Reassessing Lebanon in 2020
Two months have elapsed since I last penned a piece for my blog Beirutista. Blame the anomalous behavior on a drastic change in circumstances, at both the personal and national levels, that has left me conflicted internally. There’s so much I want to spill on paper, in the hopes that articulating my feelings will emancipate my mind. But at the same time, my thoughts are amorphous, and structuring them into eloquent, coherent prose would be a taxing exercise.
Alas, I must try. So here goes.
I departed from Beirut on 9 November, three weeks after the start of the people’s revolution took Lebanon by storm on October 17. My destination? Southern California, where my parents reside. We’d booked our tickets in late summer, far before the financial and political crises ravaged Lebanon.
I’ve been here precisely eight weeks, and returning to Beirut, which continues to sink deeper into economic imbroglio, holds zero appeal. For the first time in my life, I have no desire to go back. The entire country has gone to hell in a hand basket faster than you can utter the word “thawra,” Arabic for revolution. Banks are relentless in their application of strict capital controls, even though it goes against written law. I mean, who can survive on an ATM withdrawal cap of $500 per month? How about a debit limit of $1,500 per month at international points of sale? If you have the funds sitting in your checking account, shouldn’t you be rightfully entitled to their access and utility? But in a heinous move to curb the dollar shortage in Lebanon, all banks have implemented restrictions on how much clients can extract from their accounts. And the threat of a haircut, as Argentina witnessed in the early 2000s, looms eerily overhead.
Apart from that, a government has failed to form in the wake of former Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s resignation. Citizens have been protesting the antiquated ruling elite, insisting they abdicate their power and make room for fresh, new, uncorrupted blood. We have yet to see that take shape, two and a half months in.
All that is evident is the despicable status quo that submerges Lebanon into dark recesses. The infrastructure is deplorable, with constant flooding every time a rainstorm befalls the landscape. Prices are surging. The lira has devalued by nearly one-third, though the formal exchange rate published by Banque du Liban remains at around 1,507.5 LBP per USD. And most lethally, confidence is at an all-time low. Is the country on the precipice of an economic depression? It sure looks it.
|Raouche, Beirut, Lebanon (photo taken 10 Oct 2019)
How about me? How am I faring? Naturally, my freelance work in Lebanon has been indefinitely suspended. The pause, however, comes not at an inconvenient period, as I am bracing for one of nature’s most trying episodes on women: labor. I am mere days away from delivering our second child, and I couldn’t be more grateful to be thousands of miles removed from the destructive forces stirring in Lebanon. Happily, I am among my family, in calm and sunny SoCal, whose leisurely lifestyle and affordable living quickly grow on you.
|The lifestyle in sunny SoCal is relaxed, leisurely and nature-centric
I won’t lie and say we haven't considered a move here. It’d be almost sacrilegious not to. Free public education? Protected human rights? Federally insured deposits up to $500,000? Environmental sustainability? Urban planning? Decent career opportunities? Who are we kidding? Lebanon cannot hold a candle to the US in any of those categories.
Lebanon’s unique selling point has always been the chaleur of its people, the generally friendly, good-natured character of the Lebanese who embrace both the familiar and foreign with unchecked warmth. Indeed, Lebanon’s family-centric values and rich culture, cuisine, and heritage are sources of enticement for many expats and tourists. They are what compelled me to call it home for the past nine years.
But those distinguishing factors have been squashed as the country plunges into irrevocable destitution. Unemployment is at its highest. Inflation, and eventually hyperinflation, has already started to wreak havoc on the market. The facilities of consumerism have been interrupted. In brief, it is irrational to make an argument in favor of staying in Lebanon.
The uncertainty of the country's fate gnaws away at me, at a time when I should be solely absorbed in the growth of our little family and the ensuing joy another baby bundle will bring. From where I sit, Lebanon no longer feels like home. I doubt we’ll relive the charming days that animated my near-decade there. Sure, I am thankful for having amassed a wealth of career experience and a decent livelihood working at an alpha bank, but now I fear that very livelihood will be snatched away from me at the claws of the banking and finance monsters. Ironic, isn’t it? That the very vehicle which supplied my salary will be the same to strip me of my net worth.
Sounds just like Lebanon, though: a fleeting notion that takes more than it gives, that confounds the brain, tugs at the heart, and shackles the soul. We are dreamers to invest our faith in it, for even it does not belong unto itself.