“There’s a responsibility on each and everyone to be politically aware” – Interview with Yara Mroueh from Lebanon

Tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you from, how do you spend your free time and what do you study?

My name is Yara Mroueh and I’m from the south of Lebanon, Ayateet. I moved to Beirut recently to pursue my studies at the American University of Beirut, majoring in anthropology, which I’m really interested in. 

Do you consider yourself to be an active community member? Do you volunteer in any way? Is that actually something that youth in your country do? 

Well, growing up, I have done some volunteering. I’ve been a part of the community service club in my hometown. But I’ve also taken part in activities like cleaning the beach in my city and stuff like that. However, I feel like there’s a lack of attention towards these issues that are environmental and social, especially in the south of Lebanon where I come from. There are not many volunteering opportunities to do over there as much as there are in Beirut or other areas of Lebanon. I think that’s very unfortunate. I would like to see how the youth could play a role in changing that in the future. And I mean, I’d like to say that I would want to be part of those people who implement this change.

What do you want to achieve in your life? What are your goals?

That’s a good question. I feel like as a dancer, I want to really pursue that alongside anthropology and I want to see how I can combine the two. Also, I want to give opportunities to people who grew up feeling like they can’t afford dance classes or they just don’t have dance schools around. I want to start workshops and stuff like that to help these people.

I would like to get a sense of what it’s like living in Lebanon. How would you describe Lebanon to a foreigner?

I feel like Lebanon, a way to really put it, is both heaven and hell on Earth. So this is something that most would agree with because Lebanon has this beautiful culture and amazing people. The language, the music, the food, the sea. There’s a lot to say about that. And I can talk for hours and hours. I can talk about my city, I can talk about Beirut, I can talk about the diversity, the religious and ethnic diversity, it’s all so fascinating. But then there are the problems that people have to struggle with a lot all over Lebanon. There has been the economic crisis, of course, COVID, and other stuff. And now our last president finished his term and we’re still without a president and we don’t have a government. We are just waiting for elections and we are really just going on with our lives as usual.

What would you say is the biggest problem right now in Lebanon? 

I mean, the economic crisis, because it affects every aspect of your life. So, right now there are many problems with education because there is a general strike that has been going on and off for a while. Students aren’t learning, teachers aren’t teaching, and things are just horrible because they aren’t paid enough. Even in education, you can see how people from the middle or upper middle class can now only afford a certain type of education, while others really are just lost and don’t know what to do with their lives. Even if they want to leave, if they want to pursue an education outside, in Europe or other countries, it’s very difficult simply because you don’t have enough US dollars because of the crisis. because everything ties together. 

Explain the current political situation. 

This is a difficult system and I can barely understand it. I still ask many questions, and I end up not understanding anything about it because it has a lot to do with the French mandate. So in Lebanon, really, the situation here is always tied to countries outside, major countries that have a lot to do with politics in the Middle East. Unfortunately, even when we do try to change and no matter what we do, it’s always going back to what these countries decide on and even the president that we want to have. So we don’t vote directly for the president. We vote for the parliament and then they vote for the president. And even that has to do with what foreign countries decide on, which is horrible, because it makes things much, much harder. In Lebanon, we have a parliament, Majlis Al-Nuwwab is what we call it, and then there’s the head of the parliament. They usually set the rules and the order and they watch over the government, which does the actual work in ministries. And then there’s a president who doesn’t have that much to do. In Lebanon, politics have a lot to do with religion because we have a lot of religious diversity. It’s actually one of the best things about Lebanon, but it’s both a blessing and a curse. Not because there is any tension between the people but because the politicians have taken advantage of this diversity in order to create problems to keep ruling the way they are, and to keep people against each other rather than against the political system. So there are 18 religious sects in Lebanon. There are 50 to 60% of Muslims, and then there are Shia and Sunni Muslims. I have to explain this in order to get to the political part of it. Also, very different sects of Christianity are here. So there’s a lot of religious diversity. So it’s almost like every religious sect has a political party associated with it or that represents it, but it really doesn’t represent it. There are two main political parties, but then there are like 6, 7, 8 others, more or less. These two main ones are almost like against each other. 

Can you explain the situation at hand right now concerning the government and the president?

Well, I honestly don’t know much about that, other than the fact that our president finished his term. But when you ask someone like, “Okay, so what’s next? But when are they going to do the elections?” They’re like, “nobody knows” because there’s so much ignorance. So they literally don’t care about you. And we actually stayed once for like a year, more or less, without a president. And then, bigger countries decided to come here, and until one political party decided that okay, we can have this president now. So, it’s very complex.

Lebanon agreed upon a water border with Israel on the water border. How was that interpreted in your community and was it even important? 

Of course, it was. But it also has a lot to do with our conflict. It’s definitely a huge disappointment. It’s almost contradictory because you can’t say that this state is your enemy while you agree with the borders. We all hate the fact that this happened. But then again, we can’t do anything about it, because it all comes back to political parties and the countries that these political parties represent in the country. So it’s horrible, but we can’t do a lot about it.

How would you describe your current relations with Israel?

