Beirut Fragments, 2021 | Charif Majdalani | Granta

Beirut Fragments, 2021

Charif Majdalani

Translated by Ruth Diver


All at once, it comes back to me: a light touch, fluid, fleeting, hanging discreetly somewhere in the air. Suddenly it starts to play, as if drawn out of hiding; it waves at me then disappears when I pay attention, then comes back and finally settles in, as if to show me that it wasn’t just a mirage. That’s when I understand that this is it, that I’m recovering my sense of smell, and that right now, in fact, I am smelling the scent of jasmine. I feel so happy, so grateful, that I hardly dare breathe, as if I might be punished, this perfume confiscated again. But no, it really is here, subtle and delicate, and with it the whole world is restored to me. Again I realise what the loss of smell and taste involves, how it deprives reality of its fullness, its depth, its consistency. It’s as if an entire dimension had been kept in shadow, within arm’s reach but always escaping me, unattainable, frustrating. And then comes the day I decide to take some cortisone, just a little, a few grams, because this has nothing to do with Covid, it’s just my chronic rhinitis depriving me of smell and taste. Two days after the first dose that palette of fine sensations, those subtle marvels, make their first appearance, like the scent of jasmine as I opened the garden gate, which seemed to call out to me then go into hiding, to return and settle simultaneously within and without me, reconnecting me to the world.

Today I tasted peppermint chocolate, I tasted a fresh ripe peach. I smelled the jasmine in the garden and the gardenia on the terrace. And also the violent industrial diesel from the tanker that was pumping water to the roof of the building next door, and the ghastly sour stench of refuse that sometimes floats over the city, depending on the direction of the wind.


I can’t help thinking that this stench is the smell of the corpse we are living with, the corpse of the state, of this dead country, or at least of the one we used to know.


In the year since the port blast, the oligarchs in power still haven’t formed a government. It’s been two years since the economic crisis began, and not a single reform, not a single measure, not a single decision has been taken. Abandoned, the country is floundering, and what the most twisted, pessimistic minds predicted is now taking place: there is no electricity at all any more. The power rationed out by the state network has been cut off, and everything now depends on neighbourhood generators. These need fuel, but diesel has disappeared, leading to the rationing of private electricity production. Whole neighbourhoods are gradually going dark. The hospitals have no fuel either, there are shortages of drugs and the pharmacies are empty. And there is no petrol, of course. Beirut’s legendary traffic jams have disappeared, except around the petrol stations that are still selling, where incredible queues of cars block streets and avenues. We live with the permanent sense of imminent disaster.


Our internet connection is getting worse. Sometimes there is hardly any at all for hours at a time.

Ogero, the company that manages the telecommunications network, announced that it could no longer guarantee the operation of the Akkar and Chouf exchanges because of the shortage of fuel.

I called the water-truck company for a delivery, because our tanks are empty. The guy who answered, a Syrian man, told me that he could come, of course, that he was at my service, but that he no longer had diesel for the pump that sends the water to the tanks on the roof.


Artists, stylists, designers, film-makers, doctors, psychologists, radiologists are leaving in their hundreds. People who have no qualifications are trying to leave too.

To get a new passport you have to wait up to fifteen hours in the government departments, which are barely operating for lack of electricity, or simply because there is no paper for the forms and official documents. Civil servants are no longer turning up to work; they don’t have the petrol to drive, or they’ve decided their salaries aren’t worth coming in for any more.

The ministry of the interior issues a warning about the increasing number of desertions from the police.


This morning, as I was sitting on the terrace trying to write the answers to some interview questions while at the same time discreetly observing my son, I wondered what kind of future he might have in this country that the journalist was asking me about, and even if there was any future at all here for him or his sister. With the economic collapse, the political destruction of Lebanon, the ecological and structural scarring of the country, and the rising power of obscure, malevolent, retrograde political forces, I ask myself every day what kind of country, what kind of legacy, we are leaving our children.


