November 5, 2019

Water, Trash, and Protest

Suzy Halajian

Canals in Jezzine, Lebanon, May 2017. Photo by Suzy Halajian.


In May 2017, I was on a month-long residency in the historic town of Jezzine, Lebanon.1 Organized by the independent, Beirut-based Temporary Art Platform (T.A.P), five artists and a curator were invited to this town twenty-five miles to the south where the sound of flowing water is ever-present, and where resulting projects would relate to an overarching theme of water.2 A common summer tourist destination, Jezzine is well-known for both its water resources and its advanced policies towards protection and management of them. This includes paving ways for channels and rainwater collection ponds that are used for irrigation, developing a wastewater management plan, and pumping of the Jezzine waterfall, the country's tallest.

We lived in single rooms over three floors of the local Auberge Wehbe Hotel, where our balconies became the main site of communication. Through individual research-based projects, public programs, and workshops—including beekeeping and studying the effects of water pollution—as well as artist visits and daily hikes, our time in Jezzine allowed us to better understand the ecological politics of Lebanon by starting from a local context, in order to rethink water and its flows as both penetrable and impenetrable. We were led to consider how and to what effects water shapes and contaminates the surfaces, paths, and channels with which it comes into contact, leaving its residue along the passages it traverses. It is a fundamental resource for survival and a basic human right, and increasingly a commodity managed as a privileged supply reserved for a select group or community. Such considerations seemed ever urgent in Lebanon, with its poor quality of water, the intermittency of its supply despite the availability of relatively abundant resources, and the fact that not a single village or city receives uninterrupted residential delivery.3 Simultaneously, given my own work, I situated this discourse in the ecological histories of marginalized communities more widely, considering how gender, race, and class offer analytic tools to better understand civic resource dissemination and discrimination.

During the public culmination of the residency, we each presented various installations and works-in-progress throughout town. Considering Jezzine as a starting point and guide to a site-specific project, I organized the walking exhibition, Unseen, tomorrow, with video and sound works by artists presenting varying ways to reconsider and reimagine time and linearity. Works were installed in public spaces and a private garage on brick structures upholding monitors and/or equipment that were fabricated by local brickmaker Bassam Youssef. The viewer's course traced the historical development of the town, connecting the new center with the old. While the Los Angeles-based artist Steve Roden's newly commissioned sound piece, call and response (man & machine), was placed close to the city's new center in a public rotunda, works by the artists A.K. Burns, Basim Magdy, Laure Prouvost, and Sarah Rara were situated in spaces that followed a lesser navigated path near the old city center, partially tracing the development of Jezzine's canal system. Environmental sounds—water flows and fluxes—commingled with the introspective sounds of the exhibited works, creating a tension between the natural and the produced, offering another kind of engagement with chosen sites. Through its mapping, the project considered the local context of Jezzine in order to investigate how we can rethink temporalities through a reflection of ecological sites, both ruinous and in development. For instance, a video by Sarah Rara titled The Pollinators (2014)—the final work in the old town's walking route, installed outdoors along the canal—was filmed against brightly colored backgrounds that both attract and distract pollinators. In the work, the Los Angeles-based artist films the microscopic movement of plants and animals in the process of pollination, as she considers how humans perceive such a tiny fraction of the physical world. Approximating color fields that exist outside of our apprehension but are discernible to insects, the artist engages in a process of meditation that entices her viewers into a reflective state and guides them towards the limits of perception.

Another residency participant's site-specific project underscored these relations more seemingly, in terms of its visual presentation. The Lebanese artist Hussein Nassereddine's installation, I invite waves to come, consisted of seven pillars of varying heights (with the tallest nearing six feet) composed of fifty-six bricks made of coarse salt, again by Youssef. Appearing deceptively monumental along the town's riverbed, the pillars slowly altered as the natural cycle of elements in the environment interacted with the minerals in the work, eventually eroding, dissolving, and washing them away into the setting. This process was captured on phones by the Jezzine community in the months that followed, documenting gradual changes in materials in relation to the broader context. In differing ways, both of our efforts questioned how natural elements and artworks coexist and affect each other over time, and where the demarcations between the two begin and end. It led me to ask what new forms of life emerge from this meeting. Positing that ecology can offer a lens to investigate the contaminated, unwieldy, and contrived materials and states of time that coexist, how can we reimagine natural elements when our perceptions are altered? How can we rethink toxins and contamination through a temporal gaze that accounts for that which is past, passing, or out of bounds?

Toxic Encounters

Two years earlier, in the summer of 2015, a trash crisis overtook Beirut and the country erupted into protest. This ecological hazard impacted not only the health of the country's citizens, its flora, fauna, and soil, but also its speculative real estate investments, indicating that garbage is an active agent. I recall driving by the industrial Karantina warehouse district—a few kilometers from the center—during a short visit that July, inescapably aware of the stench yet studying the monumentality of the piles in relation to the size of crisis and the ongoing destruction it continues to cause. I wondered how the city could possibly clean up these mounds and make them disappear: Would they be incinerated, transported elsewhere, traded with another country, or slowly washed away?  