Israel is our enemy and it always will be even if relations have been normalized. We don’t even call it Israel, we call it the occupied state of Palestine. Yeah, and because I’m from the south I know that I’ve been affected by this Israeli state. Qana in the south is where a lot of people died after or during the war in 2006 war when the Israeli strikes hit. My father, he’s a doctor so he told me that at the time it was one of the most emotional states for him throughout his entire life because of the people that he saw. I can also tell you about 2006,  I was two years old at the time, so I don’t remember it but I know for a fact that my family and I fled the south and we went to an area that was safe because of what was going on. On our way there, we were almost struck by an Israeli strike because we stopped at the gas station to pump our tires. So it’s a very tough subject. When you look more into it, you can see that Israel affects all countries around not just you know, Palestine.

You’ve mentioned multiple times the economical crisis going on in Lebanon. When was the first time it affected you and how has it been since?

So in October 2019, the protests started, and at the same time, the crisis has had a gradual transition into this. So at first, the dollar equaled 1500 Lebanese Lira. In late 2019, it started increasing to 2000. In March 2020, I remember we were dealing with COVID but at the same time the economic crisis, which was a crazy time for us. And at the time, we were all struck by the prices and everything getting more expensive. It was three to four times more expensive. But fast forward to three years and the dollar has reached 40,000 Lira. So it’s been surreal on a day-to-day basis. So it’s been four years and as I was saying, day to day, you will be shocked by the prices because every day the prices are changing. There’s nothing stable. There is no such thing as stability. And when it comes to the economic situation, that’s a perfect example of our instability. So yeah, it started three years ago, but every day just gets worse and worse. I mean, we manage, and we always will.

What kind of problems do you have in the energy sector? I’ve heard that you don’t have constant electricity or internet connection in Lebanon. 

The electricity provided by the government used to come for a significant part of the day but not 24 hours. We used to have generators that operate whenever you don’t have the government’s electricity. Even back then people who couldn’t afford to have a generator would only rely on the government’s electricity. But today, even those generators that use mazut to operate have a lot to do with people being greedy and putting high prices and still not giving you enough electricity. So today, the government’s electricity barely comes, like one-two hours a day at maximum. There are people who rely on the government’s electricity and can’t afford generators. I can’t even begin to imagine. And it’s been going like this for a while, since last summer. 

How are you managing right now in Beirut? 

Well, I live in something similar to a dorm. It’s a small apartment next to my university and I live with two other girls. The electricity and water fees are included in the rent. When there’s no electricity I usually have this UPS provider so it keeps the internet going and we also have that back in school. So we also like to use just lamps that charge and then you can use them when there’s no electricity and manage power. But we’re used to it at this point. 

But back home like in the south where your family lives. How do they manage? 

You know, we actually recently in the summer, we stopped the generator and we now have the solar system working for us. So we have electricity. A lot of people are doing that now, especially in the south. I want to see what the situation would be like during the winter but so far it’s been great. Yeah, I go back there and I’m just like, wow, there’s electricity. Even in Beirut, there are also problems with water. So where I live recently the government’s water hasn’t come for like a month. So we have these huge tanks that provide me with water and now they’re also doing this to water, which comes through on certain hours of the day. Which is also absurd. 

You also mentioned that Lebanon is really religiously diverse. Do you have any conflicts between different religions in Lebanon?

So when it comes to reality, you don’t see people really having these conflicts. However, because religion has a lot to do with politics, so if you’re from two different political parties, and these political parties represent different religions, and representative regions, and you have different political opinions, then religion will come into the discussion. But I mean, it’s also very different because it depends on who and what area you’re looking into. In general, for example, the ALEX (edit: American Leadership Experience) group. We’re all from different areas of Lebanon, and we’re all from different religions and I think it’s spectacular when we actually sit and talk together. It’s always very fun and we are actually interested in one another and their religious backgrounds that are diverse. We want to know more about one another and learn more, and there’s no such thing as tension. This is especially true among younger people because we’re bringing this change, and we’re the people who started the revolution or the protests in 2019. You can see this happening, things change, but when you talk to people who have been in the civil war, which was actually mainly between Muslims and Christians, back in the 1970s, to the 1990s. It was a long war and they don’t even talk about that in our history books today, because I think that it would bring tension. But then again, when you really look into that, you know, that it’s these political leaders that are now ruling. They’re actually the ones that were ruling at the time, and they are actually war leaders. So imagine being ruled in a country by war leaders. So they’re the people that are using politics or using religion in order to create political conflict. So it has more to do with politics than with religion. So that’s what I’m trying to do. I’m part of a secular club and here at the university, actually, there is this AUB secular club and what they want to do is to really separate politics from religion, and that’s what they’re trying to do to make a change. Whether it be through university elections or on-ground protests and stuff like that. So we’re really starting little by little because we know that big changes don’t just come in like that. So it’s all about how you raise awareness about issues.

Has the war in Ukraine had any effect on you or is it really like a problem far away because you already are facing so many other obstacles?

