Director's Address 2019

As I am writing this address the world has shut down and so has Lebanon and the
Orient-Institut. SARS–CoV–2, the new coronavirus was discovered for the first time
on 21 February 2020 in Lebanon in a human being infected with respiratory disease
COVID–19. Exactly one month earlier, on 21 January, an interim government of technocrats
(which in Lebanon means the second tier of political personnel endorsed by the
ruling coalition) had been appointed. This partially fulfilled the demand of the popular
movement which had been shutting down the country since 17 October 2019 with
peaceful protests and roadblocks. Initially charged with solving the huge economic
and political crises which had accumulated over the last thirty years, the new government
found itself confronted with yet another, global one, the Corona pandemic and
reacted swiftly and determinedly by locking down the country officially and a good
bit earlier than most countries worldwide. This led to a flat curve and a low number
of infections and deaths. To date the Lebanese have been following the lockdown
measures in good spirit and with the remarkable resilience acquired and tested in many
crises before.

The OIB is operating under lock-down, with only a small emergency team made up of
IT, housekeepers, a part of the administration and the directorate coming regularly to
the institute. Half of the German staff has left, the international researchers, including
the visiting fellows have stayed and the OIB's research community continues to meet
on a weekly basis through video conferencing, email lists and other communication
So, while the year 2020 began with an official lockdown, 2019 had ended with
inofficial shut-downs.

A new generation of Lebanese, growing up in post-Civil War society, had already in previous
years taken to the streets to voice discontent. Already in 2005 after the assassination
of former PM Rafiq al-Hariri, but especially in 2015 in Lebanon's "waste crisis"
new civil society actors and movements had sprung up and made their voices heard.
Frustration over the many shortcomings of the political and economic situation in the
country flared up again in October 2019, when the government decreed a tax on
the messenger service whatsapp which is used widely throughout the world, for free.
This was obviously the last straw and on 17 October the squares and streets of Beirut
began to fill with protesters which soon comprised all age groups and layers of society.
The economic crisis has been smoldering since at least autumn 2017, when then PM
Saad al-Hariri resigned in Saudi Arabia in front of a TV camera, which he took back soon
after. From this point on, there was an ever-increasing outflow of capital in hard
currency from Lebanese banks by rich Gulf investors, which in spring 2019, still largely 
unnoticed by the public and concealed by politicians and the central bank, became
virulent. Until October 2019 it was still possible to invest dollars in Lebanese banks
at eight percent interest and many Lebanese as well as foreigners were holding deposits
of all sizes in Lebanese banks. A system of burdening the state by reselling the investments
to the central bank, which financed them with government bonds for decades
has made Lebanon the third most indebted state. The government reacted to the crisis
by raising taxes which outraged large parts of the population fed up with suffering
from a lack of government services and all the while witnessing the increasingly brazen
self-enrichment of a number of their ruling elites.

The social movement (al-thaura, al-intifada) of 17 October 2019, which for the first
time ever in Lebanon's history encompassed all cities and regions of the country and
did not remain centred in Beirut only, was also a remarkable eruption of creativity,
of imaginative protest also in the artistic and educational field, organized by a network
of civil actors and based on the minimal consensus of national unity – only the national
flag was allowed, only the national anthem, any expression of party and sectarian
group affiliation was prohibited. The demonstrations often resembled large parties, but
were marked by remarkable tenacity and perseverance, especially when it came to road
blockings, which paralyzed the country with the aim of achieving a general strike.
The banks immediately seized the opportunity to close their doors for weeks on end,
trying to blame the popular movement for their home-made crisis.

The protest movement brought down the government of PM Saad al-Hariri, who
resigned on 29 October 2019 in response to the movement. The transitional technocratic
government which includes six women in important ministerial posts, works
independently as far as the space it is acting in allows, and quite transparently. The
new government's decision not to service the Eurobond debt for the first time was
a responsible one and could be, in the best of cases, the first step in a restructuring
of the banking sector, the economy and politics in the country – in other words, a long
overdue reform of the state – admittedly after a serious crisis and now in the midst
of a severe worldwide recession following the pandemic – a giant challenge which the
country cannot shoulder without support from outside.
Since 17 October 2019, the OIB thus has been functioning throughout different kinds
of emergencies. Our partners, the universities and other scientific institutions, closed
their doors for weeks on end, the cultural institutions (including the Sursock Museum)
closed in solidarity with the protest movement. The ever-changing roadblocks made
it difficult for employees from outside Beirut or from more distant parts of the city to
reach their work place. At no time were these roadblocks dangerous, even though many
older Lebanese felt reminded of the civil war and Western media reveled in martial
images of burning car tires (a ritual of protest, which in Lebanon originates in the civil
war, but is known to be widespread throughout the region). At the OIB, a variety of
measures taken allowed us to function. We kept the library open throughout and only
cut down on our public events in line with our partner research institutions.

