Image by Tala Safie.

This piece is part of a series that looks at the past year of protests—in Hong Kong, Beirut, Delhi, and across the United States—through a design lens. We asked writers living in, or with connections to, these places to consider design’s role within the context of these specific movements. Yesterday, we heard from Louise Benson about the power of illustration amid the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong.  

On October 17, 2019, thousands of people filled the streets of Beirut to protest a new tax on internet calls imposed by the government, marking the beginnings of a movement to end 30 years of corrupt neoliberal governance. More than a million Lebanese citizens gathered in streets and squares across the country over the next several weeks. They united as citizens with common demands and aspirations. They occupied vital areas and usual lines of communication, making it impossible for the government to ignore or downplay the importance of the uprising. And crucially, they reclaimed public spaces that had, for decades, been stripped of their democratic value by a system that permeated a culture of distrust and fear among various Lebanese communities. 

To keep the momentum alive, demonstrators knew that it was essential that people remain on the street, and devised ad-hoc strategies to do so. People played music on makeshift stages; recited poetry; cooked and distributed food; and organized public discussions and impromptu town halls. Barbers gave out free haircuts in the middle of Downtown Beirut, in what was previously a luxury shopping area. Designers, printmakers, and illustrators also adapted their tools and communication skills toward this mutual effort, and played a significant role in solidifying the communal bond of the revolution.

Designers, printmakers, and illustrators played a significant role in solidifying the communal bond of the revolution.

After two months of following the protests virtually from New York, I traveled back to Beirut in December as the demonstrations were still unfolding. I met my friend Farah Fayyad, a graphic designer and founder of silk screen printing shop Nice Nice Prints, at our regular bar Torino Express, which had been serving as one of the pit stops for protesters. We discussed “Bel Mersad (Arabic for “on the lookout”), a collective of artists and designers urgently creating assets—such as for tips and announcements, or downloadable templates for community meet-ups—that engage with the socio-political context, to be used and shared. We also talked about how Fayyad, along with graphic designer Siwar Kraytem, had set up a silkscreen station in the street on October 23 and live-printed with the protesters for three consecutive days.

Setting up the silkscreen station had happened spontaneously, Fayyad told me. “I was sitting in the middle of the street and thought that it would be nice to do something special.” She ran into Kraytem that same day and the two women made a plan. They picked up the machine from Salim Samara, Fayyad’s print mentor and partner at the shop (and one of the most skilled silkscreen printers in Lebanon), prepared the screens, called a friend with a car, and drove to Riad al Solh square, where they set it up that afternoon.

“People would come, take off their shirts, and we would print on them,” says Fayyad. They’d gathered graphics from their friends, many of whom were already making and distributing work, mostly on social media. Joseph Kai, a member of the Samandal comics collective, hand-lettered the slogan “Fekkou,” or “Fuck Off,” which would become a recurring visual in the protest, found on banners and stenciled on the walls of Beirut. An illustration by Tracy Chahwan, another Samandal member, celebrated the women leading many of the marches, and one by Kraytem featured The Egg, an unfinished cinema landmark that finally became functional as a place for public discussions among protestors. Words across the building read: “The revolution hatched.” 

From top left, graphics by Joseph Kai, Siwar Kraytem, Tracy Chahwan, Khajag Apelian, and Kristyan Sarkis

Two other Samandal members, Karen Keyrouz and Nour Hifaoui, organized an effort of their own: a live drawing session accompanied by live experimental music. The illustrators had a standing tradition of doing a ciné-concert once a month. “Since we were spending all of our time in the street, it just made sense to have one there,” Keyrouz told me.

Designer Hatem Imam and painter Omar Khouri played electronic music using a synthesizer, accompanying live drawings by Hifaoui that were projected on a screen. Zeez Collective member Carla Habib also drew to the music. The organizers managed to convince another protestor to lend them speakers and electricity from his portable generator.

Keyrouz and Hifaoui had different takeaways from that night. Hifaoui, who was busy drawing cartoons featuring the prime minister, recalls a positive response. “People asked us to stay and continue,” she says. “One person even asked to take my drawing and hang it in his cafe. Other people were intrigued and told me that it was the first time they witnessed this kind of event, listened to the type of music [they were playing], and asked questions about the process.” Keyrouz, however, remembers a protester who had been camped out for 12 days complaining. “He was asking for more mainstream music and maybe he was right. He blamed us for driving people away.” 

“This uprising is about possibilities and freedom of expression.”

Keyrouz and Hifaoui had set up their live drawing station at “The Ring Bridge,” another vital communication line in Beirut, turned into an outdoor communal area by the protesters. Unlike other Thawra locations, this one demands more work to get people to stay overnight, which may have contributed to the tension. “The street is for everyone, but you can’t expect everyone to be on the same page,” says Keyrouz. “This uprising is about possibilities and freedom of expression. However, the understanding of freedom of expression isn’t the same to different people. There is a common ground we need to work on and agree upon. That’s what I gathered and what stayed with me from that night.”  

As for the silkscreen station, Fayyad says that by day three their station was packed, and they had 150 donated T-shirts to print on. But the process was also physically exhausting, and other efforts began to feel more urgent. “We were all happy and it felt like a street festival, but still there was not a proper response from the government,” she says. “It felt more relevant to participate in marches that targeted specific locations and institutions, like the electricity company or the Parliament, rather than just peacefully exist in the streets.” 

As with any revolution, things change quickly and protesters are nimble in their response—what tools may be useful for community organizing in one stage are rendered less so in another. Still, Fayyad sees design as a way to build solidarity. “It brought us and the other protesters closer,” she says. “It was one of the most fulfilling experiences for me—we had so much energy.”