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Grim reality of economic divide determines life in Lebanon.

The recent parliamentary election granted Lebanon a moment of normalcy but as soon as votes were counted and results announced, the grim reality reasserted its iron grip.

The value of the local currency fell, long lines formed at petrol stations, cooking gas disappeared, flour for bread was scarce, and the lack of diesel for power stations threatened a national blackout.

Lebanon has survived two internal conflicts, repeated Israeli invasions, Syrian occupation, constant external interventions and political paralysis only because its citizens at all levels of society dwell in “bubbles” which ensure differing degrees of safety and economic security the bankrupted government does not provide.

Most Lebanese live in family bubbles. For friends in Adloun, a village between the ancient southern coastal cities of Sidon and Tyre, the past year has been a strain.

Two breadwinners were unemployed due to Lebanon’s economic crisis and the pandemic before Hamza fell gravely ill with Covid-19 and Ali had heart surgery. Remittances from relatives abroad not only provided a decent living but helped pay hospital bills.

In the salon of Ali’s comfortable house, built in stages over profitable years, the mother of 13 presided while a dozen of us discussed the election over Turkish coffee, nuts, and sweets. The clan is big-hearted and has branches in Berlin and Toronto.

Overstretched families

Local non-governmental organisations create overlapping bubbles supplying shelter, food and medical care when overstretched families cannot manage. Founded in response to the devastating August 2020 explosion at Beirut port which killed 2019 and rendered 300,000 homeless, Matbakh El Kell initially fed 1,200 people on weekdays but now prepares meals for 600 mainly elderly men and women who do not have the means to shop or cook. Partner Beit El Baraka delivers the food to its mini-supermarket, which is stocked with free rice, cooking oil and hygiene items. Women in flowered dresses and hunched men in dusty black collect their portions in crumpled plastic bags.

Mary and Joseph Daccache in their shop in Beirut: ‘In Lebanon, we are all survivors. I don’t know how we survive.’

Mary and Joseph Daccache in their shop in Beirut: ‘In Lebanon, we are all survivors. I don’t know how we survive.’

Beit El Baraka is itself a bubble with 225,000 beneficiaries. It rehabilitates homes and businesses levelled or damaged by the port blast and gives financial aid to school children and medical care to the ailing.

Matbakh El Kell’s parent organisation, Souq El Tayeb, encourages farmers to resume planting large crops and bring produce and home-made food to Saturday’s farmers’ market in east Beirut.

When Lebanon prospered, its farmers provided most fruit, vegetables and dairy produce consumed locally, but cheap imports drove farmers from their fields.

Lebanese in the migrating middle class also rely on family bubbles. They scrape by on external remittances that augment salaries cut to the bone by currency depreciation and inflation. Youngsters hover over cups of coffee in internet cafes in search of jobs abroad.

Joe and Mary Daccache are back in their 16-year-old liquor store on Gouraud Street in blast-ravaged east Beirut. Joe says that “80 per cent of the bottles were destroyed” but with materials from NGOs and stock purchased with the help of relatives, they have reopened their shop. Unfortunately, sales are flagging and they get by on his work as an engineer.

“In Lebanon, we are all survivors. I don’t know how we survive.”

Warfare and economics

West Beirut’s modest Mayflower Hotel and its popular Duke of Wellington Pub have been fixtures since Beirut’s “golden days” in the 1960s. Despite decades of warfare and economic meltdown, journalists, visiting Lebanese and tourists continue to stay at the hotel.

Proprietor Sherif Samaha says the Mayflower has become a beacon in the neighbourhood once lights go off in nearby Hamra street, turning it into a tunnel of darkness. “Three restaurants have moved here in the past three months,” because the Mayflower always has lights.

West Beirut’s modest Mayflower Hotel has been a fixture since Beirut’s “golden days” in the 1960s. Despite decades of warfare and economic meltdown, journalists, visiting Lebanese and tourists continue to stay there.

West Beirut’s modest Mayflower Hotel has been a fixture since Beirut’s “golden days” in the 1960s. Despite decades of warfare and economic meltdown, journalists, visiting Lebanese and tourists continue to stay there.

“There is a 10-restaurant bubble downtown near the Four Seasons Hotel. You have to reserve days before to find a table,” says Samaha. “The price of the food is unthinkable for 95 per cent of the population.” Out of nearly seven million, only the 100,000 wealthiest Lebanese can afford to take lunch and dinner in these restaurants, travel abroad and shop freely.

They have “fresh money” imported since the October 17th, 2019, protests against the entrenched political elite and do not have to depend on the $400 a month and the $400 equivalent in Lebanese currency doled out by the banks. For the wealthy, there are few constraints.

They live as if Beirut remains the “Paris of the Middle East” although that Beirut was destroyed by the 1975-1990 civil war and its never-ending unstable aftermath.

Those less fortunate sink into poverty which the UN estimates accounts for 80 per cent of Lebanese. Desperate people have died while setting sail from the northern port city of Tripoli. They seek to escape to an unwelcoming Europe preoccupied by the Ukraine war and the influx of Ukrainian refugees.

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