‘Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal’ by Charif Majdalani

2021, 173 p

Translated by Ruth Diver

Thanks to social media and CCT cameras, some visions are seared in our minds. Two boys in a shopping centre leading a little two year old away. A young woman tottering on high heels along the shop fronts in an inner-city suburb, unaware that on turning the corner she will be killed. A plane smacking into a building and that slow collapse of a skyscaper that even now you can’t quite believe. And the smudge of smoke from a port-side fire that explodes into a huge, thumping jolt that pulses out so violently that, even just watching it, you feel a punch in your chest. That last one was the explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate on the dock at Beirut on 4 August 2020. As you open this small volume, you know that this is where the book is going to end up but its author, academic Charif Majdalani does not.

The English language version starts with a very useful preface ‘Lebanon: the lessons of complexity’ which provides a potted history of Lebanon over 9 pages. The nation of Lebanon, as distinct from the mountainous regions in the eastern Mediterranean, was created in the territorial carve-up that followed WWI. France secured the mandate over Lebanon, to the relief of the Christians who preferred France to Britain, and its borders were drawn to encompass as many Christians as possible, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. In obtaining independence in 1945, the Christian and Muslim communities defined themselves as a negative: not Western but not Arab either. Between 1945 and 1975 it was a democracy and liberal economy based on ‘confessionalism’, whereby all government posts were allocated approximately equally between religious communities. Fear of militarization of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon led to civil war from 1975 to 1990. The period following the war, known as the second Lebanese republic, is divided into two eras. The first, from 1990 to 2005 was dominated by Syria and its ruling class. The war chiefs-turned-political leaders seized control of the government and public sector and developed a system of governance based entirely on clientelistic mafia principles. In 2005 the Sunni Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated by the Syrians with the help of Hezbollah. The Syrians were forced to withdraw, but former allies stayed in power and formed new alliances, perpetuating the same clientelism and corruption as under the occupation. This led to the collapse of the economy in 2020- and that leads us to this book.

The diary entries start on 1 July 2020, with the author running from one bank to the other. Both he and his wife are employed, they have two children, and he has plans to buy a block of land -a hobby farm almost- out in the countryside, where he grew up. Their friends are professionals, and they continue to have dinner parties with long after-dinner conversations. They visit the nearby suburb of Gemmayze, in the old district, which has been gentrified with artists, hotels and restaurants. But it’s all falling apart.

Gemmayze in March 2019. You can select for English subtitles

Things break down all the time – the washing machine, the air conditioning units, the drinking water dispenser – echoing the dysfunction outside the walls of his home. Inflation makes a mockery of income and expenditure, there are power blackouts. He notes the return of the mosquito coil, and its distinctive smell, because the insect repellents plugged into power points are useless when there is no electricity. Businesses close, familiar shopkeepers and bank employees are laid off, never to return.

It feels like a bereavement, a muffled, almost muted bereavement, repetitive, exhausting.

p.45

His diary entries are interspersed with short explanatory chapters, which expand on the information given in the preface about corruption, protest, the piles of rubbish. The presence of COVID and the refugee influx are mere background details. Still the book inches closer to the explosion that we know is going to happen. When it comes, as Chapter 51, it has just five words

This afternoon, the rag-and-bone trader

p. 125

He cannot pick up his writing again until 10 August, and when he re-reads those words, it seems like a different time. It’s then that he goes back and fills in the details: his initial thought that the blast was an earthquake, the chaos in the hospitals, the blood. He can only write in lists, without a full stop:

Reina is in intensive care, criticially injured, Jad has a few superficial wounds, but no longer a house, Omar is injured, Karim had left the office before the explosion happened, and so had his employees, which is just as well because she went into the party headquarters’ kitchen at the moment of the explosion….

p.136

And the stories, just snippets:

And also this: he was lifted up and thrown against the TV, the couch flew up into the air and fell on top of her, I walked through the streets like a sleepwalker before I realized that everyone around me was injured, she was sitting on the stairs covered in blood, but I had no idea what to do to help her…

p. 138

And the figures:

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, cafes, 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 cause? A ship stopped over in Beirut in September 2013 with its 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate bound for Mozambique. On being found unseaworthy, the owner refused to pay port fees, repairs or the crew’s wages; the cargo was offloaded and stored in Hangar number 12. Right from the start, people know it is there; it is ‘memoed’ up and down the hierarchies of the bureaucracy and no-one does anything. But, he suggests, the cargo was not forgotten as the amount that exploded was less than appeared on the manifest. It was being used, probably from the first day, and probably for military purposes. He points the finger at Hezbollah, which controlled the port.

Which would explain the silence of the port authorities, who would have turned a blind eye out of fear, collusion or corruption.

p.143

The blast has affected everyone. His wife Nayla, a psychologist, tells him that she had woken up in the middle of the night, with a heavy weight on her chest, wondering if something had changed that she could no longer remember. In the morning she was relieved to hear that there was nothing more, nothing new. The government falls, but nothing changes.

I was listening to a radio program about Beirut last week, and the commentator mentioned that after the civil war, the corruption, the protests, power shortages, inflation, COVID, – the blast in August was just the last straw and that people had just given up. This book tries to end on an optimistic note, but it rings rather hollow.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

3 responses to “‘Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal’ by Charif Majdalani

  1. It’s tragic, isn’t it? The one place in the Middle East that had its act together, and now…

    • I often think when I see people in the aftermath of crisis situations- how do they keep going? Would I be able to keep going? It must seem like one long nightmare.

      • It’s hard to know. We have a friend who’s from there, and he is just heartbroken about everything and worried sick about family too of course.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s