For the Love of Lebanon

“Meet me at Riad El Solh,” my mother says as she passes my bedroom door. Holding high the magnificent Lebanese flag with my Canon camera draped around my neck, I head to the square dedicated to my ancestor, whose name is synonymous with the country’s independence. My mother has joined the calls of the pulsing crowd. I raise my flag beside her. Enmeshed in the sea of our fellow citizens, we call for the return of the country to its people. Our stand is framed by the parliament on the right and the statue of Riad El Solh on the left. He stands with his back to the parliament, the malignant and divisive sectarian regime, as if challenging the politicians of today to answer us. His people. Our people.  

“El Solh” means “the peacemaker” in Arabic. He was one of the founding fathers of Lebanon, serving as Prime Minister in the 1940s and 1950s. His efforts toward establishing Lebanon as a nation free from French domination made him an important leader for the country’s independence movement. In the political landscape, El-Solh advocated for pluralism and democracy and embraced the coexistence of the five diverse religions of Lebanon. As “the peacemaker,” he played a key role in the negotiations that ended the Lebanese Civil War in the 1940s. 

I grew up feeling proud to share this man’s name​ ​and to carry its symbolic meaning. Though the luxury and comfort of peace has evaded our country, El Solh’s statue has patiently watched over us through the “Cedar Revolution,” the War of 2006, multiple influxes of refugees fleeing neighboring conflicts, and the economic and public health crises of today. On August 4, 2020, a terrible explosion surrounded the statue with glass and the broken spirit of Beirut. His statue has watched it all. Attending the revolution as a descendent of this man was a powerful experience—one that both challenged and changed my very core. Something greater than my nationality bonded me to the revolution; I felt a sense of personal responsibility.

The Revolution started on the morning of October 17, 2019, when the Lebanese cabinet announced new unnecessary tax measures on WhatsApp calls. This act was seen as a symbol of ignorance and egocentrism that disregarded the actual needs of struggling Lebanese citizens. The country was facing several recurring economic and political challenges. A small group of powerful elites had been maintaining their grip on the government for over 10 years, turning the political system into their family business. The government was in the heart of deep-seated corruption, which created a sense of disillusionment in the political and economic system. Moreover, the country was also grappling with the aftermath of a devastating civil war which left behind social, political, and economic scars. Even 30 years later, Lebanon was still shaking from the war. Economically, the Lebanese poverty rate grew exponentially. Lebanese citizens were not living anymore—they were surviving. According to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, 74 percent of the population lived under the poverty line in 2021 on less than $14 per day. At the same time, Lebanon was facing a high level of debt, unprecedented rates of unemployment, and a Ponzi scheme worsening its already waning situation. The scheme, also called “Beirut Madoff,” was caused by the central bank, which was financing the wasteful spending of Lebanese politicians with ordinary bank depositors. Consequently, the Lebanese currency, the lira, plunged by more than 90 percent from the official rate. The revelation of the Ponzi scheme along with the corrupt mismanagement of the government fueled people’s anger and frustration. Change was needed. Immediately. On the breezy afternoon of October 17, 2019, widespread hatred was articulated into protests all over Lebanon. Tens of thousands of protesters were on the streets, screaming for accountability at the top of their lungs. They were no longer willing to tolerate the status quo. Protesting and chanting became our daily routine from dusk till dawn. 

الشعب يريد إسقاط النظام, “The people want to overthrow the regime!” is the sound that echoed nonstop in the square of Riad El Solh. With our wrists firmly raised, this chant became our anthem for the next few months. 

On that first day I joined my mother in the protests, I experienced, among other feelings, a deep-seated sense of humiliation and disgust with myself. Before that day, I had been numb. My family’s legacy meant I’d grown up with great privilege, protected within a bubble whose membrane filtered the reality of the population around me so that it didn’t reach my attention. That day—the calls of the people and the looks in their eyes—was the needle that popped that bubble of illusion forever. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and yet I was sure I had never learned something so important and there was still so much I needed to learn. Day after day, I chased that complex feeling into Riad El Solh’s square: to breathe the air, join the calls, distribute manouchés, and hold the hands of people I had never met, but with whom I felt the most intimate bond. 

I reflected that this feeling must be what people refer to when they speak of belonging to something greater than themselves. I had never had that feeling before; now, I am determined I will never be without it again. While the Lebanese government remains as broken as ever, this revolution has changed my way of thinking. Profound gratitude for all I had been given was my first lesson. I learned both how to use my own voice for the sake of others and the value of timely silence, such that the raised voices of others can be heard most clearly. The power of words, speech, photography, and solidarity—spoken and implicit—was my second lesson. 

Protesting with my Canon Sure Shot camera attached to my neck gave me a way to immortalize this historical moment. My photographs are tiny windows into the Lebanese revolution. When I look back at each of them, I can still feel the goosebumps running on my skin while capturing each shot. 

I was invisible. Protesters were so invested in making their voices heard that all they saw was their raised wrists and all they heard was their synchronous chants. My pictures inspired me to believe in hope. Looking into each other’s eyes was enough for me to understand that we were going to get through this together. It is with this scared yet hopeful, sad yet optimistic group of protesters that I regained my feeling of hope. With every cry, the feeling of desperation and melancholy slowly faded away. With each shot, I cemented our impact in history.

The photograph published here takes me back to that place of revolution. It shows a bustling van making a spectacular entrance into the herd of protesters. Young and old, women and men, Christian and Muslim: They are all fighting for the same reason. Their chants and heroic protest are all fueled by their love for their country. In this revolution, the only colors we could see were white, green, and red. 

Over the past year, at the base of Riad El Solh’s statue, in his shadow and humbled by the conviction of my fellow citizens, I feel that a question has been posed to me about the kind of person I want to be. And I have my answer. I want to be the peacemaker the Lebanese people have for so long called for and deserved—not just in name but also in humble and unrelenting action—such that one day I may see that ambition through. Armed with this ambition, I will remain dedicated to the project of peace in Lebanon until it is only on days of celebration that mothers tell their daughters: “Meet me at Riad El Solh.”