I’m sorry, Lebanon. We love you but we can’t take it anymore. We’re breaking up with you.
My wife and I have lived in Lebanon, on and off, for almost ten years. Our retreat began in the summer when we couldn’t face going to the beach with our two-year-old daughter. Every year, Lebanese scientists publish a report saying that the seawater around many of the beaches is full of fecal bacteria. Raw sewage is discharged into the sea along Lebanon’s coast; from some beaches, you can actually see the pipe.
Lebanon’s failure to do something as basic as treat its sewage is one result of its corrupt politics. The venality of the people in charge is visible all around. Drive out of Beirut and every green space has been built over. Building without a permit is a simple matter of bribing your local police and politicians — the police lieutenant kicks some of the bribe up to his captain, who sends some up to his colonel, and so on. A Lebanese general may well be a dollar millionaire, despite a pittance of a salary. A Lebanese politician can get even richer.
The corruption could perhaps be forgiven if it were not for the incompetence. Since the civil war, Lebanon has not had enough electricity. Now, with the economy collapsing, power can be off for 20 hours a day. It shut down altogether over the weekend. So Beirut has to rely on thousands of diesel generators. They’re run by the hated generator mafias, whose political clout may be another reason the power crisis is never solved. Fat particles of soot carpet your windowsill. The air is thick with carcinogens. And you don’t even get reliable power from all this, because there’s a fuel crisis as well. Our mobile-phone signal dies. The phone company tells us there’s no electricity for the cell tower in our neighbourhood, Gemmayze.
Gemmayze is one of Beirut’s smartest areas, yet the streets are filthy. Small bones crunch under your feet — rats have been into piles of rubbish left to fester on street corners. The poor have been digging through the bins again, throwing everything onto the ground as they search for something to sell or eat. Beggars are everywhere. An old man in an ancient but well-tailored blue suit stands by the open window of a restaurant for foreigners and rich Lebanese. He extends a palm to the diners, who try to ignore him; his other hand holds onto a small boy, his grandson. The man looks at his feet, humiliated; but his grandson is hungry, he says.
I try to avoid giving money to people using children to beg, but I broke my own rule before we left. Most days, a young woman in a black hijab sat nursing a toddler on the pavement near our house. She was short and plump under her abaya. Her little boy was painfully thin. He always seemed to be asleep; just as well, the heat was fierce. One day, she was there but not the little boy. He was sick, she said. ‘I’m afraid he might die if I bring him to the street again.’
Nour was Syrian and had fled to Lebanon because of the war. She and her husband could not read or write and had never had any kind of proper job. He was a street shoeshine, she was a beggar. She said she had tried for years to get pregnant with her son, Mohammed. ‘He was our gift from God.’ I was shocked when she told me he was almost three. I would have put his age at 18 months; he was so small. She said he’d had ‘a fever’ ever since the winter and they couldn’t afford the medicine the doctor said he needed.
I offered to pay for Mohammed’s treatment. All she had to do was go to the clinic in the refugee camp and put the doctor on the phone. I thought she was right that Mohammed might not last if she brought him back to the street. How much did she make in a year, I asked — how much would it take for her to stay at home with him? The amount she made from begging was pitiful, about $100 a year. I gave her that much. She took it and left.
My friend Ghassan had been helping to translate and a few hours later he found Nour on the next street, laughing with her friends. Over the following weeks, she never telephoned from the doctor’s office at the refugee camp. Perhaps the baby had been hers, Ghassan said, perhaps not: babies were rented out and passed around between different beggars. ‘The gangs school them in what to say.’ Ghassan said that begging was big business. Street gangs, the local police and armed militias all took a cut. For him, the sight of beggars everywhere was another symptom of Lebanon’s sickness.
I’d given Nour the $100 in Lebanese money. This was handed over in a great pile of 100,000 lira notes bought on the black market, two million in total. The lira has lost 95 per cent of its value over the past two years. As the economy crumbles, the aid agencies say that children go to bed hungry in a third of Lebanese families; hospitals don’t have antibiotics or even surgical thread. As with the sewage pumped off Lebanon’s coast, the politicians responsible for this disaster keep floating back to the surface. The new prime minister, Najib Mikati — Lebanon’s richest man — has held that office twice before and was once accused of corruption by a state prosecutor, a charge he denies.
The past two years have been like watching a country slowly cut its own throat. For now, there doesn’t seem anyone capable of stopping the bleeding. Many other foreigners are leaving like us; Lebanese too, if they can afford it. We’re now in Florence, where my wife’s family is from. As the Italians — especially the Florentines — were for centuries, the Lebanese are energetic, creative people at the mercy of corrupt leaders and brutal political facts. They are resilient and they will survive, even if Lebanon does not.