Cultural organisations in Lebanon join forces in the fight for the ‘right to dream’

We report on the non-profit organisations who have cancelled programmes in support of the Lebanese protests

epaselect epa07947565 Lebanese protesters wave Lebanese flags and shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front Al-Ameen mosque in downtown Beirut, Lebanon, 24 October 2019. Protests entered their second week, with hundreds of thousands of Lebanese taking to the streets to protest proposals of tax hikes and state corruption, and calling for the overthrow of the entire political regime  EPA/NABIL MOUNZER
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Most non-profit arts organisations exist to provide a service to the public, creating programming that attempts to interact and intersect with civic concerns on a cultural, social and political level. As anti-government protests in Lebanon have grown, becoming the largest in the country's recent history, local arts organisations have been forced to reflect on their role in an uprising that stands for many of the rights they habitually champion – freedom of choice, freedom of expression and an end to corruption and sectarianism.

In a display of unity, the majority of the country's most significant cultural institutions have come out publicly in support of the protests, concluding that for the moment, their goals can be better served in the streets than in theatres, museums and galleries.

Ashkal Alwan, one of the country's most influential non-profit arts organisations, has played a crucial role in directing the cultural sector's response to the protests. The first wave of anti-government demonstrations, which began on Thursday, October 17, coincided with the launch of the eighth Home Works, Ashkal Alwan's roughly triennial forum on cultural practices. Home Works 8 was due to run for 10 days and include exhibitions, performances, readings, lectures and film screenings, but the opening weekend's events were postponed indefinitely at the 11th hour after the eruption of protests. Four days later, as the significance of the protests became clear, Ashkal Alwan said it did not regret its decision to essentially cancel the forum in favour of supporting the ongoing demonstrations and "a momentum that should be seized at any cost".

"The launch of this edition of Home Works has once again been overwhelmed by the very forces that had initially led to its inception in 2001," it said. "Artistic and cultural institutions and initiatives are in no way isolated from broader civic, political, economic and ideological contexts, but rather shaped as a result of and in response to historical events and their repercussions."

Christine Tohme, founding director of Ashkal Alwan, launched Home Works "to respond to timely, urgent questions and concerns", she tells The National. "To this day, it remains driven by a need to produce critical discourses and aesthetic propositions able to tackle broader sociopolitical developments occurring in the region. This is far from being the first time the Home Works forum and its programmes have been disrupted, modified or postponed due to political events."

Christine Tohme. Photo by Gilbert Hage
Christine Tohme of Ashkal Alwan, which has cancelled its arts forum in support of the protests. Photo by Gilbert Hage

The first forum, in April of 2002, coincided with the Second Intifada in Palestine. The second, in 2003, was delayed by six months because of the US invasion of Iraq. The third, in 2005, was again delayed by six months after the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri. The fourth was disrupted by violent street battles between Hezbollah and Future Movement militiamen in Beirut in 2008, while the fifth, two years later, was delayed not because of political unrest, but the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano in Iceland, which disrupted flights worldwide. And on the eve of the previous forum, in 2015, two suicide bombings in the south of Beirut left 43 civilians dead, a day before major terrorist attacks in Paris.

"We've become accustomed to political instabilities inviting themselves to unfold during or right before the forum, and they're now inherently intertwined with Ashkal Alwan's own history as an institution," says Tohme.

After Ashkal Alwan’s announcement, more than a dozen Lebanese cultural institutions met to discuss the protests and formulate a unified response. Last week, they issued a joint statement announcing an open-ended strike “in solidarity with and participation in the popular uprisings taking place across Lebanon against the current systems of power”.

We've become accustomed to political instabilities inviting themselves to unfold during or right before the forum, and they're now inherently intertwined with Ashkal Alwan's own history as an institution.

Fifteen of the country's most significant arts and culture organisations, including Ashkal Alwan, the Arab Image Foundation, Sursock Museum and Beirut Art Centre, signed the initial statement. Within hours, a further 15 signatories had joined the strike. More than 40 organisations have now endorsed the communal statement, which stresses their commitment to supporting the rights of their employees to join the ongoing demonstrations, amid reports that some Lebanese citizens had been illegally dismissed from their jobs for attending the protests.

“Arts and culture are an integral part of every society, and the expanded space of creative and critical thought is imperative in times of upheaval,” the statement says. “While on strike, we are connecting with colleagues across sectors and groups to formulate together what we can contribute to the movement. We are part of a national, regional and global desire to dream, think, fight for, enact and embody radical imaginations leading to structural and systemic change."

In recent days, the organisers of Beirut Art Film Festival, which was scheduled to run throughout November, announced its indefinite postponement in light of developments “that we hope will bring to Lebanon better times” and the Salon du Livre, a French book fair due to run from Friday, November 8 to Sunday, November 17, was cancelled.

The strong show of support from cultural institutions demonstrates that art does not exist in a vacuum. Home Works 8 called on participants “to partake in acts of collective world-building, suggesting pathways to reimagine social relations as they currently stand”. The protests in Lebanon can be seen as a physical manifestation of the frustrations that precipitated this theme.

The protests have themselves become an act of collective world-building, in which tens of thousands of citizens have come together to demand an alternative future for Lebanon, one free from corruption, cronyism and sectarianism. "We chose to explore the potentialities of collective world-building for this forum as a reflection on the current state of affairs," says Tohme.

“Regionally, and to a certain extent globally, we had reached a political and imaginative deadlock. Something was festering and we wished to propose the notion of ‘world-building’ as a radical way out.

Lebanese graffiti artist draw murals and slogans on the wall of the headquarters of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (UN-ESCWA), in the centre of the capital Beirut on October 25, 2019, on the ninth day of protest against tax increases and official corruption.  / AFP / ANWAR AMRO
A street artist paints slogans on the wall of a UN building on the ninth day of protests. AFP

"We wanted to conceive a platform through which artists, thinkers and cultural practitioners could echo aesthetic and political ideas able to denounce and disrupt counter-revolutionary discourses and economies. The streets of Lebanon have caught up on these urgencies, which is why we chose instead to indefinitely postpone our activities and join."

As the demonstrations continue, despite increasing incidences of violence against protesters, Lebanon’s cultural institutions have succeeded in setting aside their individual concerns and programmes to prioritise the public will. The significance of their role will become clearer in the future as they tackle whatever comes after the uprising.

Home Works 8, at least, is destined never to take the form it was intended to have taken before the uprising. "It's too soon to assess whether we'll be holding Home Works 8 anytime soon," says Tohme, "but when that happens, it will surely shift its programming to respond directly to our local context". Like Lebanon, it is destined to be irrevocably changed.