MASTERS OF THE WALLS

BEIRUT’S GRAFFITI…REVISITED

Complex Histories, Unspoken Meanings and Esoteric Connotations

The Lebanese have long since understood that graffiti and posters are among the fastest, most economical ways to reach large audiences. While the many splashes of political or “nonpartisan” artwork that color the urban landscape may seem simple and straightforward, a closer examination of these expressions, coupled with an exploration of their significance, reveals a multitude of complex histories, unspoken meanings and esoteric connotations.

Although this phenomenon deserves significant interest, only two books have been published to date on the issue, one by Maria Shakhtura and the other by Khalil Ahmad Khalil. Now, a deeper study into the subject discloses that the practice is remarkably old. An early example is found in Muhammad Bayhoum, a notable Beiruti who lived at the end of Ottoman rule. For his part, Bayhoum once incited a group of young men to label Beirut’s walls with the message, “Learn, oh young men, for ignorance is shame.”

Feyrouz sings “I write your name on the leaves, but you only write mine in the sand on the roads.” Further, one can see the initials of lovers carved into the bark of trees, promising to remain together forever. But while graffiti has been employed among lovers for a long time, its political use took longer to become commonplace. With respect to Lebanese politics, the utility and impact of graffiti did not become evident until after the events of 1958, especially on the tram between Basta and Gemeizeh. On the way to Basta, for example, the tram carried messages critical of Camille Chamoun while on the return trip, anti-Nassirist slogans dominated.

Most of the parties that surfaced in Lebanon during the 1960s became known by printing their slogans on walls. In fact, the practice started with al-Murabitun and al Houras al-Arz, and persists today with Hezbollah, the last of the Lebanese parties. Indeed, until the political parties acquired the means to employ other media, such as newspapers and television, the banners and graffiti that adorned walls remained their sole means of explaining their platforms and gaining notoriety.

Of course, since walls became a specific means of communication, they were also targeted by parties and political groups that marked them as their own territory, thus beginning a competition for sole ownership of the “advertising space.” More specifically, such domination also necessitated the eradication of slogans used by other parties, as if to erase them completely from the Lebanese political scene.

During the war, achieving wall dominance was akin to marking one’s territory; however, this was not done through physical force. Rather, it was accomplished simply by marking the walls with the slogans of the expansive party. Nevertheless, such dominance demonstrated the expropriation of the public domain by a given political party in an attempt to express that party’s ownership of its space and inhabitants.

To those who view and reflect on the pictures that appear on the walls that divide the two sides of the capital, it is evident that the characteristics of the feud between the two current parties—which once competed for advertising space on every last wall—has changed over the years. However, inter-party tolerance has certainly not changed, and neighborhoods remain divided because of the war. Today, the parties no longer compete for the same wall space since they are physically separated. Thus, a slogan written in one area does not inspire a reply on the same wall. Instead, the response may appear on the walls in another quarter, which means that the discussion is held across the kilometers of separation.

Ultimately, no single wall can be considered a representative example of Lebanese political ideologies, positions and thoughts. Instead, the entire expanse of Beirut’s wall space tells the story of what the city has become.

BY FADI TOUFIQ