Bassem: Hello everyone. My name is Bassem Saad and I am an artist and writer from Beirut, currently residing in Berlin. Today I will be talking to Marwa Arsanios, an artist and writer who also resides in Berlin and Beirut. This is the podcast [episode_1], produced by Kohl Journal. Before our conversation, Marwa and I have exchanged our work about the ecological crisis in Lebanon so we can see similarities and intersections in our practices and research.
Welcome Marwa! I am very happy that we are talking today, especially that we have been planning to do so for a while since we work on a lot of similar research. Today, we are facing a violent destructive apparatus and several structural forms of violence, one of which is the exploitation and complete destruction of the natural habitats of the majority of the world’s population in addition to climate change that there is probably no coming back from. It also affects southern regions much more than northern ones.
Marwa: Thank you for sending me all the material. There are lots of intersections between my 2016 work on Burj Hammoud’s landfill and “Kink Retrograde” that you produced in 2019. Although they are at different historical stages, they harbour similar ideas.
Bassem: I think the two films are mainly affected – directly and indirectly – by the 2015 demonstrations’ events. What I also liked about the two films, if we are to think of them together, is that your film addresses the period that comes right after the opening of the landfills in Burj Hammoud and Jdeideh. On the other hand, my film takes place four years after; there were some changes then – perhaps not enough. After the garbage crisis in 2015, popular movements were big and expanding in several cities with class-inclusive discourse. We also saw somewhat violent movements as there was garbage burning on highways and roads. Getting rid of the garbage became then a political act. I believe that was an important moment, except almost nothing changed in the period that followed. The year after, nothing big happened and the environmental movement remained isolated from other movements, knowing that these were not very active at the time. In your opinion, when you started the film project “Falling Is Not Collapsing, Falling Is Extending” which looks into the logic behind this system, did you believe that art is supposed to come up with political suggestions or that it should look into existing political movements to amplify their voices and powers?
Marwa: What I can say about 2015 and how I got the idea for this film is related to this period in itself and all the popular movements after the garbage crisis. They were the launching point of a lot of social and political concepts; at the same time, there has been a revaluation of how we create culturally and artistically. I was thinking about the production relations in this city as violent and violating. Production only operates to make profit; in waste recycling for instance, landfills are a part of a bigger cycle that is temporary. They wait for this waste to form a mountain that is then dumped into the sea. This could then become a part of land expansion on the coast side.
Nowadays, I think a lot about how even the tiniest, most intimate details of our lives are all a part of this system, this cycle, and its violence. One of the reasons I worked on this project is that I felt like we have no agency anymore. But at the same time, I think this period was difficult.
Bassem: True. I so believe that practicing art is important to uncover the violence that the system wants to keep a hidden secret. But at the same time, if the art focuses too much on the violence of the state, the existing conflicts will remain hidden, as if the art itself is contributing to keeping these conflicts hidden. The focus should also encompass the manmade disasters. If we, as artists, are creating an archive that is our modern history, then that history we are creating is keeping these conflicts hidden.
So, I really appreciate the shift that you decided to operate. If the conflicts are not showing in a certain way, the artist can combine conflicts from different areas to create dialogue between contexts.
Marwa: Exactly. And at the same time, the movement on the garbage crisis was the first of this scale that did not stop at 8 or 14 March. Of course, in 2011, there were smaller movements of this kind, but the discourse was always appropriated either by the older discourses on secularism, or the “foreign intervention” discourse, or keeping up with the “Arab Spring.”
Bassem: This is like environmental work that doesn’t acknowledge that it has an ideology or does not want to admit that there is a huge difference between its work and capitalist neoliberal discourses. It may even consider itself a technocratic discourse, and believe that within capitalism we can carefully manage the environment to alleviate the damage without a necessity to change. This takes us to the title of your film: “Who is Afraid of Ideology?” I really like this title!
Marwa: I think the discourse that emerged in that period did not crystallize. Out of all the environmental discourses that emerged in that period, we were missing an environmentally radical discourse that proposes solutions beyond temporary environmental activism to actually protect the environment and make us feel as if we are saving the world from the harm caused by humans.
