© Vyacheslav Argenberg, Beirut, Lebanon, 2008, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
We walked over to the olive trees, he and I. There were three of them, and some little holm oaks. On the horizon, to the east and the south, you could see mountain ridges, and in the two other directions it was so wide that you couldn’t make out the boundary of the plot. The fellow had offered me another one, with a sea view, and I had replied that I didn’t care. I can look at the sea often enough, every day at home, and if I’m going to be in the mountains I might as well gaze up at the peaks and the canopy of sky above them, with its ballet of stars at night. I don’t think he understood a word I was saying. He was strapped into a kind of vest, with a buttoned-up shirt underneath it, although it was already starting to get hot. When we got past the olive trees, walking through the dry grass that sometimes covered the remains of hardened furrows, toward a little tumbledown shack that I’d like to have rebuilt, he asked me if I could possibly pay him in cash. I burst out laughing and asked him how he thought I could get hold of dollars in cash. He didn’t comment. We had agreed on payment by check. He was just trying his luck. A few days ago, I asked Jad why landowners would ever sell their assets for cashier’s checks, and he replied that it’s usually because they have debts they need to repay as soon as possible, before the complete collapse of the pound. As for me, I want my every last penny out of the bank.
When I got home, Mariam announced that the washing machine was making a weird noise. And indeed, the noise was disturbing—a kind of regular clacking, almost rhythmical, to the beat of the rotating drum. I had actually just gotten it repaired a few days ago, the day before yesterday in fact. So I called the repairman, who didn’t answer, of course. These details of daily life which are out of our control are frustrating and make me angry. It’s easy to get angry these days.
On social media it’s always the same thing, inexhaustible, ad nauseam: economic collapse, the bankruptcy of the country, capital control, exchange rates, the pound in free fall, inflation, and penury lying in wait for us all.
We couldn’t find a table at any of the pubs on Badaro Street. Only two of them are shut. The others are packed. In the end Marylin, the manager of Super Vega, found us a table for four, and the six of us squeezed in together. Social distancing is sometimes a purely theoretical notion. The music was pleasant and there was a group of young women at the next table over who were screeching with laughter. One of them was trying to get her handbag off the back of her chair, which was almost stuck to Pierre’s, and she elbowed my margarita glass, spilling it all over me. She stood up, wanted to apologize, was about to dab my shirt with a napkin, but then stopped short when she realized this might be taken the wrong way. We laughed about it, and she often turned around with open curiosity over the course of the evening, sharing our conversation and laughing at our jokes or Joy’s puns. We spoke to her a few times, inviting her to turn around completely, which she eventually did. Our table and the one she was sharing with her friends gradually became a single table. One of her friends told us that she had been living in France but then decided to come home for good. She had sold the only asset she owned in order to do so—an apartment in Paris. She had been planning to start a small business here with the money. But it was now inaccessible, and she had the feeling that she didn’t own anything anymore, just like most of us here. It almost made her laugh. When she found out that Nayla, my wife, is a psychotherapist, she wanted to know whether it was normal that she didn’t feel much anxiety at the thought of having lost everything, and that all she’d been doing was cooking—for example, in the last few days she had been experimenting with all sorts of new and different ways to use sumac, as a seasoning for fried eggs, of course, but also braised sturgeon and ray wings.
“Where do you manage to find ray wings these days?” Pierre asked, as dumbfounded as the rest of us.
“I don’t,” she replied. “I make virtual recipes.”
I spend my day running from one bank to the other, converting dollars into pounds at the official exchange rate, then comparing that to the banks’ rates, then to the changers’, then to the black market rate, doing calculations, planning my expenses half in checks and half in cash, going by the changers’ rates or the black market, before getting completely muddled and giving up on the whole thing. My wife said the other day that if the entire population could put to better use just a fraction of the energy that it now spends struggling out of the trap set by our broke government and failing banks, then the country could be back on its feet within forty-eight hours.
