Zena el Khalil

Hashtag Virgin 2006 -

Mixed media, 25 x 25 cm
2010 -- ongoing


In 2006 as I watched the first Israeli bombs fall on my city, Beirut, I knew the media would be slow to report… and they were. Everything happened so quickly, and I truly believed I was going to die that day. I pulled out my computer to write an email to all my friends. I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted them to know exactly how and why my death would occur. However in circumstances like these, it is incredible how hope and the perseverance of the human spirit prevails. Maybe there was a slim chance I would make it through the night. Like Sharazade, I believed that sharing my stories could keep me alive. I was afraid. What they don’t tell you about bombs is how loud they are. Your whole house shakes. You feel your bones collapsing.

As dawn broke, the bombs stopped and the birds began to sing again. Nature is far more powerful that our human silliness. I sent out the email to everyone in my address book and caught about two hours of sleep. When I woke up, my inbox was flooded with positive responses. The international media got in touch. I understood that the best way I could fight this war was to become a witness. I couldn’t reply to everyone to let them know I was ok, there were just too many emails and interview requests. A friend suggested something called a blog. I had no idea what that meant at the time. He set it up for me. I began to write, I began to blog. I became a witness. And the world listened.

Back then I had no idea how important the internet was to become to the Arab world. This was before Twitter and the Iranian elections of 2009. A new war started that summer, an online one entrenched in citizen journalism, public opinion and of course, electronic activism.

In December 2010, I started following hashtags. It was my first time. I was a hashtag virgin up until then. So much was happening in Egypt and I had no idea where to start. So, I started with #ghonim and #tahrir. Over the course of the next two years, I was able to live the revolution my parents dreamed about 40 years ago. From Beirut, New York, Rome… I carried the Arab Spring on my phone and in my heart. And once again, I found myself diving into online activism believing that one person, one retweet, could make a difference.

My artwork is a by-product of political and economic turmoil, focusing on issues of violence, gender and religion and their place in our bubblegum culture. I try to expose the superficiality of war, creating an alternate reality. Consumerism and war. They are one and the same. The plastic I use in my paintings are made from oil. The same oil mankind is at war for. I don’t use glue in my work, I use tiny pins - thousands of them. In a way it reflects the instability of my region. At any point in time, one could rearrange my paintings to tell a different story.

I started creating these pieces to document the hashtags, people, events and protests I was following. Years from now so much of what we now call the “Arab Fall” may be forgotten. But I hope that through my humble contribution, people like the courageous Mohammed #Bouazizi will live on in our hearts and minds and continue to inspire us to stand up for what we believe in. After all, “courage is contagious.”



Zena el Khalil, born year of the Dragon, is a visual artist, writer and cultural agitator based in Beirut. Her work includes paintings and immersive mixed media installations. Through her collective, xanadu*, she runs a small publishing house that supports young poets in the Middle East. During the 2006 invasion of Lebanon, she was one of the first largely followed Middle Eastern bloggers; and was published by the international press. Her book, Beirut, I Love You, is translated into several languages and is in the process of becoming a feature film. In an attempt to spread peace, Zena is often seen running around Beirut in a big pink wedding dress. zenaelkhalil.com