The Angry Young Road-Blockers of Lebanon
By: Mohamed Nazzal
Published Thursday, June 28, 2012
An eclectic mix of youths go out to burn tires on the airport road in protest at the stifling electricity cuts.
Twenty years ago, it was said that “the tire” brought down the first government of Omar Karami. When the value of the Lebanese pound against the dollar plummeted, the streets were filled with angry workers and their only available “weapon” was burning tires.
Hussein still remembers those days. He was 18 years old then. He recalls having his hand badly burned by molten rubber. But he says he still doesn’t know what the angry protests were actually about. Only that all the neighborhood kids enjoyed the “carnival” of fire and didn’t care what the reasons were.
That is why today, as a father, he won’t allow his own son down onto the street, even just to watch the torchings.
Today, a younger Hussein, no relation, is out setting tires alight on the airport road. As his parents’ home is nearby, he is tempted to come down to the street whenever there’s no electricity. There are many of these “tire-boys”. These youngsters invariably constitute the biggest and most enthusiastic contingent of any collection of “burners.” They eagerly gather discarded tires from adjoining streets, while the older ones do the actual burning – as well as interfacing with the TV cameras that arrive to cover the “events.” Just give them a chance to gather, and they’ll give you a blocked road.
Bilal, one of the people speaking to the cameras, still burns tires despite his 30 years of age. He is the first to confront the army officer who turns up to try to get the road reopened (no need to mention the Internal Security Forces officer, who does not turn up at all, but keeps his distance like a good spectator). The young man begins to curse the state. He curses ministers and officials by name, and even politicians from his own sect. The combination of sweltering nights and the lack of electricity can sometimes be even more potent than sectarianism, it seems.
Bilal has his T-shirt tied around his waist. The heat and action make sweat pour from his face. Bilal typifies one kind of tire-burner. He hurls abuse at the rich in their air-conditioned luxury. He blocks the way of a plush car whose driver is unfortunate enough to be passing, and leaves it with a few kick-marks and scratches. He can’t put his reasons for his actions into words. All he knows is that he got back from work to take a rest, and there was no electricity, so no cold water to drink, no television, no nothing.
For Bilal, burning tires is prompted by a combination of social grievance, class resentment, and heat. He wishes he could block the new airport motorway, go to the electricity company headquarters and trash it, or unleash his energy against the Ministry of Energy. But he knows that is impossible. As a member of society’s “downtrodden” he knows he would be trampled on if he dared do anything against such institutions. That would be messing with the big people, and Bilal knows the rules of the game.
Another category of tire-burners are young men of around Bilal’s age, but lacking his “social awareness.” They are mostly unemployed. They have no need to go to bed early with no job to wake up for, so may as well have an evening of tire-burning and fun as a break from sitting around smoking argileh. Some of these actually have electricity at home, courtesy of subscriptions to private generators, but would still rather join the guys in a night out of rage.
It is not hard to see how they work up this “rage”. They are keen to “heed the call” of their community. Some of them roll metal containers into the middle of the road, shouting threats and exhortations, and urging the crowds to burn more. They look intimidating to passersby, especially from faraway districts which may have got used to electricity cuts but not yet to total power outage. The many tattoos on their limbs add to the impression of menace. Most frightening is one character who has his body decorated with slash-marks: if he could draw on his own body with razor blades, you don’t want to think what he could do to someone else if he let his anger out on them.
One youth slings his tire over his shoulder like a submachine gun, another teases his along quite artfully, while a third rolls his down the road to its funeral pyre.
A man wearing pyjamas seems something of a misfit. His appearance and speech suggest he’s from a “good family.” He couldn’t sleep, so came down to the street where it isn’t so hot, to find himself with people he wouldn’t mix with if the fan were working. He stands in a corner and looks on at the angry ones. He is angry too, but sensibly keeps his distance from them. He draws a little closer after a party official arrives and tells everyone to stop blocking the road, to wonder aloud: “until when?”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.