Beirut, Lebanon – “Comedy has always been a tool in revolutions and revolutionary thought,” Milo Charafeddine said, as she sat blocking a main Beirut road along with hundreds of other Lebanese.
“The first example that comes to mind is Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator and the way he would ridicule Hitler,” the 22-year-old architecture graduate said on Sunday evening. “It’s a way for us to either relate to something, or deal with really intense things in a more human way.”
Like thousands of Lebanese, Charafeddine has spent most of her waking hours over the past 11 days on the streets, demanding the government resign and politicians are held accountable for decades of corruption.
Comic relief played a large part in bringing Lebanese together in the early days of the protest movement that began on October 17, chiefly via chants of a profane nature.
None has been more popular than “Hela Hela, Hela Hela Ho, Gebran Bassil F*** his mother,” a tune that has been sung in unison by thousands and has taken on a life of its own, with many different versions now in circulation.
But while protesters got some immediate concessions, such as a promise of no new taxes, and four government ministers resigned by the third night of the demonstrations, the government does not seem intent on resigning in the immediate future.
Now, those on the streets are preparing for a long battle. And many are finding that comedy, satire and performance are providing necessary relief during long hours outdoors, while also serving as a vehicle for poignant critique of politicians who seem increasingly detached.
Case in point: After Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed on Friday that foreign embassies and the CIA may be involved in funding the protests, Lebanese quickly ridiculed the assertion on Twitter, using the hashtag: “I’m funding the revolution.”
On Saturday, a man handing out manakeesh – bread with thyme or cheese – declared they were being supplied courtesy of the Qatari government. Similar interactions abounded – soon any person handing out anything for free was sarcastically asked: “Which embassy?”
At a roadblock on the main Beirut ring-road on Sunday night, a man playfully held up a small bottle of tequila and teased: “Look what the Mexican embassy got me.”
Comedy has also been used to undermine the power of Hezbollah in a more direct way. In the past few years, many who criticised the group on video ended up being recorded soon afterwards, blank-faced, apologising profusely for what they said.
This is true of a man who told Hezbollah MP Hasan Fadlallah to shove documents the MP said exposed corruption up his posterior at the beginning of the protest movement.
In response, a video shared on Facebook began: “I’m Omar Mheibel and yesterday I insulted Sayyed Hasan on Facebook.”
“I’d like to tell him …” he paused. “That I don’t give a sh*t. I’ll insult him all the time.”
Standup comedian Nour Hajjar, a fixture in the Beirut scene, also made light of these videos in a post on Instagram.
Holding a tupperware container in each hand, he said, “I want to say sorry Mama, I didn’t want to insult this house or what you cook, and I love mjadara.” The latter is a basic dish of rice and lentils topped with caramelised onions.
In a Facebook post, Hajjar also asked to see the blooper reel of a pre-recorded speech by President Michel Aoun, which was oddly spliced together, widely seen as detached, and raised questions about the 84-year old president’s fitness for office.
Full-time comedians such as Hajjar have had a field day with the revolt.
Shaden Fakih, a local comedian, told a crowd gathered at an abandoned Beirut cinema, known locally as The Egg, that “most of us here have gone through 13 years of French schooling, so we are prepared for a long battle”.
Satirical street performance is part of the protest movement too. Clown Me In, a troupe of clowns focused on social justice in Lebanon, on Sunday held signs publicly thanking the government for their achievements, which included polluting the environment and spreading cancer.
“We want to convey just how bad things are in a way that’s a bit provocative, so we thanked the government for all they’ve done for us,” said Hisham Asaad, a 31-year-old off-duty clown with his red nose hanging around his neck.
“Sometimes when it comes from a clown you get to go a little further with your criticism.”
Some have raised concerns the protests – that began with fires set on main roads and property destruction – have softened and lost their radical edge. The profane slogans that occupied the city’s soundscape during the first days of the protests have now all but disappeared.
But Andrea, a 22-year-old make-up artist, said having fun does not necessarily mean protesters are not getting the job done. “Sure we can put all our energy into blocking roads, but while we’re doing it we can have a good time,” he said, as a friend beside him poured a vodka-based drink.
“If you’re serious about everything all the time you’re going to get emotionally drained.”
Standing around Andrea were hundreds of Lebanese, joking, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, conversing and playing music, all while blocking a vital road in the capital.
The methods may be unconventional, but 11 days into an unprecedented movement, the people still hold the squares and streets across the country, and have effectively resisted all clearance attempts.
This spirit of protest is perhaps best summarised by the popular chant: “We want to dance, we want to sing, we want to bring down the regime.”