I first thought that the sudden disappearance of all those anti-mosquito coils you burn to get rid of insects was linked to the general shortages in the supermarkets. Then Nayla made me realize that it probably had more to do with the fact that it was impossible for many households to use the usual devices that you plug into a power socket, since there is hardly ever any electricity at all in many neighborhoods, especially at night. So we’re back to using the good old burning coils, which have now disappeared from the market because of high demand — collateral damage of the economic crisis, but also of the COVID-19 pandemic. For I am firmly convinced that the worldwide slump in industrial activity and the lower pollution levels that allowed nature to reboot during the three months of lockdown all over the world have given a new unexpected vigor to plants and insects.
And so now we are suddenly defenseless against the bugs. A few days ago we were having dinner with Gilbert Hage and his wife at their place, and Gilbert, who is always easygoing and good-natured, with the girth of Winston Churchill and a chewed cigar permanently hanging from his lips, disappeared for a moment inside the house, then came back into the garden where we were having our meal, holding one of those coils which he lit up with the end of his Partagás. I told him this was a strange thing to do. He retorted, with his usual offbeat and unpredictable humor, that these coils were now so exclusive that you couldn’t possibly do them justice with a simple matchstick. I then told them how the smell of these strange green products, whose smoke rises slowly into the air like incense, had been part of my childhood, especially during my summers in the mountains. Everyone around the table seemed to have the same memory. Then I recalled reading in Gabriel García Márquez that in the West Indies they used to burn dried cowpats to get rid of mosquitoes. Gilbert said that the burning green coils were in fact made out of compressed cow dung, with an artificial fragrance. The economic crisis in Lebanon, I said to myself, has led to the not-so-fortuitous encounter, at the home of a great photographer, of Churchill and a coil of compressed cow dung.
or the thirty years of the second republic, one of the most coveted contracts was for trash collection, and even more so for the management of public dumpsites. Obviously the tender involved endless manipulations, nontransparent transactions, and clientelistic maneuvers. The dumpsites were finally awarded to someone close to the Hariri family — who has since become a billionaire, along with the rest of his entourage — who respected almost none of the terms of his contract, notably regarding the sorting and treatment of the waste material. The landfills turned into huge mountains of trash, cliffs of filth collapsing into the sea at several points along the coastline, with a smell that throughout the years has often spread all over the towns and the whole seacoast like the malevolent spirit of a power that is rotten to its core, while we go about our business, work, study, shop, or have parties on the rooftops and in the trendy nightclubs, some of which claim a certain cachet from being located right up next to these cursed mountains. All the alternative plans for burying the waste or building incinerators were abandoned because of conflicts of interest. Some people say this was no bad thing, because incinerators or burial projects would just have led to the theft of more millions of dollars, the construction of inoperable factories, or even greater calamities for the environment. In 2015 a popular uprising took the ruling political class to task for the first time, because of what was called the trash crisis. Those in power got away with it through covert repression, by infiltrating the protestors and ecological groups or those fighting corruption, and reduced the movement to silence. Everything went back to normal, the stink prevailed, but that didn’t matter since the garbage was still earning millions of dollars.
A few years ago, a literary journal asked me to write a dystopia set in Lebanon or the Arab world. I came up with a story of wide-scale real estate speculation in Beirut, of which there has been so much in the last few years, of ultramodern skyscrapers and business centers built by the mafias connected to those in power on land reclaimed by compressing and dumping millions of tons of trash into the sea. A shadowy business world, covered in gold leaf and knee-deep in garbage.