The economic machine is breaking down, retail businesses are almost bankrupt, and yet the city has been seized by a frenzy of activity since this morning, just like in the glory days of its suddenly vanished opulence. The gridlock is no worse than it was back then, even though the traffic lights are out because of the electricity shortages. And where the lights are actually working, police officers are controlling traffic and encouraging drivers to ignore them, directing everyone to move at the same time with grand, raging gestures, as if they were vengefully making a point of reminding us that order no longer reigns, so why should anyone even bother respecting these last damned surviving traffic lights. The drivers are astonished. Some, like me, resist, under the officers’ resentful eyes. They seem aware and ashamed that they have become representatives of the general chaos and the failure of the state, and are going above and beyond what’s actually necessary, as if they were furiously smashing a prized object to pieces to punish themselves for having carelessly chipped it. I talked to my wife about this when I got home, she didn’t seem to care about the feelings I was ascribing to the traffic officers. She doesn’t like them and even before the economic crisis she thought that they actually tend to be the cause of the gridlock rather than anything else, that they always complicate any situation they are in, that city traffic is like a natural process, it always ends up regulating itself, and that human intervention only disturbs it and makes it more complicated.
There is something fanciful about chance, something tragic even. It was exactly a hundred years ago, in 1920, that the nation of Lebanon was founded. One can only wonder at the irony of fate that brought a country to its ruin on the same date as its birth, at the very moment when its centennial is about to be celebrated. How far back should I go, in those hundred years, to trace the genealogy of this disaster?
Lebanon, the arrogant little Switzerland that claimed to be the heir of an ancient or even biblical nation, collapsed for the first time in 1975, after thirty years that tend to be idealized today. In fact they were thirty years of struggle, conflict, and undeclared wars to establish the country’s identity. The Christians considered it as rightfully theirs and as having been founded for them. They refused to share any real power with the Muslims, who demanded what they thought was their due, while aspiring to align the country with the grand Arabist and Nazirite plans. The Muslims allied themselves with the armed Palestinian organizations; the Christians saw this as an existential threat, armed themselves as well, and then the whole thing blew up.
Nowhere else do those “thirty glorious years” deserve their name more than in Lebanon at that time, despite all the discord. As much for their dates—1945–1975, that is, the thirty years of the first Lebanese Republic, which followed the twenty-five indolent years of the French Mandate—as for the heights of opulence that the country reached during that period. Beirut’s cabarets and nightclubs were the most famous in all the Middle East. In those days, Dalida, Jacques Brel, and Louis Armstrong performed in the theaters and the Casino du Liban, while the monumental temples of Baalbek were the backdrop for performances of the Beethoven symphonies conducted by Otto Klemperer and of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea. Jean-Paul Belmondo frolicked with Jean Seberg in the corridors of the Hôtel Phénicia, Louis Aragon stayed at the Hôtel Palmyra, spies from all over the globe held assignations at the famous bar in the Hôtel Saint-Georges designed by Jean Royère, while Oscar Niemeyer was busy building the Tripoli exhibition center inspired by the one in Brasília. But Brigitte Bardot was not well pleased with any of this, and decreed after a film shoot in Beirut that she was disappointed, that it was too Westernized for her taste. She probably expected to find camels, donkeys, and belly dancers around Moresque fountains. But no, people danced the twist and rock ’n’ roll, waterskiing, and miniskirts were all the rage, and this all reached its paroxysm at the beginning of the seventies, just before the collapse. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, pitched battles were being fought between the Palestinian militias and those of the Christian parties, and the government had no control over the south of the country. At the time we were like people living at the foot of a volcano, cultivating our fertile land, working hard to get rich, enjoying the good times, while hearing the regular roars from the belly of the earth, feeling the tremors under our feet, and paying no heed, just shrugging and pretending that it had always been this way and will be for a long time yet. Until the day it was all gone.
