Visiting Beirut

Today, a Middle Eastern detour.

I’ve just returned from my first ever visit to Beirut, a city on the edge of collapse in a country bleeding from old wounds and new cuts. While this is not the place for a travelogue, I want to share with you five things that struck me during my visit:

1. The energy crisis. From what I could find out, Lebanon relies on three sources of electricity supply, the national energy company, private companies using the state infrastructure to carry and distribute electricity and private electric generators. The national energy supplier can’t afford more than a few hours of electricity a day across most of the country and in the city of Lebanon. There are some regional exceptions, though. I arrived in Beirut after nightfall, and I couldn’t believe how dark the city was. There is no public lighting, the traffic lights are switched off, and there are only pockets of electric light in high-rise buildings coming from properties that can afford the high fees of private suppliers or which are equipped with private generators.  The hotel I was staying at had its own generator, but power still came down a few times during my stay, albeit for less than 1 hour each time.

2. The currency crisis. The Lebanese pound (LBP) is at a record low, hit both by inflation and crumbling international rates, in the wake of which a black market has developed, where LBP is exchanged against foreign currency at a rate that has nothing to do with the international one. For example, an average meal (shawarma, hummus and beer) cost me 475,000 LBP, which converts to 237 GBP (313 USD) on the international rate. It means that if I chose to pay by card, I’d have been charged exactly that. But the real, underground rate, which all Beirutis use, gives 21 USD. 1,500 vs 22,000 LBP to the dollar. Banks and cash machines, I’ve been told, have run out of cash dollars/pounds/euros, so the only way a visitor can benefit from the black market rate is to bring foreign cash to be exchanged at the countless exchange counters as well as in pretty much every other shop. 

3. Despite the economic and social calamities befalling the city, Beirut feels incredibly safe, and the locals are unexpectedly friendly and jaunty. I say unexpectedly because a city finding itself in such a mess would normally, on my limited understanding, be prone to violence and low-level crime. Nothing of the sort during my 3-day stay in Beirut, and I did walk a lot, both downtown and farther afield. On one occasion, a coffee merchant insisted he give me the change down to the last lira owned, rather than keeping it to himself.

4. The wounds inflicted on the city by the 2020 explosion. I think I’ve watched all the videos of the blast, but nothing compares to actually standing on the spot where it happened, and seeing the lacerations left on the cityscape. Nearly two years later, the damage is still visible, many buildings having been left unrepaired, others demolished. Warped iron, broken glass, fallen cladding, hollowed floors, all stand witness to something out of a nightmare. A 20-story highrise has been cleared and marked out for demolition. It used to be a luxury hotel. 

5. I have spoken to several Maronite Christians and Sunni Muslims and they all blame Hezbollah for the crisis Lebanon is in. Everyone’s hope is on this year’s elections, which have the potential to break the influence Hezbollah has on the Parliament and bring real change to the country. The Beirutis I spoke to all agree that change in Lebanon must come from within.

In his book From Beirut to Jerusalem, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Tom Friedman describes the Beirut of the 70s and 80s, a victim of civil war and factionalist violence. A city whose heart still beats under the rubble, like the ancient statues encased in protective cement in the National Museum of Lebanon, that its director had safeguarded during the conflict. A soul under layers and layers of scar tissue.

“It suddenly hit me that hope in Lebanon is not a flower, it’s a weed. Give it just the slightest ray of sunshine, and the tiniest drop of water, and it will shoot right up and multiply between the cracks in Beirut’s rubble”.

Friedman recounts how he met the ‘quintessential Lebanese optimist’ Nawaf Salam in Beirut in the late 80s.

“All the myths are gone now,” said Salam, “but maybe that is the beginning of wisdom. That is what keeps people like me going. We now know that the democracy we had was not a democracy at all but a sectarian balance of power. Liberty was not real liberty, but a kind of organized anarchy, and the diversity of press was largely a cacophony of voices subsidized by the Arab world. But even with everything having fallen apart a certain open society still exists. A united Lebanon is still the first choice of the Maronites, not a separate state, and a united Lebanon is still the first choice of the Shiites, not an Islamic republic. With no water, no electricity, and no police, we still enjoy a certain quality of life that you cannot find in any other country in the Arab world. There are still more books published today in Beirut than anywhere else in the Arab world. There is still more of a free press today in Beirut than anywhere else in the Arab world. Even today I will take the American University of Beirut over Amman University. I will take An-Nahar newspaper over [the Syrian daily] Al-Baath. Even with everything destroyed, the idea of Beirut is still there. The challenge now is to rebuild it on real foundations, not phony ones.”

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