(Unclenching Our) Fists
Beirut, Lebanon 2019
Before we are born, human hands develop in tiny fists, fingers folded tightly into the centre of small hands, carving lines into palms that some say define our futures. At birth, fists unfold, revealing destinies unknown. In our justice movements, futures are written by fists too –fists held high in protest; hands held in solidarity; fists that hold maps to new beginnings, lift earth, create new worlds.
In Lebanon, women from refugee and migrant communities face exploitative working conditions, poor living conditions, violence and racism but together migrant community leaders are speaking out against abuse and exploitation, building worlds with their palms everyday.
Amnesty International partnered with storytelling organization Fearless Collective to create a mural in the heart of Beirut honouring their advocacy work.
They drew inspiration from the power of the fist, exploring how it’s integral to our fight for justice. Our futures are written in our fists. Fists are held high in protests, hands held in solidarity. Fists hold maps to new beginnings and can lift earth and create new worlds.
The Mar Mikhael neighbourhood is the beating heart of Beirut nightlife. On the surface it’s an affluent area offering tremendous social freedom for some,but for migrant workers it can be a place of deep isolation, exploitation and invisibility. This graffiti on a street lined with sleek cafes and bars reads: “maids not slaves!” It is a call to end Lebanon’s exploitative migrant visa sponsorship (kafala) system, which essentially binds migrant workers to their employers. Under the kafala system, employers act as the official “sponsor” (or kafeel) of migrant workers from the moment they enter the country.
On the border of Mar Mikhael,a group of human rights defenders working for a variety of Lebanese social justice movements gathered for a Fearless workshop. Today’s focus is on “Unclenching Our Fists”.
Speaking in four languages,the group introduces themselves. They include a mother and daughter from Syria campaigning for women’s and children’s rights, and domestic workers from Ethiopia and Sri Lanka who are fighting against exploitative working conditions. There are also Lebanese women fighting to reform Lebanon’s paternalistic laws on child custody, and journalists campaigning against censorship and human rights violations.
Fearless uses ritual as a tool for catharsis and storytelling. During the Fearless ritual,activists explored the embodiment of emotion and what it means to be brave. Sitting beneath a candlelit tent, the activists used their fists to create new rhythms, mirroring rituals of protest ubiquitous around the world. Beating fists into flattened hands and raising them in the air, Fearless asks, In the past what could not break you?
With raised fists each person spoke of the systems, people, and violence that tried to crush them, but failed to. Inherent in each story was the source of their resilience.
In the second part of the ritual, participants unclenched their fist and placed their palms upwards,answering: What does the future hold? Some answers included:
“In the future, I want to see a woman leader, independent women (everywhere).”
“In the future, God willing, our country will be better (ours again).”
“I hope to live in peace, me and all the people in all countries.”
After completing the ritual, participants discussed how they wanted to represent themselves in the mural. Using their bodies to make images of power they staged postures and poses –activists with fists raised, holding brooms and sickles. Human rights defenders reaching for the sun. But after thinking more deeply about their desires for the future –another kind of image emerges –one of ease. In our future we no longer want to fight.
Resting against one another’s backs, nestled amongst calming herbs –three people share a cup of tea, relaxed in a garden. What does our future hold? The right for everyone to rest.
The work of Fearless is part visual arts and part performance. As community members act out what they want the mural to look like, photographs are taken. From there, Fearless project this image onto a wall on the streets of Mar Mikhael. The lines of these (now) familiar faces on walls, are embodying the safe and sacred future spaces they want to live in.
As Arabic music drifts out of bars, a group of migrant labourers, who would usually only be seen serving, cleaning, or cooking in these spaces, begin to paint pictures of themselves.
Throughout the week,community members unclenched their fists, dipped brushes in shades of lavender and sage, and inscribed their hopes and dreams on open palms. Posing with written futures on their palms, workshop participants, many of whom are often underrepresented in public spaces and policies, crafted portraits that are displayed on the elite streets of Mar Mikhael, the epicenter of Beirut’s nightlife.
For people who are too often invisible in society, these portraits are a way to reclaim their identities as migrants, refugees and human rights activists.
Tsigerada is a migrant worker and community organizer from EngnaLenga, an Ethiopian led initiative for migrant rights. She’s witnessed a lot during her time as a domestic worker in Lebanon.
“As domestic workers, we face a lot. Domestic workers are dying every day. It breaks my heart, but it will not break me. We need to come together and build communities with leaders who will share information. I am strong. I am achieving things people said I wouldn’t be able to.”
“The past and the war that happened… our rights were lost. But I am stronger than this because I am sure the future will be better after the war and unfairness and destruction and bombs…We are stronger than this.” –Raghad, 17, a Syrian children and refugee rights activist from Lebanon.
Throughout the week workshop participants climbed scaffolding, brushes in hand, and wrote a poem for the mural on their collective futures.
As the final touches are put together, the new community gathers to celebrate the mural. One worker from Sri Lanka changes into magnificent traditional clothes, while a group of Syrian–Palestinian men teach the Dabke (a folk dance). Eyes on the mural, everyone feasts on home–cooked Sri Lankan and Palestinian food. The Sinhalese text in the mural catches the eye of the security guard next door, reminding him of home. He writes on the wall: “This mural is our future.”
Each individual involved in the mural –from painters,workshop participants, passersby that shared cups of tea,and activists who joined the final celebration –inscribe their responses ‘to what does our future hold?” onto the base of the mural. They write “tolerance”, “equity”, “we are here to stay”, “our existence is an act of resistance”.
On a wall on a Mar Mikhael side street this mural is a radical monument to rest. An Ethiopian domestic migrant worker: a Sri Lankan and a non–gender binary person sit together deep in conversation, sharing a cup of tea, affirming,“My Existence is an act of resistance,” as poetry in four tongues cascades from her hands.
This project is a collaboration between Fearless Collective and Amnesty International.
Lead Artwork by: Shilo Shiv Suleman/Fearless Collective
Text Written by: Cassie Denbow/Fearless Collective
Photography by: Jenny Jacklin–Stratton/Fearless Collective
Editorial Support by: Angela Singh/Amnesty International
With gratitude to The Migrant Community Center and the many individuals who made this mural possible, with special thanks to Ambra, Lynn and Saleh for their fearless guidance of this work.