BEIRUT – I never thought I would live to the end of the world.
But that is exactly what we are experiencing today in Lebanon. The end of a whole way of life. I’ve read the headlines on Us, and they’re a list of facts and figures. The currency has lost more than 90% of its value since 2019; It is estimated that 78 percent of the population lives in poverty; there are severe fuel and diesel shortages; society is on the verge of total implosion.
But what does all this mean? This means days entirely occupied by the race for basic necessities. A life reduced to the logistics of survival and a population physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.
I aspire to the simplest pleasures: getting together with family on Sundays for elaborate meals that are now unaffordable; go down the coast to see a friend, instead of saving my gasoline for emergencies; go out for a drink in Beirut’s Mar Mikhael district, not to mention how many of my old haunts have closed. I never used to think twice about these things, but now it’s impossible to imagine indulging in any of these luxuries.
I start my days in Beirut already exhausted. It doesn’t help that there is a gas station around the corner from my house. Cars start lining up for fuel the night before, blocking traffic, and at 7am the sound of horns and screams of frustration coming from the street gets on my nerves.
It is almost impossible to sit down to work. My laptop battery only lasts a very long time anyway. In my neighborhood, the electricity supplied by the government only works for one hour a day. The UPS battery that allows the Internet router to work runs out of juice by noon. I am late at each deadline; I have written countless emails of shameful apologies. What am I supposed to say? “My country is collapsing and there is not a single moment of my day that is not beholden to its collapse”? The nights are white in the stifling heat of summer. The building’s generators only run for four hours before turning off around midnight to save on diesel, if they are on.
Every few days there is a new low to get used to. One recent morning I needed to exchange a few dollars for groceries, mainly bread. At the exchange office, there was a long line of people because the dollar was down slightly. There had been rumors that the new prime minister was about to form a government. At this point, such news is like a joke – we have been without a government since the cataclysmic port explosion of August 4, 2020, and the three prime ministers delegated by Parliament to form a government since then have failed to do so. do because of infighting between political parties, the same ones that have ruined this country. Yet all markets are susceptible to rumors, and every time the dollar rate drops, people flock to convert their unnecessary Lebanese lira into dollars.
Once I got my money, I walked over to the supermarket, and on my way there I met a little old woman sitting on the sidewalk. I wanted to give him money and a bottle of cold water. I went to four stores before I found one. This is how I first learned that we are now also facing a shortage of bottled water. The week before, I had discovered that there was a shortage of cooking gas after our canister ran out and I had to make a dozen calls – and pay five times what it used to cost – to replace it. While cooking gas is vital, the shortage of bottled water is an even bigger disaster in a country where most Lebanese believe tap water is not even safe enough to cook. (The tap water may also be shut off.) I mentioned this later: There is not enough fuel to power the machines that form the plastic bottles or the pumps that fill them. No fuel for the trucks making the deliveries.
Likewise, there is little bread to be found. There were none in the large supermarket I went to that day, which was entirely dark, lit only by weak emergency lights. The meat, cheese and freezer sections are all empty because there is no fuel for refrigeration. I asked for bread from every store I passed and finally realized I had to go to the bakery.
I avoid this street as much as possible because the bakery is right next to the gas station, and gas stations are our new front lines. Scuffles break out because there are always too many people fighting for too little fuel. Again, the scorching heat doesn’t help. Sometimes shootings break out. People are being killed. In Akkar, one of the poorest parts of the country, a tank truck exploded in August as people rushed to refuel their vehicles. The death toll is at least 33 so far.
Quickly, I made my way through the screaming and jostled crowd, which included a good number of armed soldiers trying to cope with the situation, and made my way to the bakery. I bought the last bag of bread. People who work there have told me that they live in fear of a shooting or explosion at the gas station, so they barricaded the nearest window with metal shutters.
The way back was difficult. There are no more traffic lights and therefore no more traffic rules; scooters run in all directions and on sidewalks. I arrived home three hours after I left and walked up 12 flights of stairs – the elevator stopped working months ago – completely sold out.
There is no respite or safe place anywhere. Hospitals are exhausted and on the verge of closing. Cancer treatments are no longer guaranteed because the central bank cannot fund the subsidies that allowed hospitals to import them. There is barely enough fuel to run the fans.
Friends with children live in terror that their children will even get mildly ill. My friend’s son had a fever recently, and there was no fever medicine at the drugstore, no ice for a cold compress. Social media is filled with requests for drugs. Someone’s mother has heart disease and is in desperate need of blood pressure medication. Someone’s father has diabetes and needs a replacement insulin pump. Did anyone hide any? Is someone coming soon from abroad and can they bring some? Psychiatric drugs are also impossible to find: most of the drug requests I encounter are from people who are already suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Not too long ago, Embrace, the national suicide hotline, announced it was temporarily shutting down due to prolonged power outages.
People are dying from treatable illnesses such as scorpion stings and fever, and severe cases of food poisoning are on the rise. With so little refrigeration, almost anything you buy can be contaminated. It is difficult to know what to eat. I plan our meals around three or four items, mostly non-perishable items. Bread is one of the few safe things.
At every turn, I must remind you: I am one of the lucky few. For every ordeal I go through, there are those who have it worse. I have four hours of generator power a day; many do not. I am able-bodied enough to go up and down the stairs whenever I have to leave my apartment; the elderly and disabled are imprisoned inside. I work from home; I don’t have to give up work altogether to spend whole days in line for fuel. The monthly minimum wage is now worth less than $ 50, while the the price of food alone has increased by more than 500 percent in the past year.
This list of privileges is not simply an exercise in conscience enlightenment. This is how we all try to remind ourselves that things could always be more unbearable, so complaining is futile. The standards by which “normal” or “acceptable” living conditions are measured have long been abandoned. People who can afford it are leaving. Every week I say goodbye to a dear friend.
Beirut, as we once knew it, no longer exists. Even during the 1975-90 civil war, the city had a certain cachet. There was bombardment but there was also glamor, a joie de vivre like an electric current. But now the nightlife bands are mostly closed and dark. During the war, there were cease-fires which allowed a certain rest, even fleeting. But in a world running on fossil fuels, what life is possible when they are no longer available? What life without electricity, without cars, without cooking gas, without internet, without drinking water? There is no break with this kind of economic war.
Because that is exactly what it is. Fuel and medicine, while scarce, are not completely unavailable. They are inaccessible, accumulated by politically connected individuals and organizations, liable to be exported or sold on the black market.
In a world where the maximalist pursuit of profit is supreme, such behavior is simply the way the system was designed to work. Lebanon is no exception. It’s a glimpse into what happens when people run out of resources they believe are endless. This is how quickly a society can collapse. This is what it looks like when the world as we know it ends.
Lina Mounzer (@warghetti) is a Lebanese writer and translator. She writes a monthly column for the Lebanese daily L’Orient Today, chronicling social changes in the wake of the country’s economic collapse, and is a regular contributor to The New York Times.
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