Anne-Katrine Glittenberg ’21, Danya Rangachar ’21, and Sarah Woods ’21
Thirty-four days ago, we awoke to the sounds of protestors and an influx of confusing messages from various group chats at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
Classes were cancelled, and we heard rumors of the roads being unsafe.
Our initial reactions were irrational, yet in retrospect, expected. They were largely shaped by a misguided perception of the Arab region.
Relying on our regular news sources, we assumed that these protests were a reaction to a tax on WhatsApp phone calls intended to relieve economic debt.
We quickly realized that this movement is actually a reaction to an elitist political system in Lebanon.
This proposed tax was yet another reform that would exploit the public instead of addressing the root of the issue: corruption. We now recognize the importance of deconstructing our biased notions of international issues.
When student groups began reaching out about organized protests downtown, we started to question our role as foreign students studying abroad in Beirut.
How could we show our solidarity with the Lebanese people without invading their space?
As social science students, we have spent countless hours studying similar movements throughout history, so we could not let our fears keep us from engaging with the movement.
When we first went to Martyr’s Square, we realized that our idea of Arab protests had been tainted by a Westernized perception that villanizes the Arab world. This flawed perception fueled our expectation of immediate danger.
Yet, we saw parents bringing their children, carrying Lebanese flags, and teaching them the cheers of the movement. We saw people giving out free food and water to fellow Lebanese protesters. Just one week ago, we saw school children taking over the streets to protest.
Many civilians are united in their frustration with the government, as well as in their sincere hope for change.
This type of cross-sectarian national unity has not occurred here since Lebanon gained independence in 1943. It is empowering to see a historically divided country become unified overnight.
The people of Lebanon are demanding a full regime change, calling for a government that will authentically work towards the improvement of people’s lives.
They are demanding that a temporary technocratic government be put in place.
Here, the movement is largely being defined as ثورة (thawra), which means revolution, not riot. The movement has also inspired global participation, as people in different countries protest near Lebanese embassies in support for the change that is unfolding here. Additionally, it can be considered an echo of the global outcry and struggle against inequality.
As students from an increasingly polarized United States, we should pay attention to this uprising as well as to others.
The mainstream Western media clearly has a powerful ability to set the agenda, deciding which international issues have precedence in public discourse and how these issues are perceived.
Living here during this revolution, we have been aware of what has been going on.
Yet, when we first told our families about the situation, they were unaware of its realities—through no fault of their own.
As we checked Western media sources, we realized that the coverage was minimal, delayed, and misrepresentative.
Initially, the media’s rhetoric framed the movement only about the WhatsApp tax, trivializing the matter and belittling the validity of Lebanon’s unified demand for change.
This was a dangerous oversimplification.
Recently, there has been more international coverage because it has finally been deemed important by the media after Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation, incidences of violence, and the tragic deaths of some protestors.
Determining our place in this historical moment has been confusing. After all, we are foreigners. We will eventually leave Beirut and return to the US. We do not want to simply regard this revolution as a part of our “study abroad experience.” We also do not wish to exotify people’s struggle for self-determination, turning it into our “learning experience.”
Moreover, we are aware of the fact that if we were not here right now, this revolution would be less significant to us. Our perception of the movement would also be regulated by the Western media’s narrative, and we would not understand the historical, social, and economic intricacies of the revolution’s emergence.
This is frightening, especially when we realize that we are equally unaware of other current international issues—issues that are of extreme importance to our world and people’s demands for change.
Classes have been on and off for almost a month. During this time, we have reassessed the fundamentals of education.
At the start of this revolution, some lectures were interactive, with professors walking us through Beirut, narrating the historical significance of Lebanese infrastructure and architecture, and teaching us about Lebanon’s post-colonial and post-civil war political history.
This alternative learning style has stressed to us that the issues we regularly study in class are not just theories and case studies, but are about people’s lives.
We continue to learn how to best engage with the city and country we are living in, always remaining critical of our internal biases.
As students at Davidson, we have taken many classes on international crises and media misinformation, always viewing ourselves as informed.
However, we have discovered that our understanding of the world is still clouded with prejudice.
So, we write this piece as a reminder: it is crucial that we all continue to challenge our predisposed biases and actively deconstruct our understanding of the world.
We must approach every social movement, protest, and call to action depicted in the media with a critical lens, genuinely trying to understand what the people are demanding.
Anne-Katrine Glittenberg ’21 is an Arab studies and political science double major from Sandefjord, Norway. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Danya Rangachar ’21 is a sociology and political science double major from Mumbai, India. Contact her at email@example.com. Sarah Woods ’21 is an Arab studies and political science double major from Columbus, North Carolina. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.