Conflict and Power

Rajwa: Building a discourse with data

Rajwa talks about how she navigates the polarised and corrupted world of Lebanese politics by using a scientific approach to data which shows rather than tells, allowing her to build knowledge and gain trust.

Rajwa tells us how she navigates the polarised and corrupted world of Lebanese politics by using a scientific approach to data which shows rather than tells, allowing her to build knowledge and gain trust. 

What was the public response to your activism?

In terms of media or public discourse, what we are talking about was something people really wanted to know about. Since this group started, we've been either in a newspaper or on TV almost every month. Somebody needs to talk about this, but no one really had the necessary knowledge, so we built this knowledge, and now people consider us as 'the experts' on anything that has to do with public spaces or landfill projects or anything of the sort. By building a discourse and putting ourselves outside of the political game, I think we’ve gained the trust of a lot of people, even people who are part of the system and the political game but want to believe in something else too. 

This idea of or with numbers, I would call it a scientific approach. It was very important to us not to lead readers by giving them conclusions. We wanted members of the public to draw their own conclusions, so we just gave them accurate numbers and the right facts and let them work it out for themselves. For me personally, this is the best place I could possibly find myself. I like to understand things, that’s how I got into all of this. My involvement was born of frustration but the project has been a great way of understanding the political situation in Lebanon. I'm talking about two years of research. A lot of other people wanted to understand the situation, but they didn't have access to the necessary information – they are very happy to have that information now.

What is the difference between what you are doing and traditional journalism?

One of the differences between the way we do things and publishing an article in a newspaper is that if you want to publish something in a newspaper, you have to go through the power networks of the status quo. The newspapers are all owned by interested parties, so any information that comes to the public through them risks lacking credibility. When I want news myself, I read five different newspapers or so, in order to get a sense of what’s really going on. When you have to convince people to believe in what you are doing as you are actually doing it – to convince them that no outside person is paying you for what you do, that you're not an NGO and you’re not doing this for money, you're just doing research, and it doesn't cost you anything but time, time that you’re happy to invest in this cause – then it's important to create an independent and trustworthy source of information for people. We are dealing with one specific subject for now, but for me it's important to keep going with these ideas. We work a lot with activists and NGOs. We're all part of other groups and we have a political take on things, so we think it’s important to use the data that we gather to feed the discourse of new groups that want to break this bipolarity of politics in Lebanon. Our work is also very much linked to the Arab Spring uprisings.

Tell us about some of your other investigations with Mashaa.

To give an example, we were wondering what happens when a big boat or a yacht enters Beirut through its Maritime border on St Georges Bay. How does it work? What's the procedure? 

We sent someone physically to sit and observe, with a little camera and a notebook. What happens there is interesting because we have the customs, which deals with trade and is supposed to find out what goods people are bringing into the country; then we have the police, who are supposed to check the papers of people arriving, and stamp people’s passports. But at the port there are also a large number of security employees of Solidere. For example we witnessed the arrival of one boat with seven people aboard, but it was neither the customs nor the police who got on the boat to fulfil the necessary formalities. It was a security employee from Solidere. He went on board, he took one passport. We only saw him look at one passport out of seven. He got off the boat, went to the army and police offices and filled in some papers. It took about five minutes, and then he went back on board the boat and gave them the papers they needed. The people on board didn't even bother getting off the boat. And that was all that happened. It looked a bit weird. I think that a Maritime Border should have a bit more security than this. 

That is how things are done in Beirut’s Maritime Port. If things are like this here, I wondered how they were at the other ports, especially the one in Tripoli, – which is on the border of war torn Syria.We also investigated the normal trading port of Beirut, because there is a big discrepancy in the amount of money that is generated by this port in taxes, and the amount that goes to the government is much less than it should be. So although we are known for our work on public spaces, we end up covering this kind of subject, too.

To what extent is the occupation of public spaces an international problem? So far, you've spoken of a local problem, but it seems that this is a global issue.

