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It’s not okay to always be okay

Some Lebanese may try to stay optimistic in the face of increasing daily hardships, but psychologists say resilience in the face of a continuous political and economic crisis should not be confused with adapting and normalizing inhuman conditions of living.

Protestors holding banners calling for the politicians to quit at a small protest in Beirut on June 24 2021. Photo : Dana Hourany, NOW.

The people should go to the streets and take the politicians down. 

61-year-old protestor, Lina Boubess,  expresses her frustration as she questions the capacity of the Lebanese people to endure all the humiliation. 

“They stole our country, they stole our lives, your lives, your future, why are you still sleeping,” she asked. “Why are you still enduring this humiliation? This is not acceptable.” 

Boubess was a part of a protest on June 24 in Beirut, organized by Minteshreen, an independent political party in Lebanon that came out of the 2019 revolution. She and other protestors held a banner saying “if you don’t have solutions, leave.” 

She has never skipped a protest and is not planning to as she believes this is “the beginning of the end.”

Boubess recounts her experience during the civil war, where money was still available and people used to come and go, whereas nowadays people’s money is stuck in banks and the rate of daily struggles is worsening, from waiting in long lines to fill up fuel to the lack of medical supplies. 

“My generation had made the mistake of accepting the humiliation in the first place and now the younger generations are suffering the consequences,” she says. “For me, I can’t adapt, anger and injustice are my two biggest motivations to keep going”. 

However, since the explosion, many Lebanese citizens do not share this same sentiment.

A city of ghost protestors

After the August 4 port explosion in Beirut, a team of researchers in the department of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut led a study that deduced that those living in close proximity to the port had the most visible signs of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) two months after the blast. Their numbers are yet to be published, but experts say they were higher than those living on the outskirts of Beirut and further away from the port.

According to Joseph El-Khoury, assistant professor of psychiatry at the American University of Beirut and part of the research team, PTSD is not the only result after a traumatic event, as they found that 70 percent to 80 percent of the participants suffered from a form of depression. 

“In the human psyche, it’s like you have a choice between anger and depression,” he told NOW. “Very rarely can you be angry and depressed with the same intensity at the same time.”

El-Khoury explained how during the 2019 protests, there were key moments where people’s energy was at its peak and should have been harnessed to keep building momentums. However, this failed to happen which finally resulted in the protestors losing motivation and lacking the energy to continue. 

“The government knew when this energy was at its maximum and knew how to get it under control,” he said. “You need momentum, you can’t repeat the same things, people will lose trust in you and will only be left drained.”

Cosette Maalouf, a clinical psychologist and psycho-social and gender trainer, told NOW how the port explosion was the final strike that crippled the people and made them fear the future.

She described how the constant attacks on the people’s day-to-day life as the fuel shortage have fixed the idea of “an invincible monster” in their heads and all actions towards change were brought to a halt. 

“The perpetrator never stopped perpetuating”, Maalouf said.”Now you have people with a destroyed psyche and from a psychological standpoint, this is why people are not protesting. They’re drained, tired and in a state of despair, they now question what more can they possibly do?” 

Humor, Maalouf explained, can be utilized as a defense mechanism when faced with harsh events. Ridicule is then used when the extent of the dangers in front of a person cannot be fully grasped by the human mind instantaneously. 

Protestors marching in Hamra on June 24 2021 in Beirut. Photo: Dana Hourany, NOW.

Normalizing the abnormal

The Lebanese people’s irritation and humiliation can be seen in two categories: those who are trying to cope through lightheartedness, and those who consider this attempt a harmful normalization tactic. 

Deek Duke, a popular chain restaurant in Lebanon, distributed free sandwiches on June 14 to people waiting in line at a gas station with the reasoning being “we’re here to keep you company because you all deserve good food”, as stated on their Instagram post

Even though the comments were split between supporters of the initiative and those who found it in bad taste, Deek Duke clarified in a comment on their post that this attempt to help out the people aimed to “share the love”. 

“We’re not encouraging people to enjoy waiting at the gas station, but unfortunately some skipped their lunch break just to fuel their cars, and others were old people waiting for more than an hour with no food nor drinks. This was a spontaneous act to share love with those people… This initiative was very simple with no bad intentions. You should have seen their reaction, it was priceless,” the restaurant stated under their post. 

A second attempt to lighten the mood while people waited for fuel was made by Hadi Productions, a production house that shot a video of a dabke dance performance at a gas station on May 29 with a patriotic song playing in the background. 

The initiative was also met with support and criticism alike. The production house defended its actions explaining that they are proud of their work as they offered people coffee and put a smile to their faces, and that they hope to do it again at another gas station in the near future.

“To all of those complaining about the video, we’d like to inform you that we saw you and supported you when you protested when the dollar rate was still at 1,500 Lebanese lira … and when you backed away so did we… When you go back we will be by your side,” the production house stated in their post

Maalouf explains that such actions, however well-intentioned, in fact, work towards normalizing the situation. She explained how these subconscious behaviors contain dangerous symbolism.

“Through these actions, I’m starting to adapt and get used to the fact that while waiting in an endless queue of cars, I can always manage to get stuff delivered,” she said.

“Absolutely not, this wait is not leisure time where you chill at a cafe, or a pub or a restaurant. People should be angry and not try to find ways to normalize this and find activities that go along with it or make it more tolerable.”

