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WhatsApp, Lebanon? Go behind the scenes

‘They are leading the story; they are narrating their stories.’

Rafik El Hariri/TNH

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It took six months of thinking, planning, and reporting to create WhatsApp, Lebanon? – The New Humanitarian’s illustrated timeline of Lebanon’s collapse through the conversations of five people. 

While it has been nearly two years since the 4 August 2020 Beirut port explosion, Lebanon was in economic freefall far before that. The crisis has occasionally made the news – on the day of the blast or when the currency hit a particularly low point. Yet as 80 percent of Lebanon’s population was thrown into poverty, journalists and journalism struggled to cover what was happening on a personal level to millions of people.

That’s what we thought made WhatsApp messages an excellent – and untapped – reporting tool: Such conversations are a way into moments journalists just don’t see or hear. But asking people to share their exchanges had its challenges, too.

Middle East Editor Annie Slemrod and WhatsApp, Lebanon? Project Coordinator Zainab Chamoun sat down to talk about what they learned along the way, including why they wanted to focus on the humans behind the headlines; the risk of traumatising participants by asking them to review years of WhatsApp messages; and how they came to question the traditional relationship between journalists and their sources.

As Slemrod said: “What I liked about this project is that I had nothing to do with what people said, it had already happened. So I couldn't shape it. It made me think a lot more about the value of listening.” 

Chamoun explained it this way: “I feel like this project was empowering, in a way. I felt a responsibility. I felt like it was time to support the people that are sharing stories with me.”

This is an edited version of their conversation. You can watch the whole thing here:

Annie: WhatsApp, Lebanon? is a timeline of Lebanon's collapse that doesn’t just focus on dates and events but on the people behind the news headlines — on the conversations that they were having on WhatsApp throughout it all. When I came to you and said, “Zainab, I have this crazy idea. I've tweeted about it. And that's about it.” What did you think?

Zainab: When you first told me about this idea, I was really excited because this project is about personal stories. And for me, in the field of journalism, personal stories are the most authentic and genuine source of information. They are also very relatable. 

I also loved it because it's going to produce an archive, one that’s locally rooted by people who live in the country. They are leading the story; they are narrating their stories.

It was really important to me to include people who live in Lebanon and are not Lebanese. They are part of the social fabric of the country, and they have their own experiences that can say a lot about what's happening in Lebanon. 

Annie: At the start, we thought we would crowdsource tweets from people and that would be the story. Then we realised that not many people responded, or that we wouldn’t necessarily get the cross-section of society or diversity of perspectives that we were looking for. We eventually landed on having five people contribute. And then it wasn’t easy finding five people who wanted to go through their WhatsApp history and share it with the public. You found those participants. How did that go?

Zainab: People were really cautious with sharing. It's a new idea, and people, especially in Lebanon, and in our region in general, are very concerned about personal security. They are worried that if you are critical of the government or saying things in public, you might be in danger. I had to explain via WhatsApp voice notes about the project. This project is called WhatsApp, Lebanon? and most of the work was actually done over WhatsApp!

Annie: You've been on WhatsApp constantly.

Zainab: Going through WhatsApp chats is not an easy thing. It's overwhelming sometimes. And it triggers past trauma. So we wanted to be thoughtful about that. 

That’s when we came up with the idea of selecting five profiles. So we have Afaf in Tripoli; Bassel is from the south and lives in Beirut; Roger, he’s Syrian; Mohamad, he’s Palestinian. And Roza, a migrant worker.

Annie: We also had one person who we were really excited about but she had given her phone to her mom, so those messages were all gone.

Zainab: All the data disappeared, all that archive. Another challenge was finding someone from the migrant community. That was really challenging – because vulnerable communities suffer the most [from this crisis], and they are the most cautious, especially because of the “kafala” (sponsorship) system.

Annie: Right. To be a migrant domestic worker in Lebanon, you have to have a sponsor. Usually, this is through an employment agency. The kafala system means that your job and your housing and your food is dependent on your employer, and they can take your passport away. It's a system that's very easily abused. You spoke to quite a few migrant workers who were interested, then their sponsors ended up saying no, right?

Zainab: They refused. The kafala system is like owning the life of the migrant worker, owning their decisions. I was so upset. But then through connections I met Roza, who ended up contributing. There were delays because sometimes I needed to visit her at her work. And she's so busy. Roza works from 8am until 8pm. 

Annie: One of the things I learned is how hard it was for people to go through their messages over the past few years. This crash has impacted almost every part of life. It made me think a lot about what we as journalists were asking people to do. We realised we needed to pay the participants for their emotional labour. How has it been for you to relive these past few years alongside these participants?

Zainab: Sometimes it made me feel sad. But I was pretty focused on making this happen. I had electricity problems, fuel problems, sometimes I’ve struggled with the WiFi, not being able to reach the [contributors] easily — but I tried to be focused on the final outcome. I wanted to make this happen, and turn it into something really beautiful and honest that tells what is happening.

