The Uncomfortable Embrace of a Return Visit to Lebanon

After three years of economic and physical devastation and government paralysis, I came back to find Beirut more chaotic, crumbling and welcoming than ever

The Uncomfortable Embrace of a Return Visit to Lebanon
Christmas lights in Beirut, Lebanon, on Dec. 12, 2021. (Fadel Itani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

I just got back from my first trip to Lebanon in three years. It was the longest time I’d been away since I first moved to Beirut almost 20 years ago, and my absence coincided with the most destabilizing and tumultuous period in the country’s history since the civil war of 1975-90.

Shortly after my last visit in 2019, the government defaulted on a Eurobond loan, sending the banking sector, the value of the local currency and the economy into free-fall. After the first Covid winter of 2020, the festering neglect of Lebanon’s political class was laid bare in August of that year, when a cache of ammonium nitrate that had been stored at Beirut’s port for nearly a decade with the full knowledge of multiple politicians exploded, killing more than 200 people and causing billions of dollars in damage. As psychologically scarring and destructive as the port explosion was, the cumulative effect of the deliberate economic depression that has been “imposed onto the general population by the elite” since 2018 has been worse, wiping out the savings of the majority of the population and 15 years of economic growth, according to a recent World Bank report, which has ranked the country’s recent financial crisis one of the top three worst of its kind globally since 1850.

“The deliberate depression is creating long-lasting scars on the Lebanese economy and society: basic public services are failing; increasing numbers of Lebanese are migrating, especially those that are highly skilled,” the World Bank report said. “Meanwhile, the poor and the middle class, who were never well served under this model in the first place are carrying the main burden of the crisis.”

The toll of the deliberate depression was evident the moment we left the airport at 8 p.m. and drove down a dark highway toward our neighborhood, Mar Mikhael, about half a mile from the blast site. The lights of the Arab Bank building, which housed the offices of the English-language newspaper I worked at a decade ago, and the other high-rises that had been jewels of earlier reconstruction efforts loomed hulking and dark over the abandoned fleur-de-lis of Riad al-Solh Square and the Lebanese Parliament building. Though no one in Lebanon has relied on the state-owned power company for years, it used to at least supply occasional electricity to Beirut and parts of the country. Last year, the government turned the electricity on for an average of one hour a day.

Even well-off Lebanese must now contend with a daily regime of power cuts, which I experienced for the first time at our apartment every afternoon from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., as well as during a visit to one wealthy friend’s sweeping apartment in a leafy suburb of Beirut. My friend pointed to the darkened lights and joked in earnest that the pain of the last three years has been more democratic than previous national crises because this time no one has been spared.

Assuming nothing else as seismic as the port explosion occurs in future, my friend said that she has learned to live her life in the current climate, echoing a sentiment I heard often on this trip from those financially secure enough to have it.

After three years that were all about survival, most Lebanese who ever considered moving and have the means to have done so. Many who remain told me this Christmas was the first one in three years that wasn’t totally depressing. But the “new normal” looks very different for Lebanon’s elite and those with dollars than it does for the three quarters of the population who have been pushed into poverty by the banking collapse.

A video clip of a dad with a droopy Santa hat singing “Faloos Mafi Dad” to the tune of the Spanish-language Christmas carol “Feliz Navidad” was circulating over the holiday. Every time a family member asked the dad for something for Christmas, he sang back, “Faloos mafi dad,” which roughly amounts to “Dad doesn’t have any money.”

Inflation has soared more than 200% over the past year in Lebanon. Many expatriates and Lebanese working for international companies in the private sector now earn a percentage of their salary in so-called “fresh” U.S. dollars — meaning dollars transferred into the country from abroad — along with a fraction in Lebanese pounds based on one of the several parallel exchange rates that have emerged, meaning they are better equipped to deal with the escalating cost of basic services. But for those earning their salaries in local currency, life is increasingly unsustainable, and the mounting suffering of the nation’s most vulnerable has done nothing to break the political deadlock over implementing the economic reforms required to unlock $3 billion in bailout funds from the International Monetary Fund.

