This summer, the World Bank declared Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis to be among the world’s top ten worst since the mid-1800s. The political crisis is just as serious, bearing as it does responsibility for the country’s economic collapse.
Both are framed in sharp relief by Charif Majdalani’s riveting chronicle Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse. The short, diary-like entries span several months of 2020, encompassing the growing economic crisis, the intractable struggle for political reform, the coronavirus pandemic, and the destructive 4 August explosion at the Port of Beirut which killed 218 people, caused $15 billion in damage, and left 300,000 homeless. (It also led to the collapse of the government, to no lasting effect.)
Majdalani’s chronicle (translated from the French by Ruth Diver) offers an award-winning novelist’s intimate, illuminating vantage into what’s happening in his country. His ability to vividly bring the setting and people to life places the reader right at the heart of the maelstrom. While the world’s media concentrate on alarming statistics– a 40 percent drop in GDP per capita in a single year; 84.9 percent annual inflation; 40 percent unemployment–Majdalani focuses on the minutiae of living through it.
The challenges of getting a washing machine repaired. Obtaining the services of an air conditioner repairman (who is almost too embarrassed to divulge the inflation-heightened cost of his services). Helping his daughter take her driving test (the electrical power cuts mean that the written portion of the test is cancelled). Lebanon’s precipitous decline was shocking to many westerners who considered the country a beacon of cosmopolitan, liberal security in a turbulent region. Its hasty collapse underscores a fragility we would all do well to pay heed.
Beirut 2020 puts the crisis in historical perspective, but the short, incisive nature of the diary entries means some of them assume the quality of allegorical parables. The range of warnings to be found in an account like this are myriad. On one level ,of course, it’s a very specific chronicle of social and political events in recent Lebanese history. But on a broader level, it screams warnings that are more universal in nature.
Many of us today are living through various forms, at various stages, of the processes that culminated to such devastating effect in contemporary Beirut: processes that only become visible to most when witnessed across a span of time. The crisis and its origins span the better part of a century, but in Majdalani’s account even just one year offers a study in miniature of the broader historical arc.
Many factors played a role in constructing the stage on which the country now finds itself. There was corruption: but not corruption in the traditional sense of a scheming crook accepting bribes or demanding kickbacks. Lebanon’s corruption stemmed from a sense of entitlement and immunity on the part of elites. The political class–comprised of former militia leaders from the civil war of the 1980s–couldn’t be questioned or challenged; they felt entitled to massive shares of national revenue and international aid; saw it as their due.
We see the same attitude among most of America’s elites: a sense of entitlement to their disproportionate share of the country’s dwindling wealth. Indeed, it’s beginning to generate the same sorts of problems: crumbling public infrastructure, widening income gaps, social and political unrest. America’s vast economic wealth has hidden the scale of the crisis, but it’s becoming ever more frayed and threadbare. Make no bones: Lebanon’s fate is America’s, in a matter of time.
In the wake of the Trump presidency–and even while it was going on–journalists presented incontrovertible proof of this process: scientists rewriting facts on demand to satisfy the fantasies of politicians (or if they had any integrity, resigning or being fired); corporate leaders bending and breaking rules at the behest of political influencers. An inability to enforce rules and due process–to say no to corruption, no matter how big or small or seemingly innocuous–lies at the heart of the problems plaguing both countries. In Majdalani’s deft account it’s stark and undeniable. In America’s messy media self-presentation, it’s still all too easy to deny.
Then there’s the ecological crisis. The reader can’t help but be dumbfounded to read about how Lebanon–one of the few Middle Eastern countries blessed with a vibrant range of ecologies, with abundant water, gorgeous natural diversity–carelessly ruined itself with destructive hydro projects and development schemes. In a country so small, blessed with such uncharacteristic abundance, why would you so thoughtlessly destroy it, with such eagerness? And purely for private profit?
Yet America is working overtime toward the same end. Even now, while entire states suffer from wildfires, its industrialists are hard at work planning more pipelines, more unsustainable growth, more resource-guzzling consumption schemes; and its politicians are hard at work finding ways to authorize them and skirt accountability. Again, America’s size makes the process less visible; but the senselessness of it all and the inevitable, self-destructive end, remains the same.
Then there is the intractable, destructive retrenchment of the political class to consider. No matter how hard the Lebanese struggle to push out the corrupt oligarchic class perpetuating these destructive practices, they somehow remain in power, reinventing themselves without ever changing. Americans might feel déjà vu here as well. At least the Lebanese have been trying: protesting and occupying and marching. While many Americans have followed suit, just as many others are willing to self-delude themselves into voting for suicidally narcissistic Republicans, miring the country in a fatal deadlock.
Majdalani’s book is about Lebanon, but it is America’s circumstances that kept emerging in bold relief as I read his book. There’s a lesson here for all of us if we have the self-perception to see that his history is as much about us–the collective “us”, the universal “us”–as it is about Lebanon.
Of course, it is about Lebanon as well, and its specificity does the author credit. He brings the country to life: from the diversity of its mountain gorges to the bustling café nightlife of a downtown street at sunset. The reader is thrust into Majdalani’s life, surrounded by his circle of witty friends, imbibing margaritas at a pub on Badaro Street and reminiscing about the sumac-infused sturgeon no one can find anymore.
As we seek to understand each other, these incisive and insightful glimpses into the lives of others are important. Beirut 2020 brings the city and its people viscerally and vibrantly to life.
And death. The violent devastation of the 4 August port explosion is recounted in gripping first-hand detail–a chapter cut off mid-sentence when the blast hits–followed by its painful aftermath. When I began the book, it was the explosion I kept waiting for–the one terrible event of the year I knew indubitably was coming. But in the process of reading through the preceding months’ entries, the reader comes to understand the explosion as only the latest in a series of ongoing violent cataclysms; as well as the inevitable consequence of the corruption and delusions that preceded it in the political landscape. It was the apocalyptic event made inevitable by everything that went before it.
Americans are warned of the inevitable apocalyptic outcome of our actions. We have received – repeatedly – even clearer warnings than the Lebanese ever did. And yet we continue to ignore them, even while our own apocalyptic timer ticks intractably toward its inevitable, explosive conclusion.
Beirut 2020 is also an act of resistance and underscores the importance of writers at this moment. Faced with the intransigence of a retrenched political class that not even massive protest movements could dislodge, and faced with the despair of his children and family at the future of their country, Majdalani picked up his pen (or rather, laptop). He used his talented writing to pen this chronicle, laying bare all the corruption, all the complex processes that are preying on his country and people.
Writing these truths–saying them openly, as Majdalani does in his account–is a powerful act of resistance, and a necessary one if retrenched powers are ever to be dislodged. The simple act of remembering, documenting, and stating these truths is a courageous and politically important act and one that will hopefully inspire others to do the same.
Read Beirut 2020 for the lessons and for the warnings; or read it for the history and political analysis. Read it for an insight into a vibrant and beautiful country that continues to suffer at the hands of its destructive oligarchic leadership. But do read this book, because it may jolt you out of an inattention that will inevitably prove just as destructive as the explosion of 4 August.