Every day, the Syrian graffiti artist Aziz al Asmar looks for available stone fences and walls on which to paint his colorful experiences. One of his recent paintings depicts George Floyd, the African-American man whose choking death by a police officer sparked huge protests in the United States and around the world.
“I can’t breathe” and “No to racism,” Asmar wrote next to the painting of Floyd’s portrait, garnering international publicity as an Arab representation of identification with the protest.
“We too, in Syria, suffer from racism,” Asmar told the website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed. “We preach good and peace, and identify with all peoples of the world, because we are persecuted in our country by a democratic regime, and we wish freedom and dignity to all people.”
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Ansar’s fame grew from these walls, where he painted dozens of graphic representations of the violence committed by the Syrian regime, and he also chose to paint Floyd’s image on the wall of a building destroyed by a Syrian air force bombardment.
The coronavirus has recently taken its place as a prominent motif among the abundant paintings of war. It has undergone personification and is depicted sometimes as a witch riding a broomstick and hurting people or as a long-armed monster looking for victims.
In Lebanon the coronavirus has also become a central theme for graffiti artists, following months in which their focus was on complex paintings about poverty and the failure of the government to rescue the country from the dual crisis of a failing economy and the pandemic. And so next to graffiti depicting violent conflicts between the security forces and protesters, the multi-crowned virus can now be seen.
The months of the coronavirus, which began in Lebanon in February, confining people in their homes at first, but later when the lockdowns were lifted and shopping centers reopened, demonstrations resumed and so did the graffiti drawings. Graffiti is not a new art in Arab countries. It peaked during the years of theArab Spring, in which public walls became live newspapers enlisting protesters, depicting the oppression and calling for the removal of despotic regimes.
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But while in the past the graffiti focused on calls for freedom and dignity, jobs and democracy, the new scenes are more focused on specific politicians and more precise issues such as the political struggle between the former prime minister, Saad Hariri, and his rivals, President Michel Aoun or calls for people to stay at home to guard against contracting the coronavirus. One of the creations is considered to be the largest graffiti painting in the world, showing a 100-meter-wide Palestinian kaffiyeh, that sands some eight meters high, on the wall of a highway tunnel leading to the large refugee camp of Bourj el-Barajneh. The work, which took 25 artists three months to paint, has now come under the auspices of Lebanon’s mayors’ association.
While the current frustration over the ineptitude of the Lebanese government has brought out graffiti artists, the fight against the coronavirus has led activists in civil rights organizations into new realms. For example, they have started what is known as the Chain Effect, a group of cyclists who promote their hobby as an alternative means of transportation. This month The Chain Effect held its fourth cycling event, in which people rented or purchased bicycles to pedal to the destinations of their choice. The organization holds workshops for bicycle maintenance and provides instructions and cycling routes through natural parks and woodlands.
The group has also gotten into graffiti, displaying drawings that show happy cyclists and creating posters to encourage more cycling. Organization members concede that the use of bicycles is still far from what it is in Western countries, especially because much of the public doesn’t consider the bicycle to be a respectable form of transportation and so there’s no investment in it, to create cycling lanes or places to park bicycles.
Zeina Hawa and Rami Zoya, the group’s founders, are trying to persuade business owners and public institutions, such as hospitals, to encourage employees to ride bicycles, and have launched a fundraising trip to further this goal. But while the fundraising been successful, employers are still dubious about bicycles catching on as a new mode of transportation, and prefer to pay their employees’ travel expenses by taxi, rather than invest in bicycles.
In an article posted on the Jadaliyya website, Washington D.C.-based Lebanese architect and urban planner Siba El-Samra presents the difficulties the Lebanese face, particularly in Beirut, in protecting themselves against the coronavirus because of a lack of open spaces, public parks and proper infrastructure for bicycles. Most public parks are privately owned, or require special permits to make use of them.
Beirut, which is very easy to navigate by bicycle because of its flat topography, suffers from huge traffic jams that eat up many hours of people’s lives for their morning and afternoon commutes to and from work or school. During the coronavirus lockdown the lack of public parks helped the government keep people from congregating. But with the return to normal life, social distancing is impossible when there is nowhere to go for recreation. While the World Health Organization recommends green spaces of nine square meters per person, Beirut provides only 0.8 square meters of such space.
The Beirut municipality knows Samra’s explanations very well, but when the city doesn’t know where the money will come from to pay its workers’ salaries, the inhabitants will probably not see major additions to public spaces to help preserve their health in the near future.