Sunday, November 20, 2016

126.549 Lebanese today in Baabda

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126.549 Lebanese are going to Baabda today. Many are them are no longer with us. But they live on through their names, signed 27 years ago on a giant Lebanese flag. After being hidden during the Syrian occupation, this flag is finally returning to the presidential palace to take its rightful place.

In December 1989, a group of citizens decided to make a giant Lebanese flag and ask people to sign on it. Nagy Khoury, a member of this group, remembers: “After the popular sit-in started in the Baadba presidential palace, we wanted to make a strong political statement in support of Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty. The idea was inspired from the original Lebanese flag signed by the founding fathers.”

Hand painting the flag's cedar in Samir Khayat's workshop

The group in 1989, from left to right: Lena Bonja, Nagy Khoury,
Sophie Khayat, Fadlo Dagher, Rony Richa, Grace Rihan,
Fouad Hanna, Georges Arbid, Nassib Chedid
The group 27 years later

The giant flag – 15m x 10m – was divided in five parts, spread in five different areas of Lebanon’s last region still controlled by the Lebanese army and the country’s legal government. For 36 hours, people showed up in numbers to put down their signature. Many signed with their blood and many more came from areas under Syrian occupation.

“I remember a man coming from West-Beirut with his two young children, Nagy Khoury recalls. Obviously, children or anyone under 16 were not allowed to sign – we wanted it be a real political statement made by responsible people, not just a mere stunt to collect as many signatures as possible. So this man insisted on having his children by his side as he signed the flag. While he was writing his name on the large fabric, he told his children: look what your father is doing and remember this moment, I’m signing on Lebanon’s second Independence.”

According to Nagy Khoury, the French polling company, Sofres – Société française d'enquêtes par sondages – said that if they managed to get 50.000 signatures, it could be considered as a clear popular plebiscite for the legal government led by Michel Aoun and for Lebanon’s independence from foreign occupying armies. But they didn’t get 50.000 signatures, they got more than twice that number, 126.549 signatures to be precise!

The giant flag was then put back together and carried on foot to the Baabda presidential palace. Right before October 13 1990, it was removed from the palace to be cleaned up. Then, after the Syrian invasion, it was hidden to protect the signatories’ identity. 15 years later, in 2005, when the Occupation ended, it was finally freed from its hiding place: a small built-in cove under the stairs in Leila Habr’s house. 

Leila Habr and Nagy Khoury freeing the flag 
from its hiding place in 2005

Today, after the election of Michel Aoun as president, it will finally take its rightful place in the presidential palace. “This is a very moving moment, Nagy Khoury says, the legacy of all the people who signed this flag lives on, as the battle for Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty is not completely over and should continue until the country is totally free of foreign meddling in our internal affairs.”

The flag reaching the presidential palace in 2016

Personally, I can’t help but think of all the people who passed away since they signed on this flag, and how their names will now be officially part of Lebanon’s history. A very moving moment indeed.

© Claude El Khal, 2016

Photos courtesy of Nagy Khoury