Bassem: It is like an extension of the “Arab Spring” movements influenced by the other ones in Egypt and Syria. However, it did not successfully reflect the contradictions in Lebanon. Additionally, Lebanon did not get as affected as other countries during the 2008 world economic crisis. So, I believe in 2011 there was still this feeling that something must happen although the local context was not ready for that thing to happen.
Marwa: Most importantly, this discourse frames the environment as an issue that is isolated from other conflicts and struggles, like a specific and special issue. This is what you were saying about the technocratic thinking: someone specialized doing their particular job without thinking of the bigger picture or how they relate to other struggles, only viewing themselves as an individual.
Bassem: I think what happened is that the Lebanese state went back to using the same exact logic it used during the war. During that time, I tried investigating to see if they used that same logic of waste management in other countries where they build landfills by the sea, then expand it and after a while close it down for that land to become very valuable for private projects that would bring in huge profits. This has happened with the Normandy dam; during the civil war, it was a war landfill opened for both Western and Eastern Beirut and all waste ended up there. In 2015, two landfills opened, Burj Hammoud and Jdeideh. Both of our films focus on these two landfills as we both felt defeated in that period. Your idea was shifting the focus and expanding to other movements. My idea was about 2015 and the main political movements that I witnessed as an adult since I did not have the adequate political awareness to address the movements before then and their discourses. So, 2015 was a fundamental point because I believe it paved the way for the 2019 revolution. The movements also helped build people’s awareness of the modes of resistance that can be practiced. They weren’t practiced before, but after 2015 and 2019, they really flourished.
Marwa: Definitely! And this what we want to achieve. However, before we address this point, we can ponder upon how these discourses that emerged after 2015 are related to certain activism and practices. As we mentioned before, there are the environmental activists and the NGOs. However, the environmentalist discourse did not spread widely in 2015. The discourse we heard and saw was more about how to get rid of the garbage and where, and how no area would take another area’s garbage based on sectarian and regional reasons. Also many groups tried to make profit out of the situation. It emulated the logic of the Lebanese state, that of trying to benefit from crises. The Lebanese state – and somehow society – is built upon one’s ability to financially benefit and make profit out of crises. The economy depends on it.
Bassem: During that time, as you said, there was also this discussion about the need to focus on where we dump waste and ensuring that it is not being done in “important” areas. We call this NIMBY (Not In My Backyard). For instance, an activist group would focus on not having this project operating in this area. Then came the idea of incinerators and making one in the Karantina area, and activists called that decision out because Karantina is a marginalized area mainly inhabited by refugees with different sectarian background, in contrast to Ashrafieh, where the residents are majorly Christians. So even the individuals criticizing the state were using the same sectarian discourse. They would say “you will place the incinerator in Beirut, but the toxins and air pollution will travel to Metn and Ashrafieh and to areas inhabited by the middle-class and marginalized sects.”
The discourse was not taking these specific things into account. While discussing landfills, an article came out about Lebanon and about how this method of getting rid of waste is from the Middle Ages. It read “medieval way of waste management,” which is ironic because if we think about it superficially, we will find it very backwards and regressive indeed. However, this logic is also very modern and neoliberal, even more so than in other European countries. It may be because when protection and structure are lost, the private sector controls waste management and the distribution of toxins across the country. Also, like you said, there are the landfills being placed by the sea and eventually when they are closed, they become very expensive and profitable private sector investments. Another thing that is missing in international dialogues about Lebanon polluting the Mediterranean is how the country’s private sector and sectarian clientelism are managing the environment.
Marwa: In order to question our positionality as artists, it is important to ask why we – me in 2016 and you in 2019 – questioned the environmental discourse and environmental practises or the environment in general. In 2016, all what I was trying to do – which I think led me nowhere – was to show the logic and structure of violence. It was very limited as I said, but it led me to think differently. There is a method to practise art that involves investigation to gather evidence and proof.
Bassem: Of course, in different ways. However, there could have been a discourse that is inclusive of the middle and working classes, and the inhabitants of the affected areas. After that, the movements became more “seasonal” and scarcer than before except for a few individuals from the environmental movement. The period after that, the state responded by opening the landfills of Burj Hammoud and Jdeideh. During that period, the idea of building the incinerators emerged and there was a plan to build them all over Lebanon then import waste from European countries – or the Global North in general – so that we can fund the incinerators from the money we are making. Thus, we would be getting rid of our waste and other imported waste. At that time, China had banned the import of waste so other countries globally – and from the Global South – thought of importing the waste instead. Lebanon was one of these countries. I don’t know how this rhetoric reached us, but it did.
Now, this idea sounds strange to us in Lebanon. Back then we could have expected the state to propose such developmental projects regardless of their usefulness, importance or violence. However, right now it is difficult to expect the state to come up with any ideas. Environmental movements focused on investigating to demonstrate the violence that the state is trying to hide. There were lots of promotional material and videos made by environmental activism groups to show the damage through counter-visualizing, which entails showing the dark side and the contrary of the state’s visions. This is the kind of rhetoric that was in Lebanon during that time.
Marwa: Right. The period after 2015 was crucial for thinking about environmental issues and realizing that they do not exist separately, but they are integral to other struggles. After this 2015 experience, I thought that radical environmental feminist thought was not on the table or maybe we are not ready for it yet. So, one should observe other struggles and look for other sources of knowledge. I was looking for ideas and experiences to learn from when I entered a long discussion with the Kurdish women’s movement.
Towards the end of 2015/beginning of 2016, I invited Dilar and Miral from the Kurdish women’s movement to come to Beirut for the “98 weeks in Beirut” to run a reading group. I had read at the time a text by Pelshin Tolhidan, a warrior and fighter from the Qandil mountain who was working with the Kurdish women’s movement. One of her texts, translated by Miral and Dilar, discusses her relationship with nature and her struggle as an armed fighter in relation to environmental policies and thought, and how this environmental thought is rooted in armed conflict. I consider this a very important text because it invalidates liberal environmental thought and liberal environmental policies which are detached without any struggles and are considered to want to rid the environment of the evil humans and all these other narrow ideas. I think this text is somehow a definitive answer to all the peaceful movements because she talks about her experience as an activist and her intimate relationship with the environment that she lives in and also fights from and for at the same time.
So, the relationship with the environment becomes very controversial. Also, violence – such as war violence, weaponry, or armed struggle – is not merely unproductive. It actually produces the environment and the relationship with it because armed struggle is also for that environment, not to save it or liberate it. But it is to pass on that intimate knowledge that it has to the next generation. I believe this text gave me the tools to understand why I could not politicize all the environmental issues in 2015 and its movements.
Also in 2015, a very strong and important feminist movement emerged. I was part of a feminist group that emerged at that time and of the research project “98 Weeks” in Beirut which was a part of the feminist movement. Importantly, Pelshin’s text and the Kurdish women’s movement navigated feminist policies and practice as a part of the total struggle.
Bassem: The Kurdish self-organisation has a lot of political differences with the “Arab Spring.” However, it is a type of political organization that should expand its influence so that it becomes more intersectional with other struggles that are more accounted for by the state. We can also think how important it is to have a multiplicity of forms of radical political movements regardless of whether they are demanding, self-governed, or self-organized. Radical movements have to be concerned with legislation, demands, and holding others accountable. In addition to this multiplicity, it is important to learn more about Kurdish movements as well.
Marwa: The Kurdish women’s movement is very old and when they first started training in the late 80s, they used to train in the Bekaa valley alongside movements like Fatah. They started in the Kurdish labour party then women’s groups got stronger in the 90s. Historically, Öcalan was in Lebanon then Syria over a long period of time which allowed for (relatively) more freedom for Kurdish Syrians. Öcalan really supported the women’s movement. He feared a coup against him and the military command were mostly men, so he worked to strengthen women’s movements and allied with them. This alliance led women to split and start their own movement, an autonomous women movement, although still affiliated with the militant command. However, they had authority and the ability to take decisions without referring to the command of men. Consequently, he secured his position and leadership, and they secured their own autonomous leadership independently of men who were of course much stronger militarily. By the time Hafez Al-Asad gave Öcalan up to Turkey, the women’s movement was already very strong on its own, creating some sort of a power balance. After his incarceration, he began writing a lot about environmental issues and municipalism and self-governance. He was very influenced by Murray Bookchin, who is an American anarchist and eco-socialist who wrote a big volume on women called Women and Life, is considered the bible for the Kurdish women’s movement. The general ideology is from these writings and his prison days which caused changes in Kurdish organisation and movements. Even the party that was very Stalinist, hierarchal, and strict started embracing environmental thought, and feminist ideologies became very prominent in addition to municipalism – or local governance.
