying to gather themselves. And always the sentiment -- and this was how I felt, as did many others -- was "I am not interested in being an artist in the revolution. I am a citizen who can use what I know to do, when it's needed." I'm much more interested in being in the streets, chanting, and walking in marches and closing the roads, which is not the artist's work. When something else is needed, I will help with it. This is something that, little by little, began to show more and more. Qantari works a lot with the Tajamo3 group [3amilin w 3amilaat bil thakafa], so we work together on videos. For the “Mish Daf3in” [“We Will Not Pay”] campaign, they were in need of videos, and so we worked on them together. You are using what you know how to do. You’re not just an artist in the squares.
RR: What was the biggest challenge being part of this type of group?
RD: A regular question was "Should we announce ourselves as a group? Or keep it secret?" The margin of freedom in this group is big. Some of us are also part of other groups, while some of us kept doing individual projects. One of our members is a main member of the 17 Tishreen Newspaper. So, from the beginning, we helped the paper find people to write, and helped with donations and the distribution of the first issue. This is not a project by Qantari, but it's a project by one of our members, and we support it. We are a main partner of the “Mish Daf3in'' campaign. We also co-organized the weekly protests, "Lan Nadfa3 al Thaman" [“We Will Not Pay for your Mistakes”].
At some point, we had to do a long day retreat to think about the form of this group. Is it a political group or not? Should we have some rules for the group and political stances that we agree on or not? We discussed the values we agree on. And we agreed that we would like to keep it growing organically and flexibly. And we wanted to give room for people who are very active, as well as those who are not but are interested from time to time to pitch in. They always have their space to be part of the group.
The situation does not bode well and isn't cool. So you start thinking, what could we have done differently? These questions are of course always relevant. But we are still in the story. So what do we do now? What kind of steps? Organization? Approach?
RR: Do you think the revolution should have taken a harder line against the Diab government?
RD: There were people who thought Diab should be given a chance. The other side thought that we should raise our voices against the Diab government. And others yet thought Diab was just a facade, so it wasn't worth it to go directly up against him and it should, instead, be aimed at what is "behind" Diab. But the situation is much more complicated today. There was an opportunity which we could have played well since October 17 when all of the ruling class parties were left alone without any international support, when there was a five-month phase when neither Saudi nor the Americans nor the French nor the Iranians wanted to intervene or provide clear political support to anyone. This was the phase when they were battling each other, literally.
Now we are in a different phase. Now Saudi, France, and America clearly stated their stance against certain groups. And they want to support one side against the other. And add to that, the economic situation and corona, so today we have entered a cycle that Lebanon always enters. The cycle where they begin fighting one another and when they get support from an international player, then one side has more leverage than the other. Then if the economic situation becomes harder and harder, and people need money and are hungry, these political parties of the ruling class have it much easier as they secure money from their international support and give it to people to bring them back into their fold. We are going back into that cycle, which is much harder for us to fight. So, I am a bit pessimistic. I don't have a lot of hope.
RR: Do you think we lost the revolution? Or is this just a new phase?
RD: It's definitely a new phase. I am sure that there is a kind of consciousness and awareness that has happened since October 17 that is not lost. Okay, we say that Lebanese always talk about politics and everyone talks politics, but in fact there is a different discourse and a different type of awareness that started on October 17. One of the examples is that there was a phase when the whole country was talking about the stages of implementing the constitution. If the government resigned, where would it go? This is not to be taken for granted. The people were like, there are legal and constitutional experts, and I am going to listen to them and trust them with what they are saying. People would discuss and propagate. The issues of corruption and the ruling class battles left people more aware of what is really happening. Even people who are pro-ruling class would tell you that "Okay, he was stealing, but at least he was doing something for the country at some point." But now, this sentiment does not exist. Now we know de facto that yes he is stealing, and no he is not doing anything for the country, and he is only doing what is for his personal gain all the time.
RR: Even with all the aid they are giving now for corona?
RD: Yes, but not by itself. We cannot just say, it is acquired and we must build on it. We must work on the issue. I am one of the people who is not at all with early parliamentary elections. In my opinion, the current date of elections, two years from now, is hardly enough time to make a difference. Especially that none of us can guarantee which electoral law we will go with. There's a lot of work to be done. People must feel that there is a body that has a political proposal so that they support it. Until now, this does not exist. Until now, people are expressing that they want a plan, a proposal. On the other hand, the ruling class -- no matter how much they show their animosity towards each other -- will be unified when they are in danger. So to what extent can we offer people a counter-proposition?
RR: Is there anything else that you see people have really changed their minds about?