The trash crisis exploded in 2014 but reached a climax during that summer when the country's main landfill, the Naameh, south of Beirut, closed and rubbish began piling up all over the streets, polluting both the air and the water supply, and undoubtedly affecting citizens' well-being.4 While this crisis was unprecedented, waste management issues were in no way new to Lebanon. In reality, problems date back to the first quarter of the twentieth century, when Beirutis would burn trash to clear their neighborhoods of piles, completely disregarding any long-term toxic effects on the environment.5 After the Civil War (1975–1990), a national strategy was carried forward to deal with the entire country's waste that eventually would direct over half of the garbage to the Naameh, but without much sorting—it now contains industrial as well as domestic waste—and lacking a long-term solution. According to the history professor Ziad Abu-Rish, the landfill was intended to operate for only a few years after its opening in 1997. Yet by summer 2014, community members in the area had no choice but to stop access to the site in protest of the environmental damage. They made a deal with the government to find an alternative dumpsite, but the agreement was left unfulfilled and activists once again blocked off the Naameh during that summer.6 

Beginning in 1994, the Lebanese government subcontracted garbage collection in Beirut and Mount Lebanon to a private waste management company called Sukleen, whose known corruption and mismanagement eventually led to infectious trash mounds blocking the country's streets. During the 1990s, the southern city of Sidon faced a serious garbage problem, becoming known for its "Trash Mountain," a dumping ground on the outskirts of the city which released harmful gases and smells. The mountain was constituted by a "mix of household and general rubbish but an estimated 60 percent of the site was found to be rubble from buildings destroyed during the war."7 

As such, before the contamination in the Karantina, dumping had turned most of Lebanon's rivers into ecological disasters, far more polluted than the sea into which they flow. Water is tainted already from poorly treated industrial and domestic wastewaters, which are as well harmed by pesticides, solid waste, motor oil, and other pollutants. The Lebanese artist Jessika Khazrik writes, "Since the 1990s, the Beirut River has been used as a dump for blood-red crimson dye, daily refuse and a predominant receptacle for the trash crisis that became pervasively visible in the last few years."8 Also, nearly three decades after the Civil War and over a decade after the Israeli-Lebanese War of 2006, which further damaged water infrastructure, water contamination is exacerbated still by sheer mismanagement as the public stakeholders in the Lebanese water and sanitation governmental sector are defined by their significant lack of accountability.  

When the government's contract with Sukleen came up for renewal in 2015, political maneuvering and profit speculation halted the process while trash piled up and seeped into the country's waters yet again—not to mention that Lebanon does not have any strategy in place to deal with a permanent solution. Concurrently, attention was drawn to certain groups and locales: Syrian refugees who had flowed into the country since 2011 (over one million in a country of four million) were made scapegoats and blamed for burdening the Lebanese infrastructure, no matter that the problem, even if intensified by their arrival, significantly predates the Syrian influx. Also, in 2012, the trash crisis was made visible in the south, particularly because it affected Palestinian communities living in informal settlements.9 All the while, garbage continued to overflow and public discontent heightened. The government came up with a temporary plan for Sukleen to resume pick up while a new, more formal plan was to be devised. After this undertaking did not hold and no viable alternative was carried forward, the government itself even pivoted away from Naameh and began disposal into alternative dumpsites. Still, there was another plan approved in October 2016 that effectively called to reopen Naameh for seventy days for clean-up, after which Sukleen would continue its efforts for eighteen months. Following that, municipalities would be in charge of specific areas.10 This plan, too, was abandoned and the government decided problematically to export the garbage—and that also never occurred. 

Residents took to the streets and burned the trash. The "You Stink!" (in Arabic Til'it Ree'hitkom) campaign formed and thousands of protestors marched to call the crisis into question and criticize the lack of political accountability, demanding that ministers resign and that the government deliver a workable solution.11 Residents began to interrogate the state at all levels and organized sit-ins at the Ministry of the Environment to demand the resignation of its leader, Mohammed Mashnuq. Riots soon broke out, and Lebanon's military rushed in to silence the protestors with violence. August 19, 2015, was a significant turning point in the movement as soldiers openly repressed the "You Stink!" manifestations and many were physically detained, videos of which went viral. Officials pressed charges against the activists, but the online depository of videos produced and effectively circulated by citizen journalists and interested parties were critical for the movement's defense. 

Lebanese protesters during a demonstration against the government, near Prime Minister Tammam Salam's offices, Beirut. From "'You Stink' campaign decries more than garbage buildup in Beirut,", August 23, 2015.

