The Long Fall of Beirut

Fin DePencier/Lebanese street art, Beirut

The fireball that engulfed the Port of Beirut on August 4th, 2020, was perhaps the most spectacular event ever caught on camera. It was the horrifyingly literal bursting of a bubble that had been accumulating in size and sludge for the last 30 years. As we walked through Beirut’s deserted streets one year later, my friend Ghazar Keoshgerian recalled his first moments after the blast to me: lying in the rubble, he thought the city had been hit by a nuclear weapon. The blast killed over 200 people and injured around 7000. The destruction of the country’s only port, combined with the supply chain shocks of the pandemic, was devastating for a country that imports nearly everything. The wholesale collapse of the country’s financial system one year prior to the explosion had already put it in a fragile position. This perfect storm of calamity would have paralyzed even the best of regimes. Lebanon didn’t stand a chance.

Reminders of the disaster still surround the city. When you drive into Beirut in the middle of the night, the silhouette of a grain silo rises up ominously next to the seaside highway. When the explosion happened, that silo saved thousands of lives by absorbing the blast. To the right of the highway, massive banners with political slogans are brightly lit up and draped over skyscrapers still hollowed out by the explosion. They stand out next to the eerily dark city created by Lebanon’s acute electricity crisis. When the sun sets, it’s as if Beirut falls into a coma.

The banners are just one example of the kind of dystopian iconography that covers downtown Beirut. Written in both English and Arabic, they say things like “You’ve lost your immunity,” and “Hostages of a murderous state!” All are messages directed at Lebanon’s entrenched political class, which has a reputation for corruption that is notorious even in the Middle East, where it’s often just how business is done. Vandals paint the hammer-and-sickle, and sometimes the swastika, on the downtown walls; stars of David frequently mark the trash cans. Some places even have scars from the civil war of 30 years ago. One such building is the Holiday Inn in Hamra, once the city’s crown jewel of a neighborhood. The hotel now serves as the Lebanese military’s main outpost in the district.

Fin DePencier/Banner depicting protest messages, Beirut

Adjacent to the port is Beirut’s civic center, Martyrs’ Square, where most of the anti-government demonstrations took place during the October Revolution of 2019. While the protests were characterized by unprecedented cross-sectarian participation, they were rudderless, desperate, and ultimately futile. The political fallout forced Prime Minister Saad Hariri to resign, but the ensuing year was characterized by both Hezbollah and Western NGOs plugging the holes of a useless caretaker government, with Hezbollah—and by that proxy, Iran—emerging as the de-facto ruling authority. Subsequently, perceiving a state under total Iranian capture, almost all of the Arab Gulf states have found pretexts to cut diplomatic ties with Lebanon.

Those with means are fleeing Lebanon in massive numbers. Those still here, almost universally out of necessity, are just waiting it out: some wait for next spring’s elections, and others for the new government to secure an IMF bailout. Any morsel of good news helps at this point. Some still have faith in Lebanon prevailing, at least in the long term. The region in which modern Lebanon is situated has been a trade hub since Biblical times. It is a crucible that allows for the exchange of capital and culture between the Middle East and Europe. It has patronage and stakeholders from the Sunni, Shia, and Christian worlds, all of whom have an interest in Lebanon’s revival, at least in their image.

But Lebanon is a failed state, and no amount of promising geopolitical advantages make up for the infrastructure of a functional state. In the short term, everyone is bearish on Lebanon. It faces the possibilities of partition, conservatorship, war, or some mix of the three. This is a country far past the point of managed decline. The question is whether someone can still manage a crash-landing before it’s too late to pull out of the nosedive.

Fin DePencier/Sketch memorial for victims of the 2020 port explosion, Beirut

Lebanon’s Deindustrial Disaster

On my first day in Lebanon, I asked my friend Garo, a Lebanese-Armenian consultant, if there were any protests I should go to cover. “I don’t think so, the ratio of partying to protests here is like 1000:1.” Nihilism has swept over Lebanon’s youth, who have lost all faith in a government that can’t perform the basic functions of civil society. What I really needed to see, Garo determined, were the remnants of Beirut Souks. It’s the city’s once-bustling commercial center which sits adjacent to Martyrs’ Square. It was here that Lebanon’s elite, diaspora, and affluent tourists used to shop for luxury imported goods. We found the district completely deserted, with unaffordable shopping centers standing empty, damage littering the area, and revolutionary graffiti from the protests which had now long ceased.

