This week on The Trip podcast: journalist (and protestor) Gilles Khoury on what sparked the Lebanese revolution and what’s next.
Welcome to the Egg, the battleworn concrete theater that has become epicenter of Lebanon’s revolution, where today a rally of small business owners and entrepreneurs kicks off with a singing of the national anthem. Small business is the heartbeat of Lebanon’s economy, and they’ve been terribly affected by the banking crisis since the revolution began, even more so since COVID and the aftermath of the port blast. Our guide here in this moment, in December 2019 was a singular voice in Lebanese media, a young writer named Gilles Khoury who writes a weekly, whimsical slice-of-life column for the French-language paper L’Orient Le Jour, about Beirutis and their hopes and dreams, a column that he continues to this day, as a way of documenting the lives in this great and battered city.
This episode is about Gilles and his path to writing, his dreams for Lebanon. We recorded this before the port explosion and before COVID, but his great dreams for Beirut, and his thinking about the revolutionary mindset it will take to achieve them, still stand.
Nathan Thornburgh: Describe your column to me. What is this weekly act of writing that you commit?
Gilles Khoury: It’s called Photo-roman, which means photo novel. I used to take pictures—I don’t like to call myself a photographer, I used to do it just for myself. I don’t like to describe myself as a journalist. I like to call myself an observer. That’s how I see myself; I’m a dreamer and an observer at the same time, as well as a journalist. So I wanted to combine all of this in a column, because the newspaper gave me the freedom to come up with any type of column I wanted.
So I suggested that every week we would start with a picture, 90% of the time taken in Beirut, and I would create a fictional story around it. The idea is to tackle a theme each week that is linked to Lebanon, but it could be anything. It could be the story of an old guy I met on the street. It could be bigger themes. I talk about gender, I talk a lot about women, and this year especially, I’ve been talking a lot about women in Beirut and now, with the revolution, we’ve been seeing their crucial role in it. It could be like a small detail on the street. It could be a memory from my childhood. It can be just a question that I have that I formulate as a story.
Thornburgh: And the L’Orient le Jour is a very well-known paper. I think it’s impressive that as a well-established paper, they’ve opened this page of the culture section for you to write these fictionalized stories. But even today as we were walking around the revolution, we met this man who had lost his leg fighting against the Israelis and is now being accused of being a pro-Zionist by Amal thugs because he’s taking part in the revolution. The narrative, the short stories, are all around you here.
I like to call these times an abnormal normality.
Khoury: Exactly. I always like to compare Beirut to a movie set. Every time I work, even under my house or under my office, I feel that the things come to me. Every week I panic because I have to submit my piece every Friday morning, and my editor goes crazy because I’m always late. But sometimes, I’m on my way to work on Friday morning and I just look at something, I just look at someone, I remember what happened the night before and the story comes. And it’s almost a magical eureka moment, where the story comes to me and sometimes the idea is a last-minute thing. I never predict what I’m going to write about. Sometimes I know I want to tackle certain subjects and sometimes there are things, like now, the revolution for example, of course I cannot talk about every week. It’s been over a month. But in “normal” times…
Thornburgh: You’re making air quotes around normal.
Thornburgh: So normal is never too normal here?
Khoury: I like to call it an abnormal normality. Anyway, I never predict my topics.
Thornburgh: You’re right about Beirut. Even as if to prove this point, the muezzin has sort of come into this room, with the call to prayer outside.
Khoury: It’s 6 p.m. in Beirut.
Thornburgh: It’s 6 p.m. in Beirut. Do you know where your muezzin is?
Gilles Khoury: It’s not far. I think it’s down the street.
Thornburgh: But it’s a city that intrudes, right? It’s a city that always feels like it’s coming in. It’s not going to be held at bay, not by walls or windows.
Khoury: Every time I walk on the streets in Beirut, I realize that people live in close contact with the outside. When you look at people’s homes, at buildings, they’re always lit. You can always see people doing things, and I enjoy this soft voyeurism in Beirut. That is interesting because I generally think that people here are so open and transparent and genuine, and they don’t like to be hidden in their homes. They’re always on the outside, so the noises come in and they come out. I like this a lot about Beirut.
Thornburgh: This is something I hear continually about refugee resettlement, or other kinds of migration from the Middle East to the United States. One of the most challenging things about being a Middle Easterner in the U.S., particularly in the suburbs where these poor souls are often dropped, is that that doesn’t exist. We have walls that are there for a reason, to keep family out of sight and to keep the rest of the world from intruding in. It can be very isolating.
Khoury: We don’t like walls here. We’re into bridges. And especially now, I can see that, more than ever, we’ve been building bridges in the past 50 days—between different age groups, between different religions, between different social classes and backgrounds. It’s crazy. I feel that really there is a mixture of things that is happening and is so moving. It’s really moving.
Thornburgh: What was the spark for the revolution, that first little flint?
