If there is one main feature of the unprecedented Lebanese protests that erupted on 17 October 2019, it is their cathartic nature. In Greek, katharsis means purging, purifying, or cleansing, in the religious, physical, and spiritual as well as symbolic and metaphorical sense. Since the day the popular revolt erupted, people across regions, backgrounds, classes, and religious groups have been voicing shared grievances against a toxic politics, a toxic ruling class, and a toxic environment that is now literally killing them.
The grievance that stands out is cancer. For the first time in their history, and arguably in the history of the “Arab Spring” uprisings, the Lebanese are sharing their personal stories with disease and illness, be it on social media, during the protests, or on various television talk shows. More specifically, they are talking about their cancer tragedies, a first in a country where saratan (the Arabic word for cancer) is such a dreaded and stigmatizing term. The taboo seems to have broken, at last, because fear itself seems to have miraculously shattered. And, like a frantic Greek choir, the protesters have been denouncing the entire ruling class as the source of their personal suffering and the country’s predicament with the all-encompassing slogan “all of them means all of them” (kellun yaʿne kellun).
Cancer is being used in both real and metaphorical senses. It is literally dismantling families and communities, and, at the same time, it has become a trope for a sick sectarian system that has proven to be unsustainable. Examples abound of such stories where the personal and the national narratives of metastatic cancer are intrinsically linked. What better illustration than the woman I came across in downtown Beirut holding a sign saying, “You are the cancer behind our cancer.”
Figure 1. A protestor in downtown Beirut, 31 October 2019. Photo by the author.
The personal testimony of Shaykh Yaser Aude, a Shi‘i cleric who has been positioning himself against Sayed Hassan Nasrallah (the leader of Hizballah, an Iranian-backed militia), is another telling example. In a recent sermon, Shaykh Aude used the Imam Hussein’s plight against injustice and corruption to analyze Lebanon’s ongoing thawra (revolution) as the protestors themselves call it. Shaykh Aude explicitly and unapologetically took the side of the revolutionaries because, he tells his audience, this is exactly what the Imam Hussein would have done, to “side with the poor and the oppressed.” Shaykh Aude then mentioned how his own family has been eradicated by saratan. He lost uncles, aunts, and his own father to cancer. He mentioned how other people from his entourage have been losing parents and children. No one seems to be spared. And precisely because people are surrounded by so much moribund darkness, the shaykh claimed, they have nothing to lose in lashing out at a government that has proven to be incompetent and corrupt, the source of the degraded environment that is now gnawing at bodies and minds alike.
Diseases and medical metaphors have long been used to describe a broken political system. As Susan Sontag so eloquently reminds us, “The disease metaphor was used in political philosophy to reinforce the call for a rational response.” For Thomas Hobbes, for instance, the natural death of society is caused by “internal disorders.” However, these are preventable “an act of will, or rather a failure of will (that is, of reason).”
For such a small country—the size of Connecticut—to be revolting en masse against irrational policies that have created an unsustainable environment, policies that the people believe to be the source of their own health tribulations as well as their country’s collapse, is a first, at least in the region. No wonder the ruling political class has referred to this revolt as zalzal (Arabic for “earthquake”).
The cancer burden in Lebanon is indeed enormous. According to the World Health Organization and the Global Cancer Observatory, Lebanon has by far the highest rate of cancer in the Arab world and one of the highest in the eastern Mediterranean. In Lebanon, there are 242.8 cancer patients for every 100,000 individuals. (For comparison neighboring Israel, a country with nuclear energy and hence nuclear waste, has an estimated 233.6 cancer patients for every 100,000 people.) The statistics in Lebanon may also be an underestimation since these are based on an imperfect national registry that does not diligently take into account the records of private hospitals.
Of course, cancer is complex and multifactorial. There are known occupational carcinogens, most notably cigarette smoking. Among the 250 known harmful chemicals in tobacco smoke, for instance, at least 69 have been found to cause cancer. Lebanon is a champion in terms of its cigarette consumption rate, which is the highest in the Middle East and North Africa
The link between air and water pollution and cancer is nowadays also well established. In 2013, the International Agency for Research on Cancer confirmed that outdoor air pollution caused lung cancer. A more recent study has found air pollution to cause a wide range of other cancers, including breast, liver, and pancreatic cancer. As for water pollution, contaminants of concern including arsenic, asbestos, radon, fertilizer by-products like nitrate, and hazardous waste, have long been known to be causally linked to various cancers.
In Lebanon, there has been a marked rise in reported cancer incidence since the 1990s, the period that marks the reconstruction phase after the civil war period (1975-1990). At the same time, Lebanon has also seen a striking rise in the degradation of its environment. Jounieh, a coastal city a few kilometers away from Beirut, was listed among the global hotspots for nitrogen dioxide (a gaseous air pollutant produced by the burning of fossil fuel) from 1 June to 31 August 2018, with the main source emanating from transportation and electricity production plants of the rusty Zouk power factories as well as the many diesel generators located throughout the country (which have replaced the non-existent and failing power plants of the Electricité du Liban, the main electricity producer). Beirut is among the most polluted cities in the Middle East. Lebanon was ranked sixth this year (a jump from twelfth in 2018) in the Pollution Index for Country. It ranks well above China, a country of 1.4 billion people!
