Beirut’s Revolutionary Cacophony by Evangeline Larsen



Night after night the cacophony of pots and pans met my ears with the same mixture of joy and surprise as the first night I heard them. This act was to become part of a ritual connecting my neighbourhood and in fact the entire country to the Lebanese revolution. A couple of months into my semester exchange at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, my friends and I found ourselves sat around a TV on the night of October 17 watching tyres burn and cries of protest ring out from a few suburbs away. As we walked home along Hamra Street, signs had been pushed over, bins upended, and an eerie silence reigned. This was the beginning of the revolution.


Some weeks later, the first I heard about the new noisy 8pm ritual was via a small WhatsApp text on the AUB International Exchange group the day before it began saying simply, “A movement is starting where people go out at 8 pm every day and bang some pans for 2 minutes as a reminder that the protests are not stopping”. I remember reading it aloud to my housemates and laughing dismissively and questioning how it would ever be possible on mass. Lo and behold, the next evening on November 6 th we heard the tentative beginnings of wooden spoons against metal pots from our end of the cul-de-sac of apartments. My friends and I excitedly ran to our balcony to see the commotion. In the darkness I could see others standing on balconies, many just watching, as we initially were, a few slowly joining in with

increasing enthusiasm. My roommate rushed to the kitchen and returned with two pans he began crashing together. We stood in awe, grinning at the brilliance of this reminder that the revolution was firmly ongoing. As it became a nightly routine, as the noise quietened, everyone would erupt with applause, shouted “bravos” and ululations for the impromptu musical performance and revolutionary act we all just participated in.


There was a real sense of connection and inclusion in these moments, something that was sometimes lacking in the protests in Downtown Beirut. My apartment was situated in Snoubra, an area where many migrant families live both as families in apartments, and as workers for Lebanese families. There was a diverse mixture of social classes, ethnicities, genders and family dynamics within a thirty-metre radius of our balcony. The children of the Bangladeshi family opposite to us would often bang drums, along with the Ethiopian family a few floors down. Alongside them were the wealthier Lebanese grandmothers and local and foreign students. In contrast to much of the exclusionary and nationalistic imagery of the revolution, migrant families were represented here amongst the clamour.


Somewhere amongst the reverberations you could hear the longing for a more inclusive and equal future. Here was a social practice that showed how imagination can bring together people whose differences often divide them. Prior to the revolution, I never saw migrant families interact with Lebanese families (other than the ones they worked for). Lebanese people would chat across balconies and in the street below and same for the Bangladeshi families, but only within their own groups. Now, the pots and pans – everyday items that symbolised our common human rights, the very items we use to make food to survive as the most basic right –equalised the neighbourhood.


However, this ritual was a not a new invention. The tradition of banging pots and pans in revolutions is well-established, known as “cacerolazo” (the Spanish word for stew pot) it is most prominent in South American protests. Originating in the 1830s in France, this democratised form of demonstration is most powerful as a truly collective effort.


The ritual continued for weeks in my neighbourhood, growing in confidence and in numbers. However, by late November, emotions seemed to have changed. Fewer people were joining us at 8pm, sometimes just a few lone pots were heard. Just as the streets waxed and waned in numbers according to the actions of politicians and varying other circumstances, so too had my little corner of Beirut. A shift from the initial hope and excitement to disillusionment and frustration became obvious after over a month of unrest. The persistence of a few regular pan-bangers spoke to their desire not to be overlooked, nor for the revolution to end. However, as others stayed indoors, I can only guess that they were weary of the disruption the revolution had caused to everyday life.


Imagination can allow people to configure their ideal image of a nation that does not yet exist. The pots and pans seemed emblematic of Lebanese’s hope and maybe even prefiguration for a nation where their now loudly amplified voices would be heard rather than dismissed, where they would be united rather than divided and where they could expect consistency over corruption. Looking back on these moments, almost a year after the revolution’s commencement, it is difficult to remember them in the same way with the images of the recent August Beirut explosion seared into my mind. Far away in Sydney, I can only imagine that the

cacophony of pots and pans has been replaced with the sounds of panic and trauma, as the city and its people try to find the strength to recover from this horrific event. What I do know is that the same perseverance and unity that prompted those clangs of wood against metal to begin in November 2019 is what is helping the Lebanese community support each other to recover now.


 

Evangeline Larsen is a Dual BA Graduate with degrees from Sciences Po, France in Middle Eastern and North African studies and the University of Sydney majoring in French and International Relations. Having spent an exchange semester at the American University of Beirut, she is particularly drawn to Lebanese and post-colonial politics. Currently interning at the Australian Institute of International Affairs, volunteering at the Asylum Seekers Centre and becoming an accredited mediator, she is passionate about conflict resolution and the promotion of human rights. In her spare time she learns Hindi, makes earrings and writes poetry.