I feel like this project was empowering, in a way. I felt a responsibility. I felt like it was time to support the people that are sharing stories with me, and not the other way around.

And just reading their conversations was supportive for me, because there was this sense that we were all part of this, we are all experiencing the same feelings, we are all going through the same things, I'm not alone. So in a way, it was also comforting. 

Annie: One of the things I’ve been thinking about a lot is that, as a journalist, especially a foreign journalist, we come in to write a story, and when we ask questions we already sort of know what we want people to tell us, or at least the subject. 

What I liked about this project is that I had nothing to do with what people said, it had already happened. So I couldn't shape it. It made me think a lot more about the value of listening to people. 

That also came into play with the illustrator [Rafik El Hariri]. His experiences really drove the art direction of the project. I'm excited that we have a Lebanese illustrator, who has been through all the stuff that you've been through, and these five people have been through. 

One of the things we asked the contributors was: “What has Lebanon’s collapse changed most about your life?” Can I ask you the same question?

Zainab: I'm more attached to my family and to my hometown [of Nabatiyeh, south Lebanon]. I lived in Beirut during the explosion, the summer of 2020. When the explosion happened I was alone in my apartment. Now, I’ve moved back in with my parents.

I’m less resilient to sounds, like aircrafts. These are sounds I lived with all my life, but that was exceptional, that day. I cannot explain how scary the sound was, I was really scared and I was alone.

Another thing is that, surprisingly, my urge to leave the country has disappeared. Before the collapse, we had this accumulating crisis. I always thought I would leave for a PhD, and maybe spend the first 10 years of my career abroad, save money, and have this opportunity to live life without having to worry about the smallest details. Now, I’m more attached to this country, because I feel like I am losing it. 

Annie: How many times have the two of us been talking and your electricity has cut out? I can’t count. I do get the sense of pushing through. But I feel like the word resilience is overused because it suggests you have to keep going when it’s ok to feel really depressed or anxious about the situation.

Zainab: And the word resilience romanticises the crisis in a way. If we are surviving, it’s not because we are resilient. It takes effort. 

Annie: The backdrop to this whole collapse — and this project for The New Humanitarian — is what a lot of people call the October 17 revolution, which marks the first day in 2019 when there were really big protests. There was also a WhatsApp aspect to the protests. On the first big day of the protests – the media was probably overplaying it – but they were saying people were protesting because of a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls. Can you explain that? 

Zainab: They wanted to add a $6 tax on WhatsApp calls. People use WhatsApp calls because our telecoms network is one of the most expensive in the world. So it was a relief to have long conversations with little money. If you have WiFi, you can use WhatsApp.

WhatsApp is free worldwide, and now in Lebanon they want us to pay? That was hard to comprehend. People weren’t protesting about $6. It was just that this is too much. That was what triggered people. We have this small escape and you want to take that away? You don’t have the right to do that.

Annie: And these days I’ve seen a lot of people using WhatsApp to ask for things that they need, because in pharmacies, for example, there are shortages of medicines. They are asking for really specific things. In our piece there's someone who got a message looking for baby formula. Do you get messages like those too?

Zainab: Of course. There are groups not only for aid in terms of things like medication, but for employment too; for everything, even for fuel: Which station is operating, or which is closed? And the black market is on WhatsApp too: there are groups for exchanging dollars. It’s used for all sorts of things, even selling fuel illegally. 

Annie: That’s one of the messages. Bassel says “Where is the black market? And how do I get there?” Of course he was joking.

Zainab: What’s your favourite message? 

Annie: It's really hard to choose. The messages from the bank, just about how long the wait is. I feel like those come through to me really strongly because I can imagine how it feels. I've been frustrated at the bank, and I'm not living in an economic crisis. 

And there’s the one where one of Afaf’s friends asks her how she’s doing. And she says she just used a word to describe how she feels she’s never used before. “I’m devastated.” For me, that sums it up. 

Annie: What’s your favourite message?

Zainab: It's the one by Mohamad, when someone asks him, “Do you love Beirut?”' And he says: “Where you go, Beirut is in your heart, or your soul.”

When I read that, I found it fascinating, because he's Palestinian. Their situation in this country is really bad. But I could relate to the sentiment. 

Annie: What do you want readers to get out of this piece?

Zainab: For people here, and people who are connected to Lebanon in some way, including the diaspora, I want them to feel that they are not alone. They are not suffering alone – not that suffering is fine, but there is a kind of comfort knowing that we are together. 

I want them to see that the Palestinian and the Syrian and the migrant worker who live in the country are also human beings, and they have their own suffering that might be worse than what we are going through, because they are minorities. 

I also want them to get that this Palestinian, this Syrian or Palestinian refugee, they are not the cause of the crisis. Because this is one of the narratives that is being circulated, that people like them are a burden on the country. But they are not the source of the crisis. They are suffering from the crisis, just like we are.

We have much more in common than all the obvious differences that the political system or everything around us tries to focus on. We are not that different. We are just human beings who are suffering together.

Edited by Josephine Schmidt.

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