Boubess agreed that it seems like the Lebanese are adapting, as parties are back in action, and many seem to be enjoying their summer, though signs of sorrow can be seen everywhere.

“You can continue your life, you don’t have to kill yourself but you can’t get used to living like this with so many uncertainties going on at once,” she explained.

The capacity of the Lebanese to tolerate and adapt to abnormal circumstances is not new, as they have been relentlessly described since the civil war and lately popularized by social media and art circles as “the rising phoenix” or tirelessly “resilient”. 

The truth behind the resilience

El-Khoury explained that the term resilience is used for trauma survivors to aid in their recovery and can result in positive outcomes through a process called “post-traumatic growth” (PTG). However, the term is not being used correctly in Lebanon as it has been confused with “adaptation”. 

“Waiting in the queue on gas stations is not resilience, that’s the minimum of survival and adaptation that one can do, what’s your other option? Dying on roads?” he asked.

For Maalouf, psychological concepts can be used by politicians as tools to oppress people. 

“It’s like you have to be resilient by force. They drill this concept deep inside your brain,” she explained. “These things have a lot of political motives behind them, they inflate your ego with this idea of resilience. Even in the laws of physics, a resilient object can be deformed if enough pressure was applied to it.” 

Maalouf used the example of Baalbeck’s International Festival in 2020 that was titled “The sound of resilience” which involved content by Gibran Khalil Gebran and the Rahbani Brothers who all are now deceased. 

“It’s like a dead festival involving dead people in a dead country for dead citizens,” she explained. “We should have critical thinking and not be willing to be manipulated by psychological concepts.” 

But as the frustration of the Lebanese builds up and the dollar rate inches closer to 20,000 lira, the state of basic survival of the average citizen is now threatened on a daily basis, one can also see a rise in expressions of rage.  

El-Khoury considers these events to be worrisome, as the other side of the coin, anger can eventually reach a breaking point and potentially cause a “social explosion”. 

“First you have depression which can’t last forever,” he added. “After it subsides, anger comes out and if it’s not directed in the right place it could cause the individual to go into a state of self-survival where every man provides for himself even if that meant stepping over others. That’s what we’re seeing on gas stations lately”. 

However, he added how the situation is still salvageable and that further aggression can be contained. All it takes is for the people’s anger to be harnessed constructively and most importantly, baby steps.

Protestor holding a banner to call out voting for the engineers' syndicate on June 24 2021 in Beirut. Photo : Dana Hourany, NOW.

Resistance, not resilience

While the protests shrunk in size and their frequency decreased, for Boubess and El-Khoury, the idea of being pro-active politically and socially, even on a minor scale, forms a good stepping stone. 

“Change takes time,” Boubess explained. “But young people are contributing a lot with small changes, especially if you look at all the wins secular clubs have been scoring at various universities.” 

She sees the acts of activism, of providing food and shelter and various aids, as a form of “resistance” that is required to beat the ruling political class. 

El-Khoury agreed that small wins are necessary to keep the people motivated.

“What’s happening with the engineers’ syndicate, of protestors running against the political parties, represents a small clear battle that has positive outcomes and this makes people excited,” he added. “Over time, micro-victories will accumulate unto something that can be expressed on a larger scale.” 

Around 79 percent of the votes went to the protestors’ coalition’s candidates on June 27. One of the winners was Paul Naggear, father of 3-year-old blast victim Alexandra Naggear, who, despite his immeasurable loss, still fights for justice in his country.

“After August 4, for me, a new Lebanon was born, a version of the country that we want to live in. Through the efforts of many people, Beirut was rebuilt. My candidacy is to keep the process of building a better country going… Winning will allow us to work on many developmental projects and create new jobs … ” Naggear stated in an Instagram post

Boubess described this win as extremely important and a push forward.

“Even though he should have left the country,” Boubess stated. “Paul decided to stay and keep fighting. This is how change happens, you start from within the system.” 

For the assistant professor, taking care of one’s mental wellbeing or one’s family’s wellbeing is a good enough step. Any action that is considered positive should not be underestimated. 

“If you help out your family or help others find jobs, you’re creating social security where one person covers for the other,” he explained. “It’s a very simple process with a big impact. this might delay the social explosion.”

As for the young people who feel as if their futures have been taken away from them, El-Khoury advises them to take into consideration that societies change in cycles of five to 10 years until a different outcome is reached. 

He encourages personal development and constant change regardless of the circumstances. 

“Every person in my opinion can build himself up on a personal level even on a small scale. But people will ask why would I do that? Well because when the opportunity offers itself either in Lebanon or outside of it I wouldn’t want to have wasted two to three years of my life being sad and depressed over circumstances that I can’t change,” he explained. 

“Even in the hardest circumstances, there are changes to be done that are within your control.”

As for immigration and leaving the country for good, El-Khoury considers it to be a good alternative for those presented with the option of a better life; however, contributing to Lebanon in whatever way possible is still every Lebanese’s responsibility. 

“Immigration is not a one-way ticket to happiness. Sometimes you can leave but Lebanon is still on your mind. Lebanon is the family, the friends and the close ones,” he exclaimed. “And a lot of people will remain here so even if we leave we need to provide solutions for Lebanon because this will always be our backbone, we can’t ignore it.”

Dana Hourany is a multimedia journalist with @NOW_leb. She is on Instragram @astartescircle.