In Lebanon’s year of loss and deprivation, simple pleasures have steadily drained away along with its fortunes. But amid a crisis renowned for breaking new ground, few Lebanese had thought their ability to stay in touch was at risk – until a pre-Christmas warning sent shudders through the country.
The telecommunications minister, Johnny Corm, warned this week that a lack of funds and fuel could soon see Lebanon’s already struggling internet grind to a halt, making festive calls and messages even trickier than usual – and a financial and social disintegration like no other even more acute.
As weary Lebanese approached another lacklustre Christmas, the warnings appeared to be bearing out. The internet was barely functioning in Tripoli on Tuesday. By the day after, Beirutis could barely communicate or open websites. Things were forecast to get worse in time for Christmas Day.
Miriam Sarhan, 31, who left Lebanon for Canada in July after losing faith in her homeland, says calling her family on messaging apps had helped settle her in and reassure her family back home. “I was speaking to them by video in November,” she says. “Now we can’t even manage a voice call. What else will my country take from me?”
The crisis affecting the telecom sector mirrors that faced by all arms of government; bills to overseas providers need to be paid in US dollars and the cost of doing so has increased up to twentyfold since the country’s plunging currency lost parity in late 2020. Since then, the value of the lira has been in freefall, while costs of goods and services have skyrocketed.
Through it all, staying in touch had been at least one salvation; as had a hope that somehow, someday, things would get better. But as a cruel winter sets in, after an arduous year, there is little sign of a brighter horizon.
Resilience, once a buzzword used to describe the Lebanese, is now parodied by citizens themselves. “How much more can we be humiliated?” asks Mustafa Alloush, an expatriate living in London. “It seems something that outsiders wish upon us to make themselves feel better about our situation.”
Offices of the state power company, Electricité du Liban, in darkness during one of Beirut’s many power cuts this year as fuel shortages shut down power plants. Photograph: D Collins/AFP/Getty
Downtown Beirut, a crossroads of the city’s myriad manifestations, is unusually bleak and empty this year. As winter rains swept in across the still-ruined port nearby, the space where a Christmas tree normally stands was empty and abandoned. In the predominantly Armenian suburb of Bourj Hammoud in the capital’s east, the festive season barely appears to have been marked this year. Christmas decorations are few and far between. So are shoppers.
“It’s a very depressing Christmas,” says Sandy Gumijian, a shop owner. “There’s no lighting, no decoration. And I’m not selling anything except food and bread. It’s much worse than last year. Worse for the kids too.”
A coffee shop owner, George Kouyoumijian, 43, says: “Where is Christmas? Look at the store, there’s nothing. Usually there are decorations all over this street. It should be full of lighting and life. We thought last year was the worst and we were praying for the end of 2020, but this year is worse for sure.”
Kamilla, a gift shop owner, says she could not afford decorations and lighting this year. “You are the first one to come to my shop with a smile,” she says.
How Lebanon sank so low continues to trouble many of its citizens, who left the country in droves this year – determined to start again in the Gulf states, Canada, the UK or Europe. While immigration numbers are hard to discern from a broken bureaucracy, removal companies have a backlog of several months for people leaving the country – and the local carrier, Middle East Airlines has done a brisk business on outbound routes. Inbound flights before Christmas have also been busy – but that is not expected to last.
“These are expats coming home for two weeks, their bags full of dollars from new lives abroad,” says an executive with Middle East Airlines, the national airline of Lebanon. “This is the new diaspora, which is added to the old one. We have always been a country of exiles, but never quite like this.
Indeed, what Lebanon now represents has become a riddle for many of its citizens. From postwar uncertainty to fleeting opportunity, short-term boom – and now emphatic bust, the trajectory has been volatile. Returning to the homeland from lives made abroad had remained an ambition for many.
“It was for me too,” says Saad Chamoun, who arrived from Dubai to visit his family this month. “But something changed in me. I left in July and have been gone for five months. I’m working in reinsurance and am happy. I don’t want to come home, because the country is no longer for me. All my friends are the same.”
With a middle class being fast whittled out, and a diaspora estimated at up to 18 million people having little incentive to return, Lebanon’s brain drain has an etch of permanence to it. “And that’s worrying,” says Khaled Zaidan, a banker. “The educated elite and the young and ambitious were always the country’s strategic depth. How does anyone ever lure them home now?”
As the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, left Beirut on Tuesday after a 48-hour visit, he reiterated grave concerns and the need for reforms, which a broken state and deeply factionalised government seem unable to deliver. More than 18 months after the Beirut explosion – as striking a symbol of state dysfunction seen anywhere in modern times – there has been little progress in bringing to account those culpable for the blast that devastated the city.
Those responsible for the Ponzi scheme that crippled the banking system and the decades of industrial-scale corruption that preceded it also remain well out of reach of the enfeebled courts.
“Christmas is a thing of yesteryear,” says Sarah Yamout, a Beirut resident. “Celebrating a real one has become something of our fantasies too.
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