Protests over the next days consequently mushroomed as broad political and class-based coalitions joined the movement. Street fighting between protestors and law enforcement on August 23 prompted a larger uprising in downtown Beirut on August 29, which was "the largest protest not organized by a political party in several decades,"12 with over 100,000 making their voices heard. The government made many efforts to tamp down the demonstrators' efforts in the days prior, suggesting that their actions were unfairly directed against Sunni politicians, and that the protestors were actually delinquents. Unphased, never before had such a large segment of Lebanese society so clearly and publicly called for an overhaul of the political system—it was evident that the collective public outcry was not solely about the waste or its health hazards. Garbage symbolized all the basic services and infrastructural issues that Lebanon's government had not effectively dealt with for decades, as well as concerns of civil representation, ongoing government corruption, and the larger political system as a whole.

The people insisted that trash collection, a functioning electrical grid, and clean water were fundamental rights, not privileges for the country's wealthiest citizens. They called for practical, long-term solutions, appealed for accountability for those who committed violence towards demonstrators, considered demanding additional resignations, and even debated the merits of holding parliamentary elections versus remaining in the streets.13 Inspired by the Arab Spring protests of 2010, which quickly spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa, the "You Stink!" campaign borrowed certain chants: "Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām" (The people want to bring down the regime) and "Yasqut, yasqut, hukm al-az`ar" (Down, down, with the rule of the crook).14 Even though Lebanon did not experience its public square occupation moment at the same time, in 2015, its outburst was heard and disseminated through international media channels much like Tahrir Square, and the connections were not ignored.


I returned to Lebanon in July 2017. During this visit, I encountered a work by the Lebanese artist Marwa Arsanios at the Beirut Art Center, a nonprofit contemporary arts exhibition space in the Jisr El Wati neighborhood.15 Seated among piles of rubble and dirt with sculptural topographic models having aerial views of the city's landfills lain on them, I watched her documentary film, Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending (2016). The work takes on Beirut's trash crisis and its relationship to the country's real estate development.16 Captivating shots reveal flows of water, various fauna, and disposed materials on the ground and in the landscape all mixed in with trash, as well as more distant shots of tractors razing a building and dumping garbage right into the sea. Herein, Arsanios gives an account of the neoliberal project that followed the Civil War and traces it through the last decades: an urbanization campaign in Beirut was spearheaded by the Lebanese corporation Solidere after business tycoon Rafic Hariri was elected prime minister in 1992.17 Narration explains that real estate oligarchs placed garbage dumps in the Karantina and by the seashore, to purposely devalue the land so they could buy it later on at a much lower price.

Marwa Arsanios, Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending, 2016, digital video still. Courtesy of the artist and Mor Charpentier, Paris.

By its very nature, the landscape depicted in the video lays bare the reality of speculation and asserts that ecology is tangled up with the hypercapitalist imaginary of the Earth and functions as a political agent. As water moves through communities, absorbing its elements and contaminants, it too functions as a political agent, undoubtedly affecting and altering its surroundings. In the case of Beirut, the intertwining of water and garbage moves its people to adopt a heightened awareness of their lived, material conditions, and incites them to rally against an ecological crisis that has exceedingly escalated over time. Working alongside her community, within which she also plays an activist role, Arsanios impresses the notion that continuous acts of resistance (and education) on the local level are necessary in order to understand global contexts.18 The work builds upon the theorist Felix Guattari's argument that "the only true response to the ecological crisis is on a global scale, provided that it brings about an authentic political, social, and cultural revolution, reshaping the objectives of the production of both material and immaterial assets."19 Given the shared nature of the environment and the reality that ecology questions capitalist power formations, to understand the global, the local context and its agents also need to be revaluated across temporal spaces. Arsanios stresses her position that the potential for change can be maintained through being a listener and a spectator, as well as an activist, knowing that it is a pursuit of interventionist processes and well-conceived, collective local strategies within and against a larger system. These mounds of contaminated garbage were destined to become agents of land reclamation, as real estate speculation was revealed to be the driving agent of the crises. Arsanios appears in the work, in old footage from an earlier documentary about the reconstruction of Beirut in the 1990s: she points to the destruction of her own family home, considering how rubble from the buildings becomes mixed with trash to then construct land extensions that are turned into desirable developments as a strategy to gain new parcels and privatize the country's seashore.20 As the landfills are transformed, current residents are displaced.  

