Walking Through Beirut’s Emotions

In Lebanon’s capital, a physical and political emptiness prevails, while the people manage to make do

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Walking Through Beirut’s Emotions
A walk in Beirut / Anthony Elghossain

Behold, Beirut: our capital and last — still-surviving, ever-besieged — Levantine city. Strolling through its streets and squares, I marvel at our vacant and vacated capital. To the left, I see two towering monstrosities: a church and a mosque, more cages of cliché we trap ourselves in, now just mausoleums for men who made or remade them. To the right, I see a so-called historic district that looks like the pop-fantasia of a drugged-up, first-year architecture student. Turning around, I walk through the rest of Beirut’s empty heart: el-bourj, al-balad, centreville, Solidere, downtown — the place’s place names revealing our cacophony, in what is a place of unity or at least convergence.

Here, churches with no Christians. There, mosques with no Muslims. Down the way, a synagogue with no Jews. Everywhere, offices with no occupants, storefronts with no stores or storekeepers and markets with no merchants or consumers. Behind the barricades, a parliament with no lawmakers. Over the wall, a palace with no premier or ministers — the former doubtlessly on a plane bound to or from somewhere, the latter ensconced in their bureaucratic fiefdoms elsewhere. And here, right back where we began, today and all those days before: Martyrs’ Square, a public place and space with no public to speak of … no families, no couples, no strollers, no readers, no beggars and no cops.

Eventually, I see a chair. I look around for its owner or occupant. Nobody claims it. Nobody is here to claim it. I sit down, cock back, and lean into a comfortable position. Now delighted to be alone, I selfishly take in a city often made inaccessible by grand schemes, accidents, incidents and preordained redesigns of our past. And I begin to do what the cynical men who have insisted on claiming chairs for decades should have been doing a long while ago: think.

Photo taken by Anthony Elghossain

In 2019, citizens took to streets and squares across Lebanon. They were frustrated. They were fed up. They were angry. And they were demanding change, rekindling hope in one another along the way. Regardless of their place of origin, political disposition, communal affiliation or social background, hundreds of thousands of people called for a change of government, or at least of policy; a change of leaders, or at least of behavior; of the postwar system, or at least of political practice within it; of state structures for administration, governance and justice, or at least of the performance of people who have taken so much and offered so little while inhabiting and animating these structures.

For a moment, the Lebanese people rejected the false choices offered to them by cynical, self-serving elites in this new era of independence: occupation or war, freedom or security, justice or peace, bread or dignity. For another moment, they came together to demand something different from — and more than — what they had been allowed, and had allowed themselves, to have as their politics.

It was only a moment, like all the moments before it: magical and fleeting, and in part magical because it was fleeting.

A moment does not a revolt, revolution or republic make. The Lebanese could not, and were never going to, protest into perpetuity. They needed, and need, to live. They need to survive in this world, or this Lebanon, as it exists — even if and as they seek to change it. They need to feed their families, be they children they planned to have as dependents or parents rendered as such by these calamities, even if and as they seek to build a polity in which more people can feed themselves. They need to figure out how to get their daughters into schools, which the factions may also control or influence, even if and as they contemplate how to improve public education — that true floor, from which we can build liberal order and opportunity — at all levels.

For now, and for a good while longer, the Lebanese people are condemned to wait for the indifferent, insolent and insidious to do the impossible: end their own existence. Lebanese leaders will do no such thing. Instead, Lebanese leaders will behave as they have in the past. They will bend, not break: Exploiting their own intercommunal fluidity when convenient and consolidating to protect their position atop the order when necessary, they will thus avoid both all-out repression and positive change. And they will keep trying to buy time with money that is not theirs, distributing benefits narrowly while passing on burdens broadly, to salvage the system, however possible, at every new juncture — be it a political revolt or a debt default, an international negotiation or aid conference, or a set of domestic elections that (some) others still myopically fixate on as the end, rather than the beginning, of the process of change.

Aside from failing and refusing to form a government, Lebanese leaders have also not engaged proactively on smaller issue-specific initiatives or grand dialogues of bygone eras. They certainly have not prepared to remove themselves from power, reform the system, or otherwise change their behavior in ways that — as one academic put it — “attack the foundations of their influence.”

If and when they are compelled to change something, they will do only as little as possible, as slowly as possible — and, even then, will concoct triumphs of form and letter over substance and spirit. Others will probably do the same, too. The state and central bank, for instance, have not suddenly stopped the public sector support through which they have kept stabilizing society in the short term while losing resources and flexibility in the long term: a partial currency peg, official exchange rate and bank rate; subsidies for basic goods and services; currency guarantees at preferred rates for importers of food, fuel and medicine; severe overemployment and inflexibility in the public administration; wasteful, and indeed criminal, crony capitalist arrangements in every sector; and other policies they have jerry-rigged to preserve bits of a system under stress.

Why?