So in the beginning, when the war started, in the first month, it was a huge deal. Everybody was talking about it on worldwide news. I remember my father telling me that the prices will be affected here, especially wheat and gas prices and stuff like that. And you can’t really tell if it’s because of like, actually, the gas prices have increased because of that. But there’s also the economic crisis, which is increasing and continues to increase even despite the war. So right now the war isn’t a topic that’s talked about, it’s almost forgotten, so I always try to ask again, “Okay, what’s going on? What’s the situation like?”, because my Instagram doesn’t show me, the news doesn’t really talk about it that much. So it doesn’t affect us that much anymore, but it has had an effect in earlier times. 

What are the topics that get the most coverage in the media right now?

It’s always like the issues that are going on in the country that get attention and we usually use outlets like Instagram and Twitter to get our information because the television isn’t that source of information anymore because there’s such a gap between reality that we’re facing and how we think as people today versus the thing that is represented by the media and we know that there’s a lot of biased news

What would you consider the state of media right now in the country? Do you have any public media broadcasters or are the media outlets privately owned?

So when it comes to television, each channel is also related to the political party it represents. It shows the situation from their point of view. So we don’t really follow that but there’s always one or two that are acceptable. You couldn’t rely on that but they’re tolerable. 

Are you interested in politics or foreign relations in any way?

I am actually interested in politics. And I feel like for the longest time, I’ve just hated politics, but the last three years, beginning with the protest, and then there was the Tyre secular club, I started to realize that politics is a very, very important aspect of our life. And there’s a responsibility on each and everyone to be politically aware of what’s going on. Especially as young people because we’re really trying to make a change, and we should have this certain awareness. It’s definitely difficult because politics here are very complex. You hear many perspectives and points of view and you’re like, “Okay, but what is the truth? What is the reality?” and I feel like in politics, you just have to listen a lot and be informed, then you make up your own mind, whatever makes sense to you is what is true to you. So there’s no such thing as the truth. You know, there are just facts that you learn and you understand from different perspectives and make up your mind about it. I don’t think I know enough about politics, but I’ve been learning and I want to learn more.

Are you planning to contribute yourself maybe in the future by being a part of politics and shaping it yourself?

Maybe, in the future. Yeah. Why not? Because I already joined the secular club. And, this year, in the parliament elections, I saw my family voting, which I haven’t seen, ever. It’s such a big thing, but because of the last few years, because of the change that’s been happening, in little ways, as we thought. They actually decided to vote and a lot of people decided to vote and still, it’s difficult. It’s not like the system changed. But I do see myself being more active in the future when I’m able to vote. Actually, an anthropology degree allows me to work with the government. So maybe one day I’m going to explore that.

Think of ourselves as global citizens. But do you feel that? That you are not just a Lebanese citizen, but also a global one? 

Well, I definitely do not have the same privileges as another citizen would have. So I do feel like I am Lebanese in every way, with the struggles and the good things. But I do feel like recently, I have been more connected to people around the world through programs like the Youth Exchange and Study Virtual Program and the ALEX (edit: American Leadership Experience) program. I’ve been learning more about different countries. As an anthropology major, I also have an interest in different cultures and people. So I would like to describe myself as a global citizen, a person who has connections with people across the globe, and I think that it’s a wonderful thing. It gives you these whole new perspectives on life. I would like to explore more, learn more about other people and meet new people. But for now, I feel like I do have a decent connection with the world.

People our age are called Gen Z. And it’s often said that the future is in our hands. What are you most worried about concerning the future?

I don’t know if I can say that there’s one thing I’m concerned about. When you think of something globally, you immediately think of climate change, because it’s like, increasingly affecting our lives. And we can see from year to year that we’re experiencing summers differently, winters, and falls as well. So it’s definitely scary to think what in a few years, we’re really experiencing, or the generations after us. But at the same time, this doesn’t get that much importance in our country or in our region, because we have a lot more to deal with. We’re dealing with the basics, so we’re just worrying about tomorrow, we’re worrying about what’s going to happen tonight, you know. So it’s not like we’re worrying about that, it’s more that we’re not thinking about the future because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We live unstable lives. And it also depends on the class you belong to, and the area, the region. In general, there’s this national instability, politically, economically, and socially. So we’re just focusing on right now. And this is part of how we deal with it because if you want to think about what’s happening in a year, you’re going to live in deep depression and anxiety. We do deal with these emotions on a daily basis but we’re just focusing on right now and the problems at hand. It makes things a bit easier.

If you could choose one problem that you’ve just mentioned, what would you do to solve it?

I feel like there are issues when it comes to feminism. I do consider myself a feminist. And I feel like I want to do more in this area, here in my region, but I don’t know what exactly. Right now, I feel like the media is the only thing we can actually make practical use of. So that’s what I’ve been doing for like the past year or year and a half with issues that have to do with social, political, and environmental issues. Also, issues having to do with gender. So I feel like I want to continue to raise awareness and keep talking about things we’re facing, whether globally or locally. 

What would you want to ask from another youth? 

What would I ask them? I don’t know. I mean, maybe how their experiences and their struggles have shaped their view of the world, and how they can actually use that in order to implement change in little ways in their countries.

(This interview was conducted on the 11th of November)

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