Khoury: All the press have been talking about this WhatsApp tax. To put things in context, what happened the day before the revolution started is that the government—which I think is one of the most corrupt governments in the entire world, I’d like to call it a mafia, it’s not even a government—decided to impose a tax on WhatsApp, which is a free service. And you have to know that everyone uses WhatsApp in Lebanon. People use to be in touch with their families abroad, because each family has at least one or two members living abroad, because of the situation here and because migration has been so high since the war ended, and since the economy started to collapse. So they tried to tax WhatsApp. And this was completely crazy, and people took to the streets. Not because of the WhatsApp tax, but because of everything. That was the final straw.
Thornburgh: And it is an astonishing thing to try to tax WhatsApp. That is innovation in bullshit governance right there.
Khoury: 100%. I think that come to think about it, I’m going to contradict myself. The WhatsApp tax is important, because I think that you can’t—I’m sorry for the word—bullshit people to the point of taxing something that is free. It’s like taxing the air. How can you do such a thing? And this came on the heels of so many things. A few days before this WhatsApp tax idea, there were fires all over Lebanon, and no one from the government did anything to even try to stop them.
Thornburgh: These were wildfires?
Khoury: Yes, but there are even question marks around those fires. But it doesn’t matter. The thing is that no one from the government did anything to try to stop the fires, and I could feel that people were getting more and more angry. This came after 30 to 40 years of corruption, of feeling used and abused by the system, not having basic rights or even electricity 24 hours a day. They were trying to tax the free internet.
I don’t know where to start explaining the root of the problems. A friend of mine from the States was asking me to describe it, and it took me two minutes to even start. Everything is wrong, and at the same time everything is wrong in the most beautiful place in the world, in my opinion. This is what is keeping us here, but at the same time making us so angry. It’s like watching someone you love destroying themselves. That’s how I feel, living in Beirut. It’s like a beautiful woman being beaten, and you can watch her by the hour, changing, and you want to do something to save her. You want to do something because you love her, but at the same time you feel it’s a lost cause. It’s all of those feelings at the same time.
You cannot do revolution in a polite way.
Thornburgh: What happens next?
Khoury: That’s a big question. For now, it’s fighting. It’s fighting, and fighting in the most civil and peaceful way. We need to have a government. That’s the first thing we need to have.
Thornburgh: The prime minister already resigned.
Khoury: The prime minister resigned in October 2019, and until now they haven’t started the consultations to create a new government. Can you believe this? The country is collapsing economically and they’re still taking all the time in the world to create a new government. This is more of an insult. And I think that everything that they’re doing is going to decide the next steps, because I think that everything they’re doing is making it even worse. And the anger that this is creating in us is going to dictate our next steps. I think that this anger is going to be used in a productive way. But it’s what’s going to dictate our next steps.
Thornburgh: And in the process is there a specific ask? A new election?
Khoury: Yes. So it’s very clear. First of all, we are asking for what we call a technocratic government. Usually, the government here is created in such a weird way—it’s a pie that they try to divide between themselves. So this party takes this cabinet post and that party takes that cabinet post. It’s like a mafia, trading cabinets. And it’s also based on religion. So we’re going to give two Christian seats, three Shia seats, the minister of of education has nothing to do with education, he just happens to be a Christian Maronite, who is with that party so we’re going to give him this seat, which is absurd. What we’re asking for is so basic—just to have people who are best suited for their portfolios. Just to construct a normal government like in any other country in the world, with people who are specific to the discipline that they’ll be tackling through the cabinet. This is what we’re asking for. And of course, for the government not to be based on political parties or religion.
Thornburgh: Is the danger that power will get out of whack between Hezbollah and the Christian factions?
Khoury: Yes. I think that this demand of ours puts everyone at risk, because I think that no one is willing to change, for so many different reasons. I think that of course Hezbollah is going to be threatened, but all other parties who use government to be steal as much as they want won’t be able to do so if they’re out. So they’re all trying, at the same time, to find ways to outsmart us and to keep stealing. Now they’re suggesting a techno-political government, a mix between a few politicians and a few specialists, which is absurd, because still if they have a hand in this government they can still do whatever they want to, and they can still steal.
Thornburgh: They’ll still have their hand in the cookie jar.
Thornburgh: But it is fascinating, because it this only works if people are still afraid of what Lebanon could be, so they accept what it is. So it really is a function of time after the end of the war, or people like you who simply don’t feel they have to accept the status quo, and that whatever in that brave new future, whatever comes, could be better than what it is today. That feels like a radical reshaping of how someone thinks about their own country here.
Khoury: You cannot do revolution in a polite way. A revolution has to be radical. You cannot change a system and still accept a techno-political government. It doesn’t make sense. Revolution, by essence, is just throwing everything off the table, a tabula rasa, and having everything that be brand new. So we have to be radical. This is why I was talking about asking for the impossible, because there is no revolution that is reasonable. The minute you get reasonable, it’s not a revolution anymore. It becomes a deal. And we are not here for a deal. We’re here for a radical change.