The outbreak of the civil war in 1975 came like the reckoning of all the accounts and miscounts of that first Lebanese Republic. In the early years of the conflict, the militias were fighting with something almost like popular consent: their members were considered as heroes sacrificing their futures and their lives for the common good or a worthy ideal, whether this was the defense of Lebanese identity or the exaltation of its Arab greatness. But this didn’t last. The Syrian interventions from 1979 onward, then the Israeli ones in 1982 and the overturning of the chessboard that they led to, and especially the extended duration of the conflict, inevitably transformed the first armed groups into regular militias, then into quasi-professional armies. The behavior of the combatants changed, too, and many of the first volunteers on the battlefields decided not to continue fighting because of the erosion of their original ideals. The enthusiastic young men from the beginning of the conflict were gradually replaced by career soldiers of sorts. The osmosis with the general population slackened, then a real hostility toward the militias started to appear on both sides, and in the same way in both camps, without this hostility coming into plain sight. Just as naturally, the historical politicians, the leaders of the first republic who were also the main proponents of the war—Pierre Gemayel, Camille Chamoun, Kamal Jumblatt, or Saeb Salam—were gradually overwhelmed or eliminated, then supplanted by a new generation, not of politicians but of warlords: Samir Geagea, Elie Hobeika, Walid Jumblatt, or Nabih Berri. Their various militias and the countless clients that prospered in their orbit bled the country dry for a decade, through racketeering, trafficking scams, and the control of the half-bankrupted public infrastructure, notably the ports and airports. Which explains why the rise of General Michel Aoun, the commander in chief of what was left of the legalist army, made such a big impact, and why he generated so much enthusiasm. This reckless and clumsy braggart promised, in grand waffling speeches, to cleanse Lebanon of its militias, then to rid it of the Syrian presence. But after bloody and pointless battles, instead of succeeding he managed only to complete the ruin of the country, to unite all the militias against him alongside the Syrians, and to allow the Syrians to get rid of him and gain control over the whole country by ending the war by decree.
A few days ago, my daughter Saria got her driver’s license in the most absurd circumstances: she couldn’t sit the written test because of the lack of electricity in the examination center. She practices every day, driving me around on my various errands. She manages very well with the confusion caused by the missing traffic lights and the bizarre attitude of the police officers, but dreads the tunnel going down to the waterfront, which is plunged in perilously opaque darkness because of the failed electricity supply. Sometimes as we pass by, I point out a few ridiculous details of what is now our daily life, and yesterday, in fact, as we drove past a large bank, there was an incredible barricade surrounding it like a stronghold. She asks me questions about the situation, about her future, and whether there is any chance we would let her go abroad next year so she can continue her studies, as a number of her friends are doing. The dreams that young people like her have of leaving, even though they were attached to the country until only recently, are the topic of some of our most distressing and awkward conversations.
But yesterday, we were talking about something else. At her request, I had just explained a few complex issues from our recent history to her, notably the civil war, and she surprised me by declaring that in fact, to summarize it all, this long and complex war between the Lebanese people had actually been won by … the Syrians. I had a good laugh about this at the time, and even conceded that this singular paradox did contain the whole truth. At the end of the armed conflict, those who came out the winners were, in each camp, those who were the closest to the Syrians or had backed them or sought their support at one stage or another. Hobeika, Berri, Jumblatt, or the Hezbollah chiefs, those “new” men who had already bankrupted the country during the conflict, would be able to share out the fabulous cake of its reconstruction, on the condition that they delivered a portion of it to the Syrian military leaders. After granting themselves an amnesty during a memorable vote in the first postwar Parliament, they began the installation of a vast network of control of the new state, in collusion with their old wartime chiefs of staff and the many clients gathered around them.
