Beirut’s slow and catastrophic collapse

Lebanon’s capital is afflicted by a deep malaise years in the making, with very few reasons to hope for a brighter future

Eduardo Ramon

Beirut’s slow and catastrophic collapse

A sickness has spread over Lebanon. People now live in isolated enclaves - by region, group, city, neighbourhood, or village. Society had gradually lost its cohesion. Even words and images have succumbed to decay and suffocation.

Lebanese society has become fragmented. “We move like ghosts,” said a sufferer of the malaise. “Our words fall on deaf ears. Sometimes, I find myself fully conscious yet bordering on slumber, sat in solitude, my hands against my face or body.”

Residents struggle silently to meet their basic needs, expressing only the occasional disapproving grumble or groaning complaint. This silence is symbolic and suggestive of a wider sense of dissolution and collapse.

A problem brewing

The disintegration did not happen overnight. Even before the huge port explosion that killed hundreds in 2020, the Lebanese economy had sunk to new lows, hit by a liquidity crisis exacerbated by US sanctions against Hezbollah. The government defaulted on debt, the Lebanese Pound plunged, and poverty rates soared past 50%.

The rot precipitated Lebanon’s current financial and political crisis, seeping into every facet of public and private life, permeating Beirut, leaving no aspect of daily life in the capital untouched.

It is as if a giant hammer came down from the heavens, obliterating Lebanon's essence and its people.

It is as if a colossal hammer descended on Lebanon from the heavens, obliterating its essence and its people, eradicating its language and memory, filling mouths and eyes with ash, far more so than during the 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990.

Beneath this hammer lies Beirut, a city burdened by humiliation and anxiety. Its inhabitants, weighed down by grievances and tensions, choke on their own bitterness. The city's decaying streets bear witness to the myriad signs of a strife found etched on residents' faces. Sometimes, silence boils over into sudden violence.

Eduardo Ramon

Three years of hurt

Perhaps, prior to the last three years' of drought and isolation, we were too absorbed, distracted, or indifferent to the stark realities of our existence. Today, an unwillingness to talk about our present malaise or past fortune may speak of a deeper truth.

Even as we try to account for what has befallen Beirut in the last three years, we cannot escape the effects of chronic fatigue and weakness.

Our problems stem from civil war, into which we entered hypnotically, yielding to its grasp without knowing why we were diving into bloodshed and shame. Afterwards, we tried to paper over them, offering amnesties, pretending that they didn't happen.

It comes from the reluctant acceptance of external "guardianship" over Lebanon, which some call "occupation", inviting foreign states to exert such an influence over our security and defence that we simply become a limb of that state.

Under the guise of "resistance," one group has established a society with the feel of being in a state of perpetual war, in which there are "martyrs" and "masters of existence", where "the most honourable" rule over the less honourable.

A wartime society

Meanwhile, in our efforts to rebuild and reconstruct, we digested hollow and vulgar propaganda, accepted exorbitant loans, and ran up mountains of debt. Resources were squandered on warlords, their followers, and an army of acquiescent semi-idle staff who act more like subjects or beneficiaries.

The secret "resistance" army built a wartime society, dismantled the infrastructure of the state, eroded its civil society, transformed its politics, and propagated a cold war riddled with assassinations. All this helped bring about Lebanon's bankruptcy, for which no-one now takes any responsibility.

No-one takes any responsibility for Lebanon's bankruptcy. We live in a shattered warzone, waiting for the story to start anew.

We live in a shattered warzone, waiting for the story to start anew. We were moved to both applaud and weep when the city was described as desolate and gloomy in Mahmoud Darwish's iconic poem: "Beirut is our one and only tent, and our one and only star." It asks how the city came to taste of fire and smoke.

Today, every aspect of life in Beirut is overshadowed by bankruptcy and poverty. The city's fabric has been torn apart, the rhythm of life disrupted. Its inhabitants are suffocating, mute, and pale. They wander the gloomy streets, stupefied and numb. Their faces reflect the despair that has taken over their lives.

Read more: Spike in suicides points to growing despair in Lebanon

The Ras Beirut heyday

It was not always like this. Beirut's dismal state can perhaps best be shown by looking at two of the city's most prominent neighbourhoods – Ras Beirut and Hamra Street, stretching from the Bank of Lebanon in the east to the slope leading to the lighthouse on the seashore.