In the case of Lebanon, as Arsanios takes up, the leaky garbage acts as a "[force] with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of [its] own"21—it has a vitality.22 Trash mobilized a large number of people in Beirut. As the piles swelled and toxic waste polluted every corner of the city's environment, the crises brought differing factions, age groups, and organizers—such as LGBTQ activists—together in protest, opening up the potential for broader, more inclusive coalitions to form. It unified myriad political, social, and religious groups across class lines that are more often found in conflict in Lebanon, and changed the conversation and the imperative to call out governments, simultaneously shifting the discourse and landscape.23

Garbage became a pervasive metaphor in the country for the government's perpetual negligence and corruption. According to the Ziad Abu-Rish, garbage was "one crisis among a number of public utility crises in Lebanon, including the situation with electricity, with water, with public transportation, and this is to say nothing of the problem of rents and other issues that are important to being able to live a decent life."24 Trash has a life that "runs alongside and inside humans"25 to affect political movement and reorient competing forces between political factions. At the same time, when the movement grew and faced severe police brutality, the "You Stink!" activist group decided to disband and conclude its organizing.26 Despite this, there were many successes: the elites were held accountable and environmental ministers who had been mismanaging the toxic situation resigned; the temporary governmental plans for trash management were not accepted; and, there was an understanding (although it did not happen) that the municipalities should play a key role in administering a trash solution. The movement further led to effective changes, which included the opening of new landfill sites in Bourj Hammoud and Costa Brava, and the birth of the volunteer-led political campaign Beirut Madinati (Beirut My City), an outgrowth of "You Stink!"27 28 This socially-minded undertaking focused on waste management, the development of community and public spaces, and environmental sustainability, among numerous other public goods.

Arsanios's installation at the Beirut Art Center also included the artist's large drawings depicting the flora and fauna that survive unpredictably in the blighted landscape. Through this hand-drawn inventory, she poses the question: What unexpected lifeforms endure and materialize in virulent dumping sites? The project led me to consider ways that we can reimagine natural elements when they come into contact with what we deem as waste. Given a shift in perception, and a new understanding of past histories surrounding the trash crisis, can we better trace how distinct elements, things, and groups are relegated to being disposable or harmful? 

Falling is not collapsing, falling is extending underscores the notion that the unearthing of soil, sediments, remnants, and buried lifeforms opens up space for concealed histories and new forms of knowledge production. As Arsanios's video plays, human and non-human forms remain and materialize within and through the destruction of her home: "People still inhabited what was left of the houses. Trees grew inside the derelict buildings."29 Ruins collapse and mix with waste that appears alarming, even apocalyptic, in scale, and the excess seeps into both land and water, polluting it and beginning to mutate the constitution of the material. The contamination makes room for unexpected and resilient beings that conceivably engender strategies for surviving toxic encounters.

Driving away from the exhibition space, I was transfixed once again by piles of garbage, this time in the Armenian area of Bourj Hammoud, just to the east of Beirut (a neighborhood built in the 1930s by survivors of the 1915 Genocide). It was a reminder that these crises of the present are connected to the past, making their marks on future upheavals while reliving past traumas. Certainly, the protracted Civil War shifted the social, economic, and political structure in Lebanon, haunting the country still today. In the aftermath, Lebanon's infrastructure was rebuilt with external financial support, and little effort went into improving the quality of services. Wastewater treatment, for instance, was even more neglected than other services, and sewage flowed into the sea and other channels. The anthropologist Joanne Nucho comments about the history of war being made evident in the everyday structures of Lebanon: 

The physical infrastructure of the densely-populated Bourj Hammoud, which never fully recovered after the war, is one such example. . . . The enormous garbage mountain directly adjacent to the fisherman's port, where garbage was hastily piled up during the war, is another highly visible (and smelly), example.30 

While the feminist theorist Karen Barad writes about an unfixed past's relationship to a future that cannot be understood merely by how it will unravel: "the 'past' and the 'future' are iteratively reworked and enfolded through the iterative practices of spacetimemattering."31 Such a temporal collapse can be useful when thinking about the land's resiliency when intermixed with toxic materials and/or encounters. 

Questions and implications I first had considered in Jezzine with regards to water as a resource and commodity become ever more complicated and interlaced with a financial imaginary and broader geopolitical understanding, pointing to buried histories and layers of war, infrastructure, real estate development, border conflict, and the persistent refugee crisis. Water and trash, and their entanglements, function as active agents that shift and adopt new meanings as they infiltrate and influence various materials and political movements. The noxious piles reveal exploitative realities of land privatization, while the ecological community proves resistant over time. The world encompasses and enfolds the memory of all traces. In Lebanon, the landscape contains its own history: the materiality of the land and the toxicity of the water are shaped by waste and corruption. In turn, the contaminants influence the individual's and collective's spatial agency, as well as their relationship with the state that shapes space. As protests emerge and dwindle, that state demonstrates what kinds of bodies are valued and cared for, and which are deemed disposable.


After the writing of this text, massive protests have exploded in Lebanon since October 17, denouncing the ruling class and its ongoing neglect. On October 29, Prime Minister Saad Hariri turned in his resignation to President Michel Aoun, meeting one of the protest's demands. For additional information, please see the following articles from Open Democracy and Al Jazeera.