We had dinner at Pierre and Nada’s last night. There were twelve of us, which was probably too many for social distancing, but miraculously, the subject of the economic crisis didn’t come up once throughout the whole evening, as if a benevolent genie were floating above us or we were graced with the presence at our table of the Homeric gods, those creatures who influence events with crude but effective stratagems, rendering the words of an Achaean leader inaudible during a banquet, or a Trojan fighter invisible in the midst of battle. We thus kept the country’s collapse and our own anxieties at a distance, for the space of one evening. When the topic came up of the trash that hasn’t been collected for a few days now, the gods of Olympus did their work and a former secondhand bookseller changed the subject by telling the story of how he sometimes bought huge stocks of books, hundreds and hundreds of volumes, some of which had no value whatsoever, and he put them into the closest dumpsters in his neighborhood, only to find them again a few days later, offered for sale by rag-and-bone traders who had picked them out. He then decided to dispose of those useless acquisitions in more distant garbage dumps, in other neighborhoods, but the books came back, inescapably, as if by sorcery, or like a practical joke played on him by some laughing god.
When the topic of COVID-19 came up, with the possibility of a new lockdown that would finish the job of ruining the country once and for all, the Olympian gods reacted just as effectively, and Pierre, without changing the subject, transported it elsewhere, telling us with a straight face how he knew who Patient Zero was, the guy who had carried it out of China, and that he had almost met him. It was a colleague of his who was working in Bergamo. The guy had traveled to Singapore, where he had had meetings with Chinese industrialists from Wuhan. When he got home to Italy, he had met with his company representatives from Mexico, Madrid, and Paris, whom he must have infected, and then they flew home and had more meetings. He had done the same in Bergamo — including spreading the virus to people who the next day would attend the notorious Atalanta-Valencia match — which is now considered the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe. He was then supposed to fly to Dubai, where he had a meeting planned with Pierre, who was there at the time. But he had felt flu symptoms and canceled his trip at the last minute, greatly disappointing Pierre, who had thought him rather fickle and fragile to cancel a business trip just because of a little fever. If the meeting had taken place, it would have been Pierre who brought the virus into Lebanon, and not that pilgrim woman from Tehran.
For a few days now, the new COVID-19 case numbers have been rising steeply, and there are rumors that there will be a new lockdown. It’s like a bowling game for all the businesses and retail, where the ball is thrown again and again with ghastly regularity until everything left standing is eliminated. Any business or retail store that managed to pull through the first period of the economic crisis, capital control, and the collapse of the markets, had to suffer another shock: enforced isolation and the complete shutdown of both internal and external trade. Those who came out of it unharmed are now fearing the new lockdown, which would be like the final assault, the coup de grâce.
The spontaneous protest movements are not subsiding. They are made up of shock troops of young, tirelessly mobilized activists, who are occupying the ministries and the public service offices, settling in with their masks and their slogans, demanding to meet the ministers or the department heads, essentially to insist they quit their positions because they are not discharging their duties honorably. The police responsible for security in public places are apathetic and leave the protestors to it, observing them, sympathizing sometimes. But the ministers and senior public servants are never even there, or abscond early, or scuttle away through the service exits.
This morning I was coming out of the office of a friend of mine who had offered to make her errand runner available for some of our administrative formalities around the purchase of the land in the mountains, when I saw a woman sitting on a large threadbare couch, in the shade of a dumpster, sorting parsley — parsley which, in contrast to the worn couch and the grubby dumpster, looked fresh and almost poignantly green. She was wearing a black dress, her head also in a black veil that covered her mouth. A Nawar, surely, one of those mysterious people some consider to be the Asian cousins of the Roma. Maybe she had tattoos on her arms, gold teeth, and piercing eyes, I couldn’t tell. She was very busy with her bunches of parsley, enjoying the faded and tattered old couch while she had the chance, before a junk dealer would find it and chase her away to claim it. Nawar women are generally fortune tellers, and many of their people are also beggars. But it’s a fact that for a few years now they have been supplanted in the streets by a vast deployment of a new contingent. At every intersection, women, little boys, and old men have developed a whole economy of the outstretched palm. According to a study published in 2015 by UNICEF, the ILO, and various NGOs, the overwhelming majority of these newcomers — who are even more numerous and just part of the urban landscape now — are of Syrian origin, driven away from their homes by war and violence. Children in rags as young as eight or nine, teenage boys, fourteen-year-old girls with babies in their arms, old women too — a whole insistent world, prowling, banging on car windows, simpering, pleading, or walking past full of contempt for your indifference. Many of them are born here, in abandoned building sites or squatters’ rooms or on the street, and are therefore completely stateless, abandoned unto themselves, the fruit of broken relationships, displaced families, or shotgun marriages. Many of them are apparently also victims of exploitative mafia groups.
