French-Lebanese writer Charif Majdalani in conversation with journalist Ben East

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BEN EAST: Could you expand a little on the last line of the preface to Beirut 2020 – about Lebanon serving as an alarm bell for the planet?

CHARIF MAJDALANI: For 30 years, bad governance, the corruption of the cast which has run Lebanon, and the mafia-like evolution of the state have forced the Lebanese people to replace the shortcomings of the state with private initiatives.

This has led to a hyperliberal kind of society and economy, with banks as one of its pillars. For several decades, the supporters of hyperliberalism believed that this could be a viable model, given the strength of private initiatives and the uselessness of the state. However, one can see that a society marked by extreme deregulation, and where banks reign supreme, can only lead to ruin.

In that sense, the collapse of Lebanon should sound the alarm – even without taking into account the state drifting into corruption, as is happening in a number of countries around the world.

I began to write a journal at the beginning of the pandemic to make sense of what I was experiencing. Was that your initial motivation for Beirut 2020? What were you trying to do with this book?

I started to write this diary in early July, because I felt that we were living something incredible, something absurd and Kafquaesque. Everything was collapsing around us, and yet we carried on living as if nothing was happening. It seemed so unreal. Beirut 2020 actually started as a fictional diary, but I realised that everything I was writing came from my own everyday life – that it was all true. Then 4 August happened, and my text became an urgent testimony.

I found what you say about social media (and how depressing/sensationalist it can be) really interesting. I can barely look at it myself, now. Proper long-form writing can be the antidote to that, can’t it?

During the 2019 Uprising in Lebanon, I truly believed in the vital mobilising role of social media, where information was relayed and the location of the rallies was shared. At the time, it seemed crucial, just as it was to uprisings in many other countries.

But, gradually, social media ended up giving the impression that it could replace action on the ground. Today, platforms are saturated with comments, analyses, expressions of anger, claims in the form of terse sentences or long posts generating a sterile game of dead-end retorts and verbal violence.

There lies the illusion that we are doing something, while, truly, this ‘activity’ only prevents real action. The only one that matters, ultimately, is the one that takes place on the ground.

The illusion of the fight via social media only has the consequence of the desertion of the public forum, and therefore the end of citizenship. Citizenship is built and fought for everyday through our action on the ground, through contact with others, and through our continuous, mass presence at the heart of all fights and battles. Not in virtual chit-chats, anger, or demands.

People living at the foot of a volcano seems like a pretty apt metaphor. When you were living through the 30 years you talk about, did it feel obvious that it would explode?

Living at the foot of the volcano, ignoring its rumble – that is denial. I believe that the history of Lebanon, and of the Lebanese people, is a history of permanent denial. And to answer your question directly, I believe that it is impossible to live in a country poisoned by corruption, by a mafia-like evolution of the state, with no economic prospect other than speculation and with such debt, without suspecting that this wouldn’t all come crashing down. Deep down, everyone must have suspected it.

Yet we carried on regardless, because for years the country offered us an exceptional quality of life. But that quality of life was hiding an explosive situation of growing decay. This is why I consider the explosion of the port as the metaphor for the situation of the country.

No electricity, poverty, mass layoffs – you write of being very anxious about Lebanon, of feelings akin to bereavement. Were you able to work through these feelings or have they remained?

I live with the constant feeling that the country we knew has been lost forever. And I am very anxious about what the future might hold for us – about  what kind of country we’re going to have to live in from now on.

Lockdown: how did people in Lebanon view it?

As if we were subjected to a succession of unjust punishments. Covid was just a part of it.

What comes through is that the corruption is staggering. Is there any chance, in your view, that a better state of affairs, or better leaders, can be found?

The ruling oligarchy has so skilfully used the state for its own profit, and their interests have blocked any attempts at change so systematically, that only putting an end to the Lebanese state in its current shape, and replacing this rotten structure with another, could fix the country’s problems. 

But the uprooting of those in power, setting up a new constitution, and laying out the foundation of a new republic is a dizzying task, because of the delicate balance of Lebanese society, community affiliations, and a whole lot of explosive structural parameters.

Starting from scratch, rebuilding consciences, and reshaping a new sense of citizenship/identity, instead of community belonging, represent colossal work that will take decades. But the Lebanese are condemned to fight the impossible if they don’t want to disappear from history.

I’m not going to ask you too much more about the explosion, because you write about it so intimately in the book. But it feels – in terms of the writing at least – that you did, even in this incredible and actually quite fleeting moment, have a five-second moment of clarity. Was it like that? The cliché of time slowing down?

Unlike others, I didn’t experience the full force of the explosion. What I lived was relatively less violent, and I was therefore fully conscious in that moment. But you’re right: the impression of time slowing down is very real. Because what you are living, what you are feeling, what you are seeing in that instant doesn’t immediately reach your consciousness; you don’t realise it because you are paralysed by your emotions. You can only make sense of it gradually, and that is why, afterwards, you feel like time is being stretched, and that everything is happening in slow motion,.

In chapter 58, I think it is, there’s a chorus of Beirut voices. Can you tell me a little about that chapter? It’s fascinating stylistically, and seems important to the book.

The days that followed the explosion were just as traumatic as the moment itself, because they were rocked by relentless news from friends and acquaintances. And it were all the same: the casualties, the dead, destruction. I needed to find a way not to say what was happening, but instead to convey the impact it had on me.

There’s this sense of the explosion being the culmination – the natural conclusion, even – to corruption and collusion and so on (even though it might have been an ‘accident’, in that it wasn’t deliberately provoked). What can it change?

We thought that the enormity of the event would wipe away our political class. But it had no impact. It was the country and the people who were blown away; the political cast remains completely indifferent. Therefore, my answer is that it changed nothing, and that it is unlikely to change anything in the future. Unless the people’s immense anger eventually provokes something uncontrollable.

How do you feel about Beirut a year on from the explosion?

Some of the destruction has been repaired; Beirut has tended to some of its wounds. But there is still so much to do, and the financial crisis isn’t helping.

The real wounds are emotional and psychological. Within each of us – that’s where the real damage lies. So even when everything has been repaired, we don’t feel like being here, like carrying on here. Our confidence in the future has never been so low, and that is the worst of all.

Finally: I suppose this book will be read very differently outside Beirut. What do you hope people take from it?

What I saw in the reaction of Lebanese readers was gratitude for having described our everyday life, for putting it into historical context, and establishing a timeline of the disaster. And I believe that this is also something that non-Lebanese readers appreciated, as they were able to get a better sense of what a crisis feels like – and to better understand the origins of this particular one, in the context of the broader history of Lebanon.

Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal by Charif Madjalani (translated by Ruth Diver) is published by Mountain Leopard Press, £14.99 hardback.

Charif Majdalani is one of Lebanon’s most important literary figures. His novel Moving the Palace won the 2008 François Mauriac Prize from the Acadamie française. 

Ben East is an award-winning journalist writing on culture and reviewing books and interviewing authors for The Observer, i newspaper and The National (UAE)

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