The generator in the Anid family’s building has broken down from overuse. In the neighbourhood where my friends the Naïms live, the supplier has stopped providing power because of the lack of fuel. My colleague Roula posts on Facebook that there is only forty-five minutes’ worth of electricity per day at her place. Her supplier’s generator overheated, then stopped working. Another operator had been promising a connecting line for the last three weeks, and then told her that his generator wouldn’t cope with any more demand. A third replied that she lived too far away, that she mustn’t be angry with him, he has too many calls on his generator as well, and anyway, he’ll soon have to stop supplying electricity and turn his generators off, they can’t run day and night, and soon there will be no more fuel.

Up until this morning, I thought we’d been lucky with our electricity supply. Our neighbourhood, between Furn el Chebbak and Badaro, has two suppliers. One of them rations power, and seems on the verge of cutting off all supply. But the other sells power to our building, and seemed to be still holding out. This morning though, at dawn, the purring of the air conditioner suddenly stopped. The silence that replaced it took on a sinister significance. I stayed in bed for a long time with my eyes open, immobile. I could sense that my wife understood the silence too. I flicked the light switch next to the bed, but nothing happened.

For the first time, we are no longer able to turn on the stove, to charge our phones, or to use our landline. The fridges no longer work, and the heat is stifling. But all that, strangely, is less distressing than one thing we had not expected, or even thought about, until we were faced with it: the impossibility of raising the electric blinds on the windows. That’s what I found most intensely depressing, like a symbol of the dark pit in which we are now all trapped.


The economic crisis that brought an end to the thirty years of the Second Republic in Lebanon – which was itself born after the fifteen-year-long civil war – was the result of the political caste’s overwhelming stranglehold on the state and its mechanisms, and of their monumental corruption. But this huge criminal operation, along with the no-less-gigantic fraud that our banking system has turned out to be, was in fact nothing more than the inescapable consequence of the civil war. Those in power thirty years after the end of the conflict were the militia leaders themselves, who had simply mutated into politicians. They brought their client base and former members of staff to power, and continued with the course of action they’d developed during the war – mafia practices and communitarian factionalism – with the sole aim of enriching themselves and acquiring more power, first with the support of the occupying Syrian forces, then alone, under Hezbollah’s protection. They had no plans, no ambition to reconstruct the country in any real sense, or to learn any lessons from the failings of the First Republic.

The men who contributed to destroying the country during the war succeeded only after thirty years of peace.


It’s been a year now since foreign currency deposits have been inaccessible. For months the banks have been restricting withdrawals in local currency too. Everyone is convinced that we will never see our money again. Those who still hold accounts, notably in dollars, only have one way to recoup a small portion of their assets, a route that is also used by retailers in order to trade. The process is bizarre. It consists in writing cheques and selling them for cash at 10 or 15 per cent of their value – in other words, at a massive loss. I was not the only one wondering who might be profiting from these kinds of transactions, and how. In the end it was a lawyer we met one evening at the Menassas’ who explained how it all works. The dealers buy the cheques at ten times less than their value, then resell them for cash, with a small margin, to the banks themselves, who then wipe the entire sum from their books. It’s an insidious stratagem called a ‘haircut’, which allows the banks to liquidate their clients’ accounts.

One week ago I tried to sell a cheque myself. The currency dealer I use often takes care of these sorts of transactions. Like many of his colleagues he no longer opens his shop, but visits clients at home instead. My dealer is a young man, sturdy, talkative, with a slightly louche swagger, and he hops around when he is negotiating or counting his bundles of banknotes. It’s difficult to get him to sit down. He’s a sly devil, keeps trying to convince me that he is making terrible sacrifices and losing money by giving me preferential rates, which I know is not the case. One day, a few months ago, I noticed that he was limping. He told me he fell off his moped. I asked him whether it was wise to ride around on a moped with panniers full of dollars and Lebanese pounds. He replied that it was safer than a car because in a car you might get stuck in a traffic jam, or blocked in by another car, while on a moped you’re always able to escape an ambush attempt. As for his limp, he had smashed into a car door that a young woman had carelessly opened in front of him while he was speeding like a madman. He flew over the door and landed on the other side, and while people were trying to help him up, asking him how he was, the young woman suggesting she call an ambulance, all he could think about was that he needed to stay calm, to behave as if nothing had happened, so that he could go back to the carcass of his moped with its pannier stuffed full of banknotes.