One evening a year ago, a little girl who was already a mother, holding her baby in her arms as she might have held a doll if she had been born under other skies, planted herself in front of my wife’s car window, at a traffic light, on Bechara el-Khoury Avenue. My wife always keeps a few cookies and candies in reserve for this kind of situation, and bread too if possible. But the young beggar didn’t want them, she asked her to get hold of some diapers for her instead. Taken aback at first, Nayla, who had Saria in the car with her, hesitated, then finally went to a pharmacy nearby. She found the beggar again thirty minutes later, delivered her order to her and took the opportunity to try to ask her where she was from. The little mother muttered something incomprehensible, then pointedly turned away without showing any gratitude or giving a satisfactory answer. But by then she had been joined and set upon by other girls just like her, all carrying infants and coveting her diapers.
A few months earlier, curiosity had prompted me to lower my car window and ask a teenage girl, at the intersection of Verdun and Tallet el Khayyat Streets, where she came from. She spontaneously replied, “Aleppo.” I tried to find out more and asked which part of Aleppo. The young girl threw me an aggressive look, then went to beg from another car, without answering me, as if I had been very rude to her. These children obviously lie to hide a much more complicated origin than they are prepared to admit to, or they simply don’t know where they come from, either because they arrived here when they were very small or because they were born here. The birth rate of this population is apparently staggering. The Lebanese government has never taken any interest in them, letting poverty, domestic violence, ignorance, and no doubt also drug use and prostitution flourish. Today in the general collapse, the fate of this enormous population already abandoned to its own devices is difficult to imagine. The unruly young men who loiter, shout, and beg as if it’s a game to them seem to me to be ideal recruits for new gangs or militias. The nightmare scenarios of the future are already locked in place.
Since biblical times, Lebanon has been seen as a beacon by the peoples of the Orient, by invaders from the East as well as those living in desert oases or in Palestine or Mesopotamia. It was the only known mountainous region, whose summits were said to bring men closer to the gods, or to the one God, and of course there was snow and water and infinite verdant valleys, with cataracts hurtling off cliffs, and gorges where cold torrents flowed. This natural paradise with its abundance of water and greenery led Lebanon to be compared to Switzerland in the Romantic period. For most of the twentieth century it was still seen as a dreamland by tourists from all over the world, especially by the global Lebanese diaspora, whose nostalgia for the sweetness of life in their homeland transfigured its mountains into places of legend.
Snow, torrents, water in profusion, and eternal greenery: for many years these features of the landscape were leitmotifs of the national narrative. For decades it was repeated that water was Lebanon’s oil, in other words its precious fortune — an inexhaustible fortune, what’s more, unlike the neighbors’ petroleum.
Except that now there is no more water, just as there is no more electricity. Of course this is not a new development, we’re old friends with taps running dry. But if this occurred even during the time — now seen as blessed — of the first republic, that was because the government of the day had taken no real initiatives to avoid water shortages at the end of the summer. During the thirty years of the second republic, on the other hand, there were countless projects. Numerous dams were built, destroying the mountains, the natural sites and landscapes, laying waste to valleys, gorges, and arable land. Many of the dam reservoirs dried up, because of leakages due to faulty construction or inaccurate land surveying. Opinions on their usefulness vary, but what is beyond a doubt is that nothing is known about the billions of dollars that were spent on them, involving fake invoices, cooked books, and gigantic amounts of siphoned-off funds. According to all the hydrogeologists I’ve spoken to, there is not a single one of these projects that was costed lower than at least five times its real value, and all this for final results that were always below acceptable norms. This is how it goes in other areas as well: roads, bridges, public buildings. No documentation is ever demanded of the corrupt companies involved, which are always linked to politicians. As for the regulatory agencies, they receive spectacular bribes to close their eyes to the huge irregularities they find. Or if they wish to keep things legal, they are excluded from the public contract tendering process and reduced to bankruptcy.