Indeed, Lebanon, from coast to mountain, is saturated with toxic pollutants. The Litani River—the most important river in the country and a vital water resource for southern Lebanon—is gurgling with sewage and chemical waste. According to the official Litani River Authority, the cancer incidence in villages around the river has dramatically increased in recent years. The authority directly links the significant rise in cancer to the toxic levels of the river, which farmers use to irrigate agricultural lands.
In 2015, a garbage crisis presaged how dysfunctional the Lebanese political system, which is based on sectarian clientelism, has become. The crisis erupted when piles of stinking garbage bags filled riverbanks and spilled over roads because of a myopic government that neither planned nor managed properly the growing waste of a consumer society that imports goods much more than it exports.
But if the 17 October revolution will go down in history as the beginning of the end of a sectarian regime that has been consolidated by the so-called national pact of 1943 and that crystallized with the 1989 Taef agreement, which officially ended the civil war, people should not forget the toxic legacy of the war. These toxic—and some claim even nuclear—wastes were dumped in various areas in Lebanon during the violent and chaotic civil war period during which various militias were able to make money by trading such waste.
The Legal Agenda, a legal NGO based in Beirut, has recently conducted a review of the evidence. It suffices to mention some of its main conclusions. Instead of the 9,567 barrels of waste that Italian officials claimed had entered the country in 1987 and were all returned to Italy in 1988, there were instead several thousand additional barrels—as Greenpeace and local environmental groups had long asserted—that not only entered the country but were buried in Lebanon or sunk in Lebanese waters (the exact total number is 15,800 barrels and 20 containers of toxic waste). It took the Lebanese authorities nine months to discover the scandal. By then, most of these barrels had been buried in various regions, notably in Mount Lebanon, and many would neither be discovered nor returned to Italy (less than 6,000 barrels were sent back in the most unprofessional, disorganized, and irresponsible way). Various experts deemed this waste extremely toxic (identifying poisonous, explosive, bleaching and chlorinated byproducts, hazardous, and chemical waste, among others), and nuclear waste was not ruled out. Moreover, there were documented cases of cancer involving people who had recovered material from these barrels. Finally, some of the contents of the barrels have spilled out accidentally, particularly on the roads and highway in Ghazir, while being amateurishly returned to the port of Beirut from which they had initially entered the country. The Lebanese Forces, a militia that actively took part in the civil war, is the main culprit in this national disaster that has been dubbed the “death deal” along with other private individuals that had served as intermediaries. Businessmen associated with the Lebanese Forces received massive sums of money in exchange for the waste. Pierre Malichev, one of the first environmentalists to sound the alarm over the toxic waste, survived an assassination attempt in 1997.
The toxic waste debacle teaches us that Lebanon’s worst enemy is, in fact, its own citizens. Yet, one stark departure that distinguishes the 17 October revolution from the late 1990s is the bold environmental initiatives and solidarities that have sprouted since. A group of volunteers and environmental activists have been removing the litter resulting from the protests, sorting and recycling it. They have erected a “green tent” on Martyr’s Square where other protestors have occupied the premises to promote various social and political demands. They have been teaching and raising awareness about recycling and waste management free of charge (while the Ministry of Environment requested, a few days after the revolution started, one million US dollars to conduct training courses and awareness campaigns for the same purpose). Since 17 October, the unprecedented movement of contestation against corruption has also emboldened environmental activists against the controversial World Bank-funded plan (617.00 million US dollars) to build a dam at the Bisri Valley, a site rich in history, archeology, and biodiversity. Activists forced their way into the site, which was sealed off by the authorities, and reclaimed the premises, assessing the damage that has already been done to the flora and some of the archeological artifacts.
What the 17 October revolution has remarkably managed to do is to allow people to grieve publicly for the first time. Unlike other countries that have experienced civil unrest or war, there were no serious reconciliation efforts or platforms, such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, to try to close the traumatic wounds the civil war had inflicted on the Lebanese people. This ongoing revolution has allowed a collective catharsis against a political regime that is corrupt to its core and has failed the people on all levels; it is suffocating the people, aborting their dreams and hopes for a better future for themselves and for their children, forcing young people into migration and exile, separating families, and now killing them with a toxic environment that has become unsustainable, indeed unlivable.
Nevertheless, catharsis not only reveals a moment of collective communion and solidarity, it is also potentially therapeutic. It allows deeply seated, distressful, and paralyzing traumatic memories to resurface, to be reenacted, and hopefully to be dealt with. Even if the process is ultimately painful, catharsis can also be liberating.
The time has come for an open, frank, and serious retrospection about what the Lebanese people have brought upon themselves and upon their environment. It is time not merely to regain the streets, but above all to reclaim responsibility, for, as George Orwell once wrote, “A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves, and traitors are not victims but accomplices.”
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (London: Penguin Books, 1991), 78-9.