The American University of Beirut (AUB) in Ras Beirut played a pivotal role in shaping the blend of Lebanese, Arab, and foreign cultures in this area, a hilly region overlooking the sea. It was selected by American evangelical missionaries to establish their Middle Eastern university back in 1866.

During the 1960s and 1970s, Ras Beirut was at its zenith in terms of cosmopolitan culture, becoming home to several prominent families and hosting an ethnic mix of Christians, Druze, Muslims and secular residents.

Ras Beirut and Hamra Street reached their zenith in the 1960s and 70s, becoming home to a thriving cosmopolitan culture

Hamra Street, meanwhile, emerged as the epicentre of Beirut's modernity, drawing in visitors from Lebanon, the Arab world, and the Middle East. This trend can be attributed to interconnected factors that occurred simultaneously.

A century following its establishment, AUB was drawing Arab elites from Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and the Arab Gulf nations enjoying an oil boom. They lived mainly in Ras Beirut, alongside Lebanese elites well-versed in English language and culture.

It became a melting pot for dozens of nationalities, as thousands flew in annually, offering the city a surge of youthful dynamism. The students were soon making an impact nationally and internationally is social, political, and cultural arenas. Beirut's bustling traditional urban heart was alive with energy and dynamism.

Eduardo Ramon

Hamra Street all the rage

On Hamra Street, a plethora of cafes, fast-food restaurants, cinemas, entertainment venues, and nightlife sprung up, catering to the students' tastes. Several newspapers established their headquarters here, as did many cultural and artistic centres.

Today, almost all of that has vanished. Only the AUB remains. And instead of being truly international, the university's students are now predominantly Lebanese, who complain about the exorbitant "dollarised" fees subject to wild currency fluctuations.

Far from wanting to stay, most students now plan to leave Lebanon once they graduate. As a result, the AUB has begun building a branch in Cyprus.

Far from wanting to stay, most students now plan to leave Lebanon once they graduate. The American University has already begun building a branch in Cyprus.

The extent of the deterioration in Ras Beirut and Hamra is unprecedented, but their fortunes have been hit before. In 2008, for instance, Hezbollah and the so-called "resistance" took control of Beirut by force, with Ras Beirut being a big target area.

Between 2011-15, Hamra Street underwent a temporary resurgence following an influx of Syrians who came to Beirut during the Syrian revolution, frequenting its cafés and nightclubs. Yet this mainly young, professional Syrian cadre was merely waiting to migrate to Europe. Today, they have all but left.

Residents of Ras Beirut and Hamra lament the deterioration of their once-proud home neighbourhoods. Their fall in fortunes is perhaps greater than elsewhere in Lebanon.

Nostalgia for the recent past

Lebanese literature refers to this recent past as the "beautiful time", meaning the cultural, artistic, and social heyday, when Hamra Street was the most famous destination in Beirut. The image is full of romantic nostalgia.

On a quiet evening in a hotel bar that once bustled with life in the bygone era of Ras Beirut, three friends gather to catch up after a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic. We are the bar's only customers.

As we leave and walk through the deserted dark streets, one describes the night as "Albanian," a reference to the bleak poverty and hardship faced behind the 'Iron Curtain,' where life was miserable and sad. It at once captures the parallel of today's Ras Beirut, particularly its once-thriving nightlife.

One friend describes the night as 'Albanian', in reference to the bleak misery experience by those behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War.

As night falls, the town is shrouded in darkness. Cafés, pubs, and shops close their doors. The few that do stay open are devoid of clients, except for some young Iraqi tourists roaming the streets in groups. After sunset, women are rarely seen out.

The coffee shops that stay open only serve hookahs. Even the well-known Horseshoe Café, a popular spot for the city's cultural and artistic elite in the 1960s and 70s, now sits empty, save for a solitary Iraqi man smoking a hookah on a couch behind the café's window, gazing out at the deserted street before him.

Night and day

The daytime ambiance in Hamra and Ras Beirut differs significantly from the 'Albanian' night, contradicting Singer Najwa Karam's lyrics that claim "the night conceals the problems." In today's Beirut, daylight is "the veil that conceals the problems".

Yet despite the relative bustle of day, people appear anxious and unhappy. The frenzy of the day does not reflect the isolation they feel at night, when they retreat into their homes and the city becomes eerie and dim.

Read more: In Lebanon, the price of gas 'fuels' isolation and empties streets

Sundays in Ras Beirut are still tranquil and serene. Instead of the chaotic rush of weekdays, people build in time for the kind of leisurely strolls that their parents and grandparents would recognise, a warm contentment enveloping their senses.

