Beirut Syndrome Spreads Grassroots Media at The New School

Last June, Beirut Syndrome, an online publication based in Lebanon, ran a piece on the “Symptoms” section of its website. The “symptom” started with a photo of a simple, white sign tied to a door. “Apartment for Rent,” the sign announced in bold, underlined letters. The final line of the apartment’s description popped out in italics: Foreign Couples Preferred.

“What appears to be yet another absurd case of Lebanon preferring foreigners (or simply Westerners) over locals could most likely be a different case altogether,” Beirut Syndrome explains in text below the photo. “Exclusively renting an apartment out to a foreign couple could also have to do with Lebanon’s family laws that date back to the Millet System during Ottoman rule, which has left cohabitation in a black hole.”

The piece is one of a growing collection of reports in which Beirut Syndrome—a team of two, intrepid, 20-something citizen journalists named Sarah Shmaitilly and Kareem Chehayeb—dig deeper into the issues affecting Lebanese society today. Sarah and Kareem launched Beirut Syndrome in April 2015 after noticing a lack of honest reporting during the height of Beirut’s garbage crisis where thousands of protestors took to the streets to demand that government address its failure to provide appropriate space to dump refuse. Beirut Syndrome argues that the mainstream media (both foreign and local) only addresses issues like the garbage crisis on a superficial level, if it addresses them at all. Thus, on their own dime, Sarah and Kareem have worked to fill the void by covering topics that include police brutalitythe abundance of NGOs in Lebanon, and similarities between Palestinians and Native Americans.

“We were really inspired by the lack of information on certain issues in Lebanon and the lack of effort from the media in terms of bringing it to the public forum and having people talk about it,” Kareem remarked at The New School on Tuesday at a public discussion of their work.

The discussion, an event co-hosted by SGPIA and The Vera List Center, was moderated by Professor Peter Lucas, who praised the publication’s work on human rights issues related to expression, assembly, opinion, information, knowledge, and memory.

Professor Peter Lucas opens Beirut Syndrome’s evening discussion on Tuesday

SGPIA student Jehane Akiki, who is from Lebanon, was among the event’s audience.  “Most major channels [in Lebanon] belong to, or are affiliated with, prominent political parties and leaders,” Jehane remarked after the event. “Against that backdrop, Beirut Syndrome stands out in their coverage in that they are trying to offer a more holistic, bottom-up version of the news in Lebanon that is not backed by a certain political agenda but is rather representative of the people. They do so by going beyond the ‘Beirut Syndrome’ and trying to give other areas in Lebanon the coverage they deserve.”

In addition to the public event, Beirut Syndrome also facilitated a private workshop with students involved in the campus group Engage Media Lab. The workshop touched on issues of security, Lebanese politics, social media practices and Beirut Syndrome’s efforts to take the conversation surrounding their pieces offline and into in-person discussions.

Bianca Rogers, a SGPIA student, Vera List Center fellow, and Engage Media Lab member was the primary organizer of both daytime and evening events. Bianca also interviewed Sarah and Kareem for her personal web series that focuses on youth media engagement and social activism. “Beirut Syndrome checks off every bullet point on the list of how our media landscape and global community are changing: they’re independent, grassroots, online and youth-led,” Bianca remarked in a speech opening the evening event. “It’s important to build on this network both to learn about other projects and to support them. This public discussion alone is in some ways an act of strengthening our international relations.”

 

 

SGPIA aims to continue the public discussions that Bianca referenced in her speech. Stay tuned to Milano’s blog and SGPIA’s Twitter for updates on a number of events planned for this April and May, including a discussion of the civil war in Syria by journalists Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami.