Oscar-nominated Lebanese film director Nadine Labaki received the 2019 Issam M. Fares Award for Excellence at MEI's 73rd Annual Awards Gala on November 12 in Washington, DC.


Thank you so much for this great honor and thank you Paul Salem. Thank you Middle East Institute, really, for thinking about me for this. This film felt for me like a duty. So when I am when I'm receiving this kind of honor. I feel a little bit awkward because I felt this film like a duty. I felt if I stayed silent and if I adapted to the situation of those children that I used to see in Lebanon, struggling every day of their lives, either working or selling gum, being, you know, dragging heavy weights or working in a supermarket as a delivery boy or not being able to go to school, not being able to write their names because they don't have the means to go to school or because they are stateless or because they don't have papers or so that this film really felt like a duty to me. And it was my own little revolution. That's why I made this film. I felt like I needed to break the silence. 

But I'm here also today to talk about another revolution, a revolution that is happening in my country, Lebanon. I know most of you know and and I see that there's a lot of...[Applause] 

I recognize lots of Lebanese faces here, so I'm going to tell you that I've been struggling a little bit for the best two days with the thought of leaving Beirut in the light of the current situation. And as you know, also today, there was a lot of turmoil and I'm not going to get into the details of it. But there's a young man, a young revolutionary hero that died today. And Lebanon is in a state, and all the young men and women who have been in this revolution for the past twenty eight days are in a state of shock and in a state of of anger. 

A few days ago, I found myself with my husband. We found ourselves sitting on the concrete in the middle of a crossroad with complete strangers, beautiful students, young and women citizens of my country. I just recognized among them a few familiar faces. But the rest I had never seen before. My heart was pounding like crazy as the security forces were approaching us to break the demonstration, hiding behind their shields, their black hoods and their helmets. They looked like some kind of big, scary iron machine approaching us in slow motion, just like in a movie. My heart was pounding like crazy. I had never been in a situation like this before. What happens in those kinds of situations? How do we react? Then slowly, in a very natural survival instinct mode, the women take their position in the front row and in the end sit in the front row. And the young ladies sitting next to me on each side slide their forearms into mine, and we cling very tightly to each other, forming a human shield while still sitting on the floor. I suddenly start feeling this strange energy filling me up, the secret communion with two perfect strangers. I didn't know what their names were and who they were. All I know is that I felt our energy melting into one another. This original bond that links us all together as human beings. 

As the machine approached us, menacing and starting, pulling, pulling us away from each other, trying to break the shield, we started looking straight into the eyes of the machine. We looked into those eyes for a very long time and chanted peacefully, "We come in peace. We come in peace." Then slowly, the miracles started happening. The machines started calming down, slowly retrieving to stand a few meters away, facing us. Its loud roaring became a human, heavy breathing, and we started to discern beautiful lost eyes behind the shields and the hoods. Here they were, beautiful Lebanese officers, Lebanese citizens just like us. Not machines, not robots. They had just stopped lost, tear-eyed, not knowing how to react, how to deal with us and how to deal with the orders. With the orders coming from up there, the orders coming from the ones with the machine hearts and the machine minds. They stood there shoulder to shoulder for hours. While we sat there becoming our guardians while we chanted peacefully for our rights. And those few hours while we sat there, I understood the power of unity. The power of good. The power of will. The power of the mind. The power of peace. The power of love. The secret bound that connects us to each other in spite of everything. And most importantly, the power of fighting. Fighting for what is right. Not with arms, not with violence, but with flowers and will. 

Each one of us was fighting for a different reason. We were fighting for clean water, for electricity, for fair job opportunities, for everyone's right to education, for identity, for clean food, for clean air. We were fighting for tolerance, for equality, for proper healthcare, fighting for those 60,000 Lebanese children roaming the streets of Lebanon. Those I spoke about in this film doing the most difficult jobs on the streets and in factories. We were fighting against exploitation, fighting for our mothers' rights, for our children's rights, for our elders with elderly rights. Fighting against child marriage. Fighting for social justice. Simply fighting for our rights. And no one can take this away from us, no matter how ugly the game of those in power will get. They will never take this away from us. 

This is why I believe in this miracle. I have never seen so much hope, so many smiles, so many debates, so much art, so many brilliant ideas and minds, so much dancing and chanting, so much strength, so much resilience, so much talent, so much sense of belonging, so much unity, than in the past 28 days. This revolution unraveled our pretension, our genius, the potential of our youth, their creativity, even in the turmoil and the hardship, I have never felt safer because my country is going to be in good hands. My country is coming out of the chaos I described in the film. 

And at the same time, I have never seen as much hopelessness and helplessness and inefficiency and fear in what we call our ruling class. I have never felt as much disgust for our current systems. [Applause]. 

If you ask me who is ruling Lebanon today, I tell you it's the people. It's not the politician. Not with violence, not with hate, but with great sense of citizenship, with the wit, with peaceful resistance. The most beautiful kind of resistance. The power is back in the hands of the Lebanese. And now when I look back at the Lebanese faces here, I think that I'm also here on a mission. I'm on a mission to bring you back home with me. 

Lebanon needs you. Lebanese here who have lost hope, who have surrendered, who have given up to find a better life and a better place, you need Lebanon now as much as Lebanon needs you. Lebanon needs you physically with your knowledge, your education, your energy, your talent, your goodwill. Come back home with me for a day or a weekend. Come spend Christmas. Let us start the mission of turning Beirut into the most festive city in the world this coming Christmas. 

The road will be long and full of obstacles, but the journey is worth it. When you see that determination in the eyes of the hundreds of thousands of people and students in the streets of Beirut, you will know what I'm talking about. It's a whole generation that has decided to take its destiny into its own hands. Those that we call millennials have decided to take back Lebanon and never let it go again. They will be the ones who will sit under the trees that you will plant today. And they won't allow a future any less bright than what they deserve. Come be part of the birth of our new nation, a new Lebanon. The way you have always dreamt it. Come own the land, a house, or a tree under its sky. Come visit it every year. Let your kids spend their summer there. We are all on a mission. This is the brick in the wall of humanity that is for us to add. Let's make this little dot on the map that is called Lebanon a true inspiration to the world. Thank you. 

I just want to tell you one more thing. Every night at 8:00 p.m., all of Lebanon, everybody gets out on their balconies and then they start hitting on pots and pans to make our voices heard. Today, I want you all to hit on anything you have here to make noise and also to pay tribute to the beautiful hero that died tonight. Thank you. 

Click here to see full award presentation, including introduction by Nijad Fares.