This morning I saw the first water truck making a residential delivery. It was parked in front of a building on Trabaud Street, in Achrafieh. The hoses were stretched up onto the roof of the building, the pump’s motor was whirring away, making an infernal racket. Nobody knows exactly where this private water sold without any legal authority comes from, or which aquifers are being pillaged with no scruples or oversight. But soon, with the summer coming on, this spectacle will be repeated in every street, for days on end — with, in the background of the picture, mountains rising up that were once the water reservoirs for the entire Middle East.
With the truck blocking Trabaud Street, I had to reverse out and take another route. Just before I started backing up, a passerby stopped in front of my open window and announced gravely that soon there would be no water at all, not just in this season every year, but all the time, because there would be no more fuel oil in the filtration and distribution plants.
he destruction of the landscape, the forests, and the mountains didn’t start with the construction of the dams. It started well before that, and is one of the irreversible consequences of the civil war. It is rare to see a conflict leading to an intense increase in building projects which, paradoxically, had more devastating effects than the destruction and ravages of the war itself. But that’s what happened here, where paradoxes abound. During the civil war, total deregulation, anarchy, and the absence of any oversight in applying the laws led to wild urbanization, stimulated by population shifts, speculation, and conspicuous consumption caused by the influx of money from arms and drug sales controlled by the militias and by the intense development of unregulated commercial practices.
Far from being brought to a halt by the return of peace, the deregulation that led to breakneck urbanization and irremediable ecological destruction continued during the ghastly second republic, when all excesses were legalized, as long as they earned money, always money, more and more money. I described all these mechanisms in my novel L’Empereur à pied, which very few readers interpreted as also being about the destruction of the environment and the devastation of a country through the physical violence inflicted upon it. For thirty years, the construction of monstrous buildings disfigured the towns and mountainsides. Individuals and groups who had been close to the militias, and who had become developers and unscrupulous billionaires in the orbit of power during peacetime, grabbed whole stretches of the coastline and beaches, then built them up and privatized them arbitrarily. The same species of men gutted, smashed, and carved up whole mountains to extract the sand required for cement factories, and these quarries caused ghastly holes to appear in some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes. In 2008–2009, an advertisement financed by environmentalists portrayed Lebanon as a beautiful young woman receiving repeated blows, injuries, splinters, wounds, until she is completely disfigured and a horrifying sight. The commercial was so disturbing it was banned. Denial was still strong, and no one wanted to see what was going on. And yet the disfigured face of the country was always there before our eyes, and the work of destruction was increasing every day. Mind-boggling contracts continued to be signed, and monstrosities continued to be built against the law. Laws closing the quarries enacted by force were flouted and the despoiled public beaches were never restored because they belonged de facto to members of the caste that held the government hostage.
he total impunity of this caste also allowed its principal leaders to endow themselves with the priceless gift of an off-book fund each, fed by government revenues but unanswerable to any auditing, any accounting requirements, or any documentation of expenditure. Berri awarded himself the fund for the development of the southern region, Jumblatt the one intended to finance the repatriation of people displaced by war, and Hariri the one for the reconstruction of Beirut. These funds allowed them to finance their political goals, to buy the loyalty of their factionalized clients, and to enrich their principal fiefs by encouraging embezzlement, fictitious projects, and padded invoices. The depth of the black hole they caused in public finances is still unknown today, as is their undoubtedly enormous contribution to the general downfall. At the same time, one government after another gave the pretext of all kinds of difficulties to avoid having to pay the relatively modest sums they owed by law to municipalities, social security, or organizations supporting disabled people. Of course it’s true they weren’t that profitable.
