Abysmal and Inconsolable: A Day in the Life of A Lebanese Resident
Reader, brace yourself. I’m about to push you beyond your comfort zone. You’re being warned: the following sequence of events is not for the faint-hearted. Prepare for a freefalling nightmare of evils and darkness, a bottomless pit of misadventures. This story is about agony, grief, humiliation, inhumanity, and curse after curse after curse. After all, every day -- and not just today -- is now Friday the 13th in Lebanon.
Imagine waking at half past 02:00, in the dead of night, choking on the insufferable Mediterranean heat and humidity of a treacherous summer. The air conditioner is off, the room is pitch black. You get up and fumble your way to the light switch, only to find there’s no electricity. You slide the window open, praying for a sea breeze, but the air is flat, dead, unforgiving.
You’d been hearing all along about the state’s impending fuel shortages as a result of its inability to pay suppliers with its dwindling foreign reserves. But as with everything in wretched Lebanon, you thought it was hyped up drama. You thought they’d unearth a solution just in time, and that you wouldn’t have to endure any power struggles (pun intended). What is this, the nineteenth century? No, you'd shrugged it off. We live in 2021. Surely we won’t be experiencing a cessation of electricity.
But bless your simple soul, here you are. The city in which you reside, and the private “moteur” generator to which you subscribe, have announced daily power cuts upward of six hours, in two to three hour chunks at a time. Well, you’re still better off than your friends dwelling in another city who are getting zero moteur and have to rely on 2-3 hours of government-provided electricity per day. “Better off?” Are we normalizing this now? How can you muster any optimism at a time like this?
Somehow you manage to fall back asleep. Yet when you wake again at 07:00, the electricity is still out of service. How will you be able to get through a nine-hour workday from home if these power cuts dot your landscape?
Obviously it’s not merely about electric lighting, or internet, or air conditioning. How about trivial tasks like turning on the microwave or stove-top to reheat food? How about the contents of your fridge which are now susceptible to spoiling because of the interrupted refrigeration cycle?
What if you needed to leave your house, but you’re on the eighth floor and have to navigate all those flights down (or up, on the return)? Can you even exit your building if it’s gated and hinges on electricity to draw open or shut?
During those precious hours when the moteur is actually restored, it would behoove you to exercise solid math skills. You’re subscribed to a finite number of amperes – let’s say 10 – and voltage runs at 200-220 V. Thus, recollecting from physics that power is the product of current and voltage (i.e., P = IV), you need to ensure you’re not exceeding your rationed total. Therefore, if you keep the A/C wall unit on, and you’re running a load of laundry, will the microwave at 1,000 W break the load?
Now during those dark hours when there is no current running through your outlets, misery is coursing through your veins. What you’d ideally do is hop in your car, blast the A/C on its highest level, and let loose on the highway. The problem, nay the problems, with that are manifold. Lines at the pump are excruciatingly long (blocks upon blocks of cars), the number of gallons is capped per vehicle, and fuel is no longer subsidized. So at the formal rate of the US dollar to the Lebanese pound, i.e., $1 = 1,507.5 LBP, a tank of gasoline (equating to 20 L, or 5.28 gallons) currently sets you back around $50. In a few days, once the subsidy is effectively lifted, that number will soar to roughly $220.
|Lines at the pump easily extend for blocks. This photo was taken on the afternoon of 12 August 2021 in Zalka, on the main highway. The line measured roughly one kilometer.|
Fuel has become a sacred commodity. Every trip must be carefully planned and executed, preferably during hours when traffic is minimal (thank God for Google Maps). You can’t afford to joy ride anywhere, let alone sulk miserably in your car, face glued to the vents, trying to undo that sticky sweat.
Grocery store visits no longer bring any happiness or comfort. Prices are in constant flux, but invariably on the rise, and your heart sinks every time you catch sight of the price labels. And that’s if they’re actually posted on the shelves. Some stores can’t adjust the prices swiftly enough, so they’ve ripped off tags altogether and installed a couple of self-scan price checkers throughout the store so that customers can privately sink into a melancholic depression rather than suppress shock or shame when facing the cashier.
A bag of local kettle chips costs 15,000 LBP ($10) for 144 g. A dinky ice cream sandwich (90g), also by a local brand, will run you 6,000 LBP ($4). Astonishingly, infant and toddler diapers produced in the Bekaa, Lebanon, are more expensive than internationally recognized brands imported from abroad like Huggies. What’s going on? Greed? Exploitation? Banking off people’s misinformation, assumptions, or plain ignorance? All of the above.
Next up, the pharmacy, another hellhole that’ll likely cascade into a series of stops at a dozen pharmacies in pursuit of meds you or your family members are in dire need of. Pharmacists will self-smugly shake their heads as they utter “not in stock,” sending you on a hunt in search of urgent elixirs, for even things as basic as Panadol (the equivalent of Tylenol, in the family of paracetamol drugs) that should in fact be ubiquitous. Even when you are fortunate enough to locate what you want, the new unsubsidized rates will leave you wide-eyed in utter disbelief. “Seriously? 71,000 LBP for children’s cough syrup?” That’s almost $50!
The threat of catching the Covid-19 delta variant has not fallen on deaf ears. Thanks to the surge of expats descending on Lebanon for the summer and profiting from the weak lira, the rate of covid infections has again skyrocketed. But hospitals are beyond capacity and, what’s more, ill-equipped to even care for their patients. Hospitals, like every facility, rely on electricity and fuel to do their jobs. They too cannot escape unscathed from the apocalyptic mess this country has been reduced to.
Every facet, every thread of every fabric of what once comprised Lebanon, has been torn asunder, crumbling conspicuously beneath our feet. Parents had been looking forward to schools reopening this autumn, thanks to the en-masse vaccination of teachers and personnel. But how can any institution hope to prop open its doors when there are long power outages? Even virtual learning is not viable. So what recourse, if any?
Have I managed to horrify you? Are you feeling the injustice, the rage, the terror, the curse of what it means to be in Lebanon at this day and age? Lebanon has become infernal. Nothing affords pleasure anymore. We’ve been plunged into a sea of suffering, of sadness, of destitution, and we are inconsolable. I kept hearing things would get exponentially worse. Well, the cynics were spot-on. With every new low we attained, we naively thought we’d hit rock bottom. The worst is that we probably still have not.
Silly me. Did I fail to mention that the entire population has, to add to all the foregoing woes, been robbed of their bank deposits? In a span of two weeks during October 2019, when banks closed unprecedentedly, we were forcibly untethered from our life savings, our hard-earned livelihoods, our pensions, our “rainy day” cushions. Today, they are siphoned to us in tiny capped amounts. And if you hold foreign currency deposits (e.g., USD), they are exchanged at a fixed rate of 3,900 LBP, whereas the market rate is at least five times that. Alas, that’s the haircut our state leaders promised we’d never be subjected to. But it’s more than just a haircut. It’s us balding. We have been stripped naked, thrown into the pothole-ridden unlit streets, and left to the hyenas.
God help Lebanon. For it is evident at present that nobody else can.
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