I’m an artist from Britain, and have lived in Beirut, Lebanon for the past ten years. My home is in Gemmayzeh, a neighbourhood near ‘The Ring’ bridge at Tabaris and Martyrs Square, the central square of Beirut. Just three months ago, these locations were the epicenter of the Lebanese protest movement which began on 17th October 2019: a people’s uprising aimed at overthrowing the old corrupt sectarian political elites who have been running (and ruining) the country since the civil war ended in 1990.
The streets around my apartment were full with thousands of people, mostly joyful gatherings of men, women and children on a mission to join together and transcend religious and political boundaries to form a better, more just Lebanon.
Yet now, despite a few small demonstrations, the streets are empty. The occasional taxi or delivery moped whizzes past. Red lights have lost their meaning. CCTV cameras look down on eerily quiet road junctions. Some say this period of isolation and increased dependency on the internet for social communication is hastening the demise of personal freedom, as we are all being watched.
Whilst aspects of this are undoubtedly sinister, there are many benefits to the present time of silence. We have a moment to pause, to reflect and devote more time to improving our internal lives.
And it is blissfully quiet. Beirut is usually a very noisy city. The constant banging of construction sites has halted. The beeping horns have disappeared. The once polluted air is now clean. On sunny days, I can clearly see the distant snow capped peak of Mount Sannine from my terrace. I’ve never heard birds singing in Beirut as much as this. Warm spring air carries the sweet scent of jasmine. Mother Nature is thriving.
As an artist, such a situation doesn’t change my working life a great deal. I continue painting as usual. My work is off grid. In fact, the quiet and stillness gives me more opportunity to reflect, and let ideas gather in my mind. At night I observe the changing phases of the moon: I notice the neighbors going about their domestic business, intimate glimpses of urban melancholy: people isolated in their homes, as if from a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or an Edward Hopper painting. I’m reminded of an Oscar Wilde’s quote: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’
Every night, I see the same distant figures looking out, hoping for better news. Occasionally the city rings with the sound of banging pots and pans to honor heroic doctors and medical workers on the front line: Amazingly, only 21 people are reported to have died from the virus so far in Lebanon. A few months ago, the same sound used to ring out over Beirut: the sound of protest demanding political change and basic human rights.
I look from my terrace over the urban rooftops to Martyrs Square, still lit up by flickering advertising screens that no one can see anymore, selling products that less people can buy. Huge cranes lie dormant whilst the city holds its breath. When shall we be free again?
Beirut, April 2020