Yet while this aspect may be familiar, others are much diminished. Offerings of theatrical performances, art exhibitions, and cultural evenings these days make little impact, certainly not as they once did.

Some now compare Beirut to Cairo. Elements of the lifestyle, street scenes, and daily activities are reminiscent, particularly in the west of Beirut, while the sense of imbalance, chaos, ageing, and dullness may be common traits too.

Ras Beirut on a quiet Sunday, passing through Hamra Street, conjures images of Cairo's Mohandessin or Zamalek districts. To the first-time visitor, they may appear a little drab and rough, amid signs of fading elegance.

A crumbling elegance

The Lebanese once took pride in this elegance. Until three years ago, it distinguished them. Today, the sombre streets are empty, heavy with stored memories. Still, at least they are peaceful. Other areas are plagued by rampant violence, with fights, disputes, and retaliation shootings that can happen at any moment.

In the evenings, residents discuss events and listen to the grim TV news reports of suicides, which have become prevalent. In the first week of March, four suicides were recorded from a single Shiite community alone, each a fatal gunshot to the head.

The streets are empty. Some areas are plagued by violence. Four suicides were reported in one community in just one week alone.

In Beirut's streets, the signs of misery are visible. In a corner of Corniche El Mazraa, a woman dressed in black holds a cardboard sign reading: "My rent is due. Please help pay the LBP 700,000."

On the same street, a wooden sign dangles from a lamppost, reading: "Be very careful." Across it, someone who blames the country's bankruptcy on blasphemy has written: "Cursing God leads to destruction."

Beneath the bridge of the Cola station, just a stone's throw from Corniche El Mazraa, a young girl holds a sign reading: "Mom has cancer and needs expensive medicine."

Eduardo Ramon

The moments before madness

The girl stands alone amidst the suffocating traffic. Chaotic congestion is a common sight in Beirut's streets. Cars bully each other for space. Motorbikes appear alongside suddenly, their riders revving and speeding through a sea of vehicles and pedestrians, hurling insults, and having insults hurled at them.

It is as if everyone is trying to escape an inexplicable horror, pushing forward like parched camels moments before they succumb to madness.

Sidewalks are noticeably empty. Vehicles squeeze tightly along the curbs. Cars seem to outnumber the city's inhabitants, who retreat into the comfort of their homes at night, as if the outside world posed a threat to their leisurely, calm existence. Some will simply be waiting for the right moment to leave Lebanon.

Cars outnumber people. Inhabitants retreat into their homes at night, as if the outside world posed a threat. Some are simply waiting to leave Lebanon.

In this city of disparities and indignities, where a sense of endurance and quietude prevails, some sit ensconced in a digital world, relying on phone messaging, rarely encountering their neighbours, except by chance in communal areas.

The people they meet most often include the building concierge, cleaners, maintenance staff, delivery personnel, and paper pushers from the labyrinthine government bureaucracy that has long been in shambles throughout Lebanon.

Yet despite the gloom, the buildings in which many of Beirut's high earners reside are fortified and opulent. Such city dwellers, whose salaries are typically paid in dollars, often eat and meet in the best restaurants, spending their evenings there.

A friend's visit

A Kuwaiti friend, who frequently visits Beirut and cherishes his memories of studying at AUB during the onset of the Lebanese civil wars, invited us to dinner at a restaurant in Mar Mikhael, the nightlife district.

Arriving at 8pm, we were the only customers. He was confused about how the Lebanese were navigating the bankruptcy crisis. As if to add to his confusion, by 10pm the restaurant had filled with clients of all ages.

Recently, I came across a bustling crowd outside a relatively new restaurant in Kantari, near the abandoned Future TV building, which former Prime Minister Saad Hariri inherited from his father after his assassination.

At first, I assumed they were gathering for a wedding photoshoot, but no – they were here to eat, a host of regular clientele including both modern and traditional city families. For a second, it was as if Beirut had not been affected by the financial chaos.

Read more: How a central bank's failings led to Lebanon's financial collapse

Living in a dream

Last month, a Lebanese poet and journalist in his early 70s, who has lived and worked in Beirut for decades, said he felt like the last three years he had been living in a dream. He meant this not as analogy, allegory, metaphor, or euphemism. He felt he had been living in a dream-like state, a partial hypnosis, somewhere between belief and disbelief.