RD: Based on experience and the connections I've had with people, at least the youth feel responsible again, which is something that was lost somehow. Even in my youth, there was a rejection among my generation that the political parties only make war. Please no political parties. We don't want political parties. We don't want those politics. There was complete rejection. And there was a type of resignation to the idea that we just needed time to pass so we could leave the country. Now, the youth feel responsible and they feel curious to understand things more. You find people interested in understanding economics. Personally I didn't understand anything about it before. We learned a bit about this, and a bit about the constitution, a bit about the law, so people want to understand, they want to know what's happening because they feel responsible. They feel active. This is good.
At the beginning of the revolution, people were saying, "Now the civil war has ended." There is an echo of this if not among all Lebanese, then at least a big portion of Lebanese. There were people who wouldn't cross from West Beirut to East Beirut, these people crossed. Khalas, you can no longer go back to the time when they wouldn't cross. They did it. They crossed. There were people who started going to Tripoli who had, at one point, no clue about Tripoli. There are people who have started to care about what's happening in Nabatiye, el Hermel.
RR: Since there are so many groups now, can you still be a catalyzer? How has corona affected this?
RD: Everything has changed. Now there's a greater need for coalitions to form and for initiatives that bring groups together to produce clear plans and demands more than the system that passed, which needed to be one in which there are many groups coordinating. Now the case is somewhere else. I do not imagine Qantari, as a group, has the same role anymore. The role that Qantari had, or in fact one of the distinctions about Qantari, was that because it wasn't an official political group, it had a big margin for individuals who want to be active and feel that they are doing something. So this formula was very good. And I think now there is a need for an umbrella for individuals and groups to fit under. This is something Qantari can work on as well.
RR: There are people that say "reforms" are not the answer right now. That we can give them reforms and they will pay us lip-service. What is the shape of the future leadership? Do you have faith that there will be proper leadership? How do you become "khat wahad"?
RD: No need for “khat wahad,” but what we need is more fronts to create a coalition. As it is now, we are still small groups. And this won't be helpful in the long run because it needs persistence and endurance. For example, after corona, the people who were most able to be on the ground were the youth division of the Communist party. Because it's the Communist party and it has the history and endurance, it was able to keep its youth active, working, and making demands. This is harder for the younger groups. Plus, for the groups that were born during the revolution, it's even harder. So, it is necessary for the groups to fortify one another within coalitions and to be able to speak up about issues that they may have not agreed on. But if we can get to elections with several coalitions who are proposing several varying proposals, this would be fantastic.
RR: Do you think it's important that a film come out of the revolution?
RD: It's personal. Personally I had a grant from AFAC before the revolution for a proposal for a film that I wanted to write. Now, no way I would write that film. It was a film that was part of the series I was working on. I made a video, video installation, and a play. They all revolve around a city that does a rehearsal for the funeral of a person who decides to go to war before he goes to war. Now if I want to work on a film, it will be something else. But whether it will be directly related to the revolution or not, or what I lived in the revolution, I’m not sure. Personally, I need much more distance to do this.
There are people doing this during the revolution, which is great. For example, a member of the Qantari group was documenting all along. And she was always interviewing us and people who were present. And she's working on developing a documentary about what's happening. Of course, it's always important to have some documentation. But, this is personal for each person -- how much they can do this or not.
RR: What are some of the narratives you think are especially important to be told about this time and going forward?
RD: It's really personal. There is no clear stance in the whole story. Even during the Arab Spring, I used to feel that we needed more time to understand how things were evolving and what was happening. At the same time, when I watch a film from Cairo about what was happening in Midan Tahrir or around, I am happy to watch it. For example, there are people who worked on stories that were directly related to [Midan] Tahrir. But something like In the Last Days of the City by Tamer Al Said, who worked for like eight years on a film and took a lot of footage in the revolution, he decided at the last minute to take out all of the footage that was directly related to it. He left just a few scenes in the end. And he presented a beautiful film about people who live in Cairo and how they deal with the city, and how the city affects them. And I think this reveals a lot and helps us understand how things are functioning. I lean toward this. I am interested in the individual. I am not at all into the moral or trying to read the "mass." There's a need for pure documentation and at the same time, the very subjective personal point of view is important.
RR: How are you feeling?
RD: Honestly, it's not the best feeling, but what I am feeling now is that I don't trust this country anymore. Okay, October 17 and on, there was this feeling of hope, that you can do something, that you can move things, that you can shake the situation. But how things evolved and where it's leading now, I'm afraid there's a risk of the rug being pulled out from under us at every moment. For example, if I don't have access to my own money in banks, and if I can no longer find work in this country, and if my parents are in the same boat, no matter how much activism you do and how much you think about the bigger scale, you still need the minimum to be safe. The issue of banks is very crucial. For example, take a person who decided over the past ten years that "I'm not going to immigrate, I'm going to stay here. And I'm going to try my best to work, and accumulate, and to network. And even if I get opportunities outside of Lebanon, I can travel but be based here, and to build on what I am doing here." But then someone comes along and says, "Those ten years are not yours anymore." Even if everything worked out, this risk is still present. All the time. So there is something I don't trust anymore. And this is scary because personally, for many years, I put aside the idea that I needed to leave the country. Now the idea came back. For one, the cycle that has ruled Lebanon for 100-200 years is a fixed cycle. And it's beyond being repaired. Sorry I am really pessimistic.