Lately, I've begun to understand that this is not a local problem. I've been working with some Spanish activists who are organising workshops in Beirut, and they have told me they have the same kind of problems in Barcelona. Of course, I'm not aware of everything that’s going on around the world, but I think that it's a problem that exists to a large degree in Bahrain also. What’s more, I have the feeling that anything that has to do with ports is very much tied to mafia groups, as controlling a port gives access to a lot of things. I’ve always had this feeling that there was something fishy going on there, that we should always be aware that shady stuff could happen around these borders between land and sea. From looking at ports, I think there are similar things happening in Italy too. It's hard to find the links between all of these places and activities, but I think that if we go deep we will find some information. We just need to find the end of a little thread, I think, and then by pulling on it we can start to .

Activists are increasingly attracted to this kind of work, which allows them to expose wrong-doing that formerly couldn’t have been exposed. What would your advice to them be?

Image -
wallart.pngI think it's important to be aware of what's happening around you. The thing I like most – and that's how I started working in this field – is talking to ordinary people, to local people, the ones who are really on the ground. They're very good observers. I think that generally people are very aware of what's happening around them. They feel as if they don't have enough power to do anything about their situation, or they wonder whether there’s any point in doing anything. But they are willing to talk. 

We tend to go look in the archives and in the paperwork around the issues, and we ask some key people questions, such as - “who is this person connected to?” Up to now, I think my part in the group has been to go into the field in person and find people who have a little bit of gossip. I think the journalistic side of things, and the investigation – having connections and asking around – is very interesting. You start seeing things in a very different way. It's always at the back of your mind that what you see is just a facade hiding what’s behind it. So you end up always trying to look behind things. 

I think it has helped a lot of people around us, even indirectly, to see that there was something else behind this facade. 

You said that in Lebanon - “things are known, but no one talks about them”. What will change when those things are talked about?

I think that people in general are not aware of how very much the two sides work together. People know that all sides are very corrupt. I know that they don't believe in the political class any more. But I don't see a lot of people making the links between the political class and commercial interests. When we started to understand how that worked, we didn't have any proof. We called this system The Octopus, because if you cut off one of an octopus’s legs it will grow back, and it has three hearts. We were very impressed by the capacities of this animal, and we tried to decide what kinds of Mafia the eight legs could represent – a religious group, a political party, the media that are owned by politicians, the police... 

When we started showing this image of all of these different people and power-groups connected in one system, working together and not against each other, it rang true for a lot of people. It hasn’t filtered down to the grass roots level yet, because we haven’t exposed everything. But when I talk to people about these things, they start seeing them in a different way, from a new angle, one that hasn't yet been explored enough. We are building a discourse around these issues and these data, and introducing the subject to different youth movements. There was a big demonstration by the teachers' union, and we introduced our discourse there. It was very interesting to work with them, and to introduce them to our discourse about Solidere, Zaitunay bay and the illegal backfilled area that we had been protesting about. The teachers were demonstrating because the government has owed them money since the late 1990s, which still hasn’t been paid. In their biggest demonstration there were around 40,000 demonstrators from all over Lebanon, which is unusual, because since the 1990's all trade unions have been destroyed from the inside and we haven't witnessed any strike like that in the public sector. 

The teachers were asking for a certain amount of money, about \$1 million. With the help of economists, we calculated how much money the state could make if the owners of land that has been illegally occupied for years actually paid the  fines or taxes that are due. We told them that the amount was ten times more than what they were asking for, and they got very angry. We said - “okay, now you are angry. Do you want to go there?" We made them a list of targets with the names of the biggest occupations of public seashore we had gathered from our lists and data, and of course the first one we agreed to attack was Zaitunay bay. We helped with preparation for the demonstration, with writing about corruption, providing them with numbers and names that would be read out that day, and came up with our own slogans. They were tough ones -  about money sharks eating the state, government thieves that need to go to jail and so on, and finally we walked together in a big march starting from Beirut port and going towards Zaitunay bay. This linked both the idea of corruption in the port and the waste of money by the state, and the idea of wealthy people using their positions to accumulate wealth from our public spaces. I will never forget that day, walking with my teachers from a school that I haven't seen for ten years. Who would have thought it? We induced a sort of anger in people, which I think is very healthy. Everybody had become a bit sleepy, or was thinking - "I can't do anything about it".

