Remember the Great Fear of March 2020? Remember the empty supermarket shelves, stripped bare of pasta, loo-rolls and flour? Many Brits feared that this was the End of Civilization as We Know It, like in a horror film.
Charif Majdalani’s book is a useful corrective to such needless panics. Last year, people living in Beirut really did see the collapse of a civilization, and Beirut 2020 is a gripping, perceptive account of the process.
Majdalani is a Lebanese novelist and lecturer. His account was written over two months, July and August 2020. It fuses autobiographical mini-memoirs, novelistic scenes drawn from street encounters and daily life, and political observations in seventy-five short chapters, some no longer than a single paragraph. He is obviously a complex and sophisticated writer: Ruth Diver’s translation is pretty good and is a success overall.
Spiraling into Crisis
A Preface for English-language readers sets the historical and political context. Lebanon was created in 1920 by a whim of French imperialism: the aim was to create a Christian-majority enclave within the Muslim Middle East. On independence in 1945, Christians—Catholic, Maronite and Greek Orthodox—constituted the ruling bloc, but the Muslims (both Shi’a and Sunni) grew in numbers and importance. A unique political system, which Majdalani terms “confessionalism,” evolved to accommodate this situation: political power was shared out according to the relative strengths of the diverse groups, Christian, Muslim and Druze. The President was Christian, the Prime Minister was Muslim, and so on.
At first sight, this doesn’t seem a bad idea: it accorded each faction a place in the system, and thus guaranteed political stability. It even offered a degree of flexibility, accommodating the demographic rise of the Muslim population. But, over the decades, confessionalism developed into a framework simply to divide out the spoils. Political groups and factions ceased to be structures to represent public opinion upwards, from the people to power, and became instruments to create clients and dependencies, through which those with power secured and fixed the loyalty of those below them. The period of Syrian domination (1990-2005) changed the position of some of the players, but didn’t change the framework.
“Mafias” and “militias”
Lebanon is ruled by a mafia-like edifice, in which corruption is rampant and warlords and puppet political factions rule, to the point where the state no longer functions. Majdalani’s anger and frustration at this situation is expressed through some furious, bitter prose.
“In thirty years [since 1990], 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.” (p. 81)
At the same time, the creative arts boomed. Lebanon’s nightclubs and cafes became famous throughout the Arab world and beyond. Beirut was a great party town. As Majdalani notes ”it was a good place to be rich.” (p. 34)
In the late 2010s, inflation soared, the local Lebanese currency lost all meaning, social services were cut to the point where they became non-existent, electricity was only supplied for a few hours a day—and sometimes not even that—and the water supply was disrupted. All this happened despite the expenditure of $40 billion on the electricity supply and similar amounts on water.
One simple and revealing demand by protestors is the computerization of the state’s accounts: a digital system would reveal exactly where the money was going. In the past decade, money—and wealth in all its forms—has acquired a hallucinatory quality.
While, in theory, Majdalani retained funds in his bank accounts, his bank refused to allow him to empty his account in dollars, although it would permit the withdrawal of small sums of money in the local Lebanese currency. Majdalani reflects: he renewed his house insurance for the year for the (old) cost of a bottle of tequila, but a new computer monitor cost as much as his son’s and daughter’s annual school fees.
Beirut 2020 also details some of the small changes to daily life: for example, electric anti-mosquito coils, which are put into a plug-point are no longer sold, as the electricity supply is so unreliable. Instead, pharmacies sell the old coils which need to be burnt—ones that Majdalani can remember from his youth.
“Apocalypse Now” brought to life
On 4 August 2020 there was a massive explosion of a stockpile of illegally-stored combustible material in Beirut docks. Majdalani was writing his journal on his balcony when this happened: poignantly, he wrote just one unfinished sentence for that day. The damage caused was unimaginably horrific.
“In five seconds: two hundred dead, one hundred and fifty missing, six thousand injured, nine thousand buildings damaged, two hundred thousand homes destroyed, as well as hundreds of historic or heritage buildings and four hospitals, ten thousand retail stores, workshops, stalls, boutiques, restaurants, cafés, pubs all reduced to rubble, scores of art galleries and studios belonging to painters, sculptors, stylists, designers, architects all swept away. In five seconds.” (p. 141)
The two districts closest to the docks—the Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël districts—were the merchant and migrant districts during the twentieth century. In the early twenty-first century they were transformed by the development of architects’ offices, painters’ studios and art galleries. The best of Beirut’s traditional architecture was carefully preserved, and new, imaginatively-designed projects developed alongside. These two districts were the centres of Beirut’s creative energy: they housed its “art, beauty [and] intelligence” (p. 155), built up against arrogance and ignorance of Lebanon’s power elites.
All of this vanished in a few seconds.
Majdalani sees the explosion as the culmination of decades of misrule.
“Six years of lack of transparency and accountability, the result of thirty years of corruption and lies, of mafialike practices, of collusion between the various arms of government, the various ministries, political parties, and their clients, of devious geopolitical scheming and sinister warmongering by bloodthirsty, criminal militias, all this was concentrated, condensed in the most terrifying manner, and generated that five-second apocalypse.” (p. 144)
No one in Lebanon believes that the existing government has the will or the capacity to repair this damage. Under these circumstances, even apparently apolitical grassroots initiatives to reconstruct battered buildings acquire a political, radical edge.
And then, finally, Covid.
Against All Odds . . .
How do people live under such circumstances? Majdalani gives several pointers. Firstly, the sense of disillusion and despair with all political parties leads to some sense of trans-confessional solidarity. After the explosion, there’s a flood of young people volunteering to clear up Beirut. Secondly, social media becomes a vital channel for communication: this is only available instrument to hold the rulers to account. But, thirdly, despair and agony are common. Many young people want to leave Lebanon. Majdalani’s wife works as a therapist, but grew so depressed by the situation that she developed her own, new form of self-therapy.
One conclusion to draw from this work is obvious: if you think you’ve got problems . . . Every British person reading Beirut 2020 should feel grateful that they live in a country where the gas, electricity and water usually work and where political corruption is a shameful exception rather than a blatant norm. But more importantly, Beirut 2020 demands urgent, creative political thinking. How can it be ensured that this situation is never replicated?
Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilisation, A Journal by Charif Majdalani, translated from the French by Ruth Diver | HB 174 pages ISBN 978-1914495038 | 22 July, 2021. Mountain Leopard Press/Welbeck, London
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Sharif Gemie was a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary History. He mainly researched minorities and marginalized peoples, including Bretons, European Muslims, Galicians, refugees and female teachers. He has reviewed texts for Modern and Contemporary France, International Review of Social History, Diplomacy and Statecraft, American Ethnologist, European History Quarterly, Manchester University Press, Routledge, Liverpool University Press.
His book, The Hippie Trail: A History, co-authored with Brian Ireland was published by Manchester University Press in 2017. His first novel, The Displaced, about a British couple who volunteer to work with refugees in Germany in 1945, will be published in 2022.
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