Cue Profanities

Embracing acts of profanity within a highly polarizing setup is a slippery task; one made all the more joyful—one might even say pedagogical—when navigating the puzzling terrain requires we dig through its components along the way. For a profanity to find its footing, for it to take on its contagious potential and produce necessary injury, it must be intoned in a space regarded as sacred.

Transgressing the permissibility of speech amid Lebanon’s uprising

Photograph by Tarek Moukaddem.

On New Year’s Eve, or rather, on the seventy-second day of Lebanon’s uprising, TV darling Michel Hayek, whom the New York Times once dubbed the country’s “foremost clairvoyant,” made a series of political predictions on air. For almost twenty years, it has been an annual custom to sit through Hayek’s ominous prognostications. In the past, the dark-haired, fifty-something psychic had predicted the death of many local politicians, especially during the era of political assassinations against anti-Damascus figures that had followed the withdrawal of Syrian military troops from Lebanon in 2005.

Attributed by the international community to local allies of the Assad regime in Syria, the most significant of these assassinations was that of Prime Minister Rafik El-Hariri in a car bombing on February 14, 2005, which also claimed the lives of the former Minister of the Economy and twenty civilians. A construction tycoon with strong ties to Saudi Arabia—and the architect of Lebanon’s ruthless neoliberal turn—Hariri had come back from his visit to Damascus in 2004 with a “broken arm,” which led many to assume he’d been physically intimidated by Assad’s shabiha. Still, his murder sent shockwaves through the Arab region. On March 14, over a million Lebanese took part in a protest against the Syrian occupation, a mass movement later dubbed, rather questionably, the “Cedar Revolution.” Over the following two years, Lebanon would witness the individual assassinations of dozens of politicians and journalists with ties to the March 14 movement.

Soon, it became commonplace for Lebanese to speculate about who would go next and where: quite a lucrative practice for Hayek, who turned this nationwide preoccupation into a full-blown business, racking up—as rumor had it—six figures for public television appearances as well as the occasional private celebrity consultation. And while his popularity had waned in recent years, a dizzying sequence of crises and uprisings seemed to renew interest in his shtick. On the last day of the decade, Hayek began with a relatively predictable series of predictions—that an unnamed Lebanese politician will face money-laundering charges in an international court, that the inhabitants of Turkey will be afflicted by an earthquake, and that Iranian General Qassem Soleimani will be the subject of unidentified threats. (Soleimani, of course, was killed in Iraq by a US drone upon the orders of the devil-may-care Trump administration three days later.) But then a curious presentiment raised more than a few eyebrows: “I see a future for the hela-hela-ho slogan that goes beyond the revolutionary squares,” Hayek intoned with a spark of defiance, “one that will be assimilated into the daily lives of most Lebanese people.”

The hela-hela-ho slogan had been picked up by protesters in Beirut on the initial days of the most recent Lebanese uprising, and famously spread across towns and cities; to this day, it remains frequently intoned regardless of the circumstances protesters are responding to and organizing against. The slogan borrows the melody of Egyptian-born singer Bob Azzam’s ’60s pop hit, “Mostafa ya Mostafa”: hela-hela-hela-hela-hela-ho, [fuck] Gebran Bassil and his mother’s vagina. It was bewildering that a man of Hayek’s stature and capacity as confidant to many government officials would call even more attention to it.


Gebran Bassil, the slogan’s target, is Lebanon’s Foreign Minister. He’d first appeared on the local political scene over a decade ago, at the invitation of his father-in-law, Michel Aoun. Aoun infamously rose to power at the height of the Lebanese civil wars, when, in 1984, he’d been appointed head of the Lebanese Army, commanding it against Syrian armed forces among others. Forced into exile in France for more than fifteen years, his “victorious” return in 2005 followed on the political victories of the March 14 movement. Aoun founded the Free Patriotic Movement, Lebanon’s leading Christian nationalist party, and would later align with his old enemies Hezbollah and, by extension, the Assad regime. Since 2016, he’s served as the President of the Lebanese Republic, following a twenty-nine-month parliamentary deadlock. Bassil began aggressively amassing several ministerial portfolios before taking charge of the country’s foreign affairs as soon as Aoun was elected president. His exceptionally arrogant demeanor, his chauvinist response to the refugee crisis, and the nepotistic mechanism of his success all conspired to highlight his overwhelming incompetence, gradually drawing ire from everyone, even from within the ranks of the FPM.

