Beirut in crisis

Can things get any worse for the people of Lebanon?

In Lebanon the economy is going downhill at an ever faster rate. The Lebanese are fighting the dramatic effects of the crisis with barter exchanges and joint projects. Apart from that, all they have left is black humour to endure the situation. Tom Allinson reports from Beirut

Lebanon has been deemed insolvent since March. Unemployment is at just under 50 percent and the currency is in free fall: while the Lebanese pound was still pegged to the U.S. dollar at a rate of 1,500:1 last autumn, people are now paying 10,000 pounds per dollar on the black market. According to various estimates, the basic prices for food have doubled or quadrupled. More than half of the population is considered poor.

But even or especially in times of need, many Lebanese continue to take to the streets in protest. They comment on the disastrous situation with sarcastic humour. For example, demonstrators last symbolically buried the Lebanese pound - also called lira - in a coffin.

"When people want to laugh about something, that's because oftentimes they probably can't do anything to change the reality," explained Hussein Yassine, a writer at the Lebanese outlet The961. "It's not just ridiculing an idea without understanding its dire consequences, but it's one way to cope."

That humour has long been a marker of resilience in a country where the lira has now lost around 80% of its value. Food, fuel and medicine are all disappearing from the market as foreign currency to buy vital imports has evaporated.

As well as the impact of business closures due to the new coronavirus, unemployment has skyrocketed, the poverty rate is nearing 50% and the middle class is being wiped out.

Clown in Beirut (photo: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Hussein)
In the face of adversity: "When people want to laugh about something, that's because oftentimes they probably can't do anything to change the reality," explained Hussein Yassine, a writer at the Lebanese outlet 'The961'. "It's not just ridiculing an idea without understanding its dire consequences, but it's one way to cope"

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Beirut this week to discuss reforms that might have enabled a bailout, including changes to the ailing electricity sector, the modernisation of some laws and a reduction the country's public debt. But the talks appear to have failed.

This led to another joke among finance observers – that blackmailing French President Emmanuel Macron by threatening an invasion of hummus was now one of the government's plans to end the crisis.

Solidarity in time of need

As well as humour, people are finding other ways to show solidarity. Supermarkets have been forced to constantly change the prices of the few goods they can still stock, and some customers hoard what food is available. In response, Facebook groups like "Lebanon barters," set up to help facilitate the exchange of household goods such as blankets, watches and shoes for food, diapers and baby formula, have seen a massive increase in members.

By bartering, people are able to get what they need without being forced to sell belongings below their value, said Nour Haidar, one of the volunteers running the group. Users are asked not to post just requests, but also to make an offer, in order to protect their dignity.

With some hospitals and pharmacies reporting a scarcity of medicine, many group members are offering what they have for free.

"People are trying to stand up for each other. Solidarity has shown very clearly in this situation," said Haidar.

"Hunger is heresy"

But a rise in "hunger crimes" shows others aren't coping as well. Police are seeing "a new kind of theft that involves mainly baby milk, food, and medicine," an unnamed security official told news agency AFP last week.

Last week, one Beirut resident said a man who wanted food for his family robbed him at knifepoint but then turned around, apologised and tried to return the stolen money, explaining he had lost his job and couldn't pay rent, according to AFP. "I told him that I forgave him, and then he went away," Zakaria al-Omar said. "I was scared, but I also felt sad for that man breaking down in front of me."

Two weeks ago, a man killed himself on Beirut's main shopping street after reportedly posting his clean criminal record and a note to a tree that read: "I am not a heretic." The quote comes from a popular song that continues, "but hunger is heresy". A relative of the man blamed the country's rulers for the hardship that led to his death.

Refugees trapped, as Lebanese look for exit

Similar tragedies have struck the most marginalised in Lebanon. Foreign domestic workers have been forced onto the streets as employers cancelled their contracts, sometimes without pay, and many cannot find the funds to travel home. Some find shelter with charities, while others camp out in front of their embassies.

 

Some 50% of Lebanese people worry they will not have enough to eat for the month, but that number rises to 63% for Palestinians and 75% for the roughly 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country, according to a June report by the World Food Program. While many Lebanese are trying to leave the country if they can, most refugees have no such option.

"The first opportunity I get, I'm going to leave for sure," said Hussein Yassine in the southern city of Tyre. "It's not easy to cope because there's no solution on the horizon.

"It's a very harsh reality that we're living in right now and it's probably going to get worse in the coming months. This is what really scares me."

But the dark jokes will remain a staple. "In any conversation there has to be humour, otherwise it's just considered a bad conversation by our standard," Yassine said. "You're always going to find humour while Lebanese are suffering."

Tom Allinson

© Deutsche Welle 2020

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