"As I listen to people speak," he explained, "their words and phrases trail off into a void, as if their voices are being hijacked by someone or something else… I watch them roam the streets of Beirut, a city I know so well, when suddenly it appears to have transformed into a different place entirely, devoid of its usual markings and character."

We seem lost in our own oblivion, moving like ghosts, our words falling on deaf ears.

He said it was as if we had been "propelled backwards, into the past, while the rest of the world continues forwards in time… We seem lost in our own oblivion, moving like ghosts, our words falling on deaf ears… Sometimes I find myself on the brink of slumber yet fully conscious, sitting in solitude, pressing my hands against my face and body".

This sense of altered or alternative reality is reflected in shop prices. Most goods these days are priced in dollars, to such an extent that people don't really know what the real-world value of Lebanon's currency is any more.

Currency of unknown value

The central bank has printed copious Lebanese Pounds, especially LBP 100,000 notes, which it then throws into the market for people to exchange for their dollar notes at home. Then they use Lebanese Pounds to buy goods and services priced in dollars.

Before the bankruptcy and hyperinflation, LBP 100,000 bought $66. Now it buys $6. Dollar bank deposits made before 2019 have been seized and can now only be withdrawn in small monthly amounts.

Many salaries are in Lebanese Pounds but paid in US dollars, which are then exchanged for LBP at money exchangers so those exchanging them can purchase imported goods priced in USD, after they have had the 'customs dollar' imposed. People are living in a maze, said the poet, unaware of the value of their own currency.

His house is adorned with numerous contemporary paintings by artists I know, but these artworks now seem to have vanished into a time-warp, and our conversation in the sitting room feels like it is taking place in a vacuum.

He admits that he rarely ventures out these days. Time can seem to stand still if you are ensconced in your home, especially one you use for seclusion. As I leave, I feel lonely. I dread the thought of climbing the dingy stairs to my sixth-floor apartment. The light from the solar-powered lampposts is dim, which is apt.

A night at the theatre

I spend a night consuming contemporary dance at Le Monnot Theatre in Beirut's Ashrafieh district, which once hosted a vibrant nightlife scene that emerged from the shadow of civil war.

Its streets teemed with life, people eager to make up for lost time and missed experiences. Today, most buildings here are either empty or lived in by the elderly. Few attendees of the show are under the age of 50.

A woman I know came to see it from a distant town, bringing her two visiting daughters who work between Dubai and Europe. Another friend, who now lives and works in Kuwait, is here on a flying 36-hour visit before leaving for California to see his family, who left after the 2020 port explosion, which killed 218 and injured 7,000.

A woman's daughters work between Europe and Dubai. A friend works in Kuwait. I watched the show, all the while wanting to leave Beirut.

As I watch the graceful and exquisite show, I am seized by an impulse to leave the city. The choreographer, a Lebanese native who holds citizenship in a European country where she received her training, established a dance academy in Beirut back in 2002, only to later return to Amsterdam where she now lives and works.

The talented performers include a young Lebanese duo who trained under the choreographer at the academy. They also leave Beirut, alongside their trainer, after captivating audiences for two unforgettable nights.

Eyes full of sorrow

A young man in the audience, who lives in the city's southern suburbs, said he recently finished studying Cinema at the Lebanese University's Institute of Arts, located in Furn El Chebbak. Of the 20 graduates from his course, he was one of only three who chose to stay in Lebanon. The rest left, either for Europe or the Gulf.

Shy and reserved, he said he felt like a stranger in his own community. His sister, who graduated from the same institute, felt likewise. Their sense of alienation had made it difficult for them to connect with others in Beirut, which was hindering job prospects.

They felt like strangers in his own community. Their sense of alienation had made it difficult for them to connect with others in Beirut, which had hindered their job prospects.

The young man seemed confused. His eyes were full of sorrow. He sought advice on what he could do, worried that he had no foreign language. It reminded me of my own eagerness to leave and I found myself lost for words. Eventually, all I could do was suggest that he try to learn another tongue.

An AUB professor told me recently that all his students ever talk about is leaving the country once they finish their degrees. A woman in her 30s, who insisted on living and working in Beirut after graduating from AUB, finally gave up and left for Paris.

She said: "None of my friends and classmates are still in Lebanon. I love Beirut, but life here has become unbearable. I want to get European citizenship to guarantee a safe future, then I'll come back."