On the night of October 17, 2019, tens of thousands of demonstrators flocked to the streets of Beirut to protest the government’s introduction of draconian taxes on internet calls. A couple days later, an estimated two million demonstrators occupied the country’s public squares to decry the country’s devastating economic conditions, which had led to a shortage of US dollars on the Lebanese market and a drastic cut on imports, including fuel. An unprecedented wildfire that had ravaged much of Lebanon’s forests added to the feeling that it was time to rid the country of its sectarian-clientelist regime. Despite his political career’s relative youth and his non-affiliation with still-prominent militias formerly active in the civil wars, Bassil’s name was on everyone’s mouth, and the hela-hela-ho quickly caught on. He was, perhaps, an easy target: the kind of politician whose performance of power carries a foul stench of desperation along with it, rather than, say, an intimidating aura of authority. Aside from a few pro-FPM media outlets, the sheer vulgarity of the hela-hela-ho seemed to trouble no one. A process of collective emancipation was being set in motion, wherein the use of profanities seemed an appropriate step towards reclaiming dignity. Three months later, you couldn’t help but perceive, within the newly established phrasebook of Lebanon’s popular uprisings, the demonstrators’ consistent attachment to hurling profanities at sectarian-political figures. Did Hayek then allude to the hela-hela-ho as a metaphor for the insurrectionary moment he’d been passively witnessing on his television screen? Was he perhaps claiming that an uprising would remain healthy as long as it continues to unfold new profanities?

If we’re to believe Hayek’s prediction—which felt more like a nod to the protesters than a vision from the future—what would it say on behalf of our “moment” that such a seemingly innocuous insult-cum-slogan might be assimilated into the daily life of the Lebanese people? Gratuitously invoking the genitalia of someone’s mother in order to insult them isn’t, after all, the stuff of high-minded protest; rather, it’s the kind of insult you would hear a pedestrian throw at a speeding driver on the streets of Beirut. But here we are, months later, still kindling the initial thrill of voicing it ad nauseam in public squares.

On October 25, following only a week of mass protests, road blocks, and general strikes affecting both private and public sectors, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah took it upon himself to “address the nation”—a not inconsequential exercise to which he would resort twice more before the year’s end. Through his usual finger-wagging resonance, Nasrallah predictably cast doubt on the uprising and delegitimized its spontaneity while advancing conspiratorial tropes around “[Western] embassy endorsements’” and “opaque funding,” the better to activate the paranoid impulses among listeners. To add insult to injury, he called his predominantly working-class Shi’a supporters—a large swath of whom had also thronged Beirut’s public squares demanding the resignation of the government—away from the streets, explicitly mentioning the use of profanities as one factor of the soiling of “just collective demands.”

As soon as Nasrallah’s speech ended, loyalist thugs associated with Hezbollah and their political allies, the Amal Movement—headed by former warlord and Lebanon’s Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri—imposed a media blackout and began infiltrating downtown Beirut to carry out organized violence against demonstrators. They dismantled roadblocks and injured many along the way. This also served as a signal in some of the South Governorate’s towns and cities where Hezbollah and Amal enjoy extra-judicial control for parallel operations against protest assemblies and encampments. Nasrallah also indicated that there would be no compromise with the demonstrators’ chief demand: that the government dissolve.

Four days later, however, that’s exactly what happened. The Lebanese government, headed by Saad Hariri, the son of Rafik Hariri and leader of the Sunni-affiliated Future Movement, ended up resigning. “Matters are as clear as the sun. All the problems are known and the causes of the corruption and waste and administrative deficiency are also known,” Hariri remarked. His cabinet had only been composed ten months ago and was conceived as a “national unity government” whereby political factions traditionally opposed to one another would all be represented and an already stifling status quo would maintain. Hezbollah, alongside its allies Amal and the FPM, had been awarded key ministerial portfolios in that government. But that alone wouldn’t explain Nasrallah’s insistence on preserving such a power-sharing configuration. Hezbollah’s inclusion in the coalition had been crucial in providing the party with a partial way around US sanctions on their financial and security interests. Moreover, as the premier “broker” of the status quo, Hezbollah had played its cards so as to neutralize any attempts to question its paramilitary activities and armed status. Hariri’s political move intentionally threw Hezbollah and its allies under the bus; the French aptly call this the politique politicienne. He jumped ship cynically at a time when he knew a resignation would be interpreted as a gesture of solidarity with the uprising. Perhaps Hariri thought the move would secure him a future government “cleansed” of his opponents. This succession of events prompted Hezbollah’s loyalists to defend the party’s position within the sectarian-political order by any and all tested methods.