What were profitable, very profitable in fact, were the port and the customs service, through which thousands of tons of goods passed every day, as well as the airport, the motor vehicle registration service, and the Casino du Liban. At one time or another all these institutions also had their own off-book funds, whose accounts were never subject to any kind of scrutiny for over thirty years, and where more than twenty billion dollars are said to have disappeared.
n thirty years, the entire country became the private hunting ground of the caste of oligarchs in power, which established a relationship with the citizenry similar to a mafia’s, offering protection, guarantees, and small opportunities to all those who asked for them, and preventing any form of access to government officials except petitioning. This oligarchy created excessive factionalism in the state sector by confiscating all public services and their administrative apparatus, putting a stranglehold on all ministries, municipalities, and other public entities, then dividing up areas of responsibility along religious lines. All this resulted in, among other aberrations, the padding of the bureaucracy with tens of thousands of newly created fictitious jobs, which put a considerable strain on the public purse. To say nothing of the fact that entire pointless organizations continued to exist, and to be provided with directors and secretaries and orderlies to this day. The administration service for the railroads, for example, is still operating, although there has not been a single rail or a single train anywhere in the landscape for sixty years. A mysterious “office of the flag,” no doubt intended to ensure that all representations of the national flag accord with the rules set out in the constitution, costs millions. And salaries are still being paid to public servants who have been dead for eons, along with lifelong indemnities to the descendants of all members of Parliament, unto the nth generation. It’s all very banana republic, and it would almost be funny, Kafkaesque, or absurd, if it weren’t coupled with the total indifference and arrogance of the oligarchy in power, which naturally never manages to agree on the government budget — not out of concern for the accuracy of the accounts, but because the shares of the cake are not considered equitable by one or another of its members.
This arrogance reached its apogee on January 22, 2019, during the Davos Forum, when a Lebanese minister, who was also the son-in-law of President Aoun, proudly declared that Lebanon could give lessons to the rest of the world on how to run a country, and could teach the great nations, such as Great Britain and the United States, how to govern without a budget.
Until the evening of October 17, 2019, we might still have believed that we would be living with all this for another hundred years. Of course there was the first civil uprising of 2015, during the trash crisis. But after that, for five years, only tiny groups of activists continued to protest, shouting themselves hoarse, bravely and pointlessly, until the fated evening of October 17. A week beforehand, there had been the wildfires and the scandal of the firefighting aircraft stuck on the ground because the money for their maintenance had evaporated. This had not provoked any street protests, only virtual indignation on social media. And then suddenly, on the evening of October 17, the government announced that calls on WhatsApp, a free platform, would be taxed. Another measure to camouflage, if only for a few weeks and in the most ridiculous way possible, the enormous fiscal hole and terrible impending bankruptcy of the entire state sector. The banks had already been dangerously teetering for two months. A minuscule tax, almost nothing, and the bucket, already filled to the brim, spills all over the place.
During the night of October 17, the ranks of protestors, who had been only a handful for years before then, swell considerably as they occupy the central squares of all the towns in the country. On the morning of October 18, all the main thoroughfares, the highways, the regional roads, and all the main city roads are blocked by burning tires and dumpsters. The schools and banks do not open and stay closed for weeks. In the afternoon of October 18, hundreds of thousands of protestors occupy Martyrs’ Square and Ryad al Solh Square, in the center of Beirut. In the following days, more than a million demonstrators are counted in the various gathering places throughout the country. The roads stay closed for several days. Over the following weeks the movement grows, as do the protests, with one single demand: the end of the current political class, the resignation of the government, and the appointment of a caretaker cabinet to manage the financial crisis. A few politicians, ex-parliamentarians or ministers, who declare themselves to be in opposition, are chased away whenever they try to join the protestors. On October 29, the Shiite militias and police auxiliary troops affiliated with the guard of the speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri attack the protestors. Saad Hariri’s cabinet resigns a few hours later. From November onward, the demonstrations end in confrontations with the police and sometimes directly with members of Nabih Berri’s Amal Movement. In the heart of the mountains, in the Bisri Valley where a dam was being planned, protestors are camped permanently to stop any progress on the project, and notably any uncontrolled deforestation. On December 15, the former prime minister Fouad Siniora is booed for forty-five minutes before the start of a concert at the assembly hall of the American University of Beirut and ends up being obliged to leave the venue. From that day onward, politicians and members of their entourages, who already assiduously kept a low profile, are systematically identified and chased away from public places, restaurants, and stores.