Before then, the Kurdish labour party was considered terrorist and they executed bombings in Turkey. When they became stronger, there was a truce to revaluate their goals since they were not going to gain independence for Kurdistan, so they started thinking differently. Of course, this is stemming from an anarchist ideology. This really worked out in Turkey, which is why Erdogan wiped Diyarbakır and the entire Turkish Kurdish area out in 2014 and 2015. This was after they won the municipal elections and became really strong in the Kurdish area and other areas as well.
Bassem: What are the lessons that we can learn from the experiences of the Kurdish women’s movement? And how did the accumulation of knowledge from this experience influence you?
Marwa: What we can take from the women’s movement is what happened after 2011. Following the defeat of the Syrian army in Northern Syria, the agricultural land – which represents 85% of total land – was redistributed to be self-run and a part of it went to the women’s organization, which then gave it to women’s agricultural cooperatives and communes. All the ideas that Pelshin wrote about and that stem from military experiences were implemented there. The environmental and feminist thought practiced there could be observed in relation to the land, farming, and how the people are living together in relation to construction, engineering, etc. This is what we can learn from this experience, and this is what I was trying to say about how in 2015, Lebanon was not ready for new suggestions yet. So, I made the decision to take a different direction and learn about how these experiences are applied. In the women’s commune of Jinwar – or women’s village as they call it – there has been a political space that allowed these women to finally implement their ideas on the land and build themselves a new structure after years of struggle. Seeing these ideas in practice was very important to witness.
The Syrian regime used the draught to justify all that happened in Syria and the war. It is known that the draught and climate change in the agriculture areas in Syria led to the migration of farmers to the city where they worked on construction sites. So, from farmers who owned a land, or were given one by the government or renting land from the government, they became construction workers. The draught was weaponised by the state and the Syrian regime. Of course, we cannot deny its existence and that it was the reason of the oppression and the war that occurred against the Syrian people. At the same time, it was the reason for the liberation and the beginning of a new era of self-government in Northern Syria.
A lot of people claim that they have political issues with self-government. But in terms of women’s organizing, I believe it is a necessary experience if we want to observe how radical environmental feminist thought can be applied on the ground. And this experience was possible after the Syrian revolution and the departure of the Syrian army from the region. It is important to consider how it paved the way for another, more powerful experience of liberation that was not replicated in the region after the “Arab Spring.” I am not saying that the other practices were not strong or that this one was better. However, I think it was different because the women’s movement is older and also because it is not just a civil or urban revolution.
Bassem: At the beginning of our conversation, we spoke about the neoliberal model of the relationship between human and environment, how this model considers humans to be separate from the environment, and how it acts within a framework to protect the environment. In other words, it sees humans as nature’s superior beings that are separate from it. I wanted to ask you about the difference between this ideology and the one followed by the independent organised groups that you are working with, particularly the feminist groups. How do they consider themselves anti-colonial? And how do they view the relationship between human and environment, together?
Marwa: This is very integral to my train of thought. Pelshin – the Kurdish activist and fighter in the women’s organization – told me that being an environmental thinker and activist is contradictory. There is a huge contradiction between her being a thinker that views the environment peacefully and being an armed militant. So, her environmental policies stem from this contradiction; all these ideas that are implemented in different ways are executed in contradiction with her own ideologies. These contradictions are the base of the struggle because if we are to think about radical ecology, it is in constant motion and in contradiction with the idea of humans themselves. Of course, humans’ relationship with nature can never be peaceful; humans need to make use of nature. The essence of nature is not always “peace,” and that of humans is not always “violent” or “evil.” It is this relationship that Pelshin made me rethink in a more radical way.
This episode is produced in collaboration with Heinrich Boell Stiftung, Middle East Office, Beirut.