The fragile economic stability Lebanon achieved after the civil war relied on a steady stream of foreign currency into its banking system from the country’s ballooning diaspora, which allowed the government to sustain the lira’s peg to the U.S. dollar that was put in place in 1997. To encourage Lebanese working abroad to remit their money back to the country, banks offered inflated interest rates for foreign currency deposits and even higher rates to a small group of high net worth and well-connected clients. The bulk of this liquidity was used to buy sovereign debt, which for decades offered far higher returns than bonds issued by more stable countries. The arrangement made Lebanon’s banking sector very profitable and allowed the government to subsidize its skyrocketing import bill, but it discouraged productive investment in the economy in favor of real estate and financial products; turned Lebanon into a net importer and one of the most indebted countries in the world; and fuelled the unending brain-drain that has hamstrung Lebanon’s post-war growth.

Though remittances to Lebanon had temporarily dried up after previous crises in the past, like the 2006 war with Israel, foreign currency inflows had always picked back up. Yet, in 2016, the Ponzi scheme at the center of Lebanon’s economy began to collapse indefinitely and Lebanon’s government has been draining its foreign currency reserves ever since.

Many of the same politicians who presided over and benefited most from Lebanon’s post-civil war economic model continue to call for public assets to be mobilized to bail out the banking sector and the government, whose collective losses are estimated at more than $72 billion, or three times Lebanon’s GDP. But the value of Lebanon’s state-owned assets amounts to only a fraction of the estimated losses, according to the World Bank, and mobilizing taxpayer funds to bail out the financial sector would amount to a “redistribution from poorer to richer households.”

Escalating fuel prices meant lighter traffic in the early years of the crisis but, in December, Beirut was once again clogged with cars. It was easy to tell which drivers were headed to a mall or one of the expensive holiday pop-ups selling $15 socks and $20 artisan soaps and which would be waiting on a snaking gas line to fill up their tank. Every time we turned on the radio or the TV, the news would be about the price of gas, the high cost of living, the difficulty of heating the house, the failure to form a government or some sporadic protests. Over the past year, desperate Lebanese have stormed banks to recover a fraction of their savings to secure medical treatment or to demand that the bank honor the real market exchange rate rather than the official one, dubbed the “lollar” (a portmanteau of “Lebanese dollar”) early in the crisis.

Hardship is all over the country yet, for the duration of my trip, I couldn’t get a table at Beirut’s hottest new restaurant, Beit Kanz, even at the obscenely early hour of 8 p.m. In partnership with an NGO, Beit Kanz employs a rotating array of local chefs who use traditional cooking techniques and source food for its restaurant and artisanal products from small farmers across the country to support Lebanon’s embattled agricultural sector. It’s a familiar model that can be seen in many of the new NGO-funded retail and hospitality ventures that have emerged from the rubble of post-blast Beirut.

Meanwhile, in certain areas of downtown Beirut, the coastal towns of Batroun and Jbeil, and well-heeled resort towns like Faraya, the holiday festivities this year felt even bigger than I remember them, as if Lebanon’s upper classes and its swelling diaspora were trying to compensate for the past few years of destruction or the guilt of leaving it behind.

It was a marked contrast to my previous visit three years ago.

In October 2019, the government announced a tax on WhatsApp and other VoIP social media services, pushing nearly a million Lebanese of all socioeconomic and religious stripes to demonstrate across the country. The last time Lebanon had had protests this large was on March 14, 2005, a month after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. The so-called “intifadat al-istiqlal” (independence uprising) forced Syria to end its decadeslong occupation of Lebanon and gave birth to the political coalition that until recently presented the only threat to the dominance of Hezbollah.

Yet the 2005 protests reflected and amplified the dangerous sectarian divisions that have colored so many aspects of national life for nearly a century and that Lebanese politicians have so expertly exploited since 1990 to cement their dominance. By contrast, the 2019 uprising — the October 17 revolution, as it has since been dubbed — momentarily transcended these traditional divides. The angry but jubilant masses who gathered for weeks in more than 70 towns and villages across the country, including some disaffected Shiites for the first time in recent memory, waved Lebanese flags, sang the national anthem and chanted “killon yaani killon” (“all of them means all of them”), calling for the entire ruling class to be dislodged. By the time I arrived a few months later, a few optimistic people were still calling the uprising a “thawra” (revolution) but the slow collapse of the nation’s banking sector had begun to dilute the uprising’s momentum into yet another brain drain.