I called a repairman today because two of our air-conditioning units are having problems and are not cooling much anymore. He was a huge young man, with colossal strength, his face mask covering only a portion of his massive, fashionably trimmed beard. He groaned as he worked; I could easily imagine him carrying heavy beams around rather than fiddling with wires in narrow conduits and cleaning little filters with the ends of his chunky fingers. He was perched up on his ladder working away when Nayla came home from her practice and seemed surprised to find him there, as when you meet someone you know but not where you usually see them, which causes some confusion and a moment of doubt. He on the other hand didn’t hesitate, he recognized her immediately and seemed quite happy to see her. My wife, having made sure that he was who she thought he was, asked how he was doing. He replied that he was out of work, and that he had gone back to his first job as an electrician. Usually I don’t get involved with these kinds of sudden encounters because they can often be my wife’s patients, so I wait to be brought into the conversation, or not. Nayla’s practice doesn’t necessarily demand distance or neutrality. But I found it difficult to imagine, I don’t know why, that this big guy was one of her patients. In fact she asked him how his son was doing, and he replied: “Better, much better. They’ve lowered the dose on his medication.” Then he added with a laugh, his huge torso dancing up and down, that he was the one who needed sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs now, just like everybody else.
When he had started fixing the air-conditioning units, the man had told me he used to be a valet parking attendant before the financial crisis, and added that it used to be a lucrative job. I knew that; I’ve always hated valet parking attendants in Beirut. Before the collapse those guys were a real mafia, colonizing the busy streets where the bars, pubs, and nightclubs were, instituting their own laws, commandeering all available parking spaces, and then charging outrageous rates for them. Or they would take your car and you had to wait a long time before it was brought back to you, and you would have no idea what they were up to with it while you were having dinner or out late with your friends. They have mostly disappeared now, and I must admit I’m not at all upset about it. But I didn’t say this to my electrician, especially since his easygoing demeanor, his spontaneous cheerfulness, made me regret thinking ill of his colleagues. In any case, that’s how I realized, at the end of his conversation with my wife, that he knew her from the time, not so long ago, when he was a valet parking attendant and we used to go to Abd El Wahab restaurant on the street where he worked. I couldn’t remember him. But one day when Nayla went there by herself with some friends, he had found out she was a psychotherapist and asked her advice about his son, and she had referred him to a pediatric specialist. Every time he saw her and took care of her car, he would give her any news of his boy’s treatment, and she would listen to him patiently for several minutes.
When he finished repairing the air conditioners and I asked him how much I owed him, he looked like a little boy caught being naughty by his teacher. He couldn’t bring himself to name a figure; because of inflation it was such an enormous sum he was ashamed of it, and I found him incredibly endearing, despite his size, his beard, and his mask. I also guessed he was hesitant about asking for money out of consideration for my wife, who had helped him a lot, as he mumbled repeatedly. He seemed dazed in admiration before her. He’s not the first. We were standing in front of the French doors leading onto the terrace. As I was insisting he tell me his price without any further ado and repeating that he wasn’t responsible for inflation, a pigeon suddenly landed on the terrace railing, just a couple of steps away from us. We were silent for a few seconds as we looked at this unexpected, striking apparition, this sudden crystallization of a quivering animal staring at us and tilting its tiny head, presenting us with one of its inexpressive round eyes. Every time this scene occurs, I think of the first page of The Palace by Claude Simon, and of the description of the magical transmutation of a pigeon on a windowsill, in Barcelona, in 1938, a description that it occurred to me right then was probably inspired by the magnificent scene of the appearance of the stag in the middle of the forest in Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, which I had recently read. My giant electrician pulled me away from these fleeting thoughts, declaring that we would soon be so hungry we would end up eating these kinds of animals. I was thinking about the stag. He was talking about the pigeon. I replied that it would be a while before that happened, that we were too proud for that.
Excerpted from Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse by Charif Majdalani, translated by Ruth Diver. Published by Other Press.