Down the street from the abandoned shopping strip is the corpse of a construction project named the North Souks Department Store, designed by the famed late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, known for her conspicuous and surrealist designs. The fact that Beirut managed to snag two of her projects was once proof of its affluence. Hadid studied mathematics at the American University of Beirut, where she has another building. AUB is one of the most prestigious universities in the Middle East. Its alumni include seven Jordanian prime ministers, a CEO of Saudi Aramco, an Israeli Supreme Court judge, an American ambassador to the United Nations and Afghanistan, and many of Lebanon’s most important faces. Unfortunately for Beirut, the North Souks Department Store went up in flames in September 2020, just over a month after the port explosion. Since then, it has instead become a monument to the suspicion, corruption, and conspiracy that maintains the ongoing dysfunction of Lebanese politics.

How the fire started is a mystery. Many people suspect insurance fraud: why did the building burn on opposite sides and yet not through the middle? Arson seems like the only explanation. There is no suspect with a more obvious motive than the company that owns the project: Solidere. The company began as a real estate development firm, created in 1992 with a mandate of rebuilding Beirut after the civil war.

Fin DePencier/Political street art on the edge of Mar Mikhael district, Beirut

The largest shareholder at the time of inception was the newly-elected prime minister, Rafik Hariri. Hariri expropriated massive amounts of land from Solidere’s previous owners and unfairly compensated them below-market rates. He embarked on a project to make central Beirut an attractive destination for the international elite, supplanting the pre-war cultural foundations for expensive venues and postmodern architecture. This hyper-commodified vision for central Beirut was similar to that of Dubai, which was also a massive parking lot at the time. But while Dubai could be marketed as a global city rising out of the desert, many Lebanese saw the commercialized rebuilding as an insult to their cultural and historical distinction.

A businessman with dual citizenship in Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, Rafik Hariri soared to Lebanon’s highest political office after playing a key role in negotiating the Taif Agreement that ended the civil war. He sought to return Lebanon to its pre-civil war glory as the Paris of the Middle East, a commercial hub on the eastern Mediterranean that would attract investment with banking secrecy, scant regulation, and liberal social laws that allowed rich Arabs to participate in Western-style debauchery without persecution. Hariri quickly signed a series of free trade agreements with the European Union, Syria, and joined the Arab common Market (GAFTA).

Removing barriers to import had the result of sidelining Lebanon’s powerful industrialists and turning Lebanon into a service economy. The majority of industrialists at the time when Hariri took power were Maronite Christians, while the Sunnis, represented by Hariri’s Future Movement, controlled Lebanon’s import and export markets. The latter’s interests won the day, paving the way both for years of relative Lebanese prosperity and then for its full-scale economic collapse years later.

Fin DePencier/Graffiti-covered wall blocks the road to Parliament near Beirut Souks, Beirut

After the civil war, Solidere decided to pave over the “Normandy” landfill in central Beirut with sand and bits of war rubble and allotted the 1.7 million square meter lot for construction. Some questioned the propriety of this development, arguing the Lebanese coast should be restored to its pre-war pristine beauty. Regardless, the plan went forward. Now, 20 years later, the area is almost completely undeveloped. Despite Solidere’s claims to have properly disposed of the waste beneath, recent studies have shown the land is still toxic. The foundation of Beirut’s post-war planning was literally rotten. As ordinary Lebanese face breakdowns in gas supplies, the electricity grid, garbage collection, and even critical water shortages, the corruption and failure behind Beirut Souks and central Beirut’s rebuilding have become striking microcosms of political dysfunction.

Towards the end of 2018 and into 2019, signs were emerging that Lebanon was bound for economic disaster. The banking sector had lent three-quarters of its deposits to the government and was becoming illiquid. The Lebanese pound’s fixed USD exchange rate of 1500:1 was impossible to sustain. Those who needed access to relatively large amounts of dollars were the first to notice. In Garo’s case, it was friends in jewelry who alerted him that things were about to go south. When they tried to withdraw 50 to 100,000 U.S. dollars in cash, the banks only fulfilled half their request and gave the rest as a check. The lack of liquidity these jewelers experienced when attempting to withdraw relatively large sums of money would soon be felt by everyone who tried to withdraw from a Lebanese bank, no matter the sum. Since the banking system collapsed in 2019, Lebanon’s real GDP has dropped by a jaw-dropping 45%, making it the second-worst financial collapse in history.