So, a week ago I tried to sell a cheque. I wanted to empty our accounts once and for all, and to start work on the land we had bought in the mountains, and into which we had poured our funds from the bank. Over the phone, my dealer offered to buy the cheque for 13 per cent of its value. The next day cheques in dollars were worth 13.5 per cent. My dealer laughed, as if he found this lottery funny, then reminded me that the rate for cheques was pegged to the dollar on the black market. And that he thought it might go even higher. But that evening, the cheque was only worth 12 per cent. The next day 11.5 per cent. By the time the fellow turned up at my place and paid me my miserable amount, I had lost another half percentage point. The dealer, as if to cheer me up, announced jovially that he was getting engaged. His offhandedness annoyed me so much that I didn’t even try to pretend to be interested. But then he surprised me: his fiancée was the young woman whose car door had almost sent him to his death.


The most pressing question remains: why do people accept what is happening to them? Why did the uprising have no effect, and why did it come to such a sudden end? The answer is simple. When the street protests stopped it was because of a lack of vision, of alternative plans, or even common cause. This itself is the result of the actions the ruling caste have taken over the last thirty years. They systematically undermined the trade unions, infiltrating and controlling professional associations until all had been reduced to silence. Of course those are the very organisations that might have been able to mobilise demonstrations. Their destruction has left only the communitarian political parties – the oligarchy’s base – as an operational organising force. If the new organisations and groups set up after the 2019 uprising fail to find a way forward, most of those who participated in the protests will gradually return to the traditional parties.


The 2019 uprising and the months that followed did at least lay a foundation for the Lebanese people to have a sense of citizenship. The history of democracies – from antiquity and the Athenian experiment to modern times – has shown that citizenship is built from the wreckage of the affiliation to clan, tribe and communitarian groups, replacing older allegiances which, in time, are supposed to weaken and disappear. In Lebanon, no matter how hard we try to build a sense of common citizenship, those old allegiances resurface at the slightest instability, almost as a reflex. Citizens seek refuge in older ties of loyalty, becoming once again members of their own communities and facing off against other communities, instead of remaining side by side as citizens of a democratic state. We now fear new instability, perhaps provoked by the political parties themselves (in the form of communitarian strife) in order to bring their followers back into the fold, positioning themselves as the foundation and rampart of their own groups. Those who took part in the 2019 uprising, that moment which seemed to forge a new sense of citizenship, will eventually return to their clans and communities and traditional political leaders. They will forget the corruption, the bankruptcy, the collapse and the port blast. And all will be lost.


For a month now I’ve been trying to avoid going to the pharmacy, even for the simplest medicines. The first time my pharmacist announced that she didn’t have any more of the medication I take for my chronic rhinitis, I felt a sense of dread, of abandonment, of being caught in a trap. It was a bit like the first time I realised that I could no longer withdraw money from the bank, that my deposits had probably disappeared forever. But yesterday afternoon my son started to get a sore throat. We were anxious at the thought that he might have strep throat, because we remembered that we hadn’t taken the precaution of buying antibiotics in advance.

We went to ten different pharmacies to try to find antibiotics. Some pharmacists didn’t dare look us in the eye, others were like beaten dogs. One of them, however, hesitated briefly. I sensed that he might have one or two boxes in reserve for urgent cases. He asked whether my son had a fever, and when I answered that he didn’t yet have a temperature, he suddenly pretended to double-check his computer, and I could tell that I’d missed out. And indeed, he confirmed that he didn’t have any antibiotics.

All this is nothing compared to the diabetic patients with no dialysis, and the cancer patients with no treatment, to say nothing of the insurance companies that are not paying out any more, or the social security system that has definitively failed, or the fact that there is no more cash anyway and bank accounts are now worthless.

Charif Majdalani

Charif Majdalani is a Lebanese writer, novelist and professor. His books include Moving the Palace, translated by Edward Gauvin, and Beirut 2020, translated by Ruth Diver. He is a member of the L’Orient littéraire’s editorial board and president of the International Writers’ House in Beirut.

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Translated by Ruth Diver

Ruth Diver is the translator of Charif Majdalani’s Beirut 2020. Her recent translations include Arcadia by Emmanuelle Bayamack-Tam, and Maraudes by Sophie Pujas, for which she won the 2016 Asymptote Close Approximations Fiction Prize.

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