David Patrikarakos David Patrikarakos

The tragedy of Lebanon — from safe haven to bankruptcy

Lebanon’s descent into sectarian chaos can be directly traced to its topography, and its long history of sheltering persecuted minorities, says Charif Majdalani

Wreckage after the explosion in the Port of Beirut on 4 August last year [Getty Images]

Mountains are humanity’s most comforting topographical feature. Wherever you find them you will also find those who have flocked to them for refuge. The Kurds, the world’s largest stateless people, span the most mountainous areas of their host states, while ‘Lebanon’ referred originally to the mountains in the eastern Mediterranean that for centuries served as a haven for all the region’s minorities. First came the Christian Maronites, fleeing the persecution of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in the 7th century; then in the 10th and 11th centuries the Shiite Muslims, persecuted by the Sunni powers; followed by the Druze, persecuted by the Shiites.

These are the origins of the modern multi-ethnic Lebanese state that, as Charif Majdalani observes in this powerful and original book, made the nation a bridge ‘straddling the great cultures of the East and the West’. But this heterogeneity was also a curse — ‘the source of all the conflicts to come’ — because it forced upon the Lebanese a confessional state system which distributed political office according to religion and sect. The perennial squabbling eventually led to civil war and the emergence of sectarian warlords who seized control of the government and public sector, creating the vertiginous ‘clientelism and corruption’ which brought about the collapse of the country last year. It is this disaster that Majdalani seeks to document day to day throughout key months in 2020.

The book, then, is most obviously a diary of a society which is imploding: a newsreel depicting the type of Middle East collapse we have come to expect, ‘inexhaustible, ad nauseam’. It is a story of the ‘economic collapse, the bankruptcy of the country, capital control, exchange rates, the pound in free fall, inflation and penury lying in wait for us all’, as Lebanon tumbles into ruin. Majdalani spends his days

running from one bank to the other, converting dollars into pounds at the official exchange rate, then comparing that to the banks’ rates, then to the changers’, then to the black market rate… before getting completely muddled and giving up on the whole thing.

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