In his second televised address, arranged in response to the government’s dissolution, Nasrallah raised the stakes. His discontent with the recent political developments was now to be explained by the vulgarity of the protests. Their profanity was “unprecedented in the history of Lebanon,” and was fomenting internal strife within the country. Now the extralegal intimidation tactics deployed against protestors in the streets of Beirut and the South appeared to target the profanities demonstrators directed at Nasrallah—a religious figure first and foremost—and, to some extent, Berri. Soon enough, intolerable, snuff-like videos of demonstrators forced to apologize on camera for insulting both leaders began circulating across social channels, while counter-protests aimed at lauding Nasrallah and Berri’s political achievements and contributions to local Shi’a communities took place in the parties’ respective strongholds. As it happened, tongue-taming became the counterrevolutionary tactic par excellence. Nasrallah’s pious imagery, and the locus it occupies within our collective political imaginary, remains intact; Hezbollah’s undoubtedly criminal paramilitary ventures in Syria at the side of the Assad regime might have exposed the party to growing criticism, but instead prevailed as a “necessary” course of action against the now-forgotten and often fantastic (in Lebanon, at least) ISIS threat. Sympathizers of the rational type—read, apologists—clamored about there being a time and place to argue over Hezbollah’s ongoing meddling in regional conflicts and increased involvement in internal security maneuvers. Alas, this time and place never seem to arrive without the discussants falling victim to malevolent accusations of national treason.

If Hezbollah appears to have weathered the storm, however, the same cannot be said about Berri and the Amal Movement, nor the various other sectarian political actors and parties—from Hariri to former warlords such as Druze leader Walid Jumblatt and Maronite figurehead Samir Geagea. For decades, these movers and shakers of the sectarian-clientelist regime helped sustain a neoliberal order through their own cults of leadership as well as through the asymmetric distributions of welfare services and provisions along class-related lines. Today, these infrastructures are crumbling due to the financial crisis, their political legitimacy gradually tarnished by years of investigative journalism exposing the money laundering schemes, behind-the-door embassy deals, and wide-scale corruption networks in which these figures were involved.


To understand how it is that the end of the Lebanese civil wars failed to bring justice and reparations to their hundreds of thousands of victims, one must look at the 1989 Taif Agreement, a “mutual coexistence accord” engineered and negotiated to disarm all participating factions with the exception of Hezbollah—whose paramilitary might was deemed crucial to resist the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon—all the while maintaining a firm status quo based on power-sharing arrangements. To this day, the accord’s seemingly unrevisable tenets remain at fault for ensuring the mechanisms by which power-sharing clientelist networks form and proliferate. Through the establishment of “modernized” political parties dressed in reformist cloth, former heads of militias ended up participating, throughout the years, in the mass privatization of the public sector, the systematic pillaging of state assets, and the continuous increase in an already gargantuan sovereign debt.

A successful insurrection against our current sectarian-clientelist regime in the name of a general class struggle first requires an open rejection of the sanctity surrounding those who have taken up arms to protect their respective sects’ economic interests and who today legislate on behalf of their clans. Uttering public profanities against these leaders performs a ritual refusal of a symbolic order of violent inheritances and a hegemonic form of kinship and communitarian belonging. Wherever demonstrators are burning posters, residences, or cursing the legacies of political leaders, feudal philanthropists, and influential clerics—be it in Tripoli in the North, Saida and Nabatieh in the South, and the Chouf district and Jal el Dib in Mount Lebanon—there is a will to rekindle regional spheres that were once out of sync but now cooperate in the radical triumph of the profane. Wherever the horizon of repair looms1, there’s no doubt that the profane mobilizes generational injury. Lebanon is emancipating itself from thirty years of neoliberal governance, one heresy at a time.

But what happens, then, when it is hard to locate an embodied object to profane? Looking at infrastructural, environmental, and domestic ruin only half-solves the problem; Lebanon’s crisis is also one of representation. An ability to imagine the crisis’s scope and lay out its terms would allow us to comprehend the scale of the exploitation at play. Almost everyone on the ground will agree that, in the past months, it has proven difficult to observe a prescriptive ‘grammar’ with which to articulate the nature of the October 17 uprising. On the one hand, politicians, clerics, journalists, and bureaucrats affiliated with the sectarian-clientelist regime have been calling it, rather provocatively, a hirak—i.e., a “protest movement”, but one implied to be analogous to or continuation with previously abortive protests the country had witnessed in the last decade. Demonstrators, on the other hand, haven’t seen eye to eye on how to categorize the revolutionary momentum that continues to this day. While some groups have thrown the word “revolution” around with zeal enough to make anyone take a step back, others have exercised intellectual caution in a tone sufficiently demoralizing to invite accusations of willful sabotage. Civil unrest, you say? But then, what to make of those insurrectionary acts that refused to be boxed within restrictive and tacitly racist2 ideals of citizenry? What about your denomination of the State as “weak”? Can’t you see the State is nothing but an assemblage of hybrid entities freely exercising their respective sovereignties along class-informed sectarian lines? Can endless “reform,” or worse, some World Bank-concocted bailout package deal, really be the goal here?