Can you speak about the influence of the so-called Arab Spring on your work? And what are your goals?

You have to remember that the Lebanese situation is a bit different from that in other Arab countries which had dictatorships, or oppressive systems that had been established for a very long time. Lebanon is different because people here have a fake sense of freedom. Supposedly this is a democracy. But the same people who fought during the civil war are now inside the government and inside the Ministries. These people have established power in a very dismantled way, power is broken up between entities, groups, religions, families, etc. 

I would like to see change, towards a different system. When I read the Lebanese Constitution, stating clearly that Lebanon is a civil state with a democratic system, which takes into consideration all

seventeen religions

See Lebanon's multiple religions visualised on a map.

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seventeen religions co-existing in it, I really feel the that is not where the problem is. Even the laws are not that bad. Instead it is the fact that none of them are respected or applied. The state has been hijacked for a long time by sectarian leaders - you could say we have ten dictators to fight rather then one! There are also laws, like women giving nationality to their kids and husband, or laws related to rape and women rights in general, that are really archaic. There is even a law for civil marriage that allows people to inter-marry between religions or outside of religion if they are non-believers. These laws need to change and exist, but they have been suspended for ages, and this is mainly because of religious powers interfering in political decisions and being an obstacle to the  healthy civil state described in the constitution. I think that is our biggest problem. What I would like to see is a balance between chaos, which I like also, and a state that is clearly separate from religion, that protects people’s rights and offers equal rights for everybody. 

I believe that if you don’t work for the changes you want, they will not happen. If you just sit and watch they will not happen. If you don't understand how things are and how they should be, they will not happen. 

For me personally, creating change is less important than getting to work on a project that helps me understand better how things are. As a group we build our own discourse, we have developed our own thinking or view of the world that eventually we can share and spread. If people like our view, it can grow. But initially it's really important that we work on being ready, because what we have seen in the uprisings during this period is that you can make a dictator fall – but what is going to replace dictatorship? Are we really ready for a real democracy? I don't know, honestly, I'm not sure. 

I think that right now I don’t really want to work on breaking anything, I want to work on building myself and our group until the time comes when I'm actually ready, and whoever is around me is ready, and the ground is ready to carry something new. We have to build the foundations ourselves, because there is no accumulation. When I look at our research, there is nothing from before that I can look back to and say - “I'm going to continue from here.” We have to start from scratch every time. For me this is the drive - I need it and I do it, and I want to change things here so that I can survive in this place, otherwise I don’t know if I would stay. It's more about working on the ground and getting it ready for a change, rather than actually creating the change itself now. I do believe in change, but I'm not so sure the time is ripe for it to happen right now.

You said that you started this work because you wanted to go the beach, but what was the real reason? Why are you really doing this work?

That was the real reason – I wanted to free the beaches because I really enjoy the beach. It's a bit naive, but it's not a joke! Beyond that, I think that as our investigations into public spaces carried on, we realised that the coastline is a space where there's a lot of power at stake, a lot of manipulation and the potential to change cities and other places radically. 

For example, I see that the backfilled area in Tripoli is going to divide the city physically, because they will keep it sitting empty for long time, not doing anything with the land except waiting for the prices to rise. I see that all of the poor people who were living on the seashore are going to have to move backwards. Then you'll have a poor Tripoli and a rich Tripoli, and you'll have the road that divides them in two. If I can do something about this injustice it feels empowering, and I'm much more interested in having a real influence on the city, on the people’s lives, than I am in thinking that I want to go to the beach. 

Interview with Rajwa

First published on July 10, 2015

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