The defunct banking system means that credit cards and ATMs are not an option. The black market is where people get lira at the real price. A medium of exchange with mutually agreed upon value no longer holds true in Lebanon. It depends on who is negotiating for what, and you’re bound to get a bad deal if they know you’re a foreigner. If you go to an exchange as a foreigner, you do it through a local proxy.

Fin DePencier/Soldiers take the morning guard at a gas station, Beirut

After surveying the ruins of the Souks, we ran into another straggler doing the same. We’ll call him Amir, a Palestinian-Lebanese diplomat now working in China. In Garo’s case, he felt he had no choice but to return, leaving a comfortable life in Western Europe to be with his family in Lebanon. Amir, on the other hand, was just visiting Lebanon for a few weeks, having abandoned the country long ago. Both Garo and Amir have managed to develop careers that aren’t dependent on Lebanon’s decrepit economy. As such, they represent an important subset of the Lebanese population: those who can leave. Lebanon relies on its sizable diaspora population for remittances to family and friends still in the country. It’s not an uncommon strategy for states struggling to establish themselves as middle-class. But in Lebanon’s case, the diaspora acts more like a life jacket. Every day that U.S. dollars, British pounds, and euros continue to trickle in, the economy runs for a little bit longer.

As the three of us walked through the area, we discussed what remained in store for Lebanon. Garo insisted the country would be back. He justified his optimism by noting that Lebanon is an irreplaceable neutral link between Europe and the Middle East. It won’t be Israel or Syria that takes its place. Amir took a pessimistic view: “What’s been broken cannot be easily repaired,” he explained to me, “Lebanon needs generations of fixing and repairing. This is really hard for me to admit, not only to others but also to myself, that I’ve lost hope and faith in this country. I can’t help but feel pity for the ones who still believe things will change.” It wasn’t always this way for Amir. He’d earned his cynicism honestly, through years of watching the country reel between crises. “The thing is, I’ve always been the optimistic one…It took me decades to finally realize that Lebanon is consumed by corruption and greed.”

Fin DePencier/Boy injured in 2020 port explosion shows his injuries, Beirut

Primarily blaming Lebanon’s corrupt elite and their foreign masters is the most common explanation for the country’s failure. But ultimately, a corrupt state tends to inculcate its vices in the population itself. Garo bluntly articulated how deeply this greed and corruption has affected the Lebanese people themselves and chastised them for their cowardice, “The government has always been corrupt, but the people didn’t care because their pockets were being lined too. They pay no taxes. They only care now because their lifestyle is being affected…This is the fight for a nation, and what did everyone do at the first sign of trouble? They packed up and left.”

As more of Lebanon’s educated elite flee, the services sector is also evaporating. Lebanon’s economic foundation is undergoing a painful, but necessary transformation. If inflation fuels demand for Lebanese industry, then perhaps the country can reign in its massive trade deficit. Without domestic production, Lebanese merchants are stuck with the problem of importing goods at world market rates and trying to sell them in the Lebanese economy. Many have determined that hoarding is preferable to accepting a massive discount on their sale. In late August, the military raided two warehouses in the Sidon district and found massive stockpiles of illegally hoarded medicine.

I sat down with Dr. Ghassan Doghman, a general surgery specialist who has been struggling with the shortage and hoarding of medicine firsthand, “Sometimes we ask to purchase medicine, and they say it isn’t available. But then you are able to find it on the black market, which means it’s there.” Without access to Ezmeron, a commonly-used local anesthetic, Dr. Doghman has been using an older generation drug named Nimbex. “But sooner or later, Nimbex will go out of stock, so we will have to resort to a bottle of vodka or whisky to alleviate the patient’s pain.” One day, while Dr. Doghman had four surgeries underway, the power went out. A nurse had to hold a phone light over the patients while the surgeons stitched them back up.

​​While shortages will cause some to endure excruciating pain from these second- and third-rate anesthetic remedies, some drugs don’t have substitutes. Later that week, a rally was held outside Lebanon’s United Nations building, pleading for international support in acquiring life-saving cancer medications. I spoke to one forlorn cancer patient who had already missed two treatments. Asked if her third was scheduled, the answer was a nervous and definitive no. She told me that her next treatment wasn’t scheduled either, and that no donors had sponsored her case. All the people that day were specifically requesting help from the outside world, not from the government, which most donors don’t trust to distribute funds for their intended purpose. But the chances are low for any particular individual to get help. Most NGOs are already at capacity. Even the best-intentioned ones are now trying to fill a very large vacuum in what little remains of Lebanon’s civil society.

