Protest graffiti fills Beirut’s posh downtown

Lebanese artist and rights activist Selim Mawad hopes the wall paintings will be preserved. (AFP)
Updated 16 November 2019

Protest graffiti fills Beirut’s posh downtown

  • ‘The phoenix reminds us that the Lebanese shouldn’t lose hope’
  • ‘In theory it’s the place where everyone should meet, but the ruling class has taken possession of it’

BEIRUT: A majestic phoenix spreads its wings as Hayat Nazer adds a splash of color to a Beirut wall. As Lebanon’s uprising enters its second month, graffiti has enveloped the capital’s posh downtown.
Since October 17, the chanting of tens of thousands of Lebanese denouncing the political elite have shaken the normally staid district around two Beirut squares — Martyrs’ and Riad Al-Solh.
Nazer, a 32-year-old artist, is one of the protesters who would not normally frequent the area, famed for luxury boutiques and elegant buildings. But the unprecedented protests also offered her a first experience with street art.
“I decided to go out in the street to be inspired by the people,” she said during a cigarette break, standing next to pots of red, green and yellow paint.
Then she turned to place the final brushstroke on the mythical bird emerging from a burning forest — a reference to the fires that ravaged Lebanon’s mountains shortly before the protests began.
“The phoenix reminds us that the Lebanese shouldn’t lose hope. When we fall, we need to rise up and fly to freedom, to claim our rights,” she said.
The long concrete barrier Nazer was painting protects a United Nations building, but has been named the “wall of the revolution” for the graffiti adorning it.
A ballerina pirouettes under shells, accompanied by the slogan “Rise up.” Further down, a big purple hand flashes a V for victory.
On nearby buildings, various causes are championed with spray-painted and stenciled slogans: “Our revolution is feminist”; “LGBT rights, love is not a crime“; and “We will burn your palaces.”
Political leaders are lampooned in caricature, including outgoing Prime Minister Saad Hariri, longstanding parliament speaker Nabih Berri, and central bank governor Riad Salameh.
The contrast is striking compared with the nearby opulence of a district that was controversially rebuilt after being ravaged during the 1975-1990 civil war.
Today a Rolex clock tower stands in front of a parliament cordoned off by security forces. Working-class souks have been replaced by a modern commercial center, home to banks and French luxury brands.
The reconstruction of the district, famed for its stone buildings in neo-Venetian and neo-Moorish style, was led by Solidere, the real estate company of billionaire former prime minister Rafiq Hariri.
Its detractors say the project killed the soul of a formerly vibrant neighborhood in order to attract Gulf investment and wealthy tourists.
“This city has become an icon of capitalism,” said artist and rights activist Selim Mawad.
He jumped onto a plastic barricade to retouch a mural of stylized bulls alongside the slogan: “What is the future of our revolution?”
Lebanon’s uprising — like protests elsewhere in the Middle East and Latin America — is both political and social.
“It’s also about personal liberation, which is the foundation of a revolution,” Mawad said.
He sees symbolism in graffiti.
“People say, ‘I can’t touch this building, I can’t live there, so I’ll leave my mark on it’,” the paint-spattered artist said.
One day, assailants attacked the protesters in the area where Mawad was painting his mural. He was beaten and his bicycle stolen.
“Give back the stolen money — and don’t forget the bike,” he later painted next to a picture of a bull brandishing a red bicycle.
He hopes the paintings will be preserved. “It’s the memory of an uprising. If they erase them, we will forget.”
Nearby, Rida Mawla left a meeting and decided to take a walk in the city center, something he said he never previously did.
“I’m starting to feel like downtown is a bit more like me,” the business consultant said.
“In theory it’s the place where everyone should meet, but the ruling class has taken possession of it,” he said.
He pointed out his favorite graffiti, a big black tag scrawled on a wall: “Beirut has spoken.”


Jailed academic rejects offer to spy for Iran

Updated 21 January 2020

Jailed academic rejects offer to spy for Iran

LONDON: An academic currently imprisoned in Iran on charges of espionage has reportedly refused an offer to become a spy for Tehran in return for her freedom.

Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a UK-Australian dual national, made the revelation in a series of letters handed to The Times that were smuggled out of Evin prison, located in the north of the capital, where she is serving 10 years.

In the letters, addressed separately to a Mr. Vasiri, believed to be a deputy prosecutor in the Iranian judiciary, and a Mr. Ghaderi and Mr. Hosseini, who are thought to be officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Moore-Gilbert stated in basic Farsi that she had “never been a spy, and I have no intention to work for a spying organization in any country.” 

She added: “Please accept this letter as an official and definitive rejection of your offer to me to work with the intelligence branch of the IRGC.”

Moore-Gilbert, a lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Melbourne in Australia, was arrested in 2018 after attending a conference in Tehran. 

She was tried and convicted in secret, and her letters implied that she had been kept in solitary confinement in a wing of Evin prison under the IRGC’s control.

It is reportedly the same wing being used to detain UK-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, also incarcerated for espionage, and away from the all-female cellblock that Moore-Gilbert was meant to have been housed in.

The letters catalog a series of other mistreatments and inhumane conditions, suggesting she had been permitted no contact with her family, and that, having been denied access to vital medication, her health was deteriorating.

She also suggested that she had been subjected to sleep deprivation methods, with lights in her cell kept on 24 hours per day, and that she was often blindfolded when transported. 

“It is clear that IRGC Intelligence is playing an awful game with me. I am an innocent victim,” she wrote.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne met with her Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in India last week, where the case was discussed.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry later issued a statement claiming that the country would not “submit to political games and propaganda” over the issue.

This comes at a time when international pressure has ratcheted up on the regime in Tehran following the downing of a Ukrainian passenger plane over the capital on Jan. 8. 

Mass demonstrations nationwide followed the news that the plane had been shot down by Iranian forces. 

Olympian defects to Germany

Meanwhile, Iran’s only female Olympic medalist, Kimia Alizadeh, announced that she would not return to the country, citing her refusal to continue to be used as a “propaganda tool.”

She wrote of her decision on Instagram: “I wore whatever they told me and repeated whatever they ordered. Every sentence they ordered I repeated. None of us matter for them, we are just tools.”

It was revealed on Jan. 20 that the taekwondo martial artist, who had been living and training in Eindhoven in the Netherlands, had elected to move to Hamburg in Germany, for whom she will now compete.

Alizadeh’s defection is just one in a series of high-profile acts of defiance by Iranians outraged by the actions of the regime.

At least two journalists working for Iranian state-owned TV channels are known to have resigned their positions in protest.

One, news anchor Gelare Jabbari, posted on Instagram: “It was very hard for me to believe that our people have been killed. Forgive me that I got to know this late. And forgive me for the 13 years I told you lies.”