Lebanese banks had begun to restrict U.S. dollar withdrawals the previous fall, but the local currency was still officially pegged to the dollar, so people like my husband’s family hadn’t seen the value of their incomes and inaccessible savings plunge 90%, as they would in the coming months. Though few could have predicted the pandemic, the 2020 port explosion or the extent of the government paralysis that followed, I remember an ominous feeling hung in the air that this would be the last diaspora-fueled economic hurrah before a multi-year economic winter.

The pandemic would soon give the warlords-cum-politicians who have ruled Lebanon since 1990 according to a sectarian power-sharing agreement the excuse they needed to crack down further on the protests. The port explosion laid waste to the historic eastern Ashrafieh section of Beirut that had been spared the worst ravages of the 2006 war and decades of incongruously luxe-yet-anodyne real estate development and might have revived the dormant thawra were it not for the depths of the economic crisis. Protests do still rage occasionally, but that brief peak of national socioeconomic and sectarian solidarity that we watched hopefully on our television in Brooklyn over three years ago has given way to a nearly paralytic status quo to which the famously resilient Lebanese have once again been forced to adapt.

The cycle of hope, mental and financial investment, political deadlock and corruption followed by economic and physical destruction has played out before in Lebanon since I first moved there in the summer of 2005, shortly after the assassination of Hariri prompted the Syrian withdrawal after nearly three decades of occupation. Back then, the country was also basking in a moment of local and international optimism about its potential rebirth as a beacon of liberal democracy in the Middle East, punctuated by the occasional assassination of prominent opponents of Damascus or politicians from the Western-aligned March 14 alliance, which then controlled the government.

Hezbollah led the opposing March 8 alliance. Armed and powerful, the Shiite Islamist party still appeared to be playing (and winning) a largely local political game, safeguarding its position in Lebanese politics above the competing interest of its religious and financial benefactors in Iran. The Syrian civil war hadn’t started yet, so Hezbollah’s military activities and continued presence in the south were still largely perceived as legitimate resistance to continued Israeli aggression and in the national interest. Economic reform plans were discussed and passed by the cabinet of the neo-liberal Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. The government talked about the liberalization of its energy and telecom sectors. On the anniversary of Hariri’s murder on Valentine’s Day in 2006, March 14 supporters countered Syria’s intimidation with a swell of unity outside the late premier’s memorial at the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque. A massive, paternal picture of Hariri used to be stationed outside the memorial next to a red counter that ticked off the number of days since he had been killed.

It was gone on this visit, as was the giant Hariri billboard at the entrance to Hamra Street. I don’t think I saw a single image of Saad, Hariri’s feckless son and failed political heir apparent, on this trip. Though the controversial waterfront development and yacht marina Zaitunay Bay was more bustling than I’d ever seen it, most of the reconstructed downtown that Hariri’s private real estate company Solidere controversially rebuilt while he was prime minister now lies empty. The massive “Stop Solidere” sign that used to hang on the old St. Georges Hotel in downtown Beirut next to the site of the explosion that killed the late premier was also absent. There is no longer much of a Solidere to stop. The Phoenicia Hotel across the street is still open, but the new Four Seasons has been closed since the explosion and construction of the new Holiday Inn next door that was supposed to replace its predecessor that was famously destroyed during the civil war never broke ground.

On the other side of the political spectrum, attitudes also appear to be souring towards Hezbollah, which now dominates the country politically and militarily. On our trip to Baalbek, I commented to my husband that there seemed to be fewer Hezbollah flags lining the Iranian-funded highway that is the smoothest and most functional in the country. The ones that did exist seemed frayed, faded and less prominent than I remembered. Nabih Berri’s face is still everywhere, loudly proclaiming the relevance of the increasingly irrelevant Lebanese parliament speaker and leader of the country’s second-largest Shiite party. While new and familiar murals climb walls all over the city, I noticed the absence of the usual glamor shots of the politicians that control each neighborhood — often according to feudal relationships dating back centuries — everywhere we went. As Lebanon’s economy continues to hurtle toward the abyss, largely because of the corruption, ineptitude and neglect of the political class, there is not much to take credit for.