Fin DePencier/Cancer patient being interviewed, Beirut

“The Skyline Is Beautiful on Fire”

Lebanon isn’t embroiled in an active civil war in 2021. But according to some residents who lived through it, conditions now are worse than during the war itself. For Dr. Doghman and his colleagues, they can’t offer nearly the same quality of care: “I was at the American University of Beirut Medical Center for the entire war, from 1977 to 1989. We were never in shortage of electricity, medicines, or medical supplies. We had casualties coming in from all over Lebanon, and we were able to function regularly.” He took me upstairs to the maternity ward, “Usually when you deliver a baby, you are happy to bring a life into this world. These days when you give birth, you look at the baby and say ‘what are you doing coming to Lebanon? Why the hell do you need to come to Lebanon?’”

Fin DePencier/Panhandler near American University of Beirut, Beirut

As collapse unfolds around them, many Lebanese people are doing what they always have: escaping into one void or another. Escapism became a signature feature of the Lebanese spirit during the civil war. Instead of waiting for an end, Lebanese people learned to adapt to the violence and live alongside it. With a considerable degree of luck, street smarts, and the satiation of wealth, it was possible to alleviate the misery. There was a profitable import mix of diamonds, smoked salmon, caviar, small arms, and explosives. Lebanese people resorted to indulging in the country’s great affluence as a coping mechanism. Thomas Friedman, at the time a Beirut correspondent for The New York Times, captured the city’s “distinctive and bizarre flavor” with this illustration:

On this particular Christmas Eve in 1983, despite the holiday, rival Christian and Muslim militiamen were trading artillery salvos and machine-gun fire into the early evening, rocking the whole neighborhood. The hostess put off serving dinner, hoping things would settle down, but she could see that her friends were getting hungry, not to mention nervous. Finally, in an overture you won’t find in Emily Post’s book of etiquette, she turned to her guests and asked, “Would you like to eat now or wait for the cease-fire?”

Fin DePencier/Street art resembling tattered Lebanese flag, Beirut

Instead of a fancy meal during an ongoing artillery barrage, the Lebanese nightmare dinner in 2021 is rationing expired food between your family in the dark with no air conditioning. Because of the electricity crisis, food poisoning is rampant as people have no choice but to eat perishable items that have long thawed in their dormant refrigerators. It’s Russian roulette whether that chicken you bought will make you horribly sick for weeks, but many can’t afford to buy fresh. Does all this mean that life is really worse than during the war? It sounds hyperbolic, but Lebanon’s economic collapse is all-encompassing, and the reality of life in the country at present is one of egalitarian misery. Even the political class has discovered that there’s an upper limit to what they can solve with patronage. There was certainly no escape from the port explosion—no one could call in a favor to teleport them to a bomb shelter.

Many of Lebanon’s politicians and oligarchs have no choice but to stay in the country, which is indispensable to their rent-seeking operations and personal networks. It’s where their security is guaranteed and where their assets are tied up. But going to restaurants or being seen in their favorite public spots anymore has become a risky endeavor. Even prominent figures must now fear harassment, or worse.

As I sat on a crowded beach in the coastal oasis of Batroun with Lebanese-Canadian photographer Celine Barakat, a helicopter made a low pass in front of us. “Military?” I asked. “No, it’s a politician, probably the foreign minister, Gebran Bassil.” Celine explained. She then told me that Bassil and many of his colleagues can’t even drive on the roads anymore because people will set up roadblocks. Bassil has an especially large target on his head as one of the most high-ranking public officials. The anti-Hezbollah activist Gino Raidy has even published a list of businesses in Batroun associated with Bassil, pleading that people boycott them. It’s a futile undertaking. Bassil and his friends still own and operate Batroun, after all—a rare haven with no blast damage, active weddings, tourism, and busy shops. It’s a different world from the rest of the country.

