Hearing Pyrrhic Victory in Lebanon’s 2015 Protests

By Christopher Nickell
Submitted to Session P4969 (Music and Politics "min al-Mashriq ila al-Maghrib", 2017 Annual Meeting
Ethnography; Ethnomusicology; Mediterranean Studies; Music; Nationalism; Urban Studies;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Emergent accounts of the summer 2015 protests over the waste crisis in Lebanon generally focus on strategic decisions taken by groups of protestors as the movement evolved, growing at first until, in many ways, fizzling out in autumn. This focus occludes the material and relational force of sounds that informed these decisions. In this paper I assemble a sonic account of the 2015 protests, among the largest and at times most socioeconomically diverse movements in the country’s recent history. In a place where official history remains endlessly deferred, a history of the recent past--even piecing together memories as they flash up--is necessarily fraught. I endeavor here not to tell a history “as it was” per se, but rather “as it was sounded,” heard and recorded by many different people. At the core of this paper lies a conflict between unity and division in vocal and aural practices among protesters. We understand that some vocal practices served to unite the people: chants, songs, hip hop ciphers, cries of anguish or pain. Others worked against that unity: crucially, the speech act of calling out “mundasseen" (infiltrators). Aural space was also configured as a site of contestation. Away from the class-mixing dabkeh of Souq Abou Rakhousa, the street trucks blaring old-guard protest songs of Ziad Rahbani and Julia Boutros faced off against contemporary challengers, live and recorded, for sonic prominence. By considering interviews with participants, accounts of the protests on social media and in periodicals, and audiovisual artifacts, I argue that the sonic realm helps us understand the fate of the protests as they were unfolding: the middle class, fearful of the historic meddling of politicians via their loyal working-class subjects, were bound to win out sonically over the working-class protestors. And yet this Pyrrhic victory, whose costs outweighed its gains, ultimately destroyed the potential of the protests to bring about desired sociopolitical transformations.