For a lifetime, hope was the lifeblood of the Lebanese people, a marker that—in spite of all else—our existence would remain simply because we willed it there. For a nation that was left shackled at the back of French colonialism, battered by a 15-year civil war and still at its knees following generations of brain drain, hope was the only commodity in a place where the rich could eat and the poor couldn’t afford to watch. It was that existence that defined my youth, that hope that rooted itself in my consciousness.
But even hope is hard to come by these days.
Over the last month, protests that began nearly two years ago in October of 2019 have reached a point of inferno. Lebanon’s economic crisis continues to devastate its people, and the rapidly falling Lebanese pound means that with every passing day the situation becomes more dire.
Explaining how the economic crisis came to be is difficult. A confluence of factors that include local and neighboring wars, a reliance on an emigrant community that supported their families through remittances and was quickly losing its financial standing and a dysfunctional banking system pushed Lebanon and its economy to the brink. This difficulty is really part of the problem, with no real way to pinpoint exactly how this situation came to be, and most people are left to argue about what’s to blame while their households fall deeper below the poverty line.
Now, while what’s to blame remains up for what’s now become a violent debate, there is one frustrating reality that almost every Lebanese person agrees upon today: If it’s asses at the top of your political hierarchy, it usually means shit is falling down on you.
Lebanon’s political order looks more like a circus than a functional government. What was meant to be a parliament that was divided religiously across Lebanon’s 18 recognized sects has devolved into a ruling class that enters and exits the political sphere as it so pleases, taking with it any and all financial hope for a rebuild.
The ultimate example of this nation’s dysfunction is without a doubt the nearly 30-month span that saw the Parliament unable to elect a president. Meaning that a country that was surrounded by both civil and proxy wars, and thus in desperate need of some kind of valuable representation, was left without a leading figure from May of 2014 to October of 2016.
It’s almost hilarious to think about: a country that has produced some of the world’s most important voices led by a group of incompetent old men unaware of how to use a modern cellphone, much less run a functional government. And the thing is, for a long time, it was funny.
We made light of those situations that formalized our upbringing, joked at the fact that turning the laundry machine and the air conditioner on at the same time meant an apartment-wide blackout. These struggles defined our existence, and the incompetence said more about our affinity for survival than our desperate reality.
Unfortunately, nobody’s laughing now.
What’s crippled the country, and what continues to feel different in this given contemporary context is that now even basic survival feels like a challenge. The Lebanese pound (LBP)—initially valued at 1,500 LBP to the American dollar since 1997—has now plunged to a value at somewhere around 11,000 LBP to the dollar, an almost 700 percent decrease that saw families’ life savings decimated and the hopes they had for their children up and vanish.
In the context of this kind of vicious collapse, statistics often don’t do justice to explain just how gutting this kind of loss is. Say a family had accumulated savings of close to 100,000 dollars in Lebanese pounds across their lifetime—money that theoretically could begin to establish the kind of generational wealth necessary to continue living under government corruption. Today, that family’s life savings would be worth somewhere around 15,000 dollars.
The implications of this kind of rapid collapse are both vast and incredibly minute. On one hand, it now means that a generation of Lebanese intellectuals with hopes of emigrating away from the wilting nation and supporting their families from the outside-in are now landlocked. See, unless a family has miraculously accumulated unimaginable wealth, their entire foundation for building any kind of life away from Lebanon is gone. It’s no hyperbole to say that the economic effects of that kind of internal lockdown could be felt for centuries. Lebanon was defined by its emigrant population, a group strong enough to have moved away from home who now continue to support the country outside the greedy reach of its political dictators. For this new generation—my generation—that reality has been obliterated.
On a more daily and pressing level, it now means that most people don’t have the basic capacity to make it through the day. The Beirut explosion left nearly 300,000 people homeless, and now close to 60 percent of the population has fallen below the poverty line. Hyperinflation has brought the country to its knees, with basic goods now being sold at unimaginable rates. The entire situation reads like a horrid nightmare, but it’s become the poisoned reality for what really was the world’s rose.
On a personal level, it’s nearly indescribable to express what it’s like to witness your home fall to its knees. To simultaneously feel both incredible guilt and deep gratitude that you get to exist outside the bounds of total imprisonment while the people and places you love fade to obscurity; to be nothing more than a story or a memory.
I haven’t been home in close to a year. I left a world behind that I loved and truth be told I have a hard time recognizing it even on TV, but there are moments that are seared into my consciousness. July 3, nearly a month before Lebanon’s vicious explosion, a 61 year-old man walked onto the street I grew up on and took his own life. No longer able to feed his family, he could not bear to witness his country collapse in on itself and frankly, I don’t blame him. In a painfully strange way, his death was mourned, but also understood. He did not become a martyr in the ways revolutionaries before him did, rather—and this is particularly difficult to say—he was envied.
For so many generations, hope defined our existence, but that commodity—like food, like money, like life—has all but vanished. What we’re left with is hungry children, deceased fathers and a community that now sees death as a relief, not a tragedy.