Well, they have long known that they face a problematic choice — one that reveals a great deal about their thinking and political intuition. If the state and central bank end their policies suddenly, they risk triggering what one of their advisers calls “an immediate catastrophe.” If the state and central bank maintain their policies, they may buy more time — without maintaining order, and without necessarily buying an escape, but at least staving off a catastrophe of compounding crises they have bequeathed to their people. And, so, Lebanese leaders keep doing what they have done for decades: focus on immediate needs through reactive, counterproductive and warped policies, while mortgaging the future of successive generations of Lebanese.

What’s worse, Lebanese leaders have just lurched from one brazen and embarrassing scheme to another. Here’s just one:

Over time, Lebanese leaders and the World Bank agreed on two different measures to help vulnerable people and manage the ongoing pandemic in Lebanon: a $246 million loan to help 800,000 poor Lebanese with in-cash assistance and a $34 million program to fund, import and monitor the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines in Lebanon. On the same day, in January 2021, Lebanese leaders met to consider legislation to approve the larger loan while privately exploiting the smaller pandemic program. Indeed, scores of Lebanese leaders and their advisers had taken vaccines before their turns — jumping ahead of 700,000 people registered to receive vaccines.

Quietly helping themselves, they did not even pretend to do so as part of some campaign to set an example for the public. After relevant parliamentary committees, expert panels, medical syndicates and the representatives of international institutions warned of “many violations,” the deputy speaker of parliament launched into televised tirades, mocked representatives of international institutions and engaged in full-fledged grandstanding on the issue. Meanwhile, the caretaker public health minister — another errand boy masquerading as a man, in a cabinet, parliament and bureaucracy full of these little anglers — also appeared on television, painting his capitulation as decisiveness and his sycophancy as prudence. All in a day’s work, for these leaders of Lebanon.

Breaking the republic they had declared they would rebuild, from the ashes of destruction they helped author in the first place, Lebanese leaders have now spent years force-feeding citizens daily doses of perverse poetry and dark irony. They let fires consume Mount Lebanon; they hose protesters in Beirut. They let their capital city go without water; they let its streets flood with shit. They let smugglers drain the Lebanese of hundreds of millions of dollars a month; they cut basic subsidies that, debates on public policy aside, cost a fraction of the amount lost due to their inefficiency, corruption and weakness. They cultivate and patronize a puppet press, full of “yellow journalists,” pens for hire, slanted loudmouths and petty pamphleteers; they then censor, intimidate, harass and otherwise attack or fail to protect the rights of the masses — especially diligent journalists and interested citizens — struggling to maintain Beirut as a beacon of free expression. They teach boys that “prison is for men,” parade around in neofascistic marches, and saunter in and out of public halls with private security guards; they then fret that hotheads, uncontrolled elements, trigger-happy young men, unknown assailants — all the usual, omnipresent, unknowable suspects — are seething in the streets. They smuggle opiates, synthetic drugs, cannabis resin and more through official and unofficial points of entry and exit and let drug dealers or their money-laundering financiers appear on television, donate to their campaigns and seek high offices; they then raze the cannabis crops of some farmer with an inherited half-acre to his name, bust basic potheads in Beirut and parade around after seizing the odd shipment of some hustler too arrogant or dumb to cut them in as expected.

Ah, yes. They let about 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate sit in a warehouse for seven years, blow their own capital to smithereens, let fire after fire consume what was left in the ashes, and hand out Captagon pills like they’re setting out sweetmeats for Ibn Battuta; they hold shipments of medicines and materials, require enumerated lists of shipped books, and rifle through carry-on luggage like your grandmother is the one who has been bringing in Katyushas all this time. They thus throw a rotten cherry, the Beirut Blast, atop that layer cake of shit they have baked and gifted to everyone else over the years.

As artists, poets and singers forge fantasies of Lebanon as a “piece of heaven on earth,” and while Lebanon’s own president — clairvoyant on all things, except his own political choices — portends a path to hell, Lebanon has long been suspended between the heaven people hope for and the hell that people fear.

Lebanon has been a purgatory for the past 30 years. It is, and has been, the land of partial freedom, ruled by men who are neither democrats nor tyrants, with people living and working in the shades of gray between what is permitted and what is forbidden. Not at peace and not at war, factions — vicious minorities, of armed men, other thugs, and their pimp financiers who work to shape societies while others submit, cop out, sell out or just get on with life — feud and fight in the spaces between.

The Lebanese hoped for better lives while behaving in ways that undermined their own state and society; aspired for themselves and their families, while treating clientelist privileges and pseudo-socialist perks as rights and letting leaders treat basic rights as factional privileges and communal gifts; and feared that they would unleash demons — their own, and of others — so much that they surrendered to the known devils already running roughshod over them.

Now, at last, the Lebanese have fallen into the much-too-feared and much-too-predicted hell. Imagining the heaven that was or could have been and dreading the hell their leaders have condemned them to experience, the Lebanese are doubly condemned to entrust the foreseeable future to devilish men who made — and were made in and by — the failures, crimes and sins of the past.