Recently, all of the things that are happening play into that old cycle: Saudi, France, and America are back on the scene; Hezballah decides that the IMF is fine to deal with; Jumblatt allies with Hariri and Geagea and then goes to Baabda and says, “I have my individual concerns and they can do what they want”; Bahaa Hariri is following in the footsteps of Saad Hariri, who plays his old game; Sleiman Frangieh...So the sectarian rhetoric has returned and it's being used between each other and against each other. The Sunnis are now feeling that their situation is precarious.
With the economy crumbling, COVID is a mask. When we are done with COVID, the economic collapse is going to show much more, and the percentage of poverty is increasing. We are going to return to that moment after the Civil War when Rafik Hariri came, and despite people's issues with him, there was no other solution but for Rafik Hariri to take control of the country because we had hit rock bottom. So when he came with the slogan, "I will rebuild the country," it was like "Steal what you want, but just build it. Let us stand on our feet again and breathe some air. You're gonna peg the dollar? WOW! Do what you want, but peg the dollar." So, I am feeling that we are being dragged back to that same cycle where the situation is going to crumble to a point where the savior will return. And we will not be able to face it. So people's concerns will not be about political positioning of this person or that, the concern will be, "I just want to eat today and feed my children."
RR: Yes, so while many were against the IMF, now people are waiting for the IMF to save the country. What do we do then?
RD: This is the problem. Who will still be able to say no at the time? What will be the numbers and what will be the weight of that resistance? If you go back in history, there were people against Rafik Hariri and his policies. And there were people who held campaigns against Solidere. And they said, "Solidere is going to take downtown and it will no longer be the city's." They could do nothing at the time. And most people were happy that downtown was being rebuilt.
On the other hand, in terms of geopolitics, we may be doomed to this cycle.
RR: What are your limits?
RD: I am going to say something that is kind of funny. I am not married, and I don't have kids. In a way, I don't have to fight this anymore because I'm not doing it for anyone. There is a part of me that feels like, "No, those last years, I want to live them in a different way."
RR: If you leave, you will either be shifting your vision elsewhere or you will be talking about this place from a distance.
RD: Yea, I don't know. When that time comes, I will see. But that's what is dangerous. There's a huge section of Lebanese youth that until October 17 were thinking to leave the country as one of their first options. After October 17, there were many people who returned and decided that what they were dealing with for a time was worth dealing with. Now, we are returning to the [part of the] cycle where there is no hope. This is what is the most dangerous. It breathes life into the Lebanese President's speech when he said, "If you don't like it, immigrate." It's freaky, but what happens to the people who are graduating now?
I have this pessimistic fear, but I didn't stop. I am not a pessimist to the point where I am not going to watch the news and am looking for ways to leave. This is not the situation, in fact I am still active. But in my opinion, in this phase, there are things that you cannot let be. For example, when people are arrested, we do not have anyone but each other to protect us. This, we need to fight for. When there are big topics, we can support. But our main target should be the elections in two years. If we are able to form a network to propose representatives with programs for elections, and we see how the selection would go, then this is a tangible target we can work on.
RR: How did it feel to be on the streets again in Tripoli after all this time in quarantine?
RD: I was happy about the political positioning of this protest. I'm from Koura, a village near Tripoli. To say to Tripoli, an abandoned city that has been punished economically, that despite corona, and despite that people are not even going out in Beirut, we made this effort to gather as many people as possible to go from Beirut to Tripoli to say: "We feel what's happening." At least we are trying to create this bridge. And we feel what's happening. And there was a martyr, Fawaz Samman. To me, the march we took from Sahet al Nour to his house was super important. A week had passed, but it was positive in that for the family of the martyr, he wasn't just a number in the news to be forgotten.
Protestors and mourners pay tribute to Fawwaz Samman at his home.
Roy Dib is an artist and filmmaker. On both formal and conceptual levels, he challenges common notions of space and boundary, weaving together archival material, scripted text and hypothetical circumstances to chronicle the political narratives of our day. His work has been presented in various festivals and exhibitions and has garnered several awards including a Teddy award for Best Short Film in the Berlinale for his film Mondial 2010. He works and lives in Beirut.
Rima Rantisi teaches in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut and is the founding editor of Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. Her essays can be found in the New England Review, Literary Hub, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Past Ten, and Slag Glass City. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.