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Garbage knows no social class, but fighting it does

Photo credit: Joelle Hatem Photo credit: Joelle Hatem

Accentuated by the scorching summer heat, the pestilential smell of rotting garbage overpowered the pollution fumes of Beirut. Blue and black plastic bags piled up in the residential areas of the capital. Mounds of garbage occupied privatized parking spaces, partially clogging the streets and occasionally burying some abandoned cars, now doused with white pesticide.

In other areas of the country, municipal authorities resorted to burning garbage on the sides of main streets at night to try to contain the situation. The surreal scenery of burning waste sent flames and dust shooting towards the surrounding residential buildings. After facing its fiercest non-sectarian uprising, the Lebanese government – which self-extended its own term twice without holding elections – agreed to collect most of the garbage, only to “hide” it by dispersing it in less privileged areas of the country, and dumping a big portion of the rubbish by the (dried up) bed of the Beirut River. With the imminence of the first rain, a privatized waste management company called Sukleen desperately tried to unblock the gutters, blanketing the roads with disintegrated and decomposing debris. Unavoidably, the torrential October rain inundated Beirut with floating trash that calmly navigated the streets, oblivious to popular outrage.

Garbage landed in undesignated dumps around the country after the residents of Naameh – a coastal municipality in the Chouf district, South of Beirut – blocked access to the main, equally unsanitary landfill located in their neighborhood. They had suffered from the same predicament for more than 15 years, but their protests had received little attention. The escalating trash crisis gave rise to an unprecedented wave of popular, spontaneous protests. People demonstrated day and night in downtown Beirut, which was kept clean of trash. This comes as no surprise: Beirut’s central district was renovated after the civil war by Solidere – a neoliberal construction company whose sole aspiration is corporate profit. Solidere effectively robbed downtown Beirut of its popular dynamism by spatially reconfiguring it into a place for the rich.

20973222106_0bf44e23c5_o Photo credit: Joelle Hatem

With the violent backlash against protestors, the Solidere stronghold[1] ironically reeked of acrid teargas, and activists made sure to scatter the area with garbage recollected from less “fancy” neighborhoods. Most remarkably, young feminist activists participating in the protests resisted arrests, fearlessly stood in front of water cannons, and withstood the teargas and police brutality. These same young feminists co-founded and organized many social movements against the regime, such as Al Shaab Yourid (The People Want).

More “liberal” movements – read male-dominated and right-wing with a penchant for a universalized framework of rights – that sprung following the garbage crisis equated masculinity and potency with finding quick and efficient solutions to garbage, with slogans such as “the parliament needs real men.” They chastised the leftist and feminist alliances for extending their demands to other detrimental aspects of life, such as corruption and sexual rights. They considered that “too many” demands would dilute the unified focus on garbage, and called for a resolution to the trash crisis first, before moving to other, “less urgent” issues.

Untreated trash borders on a large-scale health disaster and, undeniably, should be dealt with in a timely and urgent manner. However, as Lynn and Shant best expressed years ago, our struggles are constantly relegated to the sidelines. As young feminists, we find ourselves in the waiting rooms of “crises,” as if awaiting instructions for the “right time” to take action.

We are requested to place issues and demands in little ribbon-ed boxes, to distribute them on a quantifiable scale with a “more to less important” hierarchy. This hierarchy – inspired by lousy empirical methodologies that served to justify gendered oppression, slavery, occupation, and colonialism, but I digress – is synonym to forever delaying a semblance of social justice rooted in intersectionality.

The smell of garbage knows no social class. It seeps into Solidere’s empty downtown palaces, just as much as it takes the finest street of Ashrafieh by surprise alongside an infestation of flies (blamed on the neighboring and poorer Armenian district of Bourj Hammoud). But in a country that has the 3rd highest wealth inequality in the world (beating the U.S., coming in 4th place), the ruling class can still chlorinate its water tanks, place filters on its taps, and bathe in imported, bottled water.

The trash crisis did not come in a vacuum. Its root causes lie in a corrupt system that keeps denying us the most rudimentary access to well-being, justice, health, and other basic services. The neoliberal policies long adopted by a succession of power-sharing families in government take its toll on social freedoms and state-provided services. With the privatization of most institutions, water shortages are common, electricity cuts happen on a daily basis (with a predictable and rotational schedule for each Beiruti neighborhood), exorbitant healthcare and insurance are only accessible to a few, and the education system alienates students coming from less privileged backgrounds.

Somehow, we seem to pay for everything twice (water “orders” that come in trucks, overpriced generator subscriptions, etc.). Populations that fall at the bottom half of the economic gap’s vertical structure, including refugees, suffer from abject poverty and living conditions in a system that privileges the rich at the expense of 99% of the people living within its territory.

The social movement(s) that came to life as a response to the trash crisis lost momentum. They had already lost momentum before the twin blasts that shook Bourj Al-Barajneh on November 12. The same arguments of “more” pressing matters, initially articulated by some protestors, are now advanced to delegitimize the newly born social movement(s). The reminder that there is an ongoing war seems to further paralyze popular and feminist action. While discussions and talks on the gendered prospects of the movement are still taking place in public squares and open forums, mass mobilization waned at the loss of human lives and mourning. But grief and war take many shapes and forms; sometimes, the internal, long-term ones hurt the most.

005 (2)Born in 1989, Ghiwa Sayegh is an anarcha-feminist, activist, researcher, writer, editor, and translator based in Beirut, Lebanon. She has been involved in queer and feminist spaces since 2009. She is pursuing a Master’s degree in English Literature at the American University of Beirut, and her research interests revolve around intersectional feminist and queer theories, Marxism, gender and sexuality in the MENA region, post-colonialism and Orientalism, and history from the peripheries. Ghiwa is the founder and current editor in chief of Kohl: a Journal for Body and Gender Research, a multilingual, open access, and peer reviewed journal that aims to respond to the cultural and Orientalist hegemonies of research around gender and sexuality from within the Middle East, South East Asia and North Africa region. She serves on the advisory committee of Frida ǀ The Young Feminist Fund as a Middle East and North Africa region advisor. She is a poet and playwright, and is fluent in Arabic, English, French, and Spanish. She is the founder of The Feminist Publishing and Production House, a project in the making.

[1] A pun to counter the media representation of the vibrant, popular neighborhood of Bourj Al-Barajneh as “Hezbollah stronghold” after the two blasts that tore it apart on November 12, 2015. “Stronghold” is more appropriate a term for neoliberal centers and military institutions, not residential districts.

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