Trying to outwalk the desolation, I find myself wondering about other cities that have collapsed — or just faded away — around the world. The peoples of Venice, Constantinople, Alexandria, Aleppo and more must have felt the perverse pain of knowing what was happening only after they were powerless to stop it. The people of all the Beiruts we have known must have also felt melancholic, even in the sun that reminds them of what could be; isolated, even in the company of others who remind them why they loathe themselves; angry, even when alone and thus exposed to their own failures.

Ours has been a self-inflicted and inelegant decay. And so, I now feel a creeping shame, too.

But then I start laughing, surprising myself, because the laughter is genuine and not some coping mechanism or self-protective reflex. After all, Lebanon is still absurd and absurdly funny. And I remember the everyday absurdity we take for granted — even though it never ceases to astound everyone else.

I think about the cop who, earlier today, asked me why I was walking. Walking!

I think of the construction crew that built scaffolding around my car — to protect it, as they did considerately and skillfully — instead of just calling the phone number I had left on the dash. I also think about how fast they moved while building me a personal Bat Cave, knowing good and goddamn well they have never moved so fast in their lives.

I think of how I have clashed with these cops, construction workers and other average assholes, only to forge friendships in contrived conflict and socially expected, mutually assured de-escalation. I think of how we nod to each other on the corner, together sneering at the meek that Beirut will always inherit and destroy.

I think of absurdity upon absurdity, all the way back to 1992, when I first landed in Lebanon. That summer, my grandfather offered me a shotgun after I asked for a Nintendo — a brand he thought was akin to a Beretta. After that, authorities confiscated a chocolate bar and let me board a return flight to America (via Italy) with a sharpened dagger — an ornamental but functioning knife I’d stolen from my grandfather’s collection.

Chocolate? No. Knife? Ahlan, ahlan … And we’re wondering how we got here?

An ungrateful student, I think of the harsher teachers in our school called Lebanon. I think of the Lebanese lords, whose own generals now call “cruel, dishonorable, and shameless”; whose own advisors describe as “too stupid to understand or too selfish to care, or both”; and whose own intelligence hands believe are crooks who will only liberate Lebanon, and even then, not certainly, when they die.

I think of our president: Michel Aoun, the octogenarian former general and self-styled Charles de Gaulle, really a monomaniac too busy chasing the presidency to ever consider what he would do with it once he got it (as he did, after a decades-long quest, in 2016).

I think of our premiers, who are living examples of the mathematical principle that an integer multiplied by zero is zero. Our caretaker premier Hassan Diab is another of those men — Lebanese and otherwise — who would probably claim credit for his own birth in a résumé: “Pioneering rapid inter-environmental transitions, including, but not limited to, from the placenta to the earth’s atmosphere. Acclimating to atmosphere and environment, more generally. Demonstrating rapid improvement and persistence, with what at least one senior supervisor called a natural and instinctual gift for self-preservation.” And our premier-designate — the Once and Future Premier, Saad Hariri — is so precocious that he has managed to do by the second generation what Ibn Khaldun himself guessed would require three: squander the family inheritance. (Hariri has since resigned, yet another exercise in spite, making him a premier-designate-resignate of some sort. Whatever.)

I think of our speaker of parliament: Nabih Berri, a man who took 3% off God himself to greenlight the Garden of Eden and whose factional thugs still go around harassing private business owners, creating problems other thugs then step in to solve, and proudly threaten to “fuck people’s sisters” for peacefully protesting against the very conditions that have placed so many of us in dependence.

I think of our former foreign minister: Gebran Bassil, a Christian copycat of Berri — sans the charm, influence and intimation, for which he overcompensates by substituting creepy smarm, incessant involvement, and clumsy posturing. “Pity the Nation,” some anonymous Lebanese person said, “whose Gebran was once Khalil and whose Gebran is now Bassil.”

I think of Hassan Nasrallah. And then I apologize, quickly! I later realize that I should have asked for two portfolios in the next cabinet to take my obsequiousness and cowardice and sell them as prudence and practicality.

I think of the bankers, judges, lawyers, contractors and others who have feasted on poisoned fruit, only to retroactively warn the world about the runny shit they have already taken on everyone else.

I think of the public servants who have, with their warped understanding of their job descriptions, served themselves at the expense of the public.

I think of what people are supposed to feel if the republic’s more decent generals, cops, judges, activists and others can hardly hold it together as they — tears in their eyes, worry on their faces — talk to people below them about the people above them in the hierarchy of shit-taking.

I think of the thuggish everyman, the brutish state of nature, and how we, even now, paint the decent as dumb, the polite as weak, the deferential as indecisive and the dedicated as misguided.

I think of the decent, polite, deferential and dedicated people toiling in anonymity, while those with more do less and seek the flowers of triumphs they will never earn.

I think of our proverbs and what these reveal about us while we so eagerly wield them to comment on others. One comes to mind, right away, as I contemplate the behavior of certain Lebanese leaders and far too many of the people who wish to displace and replace them: They “do not fuck, do not get fucked, and do not move aside and let others fuck.”

I think about how our greatest poet, a man who felt in his bones what others have never learned in their decades of purporting to observe the place, was ungrateful to all his teachers. And I remember that he, like us, was schooled in and by the men of Lebanon.

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