All three of our suitcases were lost for the entirety of our trip, so I immediately had to go buy some clothes, since I had only what I wore on our 25-hour journey over. To make matters worse, we didn’t have a working dryer and the washer could be run only late at night when we didn’t need to have other appliances on. So it takes about three days to dry a load of laundry in Beirut these days. After my kids were ferried over to their grandmother’s home in Jounieh, I decided to walk to my favorite of Lebanon’s upscale, outdoor malls, the Beirut Souks.

The two-mile walk from our apartment in Mar Mikhael, through neighboring Gemmayzeh to the decade-old shopping complex on the Beirut waterfront, followed the same route I used to take home from the The Daily Star’s offices when I worked there as a reporter from 2005 to 2007 and again in 2012 and 2013. I was trepidatious yet eager to see what was different on the walk I’d done a thousand times. What did the blast destroy? What had been rebuilt? Which familiar faces were still around and which were gone? As I threaded between the obnoxiously parked cars and construction projects blocking the sidewalks of the Mar Mikhael and Gemmayze neighborhoods that bore the brunt of the damage from the explosion three years ago, its toll felt as indiscriminate and slapdash as Beirut’s urban development over the past two decades. There is no pattern or logic to what has been fixed and what has been abandoned. Sparsely inhabited or entirely abandoned retail and residential developments dot the capital city and its environs. Some of the looted-looking skeletal buildings that housed new restaurants and luxury apartments just a few years ago were destroyed in the blast, but others just loom dark and depressing, reminders of dashed hopes and money — good-faith investments in a promised new Lebanon that never quite came to fruition.

On Mar Mikhael’s main street, there is a new Starbucks that takes only cash — aside from a few global chains in malls, the economy is almost entirely cash-based now — next to brand-new, short-term rental buildings geared toward expats and the most recent wave of international aid workers who have crested into Lebanon to help rebuild since 2020. In marked contrast to previous reconstruction efforts, the Lebanese state doesn’t appear to be even maintaining the pretense of involvement this time around. The fancy new imported food market that opened for a few years, though, has been abandoned, as have countless restaurants that were brand-new on my last trip. An empty parking lot has been turned into a weekend market for local artisans funded by a coalition of NGOs called Garage Souk. A charmingly ramshackle, Occupy Wall Street-type park and community garden at the site of the long-defunct Laziza beer brewery has also been built with the help of NGOs. But plans for a massive upscale residential and retail development next door that were a decade in the making seem to be on hold. There is a fancy new unmarked yoga studio that is obviously geared to wealthy Lebanese and expats, like so many of the new businesses in the country. Lebanese who still earn their living in liras are looking for cat litter, car repairs and Christmas gifts for their kids.

Despite the more glaring inequalities coloring life in Beirut, for me, a visitor with dollars, the city felt as energized and laden by its many singular incongruities as ever, buzzing and vibrant with new creative energy one moment and dark and inert another, its chaos and crumble fueling its inchoate beauty, resilience and maddening intensity. The hulking yet fragile remains of crumbling traditional Lebanese homes and car mechanics whose grease-stained steel parts tumble out into the sidewalks of Armenia Street look unchanged.

But the taxi stand on my corner that I relied on for the past nine years, whose nicotine-bonded drivers would occasionally honk at me and excitedly shout, “Sandra,” when passing me elsewhere in the city, was replaced by a tobacco shop. There are much fewer taxis and so-called “services” — the shared minicabs that are the closest thing Lebanon has to accessible public transportation — in Beirut these days. The ones that do exist are often on their last legs, spewing diesel fumes because their owners can’t afford repairs, or gas for that matter. I was surprised to find myself missing their incessant honks and rude-yet-jocular entreaties as I navigated the traffic-choked streets of Beirut in December.

I nodded in recognition to the old men clutching coffee cups and fingering prayer beads on a circle of flimsy plastic chairs outside an anachronistic hair salon and walked into an empty, gleaming new boutique cafe that sells $250 Veja sneakers and subversive T-shirts nearby. More than ever, Beirut abounds with hidden cafes and other stores that are curated to perfection and couldn’t possibly make any money. Though many of the grand Lebanese homes, painted steep steps and dedicated butcher and vegetable shops that populate the less-gentrified portions of Mar Mikhael have grown decrepit with wear and war, most inhabited residential and commercial spaces are kept spotless, thanks to the labor of women from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, who command a higher monthly rate commensurate with the fairness of skin tone, though this is not explicitly stated.

