special report

Khandak el-Ghamik: the other side of the thawra

In this poor Shia neighborhood in central Beirut locals are wary of a revolution they perceive as a plot.

The neighborhood of Khandak el-Ghamik, in central Beirut, where Hezbollah and Amal are well implanted. Photo João Sousa

Yoga classes, performances by famous artists, improvised parties: the so-called Ring bridge has undoubtedly been the most fabled and high-profile location in the Lebanese protests that started on October 17. From the first week of the uprising, day and night, thousands of people have gathered on the Achrafieh side of Fouad Shehab Avenue just before the entrance to the bridge, which traverses Beirut from Tabaris to Zokak el-Blat, connecting East and West.

The symbolism of the bridge’s route has been emphasized more than once: Damascus street, running below the bridge, used to be the demarcation line that divided the city during the civil war. Today, the Ring also separates the luxurious city center from one of the poorest neighborhoods of the capital: Khandak el-Ghamik.

The name has been heard frequently in recent weeks often followed by “yiii!” and “yaaa!!!”, alternately expressing anger or dread. For people making these exclamations, Khandak el-Ghamik, better known as Khandak, is the epicenter of the counter-revolution. Many of the Shabeb (young men), holding Amal and Hezbollah flags in hand, who have spread terror in the city have come out of the neighborhood in small groups, on foot or on scooters.

Repeated attacks on protesters on the Ring or in Martyrs’ Square; the sacking of tents and destruction of symbols of the revolution; destroying cars and breaking shop windows in Achrafieh; clashes with the police: the list of misdeeds rightly or wrongly attributed to the “thugs” of Khandak el-Ghamik continues to grow. Even though the young men taking part in these actions come from many Shiite areas of beirut, including central neighborhoods like Mar Elias or Bashura and ones further away like Shiyah or Dahieh, the first to be singled out are almost automatically the young men of Khandak. This is because of geographical proximity, but most importantly has to do with stubborn prejudices.

An endangered neighborhood

Khandak el-Ghamik did not have to wait for the revolution to develop its bad reputation. The name––meaning “the deep trench”––conjures fear and associations of aggression and confrontation in the imagination. The origins of the name are unclear, but could come from the fact that the main street in the neighborhood ran along an old waterway. It could also refer to its topographical location at the lowest point between the two hills of the capital.

Sixty-nine percent of Beirutis held some prejudice in their view of Khandak, according to a study conducted by researcher Rouba Wehbe in 2015. The neighborhood is seen as “an inner Dahieh (suburb)”, and its residents are considered “awful, dirty and nasty”, to name a few stereotypes.

The neighborhood was once a bourgeois, cosmopolitan area in the heart of the capital. It urbanized at the end of the 19th century and was home to wealthy Christian and Sunni families for years. The war of 1958, which saw clashes inside the neighborhood, and the civil war starting in 1975, during which it became a frontline, pushed these first inhabitants away. They were gradually replaced by other families, mostly Shiites who left their poor villages in the South or the Beqaa in the 1960s or who fled clashes in other regions of Beirut (especially Nabaa).

Many people found refuge in derelict buildings, giving Khandak el-Ghamik the nickname “the squatters’ lair”. The old colonial-style buildings and white stone Ottoman houses were mostly destroyed. Today, there is very little left except blackened and scarred facades that give the neighborhood an almost ghostly appearance, as if it is a guardian of haunted memory.

Even without realizing it, people who are nostalgic for the Khandak of old tend to blame the vanishing of its golden age on its new inhabitants. But these new residents feel left behind, a sense that is accentuated by the absence of a state which has paved the way for a deep-seated reliance on militias. In recent years, brutal urban development all around the district has helped make it invisible, as if to hide the city’s second-rate citizens and protect it from them.

On the other side of the Ring stands the imposing and luxurious MTC tower and at the bottom of the neighborhood, near the beginning of Beshara Khoury, the flashy Beirut Digital District has been built. Even toward the more residential Basta side, upscale apartment buildings are being constructed, encroaching on the Trench and endangering the neighborhood.

Reciprocal disenchantment

If the people of Khandak feel rejected by the revolutionaries, the disillusionment goes both ways. People who live in the neighborhood do not spare words describing what they see as a "a handful of rich" "Freemasons" "associated with the Lebanese Forces" and "paid by America and Israel" who are part of an "anti-Shiite plot" aimed at "getting their hands on Hezbollah’s weapons".

Hassan, a resident who participated in the first attack on October 29, used disturbing words to describe the protesters blocking the ring road. "There were only drugged and alcoholic thugs,” he said. (This was the truth below the Ring, but not so above it.) In the alleys of Khandak, people share the same conclusion: "This movement is not a revolution."

In an attempt to ease tensions, a women's march was organized earlier this month. A hundred mothers from Achrafieh walked along the Ring and entered Khandak where they were greeted by local women who threw rice and white rose petals in front of the TV cameras. The beautiful symbol of reconciliation was greeted with enthusiasm by some. Others could not help but notice the social divide between two worlds that are only a few hundred meters apart and the presence of about 30 scowling men who came to say that a few flowers could not silence their anger.