The second collapse was the inescapable result of the very principles of the second republic, and the mutation of warlords into “politicians.” Right from the start, in the euphoria of the return to peace and the expectation of fabulous opulence, the tentacles of a gigantic system of siphoning funds allocated to the country’s reconstruction were efficiently put in place. The mechanisms of dubious contracts, institutional racketeering, insider trading, fake invoicing, corruption, and complicity were brought up to operational speed very quickly at all levels of the state sector, which was overhauled for the sole purpose of enriching the people colonizing the country or those who had become its foreign masters. Useless construction sites sprang up, giving the impression of a beehive at work, slush funds became routine, along with favors and kickbacks, percentage deals, shared projects, fictitious jobs, and the clientelization of local communities.
The only real newcomer among the converted warlords at that time was the businessman Rafic Hariri, who was made prime minister after an agreement sealed between the Saudis (the financial backers of the reconstruction) and the Syrians (the keepers of the peace and unofficial occupiers of Lebanon). He arrived on the scene with genuine ambitions to rebuild the country, despite his questionable taste in urban planning that nearly transformed Beirut into a kind of megalopolis like those in the Gulf emirates. I don’t know how much he allowed to happen, how much he was forced to do. He apparently used rather undemocratic means to strip the owners of the city center of their properties, granted himself a few privileges and off-book accounts, and plunged Lebanon into debt. More importantly, he was forced to work alongside the old Syrian-backed warlords who were now his peers, and to reluctantly offer them high-ranking sinecures in public office and astronomical payments for tender contracts. But even that was not enough, he was still not considered sufficiently docile. His assassination in 2005 provoked what was—although it is rarely described as such—the first real Arab revolution. Millions of Lebanese people in the streets expelled the Syrian occupiers from the country. Our naive belief at the time was that we were getting rid of those responsible for the widespread corruption undermining the government, that everything was going to be fine from then on, and that this second republic would serve its citizens at last. The enemies of Syria came out of the shadows, Aoun the braggart returned, and his followers saw this as the second coming of the Messiah, or of de Gaulle after the Occupation. Alas, politicians of all persuasions—newcomers as well as former allies of Syria who had kept their positions—renewed their old alliances or created new ones that had no other object but to preserve the oligarchy’s control of the government, which continued to be profitable, extremely profitable.
All this lasted for thirty years. Maybe there is a riddle to be solved in the dates that define this country’s history. Because thirty years, from 1945 to 1975, is also the time it took for the first republic to collapse. Another thirty glorious years, from 1990 to 2020, duplicated the preceding ones. Beirut became the party town and center of nightlife for the entire Middle East again, and maybe even of the entire Mediterranean. You would see more Porsches and Maseratis here than in Beverly Hills. It was a good place to be rich, but you could also become rich in art and design just as well as in business or real estate, and the banks offered such mind-boggling interest rates that it was an El Dorado for annuitants. Nothing was produced anymore, agriculture was abandoned, industry was nonexistent, people lived on imports, and the government decided to borrow U.S. dollars from the local banks at absurd rates, in order to finance large-scale projects. The debt reached thirty billion, then forty, then fifty, and the interest alone was higher than the GDP. But Roberto Alagna was singing at Beiteddine, Plácido Domingo at Baalbek, and the Miss Europe contest was held in Lebanon. Once again, we were dancing at the foot of a volcano whose threatening roars everyone refused to hear, or on the edge of a precipice into which we finally fell.
—Translated from the French by Ruth Diver
Charif Majdalani was born in Lebanon in 1960 and is one of the most important figures in Lebanese literature today. After living in France for thirteen years, he returned to Lebanon in 1993 and now teaches French literature at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. His novel Moving the Palace won the 2008 François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française as well as the Prix Tropiques.
Ruth Diver holds a Ph.D. in French and comparative literature from the University of Paris 8 and the University of Auckland, New Zealand. She won two 2018 French Voices Awards for her translations of Marx and the Doll, by Maryam Madjidi, and Titus Did Not Love Berenice, by Nathalie Azoulai. She also won Asymptote’s 2016 Close Approximations fiction prize for her translation of extracts of Maraudes, by Sophie Pujas.
Excerpted from Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani, translated by Ruth Diver. Published by Other Press.
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