The year saw some new and vigorous interaction of the OIB with the Max Weber
Foundation. Activities started off in January with the WeberWorldCafé in Berlin, under
the OIB's theme of the year: neighbourliness, i.e. relations within neighbourhoods.
In May then, for the very first time since the OIB joined the Foundation in 2002, its
committees convened in Beirut. All the directors of the OIB's nine sister institutes, the
members of the advisory board of the MWS and the representatives of the Ministry of
Education and Research, enjoyed the hospitality of the institute and the city of Beirut.
The program outside of committee meetings included a very interesting evening
with fellow researchers from some of the OIB's partner universities and research institutions
who impressed the German colleagues with the variety, high professionalism
and excellence of Lebanon's academic institutions. The delegation also went on a
historical tour along the former green line in the hotel district, guided by the director
of the OIB. An optional program after the meetings further impressed the guests with
Lebanon's attractions, not least its cuisine. For nearly all of them it was their first time
ever in Lebanon.

Directly following these meetings and to save on international travel, we officially
kicked off the research project "Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students
in the Eastern Bloc, 1950's–1991" with our sister institutes in Warsaw and Moscow
whose directors had come to Beirut, and the roughly a dozen international young
scholars making up the research group. Fruitful discussions and highly interesting interaction
between all participants made the kick-off a successful and enjoyable event.
Looking back, it turned out to be a stroke of luck that our big event, the international
Annual Conference of the Max Weber Foundation in December had been planned for
Cairo and not Beirut – and thus did not have to be cancelled.

Since the theme of neighbourliness had garnered a lot of interest, and not everybody
found it easy to travel to Cairo, we organized an attractive sequel in Germany.
In addition to this Annual Conference the OIB organized, co-organized and hosted
eight other conferences and workshops, with topics ranging from Digital Humanities
and open access publishing to Politics of the Machines, Politics of the Archive,
Cultural Heritage in Conflict, Self-Representations of the Mediterranean and Changing
Neighbourhoods. Our institutional partners were DFG (German Research Association),
AGYA (Arab-German Young Academy), TRAFO (Forum Transregional Studies)
and Lebanese universities. Of course, as everywhere else in the country, our program
also suffered losses – quite a few planned activities, from lectures to workshops, had to
be cancelled in winter. We were pleased that our panel discussion with colleagues from
Lebanese universities on the 100th anniversary of the publication of Max Weber's text
"Science as a Vocation", also written in turbulent political times (in 1917), materialized
and was very well received and attended by students who were, at this point in time,
usually rather out on the street.

The OIB hosted two exhibitions, one on "Contested Landscapes, Emergent Archives"
with an impressive video installation and wonderful short documentary. The other
exibit was the work of German students and Syrian refugees from Erfurt University
on the brief "Syrian spring" of popular protest in 2012 and the so-called peaceful
revolution in the GDR 1989 which was scheduled to be exhibited at the Goethe Institut
later in the year – which did not materialize as this cultural institution also closed its
doors in solidarity with Beirut's cultural institutions and the popular movement.
Within the institute, we embarked on new and unprecedented endeavours. For the
first time in living memory (and thus probably for the first time ever) we undertook
a thorough library inventory – a mammoth task. The project was responsibly and committedly
led by Dina Banna and started in the summer after the departure of the library
director. The slowing down in the library in autumn was a chance to finish the work
in the library's magazines until the end of the year. The library team received solidarity
and support from all over the house (all employees helped with alternating shifts
one day a week). The new head of library, Dr. Hans-Peter Pökel, having had a penchant
for libraries all along his career and several years of library experience, also chipped in
even before he officially took up his post. We are currently devising a new concept for
our research library, focusing on its holdings as a research theme in its own right.

A new event was added to our activities: the Book Fair. In order to bring some relief
to our overflowing book depositories a substantial number of books was sold with
buyers flocking to the institute from all over Beirut.

There were also twenty-five visiting fellows at the institute, a very international crowd
with exciting projects, as every year. A special feature was expanding the Hans Robert
Römer fellowships. We welcomed a Yemeni colleague and opened a special section of
the fellowships for scholars from Iran.

One more success needs to be proudly mentioned. Nadia von Maltzahn was awarded
an ERC Starting Grant for her project LAWHA – Lebanon's Art World at Home and
Abroad: Trajectories of Artists and Artworks in/from Lebanon since 1943.
We are looking back at an exceptionally eventful year with a rather dramatic turn of
events at its close. To steer the OIB successfully through all its activities and events
was only made possible through the hard work, dedication and solidarity of all of its
staff, researchers and non-researchers alike. I am truly grateful to them all.

Written in Beirut under lockdown,

Birgit Schäbler

(From the yearly report 2019)