The abundant labor supplied by young women from poorer countries has cushioned some of the sharper blows of daily life in Lebanon since the banking sector’s collapse. For between $200 and $600 per month, even struggling middle-class Lebanese can obtain round-the-clock domestic support.

In December, once the sun set around 4:30 p.m., the only lights came from cars, restaurants, bars and the parts of the city that had also been decked out for the holidays. Though the decorations made the city feel festive after the past years of darkness, they also sharply illuminated the divide between the haves and have-nots, between the Lebanese on vacation and those who live there.

I passed through the Parisian-looking streets of downtown that had been more or less deserted since Aishti, the Gulf’s version of Barney’s, closed a few years ago in order to move to the iconic new flagship designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid that was under construction next to the Beirut Souks. The once-empty streets were filled with pedestrians strolling below garlands of red lights that spelled out “Beirut” and “love” in English and Arabic.

Cars rule in Lebanon, so seeing people enjoy the mild weather in a public space is always a treat for me. But I also wondered who among them could really afford a $5 potato, swirled on a stick. Beyond the stalls of veiled women from the mountains kneading bread for homemade saj and artisans selling nicely packaged bottles of artisanal honey and containers of zaatar that fit perfectly in a suitcase, Zaha Hadid’s building loomed empty over the nearly deserted mall. Part of its bulbous exterior that was damaged in a fire in 2020 remains charred and the new Aishti branch has yet to open.

During my last trip in 2019, the Souks had been one of the last reconstructed parts of downtown Beirut that was populated. Last month, the escalators leading up to the mall were off and it was eerily dark except for the lights coming from the last few shops and cafes that were still hanging on. Just as Starbucks was the last of the embattled retailers around Riad al-Solh Square and the Lebanese parliament to call it quits a few years ago, it is one of the few stores that remains open in the Beirut Souks, along with Calvin Klein Lingerie and a few other random places. Branches of Zara, H&M, Massimo Dutti and my all-time favorite boutique Depeche Mode were all closed and empty, as was the massive trampoline park my kids loved, a huge three-level branch of the local bookstore chain Librairie Antoine and a Balthazaar location, to name a few. Some pioneering holiday pop-ups had set up shop in the vacant rows of the mall amid the cracked windows of abandoned storefronts, but the failed attempt to inject some holiday spirit into the complex only exposed the retail cadaver it has become.

I kept thinking: What happens to the economy when the diaspora leaves? When the holiday lights are packed up, what remains is an increasingly stratified country with no viable path out of its paralysis.

On this trip, many people wondered aloud to me whether Lebanon’s much-vaunted resilience had proven to be a blessing or a curse, a thought I’ve continued to ponder from my desk in Brooklyn as I’ve struggled to find an end to this piece. Much remains uncertain depending on how the politicians who have captured the state respond to both external geopolitical shifts and the escalating poverty and crumbling infrastructure their mismanagement and corruption have engendered. Will the rightward slant of politics in Israel influence Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s calculations, and will this change U.S. policy in Lebanon? Will the turmoil in Iran influence Hezbollah’s popular support? Will the deterioration of living conditions in the country lead to popular armed struggle — especially if Hezbollah retains its weapons?

All that is unclear. What almost all the Lebanese I know have finally come to terms with is that their money is gone, and in the future things will have to get much worse.

In the months ahead, as the cost of heating fuel spikes and the temperatures plummet, what worse means for the three quarters of the population living in poverty — to say nothing of the nearly 2 million Palestinian and Syrian refugees that live in legal limbo there — remains to be seen.

The return of the diaspora in the summer will probably temporarily revive the economy and some of its more reluctant members who left in the early days of the crisis have begun to trickle back more permanently. Where else can you call your doctor on their cell phone and pay $15 for an X-ray, or walk into a pharmacy without a prescription and come out with antibiotics and always deal with a human being? Certainly not in the uber-regulated and anonymous sterility of Dubai or the antiseptic hospital corridors of the West. For those earning dollars with family in the country and for return visitors like me, Lebanon still holds a singular allure amid the chaos, and returning to it is like a warm but slightly uncomfortable hug from a favorite relative you didn’t know you missed — smelly, cozy, warm and slightly suffocating unless you give in to the embrace.

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