There has surely been a real anxiety surrounding the problem of locating the right set of terms with which to describe the uprising. The disagreements have expanded to include the nature of the demands—and the often-antagonistic ideological sourcebooks these demands have sprung from—being voiced on the streets, which have ranged from calls towards an “independent” judiciary system to the sheer abolishment of Lebanon’s hyper-liberal economic foundations.

Moderate “civil society” actors and groups have insistently championed a scenario of “depoliticization”: one that would result, for instance, in conceding governmental positions to technocrats cleared of political affiliations. We also hear an abundance of clichéd formulations reclaiming the Lebanese constitution, privileging discourses of anti-corruption, or even calling for an ‘official’ end of the 1975–1990 civil wars, protracted due to a legislated general amnesty that had precluded courtrooms from prosecuting former warlords.

Over time, this consensus-oriented language has further angered left-leaning groups, most of whom had already, prior to the uprising, splintered into factions with conflicting visions of emancipatory politics. For now, it’s perhaps more enlightening to engage with the swarming multitude that continues to participate in the uprising, and to ask how it is that radical feminists or members of the Lebanese Communist Party, for example, are able to share a platform, or even a megaphone, with those typically more interested in asking questions like: “Wait, but what does capitalism have to do with all this?”

This isn’t to say that one should hold an exceptionalist view of the Lebanese regime in order to dismantle it; it’s just about grasping why the hybridity of its elements produces a collective expression of dissent that’s too often decentralized, riddled with tensions, and potentially abortive. Embracing acts of profanity within a highly polarizing setup is a slippery task; one made all the more joyful—one might even say pedagogical—when navigating the puzzling terrain requires we dig through its components along the way. For a profanity to find its footing, for it to take on its contagious potential and produce necessary injury, it must be intoned in a space regarded as sacred.

One of these sacred spaces for nationalist fervor in Lebanon—inseparable from discourses of grandeur and entrepreneurial success—has been the country’s banking sector. The uprising carried its profanities wherever networks of corruption, large-scale Ponzi schemes, and fictitious capital have trod in the past thirty years. Banks have been subject to unparalleled popular rage since the beginning of the uprisings. Today, commercial banks—through which many crony capitalists and politicians have been able to funnel and launder huge sums of money under the auspice of bank secrecy laws—have become sites for radical contestation. Even the more moderate demonstrators chant “down with the rule of the banks!” on the streets of Lebanon. And there have been insurrectionary acts of violence against ATM machines, money exchange offices, and bank headquarters across the country. This remains the biggest profanity of all: where does “Lebanon” as a symbolic construct go, and how will it regain legitimacy, when its banking foundations are up in flames?

This is how, I’m assuming, Hayek, our star clairvoyant, came to easily predict the assimilation of the hela-hela-ho—i.e. the unbounded practice of heresy—into our daily lives. While still-living specters of party militias were prowling everywhere and crony capitalists were belligerently clutching onto their assets and authority, the uprising had found its salvation. That there is no national consensus over where to steer this revolutionary process, and no leadership or party structures being formed to infiltrate state institutions and participate in elections are all threats looming over Lebanon’s popular uprising. But for now an ambitious project has been set in place, one that requires strategic time to settle and take root. This is the project of unlearning decades of public dissimulation by the rotten corpse of Lebanese sectarianism; of dismantling the structures and mechanisms that have systematized decades of unbearable social and economic violence; of de-sacralizing a regime of political representation that reproduces perpetual paralysis; and, surely, of defying that which was, until October 17, perceived and experienced as untouchable.

  1. The early days of the Syrian revolution witnessed demonstrators across the cities of Daraa, Homs, Deir ez-Zor, and Hama transgress the limits of permissible speech and torch decades of public dissimulation that had assisted in safeguarding the despotic Baath regime. “Curse your soul, oh Hafez [al-Assad]” was no mere slogan, but an ultimately fatal enterprise of collective exorcism, a stubborn fulmination that refused to fade away. It spread among students and workers like wildfire, profaning the deceased architect and false prophet of the modern Syrian state and its notorious security apparatus. 

  2. Lebanon is home to more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees. According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) World Report 2019, “Lebanon’s residency policy makes it difficult for Syrians to maintain legal status, heightening risks of exploitation and abuse and restricting refugees’ access to work, education, and healthcare. Seventy-four percent of Syrians in Lebanon now lack legal residency and risk detention for unlawful presence in the country.” Moreover, there are also 175,000 Palestinian longstanding refugees living in Lebanon, “where they continue to face restrictions, including on their right to work and own property.”  

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