In the midst of the protests across Lebanon this month, Samer Hajjar, a professor of economics and marketing at Balamand University, and some of his colleagues set up a banner and a tent in Al-Nour Square in Tripoli, Lebanon, and began to hold discussions with anyone who wanted to come and talk about solutions to the country’s problems. (The Arabic name of the effort, “Madrast Al-Mushagheen,” or “School of the Rioters,” refers to an Egyptian comedy about a group of defiant students and how one teacher was able to make them become better people.)
The discussion tent was one of many similar efforts by professors across Lebanon. (See a related article, “In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians.”) Al-Fanar Media interviewed Hajjar about the school’s goals:
Why did you start this initiative?
Let me not say “I” but “we” to begin with. When we went down to the streets we noticed that people protesting were coming from different areas, backgrounds and points of view. So, we thought that this space should become a place to meet to talk to each other and to find solutions together. In our sessions, we are not highlighting only the problems but we are actively seeking solutions to those problems, solutions that come from the people themselves, especially the underprivileged people whom we don’t always have contact with, nor do we know exactly what they are facing in their daily struggles. Those are the people who are really affected by what is happening in this country. If those people were included and saw that there is a chance for real change, then we’ll see a commitment to change.
What is your ultimate goal?
The aim is to have a respectful debate and come up with ideas and solutions with a positive approach. Change is everybody’s responsibility, and we seek to spread awareness about change-making in this country and spread the philosophy of change, whether collective or individual. The ultimate goal is really to listen to the people and connect to their concerns.
How does what you do help the protesters reach their goal?
Well, the mere fact that we are here thinking about the country and its future will mean that after we get out of the street the “revolution” will continue. Especially when we publish the results of these sessions into a list of ideas and suggestions, those who participated will feel involved and probably more committed to change. We are not really thinking about the current slogan of taking down the system but rather the long-term vision.
Are people interested? What are they interested in? Who is coming to the sessions and how are you reaching them?
We are really surprised how much people love the idea. I am getting dozens of WhatsApp messages from people whom I don’t know, many from outside Lebanon, asking me to summarize what we talked about in our sessions. It seems there is a collective thirst for such sessions. And it is really people from every walk of life, school students, Ph.D. holders, people in syndicates [unions], businessmen, I really mean everybody. We are trying to go to the people on the street and engage with them, talk with them. We are there, after all, and that’s making people come to our sessions.
What is your academic and activist background?
Well the idea first came to me and my colleague Samer Annous, we are both university professors at Balamand University, and most of those who are helping with this initiative are university professors. But really, I feel the real credit goes to the people who are participating—that is what’s important in this initiative.