Fin DePencier/Vacationers kayak in the Mediterranean, Batroun

But the tradition of escapism lives on in Beirut as well. The nightlife districts of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael are among the most revived from the port explosion. The profitability and popularity of this sector made it a priority for reconstruction, and NGOs were quick to offer support. On a Saturday, venues are packed to the brim, and some of them are pretty nice. Other buildings in the same neighborhood still lay in complete ruins, their owners waiting for insurance payouts that are unlikely to ever come. Emblematic of the Lebanese economy is a gas station that sits across the road on the edge of a bar strip in Gemmayze. The place is long abandoned and its roof has collapsed. People switching venues cross the road away from it, pretending not to notice. What’s much harder is ignoring the sound of the Israeli jets that often circle Beirut while the parties go on.

On the edge of Gemmayze, near Martyrs’ Square, is the newly opened Aout Gallery founded by the young art researcher and gallerist Zeid El-Amine. Zeid opened the gallery in honor of his late father, who was killed in the port explosion in this same building. The exhibition at the time of opening was called Moon Garden, featuring works by Korean artist Minyoung Kim. The collection was made up of mystical drawings in which the moon, at different stages of the lunar cycle, is omnipresent. They evoke a sense of benign dreaming, and that’s the point. Moon Garden is Aout’s second exhibition after its inaugural Young Dreams, the intent of which Zeid explained to Arab News: “I think with everything happening around us right now, we just need a moment to fantasize and dream.” Zeid felt it was crucial to bring some vitality into the city, and the galley is doing well despite the odds. But few others have the spirit to rebuild. I asked Zeid’s friend Makram, who participated in the recent protests and has now emigrated to Cyprus, what he thought about the rebuilding drive: “We got tear-gassed and beat up for a year, and for what? Nothing has changed,” he replied, “And it won’t.”

Fin DePencier/Painting from Minyoung Kim’s “Moon Garden” exhibition at the Aout Gallery, Beirut

Instead of Zeid’s pristine gallery, it’s the chaotic continuum of art and vandalism on Beirut’s city walls that present a more accurate depiction of the current Lebanese psyche. They tell the story of a country moving from motivated revolution to realizing the impotence of this revolt, the fury and mania that followed this realization, and finally a fall into nihilism and despair. The tags which are most revealing are those in which the art avoids subversion by a political message. Near Martyrs’ Square, I found an illustration that best depicts the archetype of a Lebanese political activist. Perhaps a self-portrait, the subject is clearly tormented and screaming into the void. Those who weren’t already deeply cynical about Lebanon are learning not to submit themselves to that sort of neuroticism. They would rather be sitting at a bar next to a beach in Batroun. Or better yet, they’ve left the country. One tag perfectly captured that final stage of nihilism: “The skyline is beautiful on fire.”

Now that Lebanon is no longer an engine for prosperity, its short-term trajectory is grave. As a region, Lebanon may yet be back in the long run, but no amount of historic geopolitical advantages make up for the fact that the country lacks anything like a functional regime. Until that situation changes, its other calamities can only continue. And at this point, it seems certain that change won’t come from within. Corruption in Lebanon compromises every level of stratification, not just the elite: the citizen avoids taxes, the political parties smuggle fuel, and the power-brokers have their private interests to take care of. Those still here increasingly believe that the country in its current form is beyond saving. But there’s a utility to their apathy. Most people abandoned Lebanon long before it reached this point of deterioration; they never felt it was their responsibility to bail out a sinking ship. Indeed, the average citizen has had little power to influence the corrupt nature of the state. Better to carve out your own little piece of it and keep life going as best you can.

Fin DePencier/”The skyline is beautiful on fire,” graffiti in Beirut Souks, Beirut

To the degree that Lebanon’s foreign stakeholders do want to invest in the country’s revival, no patron-state will allow their opposing counterpart to fix anything in a meaningful way. Rivals perceive those attempts as power grabs, and they’re probably right. With the exception of Iran and Hezbollah, all other international stakeholders in Lebanon see the country as a sunk cost. France is doing the bare minimum to remain a regional player, the U.S. has concerns elsewhere, and the Gulf states are getting out while they can.

The next chapter in Lebanese history is unpredictable because when there are so many looming catastrophes, you can’t predict which will materialize first. One thing you do know: the center cannot hold, so get out while you can.

Fin DePencier/”Lebanon is bleeding,” street art, Beirut

Fin DePencier is a journalist and photographer based in Yerevan, Armenia. He is active on Instagram and tweets @finlookedintoit.