Recent statistics show that Christians now make up 19% of Lebanon's population, a sharp generational drop - in the 1990s, they comprised 30%. Many have left, especially the young, but they far from the only community to take flight. Their diminishing demographic may even have been a factor in their decision to depart.

Eduardo Ramon

Hariri's Lebanon in tatters

In the opening to one of his poems, the late Lebanese poet Hassan Abdallah recalls a verse said to date back to the Umayyad era: "A grave of war in a desolate place / There is no grave near a grave of war." Passing the tomb of slain two-time premier Rafik Hariri and his two companions, killed on 14 February 2005, this ancient verse seems fitting.

Read more: The legacy of Rafik Hariri and the collapse of the Lebanese state

The tomb is in Martyrs' Square in downtown Beirut, which Hariri rebuilt through the Solidere Company he established. Ever since, the area has been synonymous with his era, when Lebanon and Beirut partially restored their Arab and international role.

Hariri rebuilt downtown through the Solidere construction company. Ever since, it has been synonymous with the former prime minister.

Today, the area is once again rundown and desolate, hit hard by the 2020 port explosion. It is hard to imagine that Martyrs' Square was filled with the echoes of the Cedar Revolution on 14 March 2005, or the chants of the 17 October 2019 revolution.

A few steps from the square is the shattered glass façade of the partially abandoned An-Nahar newspaper offices. A giant dusty portrait of its former editor, Gebran Tueni, and a statue of its former journalist, Samir Kassir, are reminders of what once was.

Tueni and Kassir were killed by two separate car bombs in 2005, martyrs of the Cedar Revolution. Like Hariri, who was also killed in 2005, suspicion fell on Syrian intelligence agents and their Lebanese collaborators.

Pro-Syria vs pro-Lebanon

Anger swelled when Hezbollah organised a "thank Al-Assad's Syria" demonstration on 8 March 2005. It was to intimidate those who dared accuse Syria of assassinating Hariri. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah appeared from a window above the Beirut nightclub Buddha Bar in Riad al-Solh Square, addressing the crowds.

After the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, the 8 March crowd – now named the 8 March Alliance - camped in Riad al-Solh Square for two years, disrupting daily life in the downtown area. This was the beginning of moribund Beirut.

The area around the Parliament building in Nejmeh Square, together with the streets branching off from it, once the source of entertainment and tourism, became militarised overnight, closed off by the parliamentary police. This is how Beirut's city centre grew into a desolate ghost town, not long after Hariri's assassination.

In the Mar Mikhael and Gemmayzeh areas, which suffered far more damage in the port explosion than downtown Beirut, reconstruction continues in a bid to accelerate the rehabilitation of nightlife in the city.

The renovation efforts stand in stark contrast with the abandonment and death of downtown Beirut. It feels like revenge taken by the Michel Aoun-Hezbollah alliance against Hariri's Lebanese legacy. The price for revenge is Lebanon's descent into hell.

The new normal

The emptiness of Martyrs' Square is disrupted at 8am every day by a crowd of visa and migration applicants. Queues form in front of the ancient Opera building, which a security company now uses as an underground office complex after several European embassies asked it to process the visa requests.

At the Palace of Justice, the scene resembles that of a prison, with judges, lawyers, civil servants, and bureaucrats piled into dilapidated offices around huge stacks of scattered files and papers. I went three times, trying each time to pay a parking fine, unsuccessfully. After endless hours spent waiting, I entrusted the matter to a lawyer.

I spent hours trying to pay a parking fine. Hours later, I gave up, and entrusted the matter to a lawyer.

I recount my Palace of Justice experience to a friend during a walk at sunset along the spacious pier on Beirut's waterfront. It is a stone's throw from the port, with its rubble and cracked concrete silos.

In the distance, below the slopes of Mt. Sannine, concrete buildings are scattered across the northern Metn and Keserwan districts, built in haste and chaos during the waves of urbanisation instigated by war and displacement.

We talk about how Lebanon has become a collection of silent, disconnected ghettos, whose miserable inhabitants struggle to stay alive by day, then spend their nights isolated in their concrete bunkers.

My friend recalled moments from Beirut's past that were no less humiliating, including the aftermath of Hezbollah's electoral victory in 2018, when columns of motorcyclists indulged in noisy and violent celebrations, some even climbing Hariri's statue, shouting victory cries from the top.

At the time, people watched with feelings of anger and disgrace. Now, along the corniche sidewalk, they walk in numbed silence. All words have lost their meaning.

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