In the toxic environment that now exists, it’s easy to forget that things didn’t start this way. On the evening of October 17, and even in the days and weeks that followed, young people from the neighborhood came down to demonstrate. They erected roadblock all around the city center using burning tires and salvaged furniture, helping to give Beirut an atmosphere for cheerful insurrection. In the beginning, it seemed like there was a convergence of struggles and that class and confessional divides were being overcome. Supporters of the revolution wanted to believe that the Shabeb from Khandaq would be the Gavroches of this revolution and the misnamed motorcycle its emblem.

Why did this not come to pass? Why has it become a stillborn idyll? Why was the bridge broken? And why do the two sides of the Ring now seem more distant than ever?

According to analysts, the leaders of Amal and Hezbollah are responsible for these turns of events. They have pitted their supporters against the revolution in order to keep them in the fold and not jeopardize the corrupt system that benefits them all. Very early on, the leaders of the two Shiite parties expressed their distrust of the popular uprising. In his speeches, Hassan Nasrallah stated a clear mistrust for what he called the "hirak". Refusing to use the term revolution, he hinted that the movement could be the product of a foreign hand.

In Khandak el-Ghamik, the Shiite parties hold sway, and there are innumerable green and yellow flags floating from balconies. "Since the war, the Khandak neighborhood has been one of Amal's main strongholds in Beirut,” says Youssef Kabalan, the local leader of the movement, which was founded by Imam Moussa Sadr and is now led by Nabih Berri, whose portraits can be found everywhere on both the exterior and interior walls of buildings.

But even if it seems obvious that biased partisan logic has played a role in driving a wedge between the neighborhood and the revolution, as has often been stated in the media, it is wrong to imagine that those who left the square––and even those who have participated in attacks––are only following orders.

"Proud to be Shiite"

Hassan and Mohammad know each other, but not well. Hassan is in his 20s with arms as big as thighs and a strange looking beard, long and sparse at the same time. He is a member of the Amal movement and comes from a family of relatively successful traders who are well established in the neighborhood. Mohammad is a few years older and left his village in the South to settle in Khandak after the 2006 war. He is a street vendor and claims to be sympathetic to Hezbollah without actually belonging to the party. With an erratic, staccato voice and his distant gaze, it is clear that Mohammad has addiction problems.

Hassan and Mohammad both claim to have supported the thawra in its early days before becoming opposed to it. "At the beginning it was a real revolution against poverty. Afterwards, it became a political plot against us, the Shiites. That’s why we left,” they say.

Without any previous coordination, their words are almost identical. Mohammad explains: "All the slogans were directed against Bassil, Berry or Nasrallah, never against Hariri, Jumblatt or Geagea."

When he is told that this is not what was uttered, and that all the political leaders received their share of negative treatment, Mohammad tensed up and said in an aggressive tone: “Are you with them?”

Between "them" and "us", the wall seems insurmountable. His "them" is confused, mixing up everyone all at once: the Christians, the rich who speak English and French and even the "Omar of Tripoli" (the Sunnis) who he believes are part of the revolution only because they are being paid to join. His “we” is very clear: the Shiite community.

Mohammad admits that, although he is not among the biggest believers, he still never misses a speech by the Sayyed. "When he speaks, when he speaks…”, the young man shakes his head and trails off, searching for his words "When he speaks, I'm proud, proud to be a Shiite,” he almost shouts, finally finding them and banging his fist on his chest.

Through his gesture, Mohammad says that it will take much more than a revolution to measure up with the feeling of belonging to a community that has long been marginalized and whose past and present wounds and frustrations are likely to recur at the slightest given opportunity––and in Khandak more than anywhere else.

Hassan’s use of “we” is also omnipresent. But above all, for him it indicates a certain belonging to the neighborhood. When he recounts the Ring fights, which he says he helped lead, he refuses to see anything political in them and reduces them to a neighborhood quarrel. "Who drives through the Ring daily? Us! They prevented us from going around; from going to work. Maybe they can afford to live without earning money, but not us," he says, completely rejecting the idea that they were following orders given by the party. "We went down by ourselves. Nobody told us what to do. Here, when you have a guy coming down, you have a hundred others following suit," he adds.

In this particular case, Khandak conforms less to a militia logic than to the old tradition of ‘abadayas’ (strong men) with street leaders who make the law the same way they did back in the 19th century. According to Kabalan, even Amal would find it difficult to control its young supporters who "did not go to war and seek to prove that they are courageous".

For many Khandak’s shabeb, war is as much of an obsession as it is a fantasy, and many of them, including Hassan, post photos on social media of themselves in military gear with Kalashnikovs in hand. When it comes to the events of 1958 or 1975, Hassan doesn’t know much. But his knowledge of the July 2006 war, the Sunni-Shiite clashes of May 7, 2008 and the recent conflict in Syria is unbeatable. Recalling the attacks on the Ring, and the punches that were both given and received, Hassan becomes very poetic. It is as if this was his own personal war, and in Khandak, surrounded by the scenery of ruins, the war could never end.

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 17th of December)

Yoga classes, performances by famous artists, improvised parties: the so-called Ring bridge has undoubtedly been the most fabled and high-profile location in the Lebanese protests that started on October 17. From the first week of the uprising, day and night, thousands of people have gathered on the Achrafieh side of Fouad Shehab Avenue just before the entrance to the bridge, which traverses...