Diary of the Collapse: Charif Majdalani on Lebanon’s Trials by Fire

15 November, 2021


Beirut 2020: Diary of the Col­lapse
, by Charif Majdalani
Pen­guin Ran­dom House
ISBN: 9781635421781


A.J. Naddaff


For more than a year, I’ve scoffed at the idea of read­ing a book about the pan­dem­ic. It seemed almost wrong, per­haps too soon, to have a lit­er­ary account of Covid. Are authors who have pub­lished pan­dem­ic books exploit­ing the world’s flames for their own suc­cess? For these rea­sons, I was ret­i­cent about review­ing Charif Majdalani’s Beirut 2020: Diary of a Col­lapse, which focus­es on the inter­sec­tion of the Covid pan­dem­ic with a Lebanese twist, zoom­ing in on the myr­i­ad oth­er calami­ties that have dev­as­tat­ed the coun­try over the past two years.

Beirut 2020: Diary of the Col­lapse is avail­able from Pen­guin­Ran­dom­House.

I avoid­ed the book because I, like so many Lebanese I know who write and con­sume news in Eng­lish con­cern­ing the coun­try, feel like we have read all about the “col­lapse” we are liv­ing through. At least one of its many syn­onyms — melt­down, dete­ri­o­ra­tion, dis­as­ter — appear in near­ly every piece. Besides, no words, no mat­ter how descrip­tive, can entire­ly depict the lived expe­ri­ence. While a pro­fu­sion of good sto­ries have come out over the past two years, rarely do I find reports that stretch lan­guage out of its skin, cre­at­ing a new lex­i­con for the col­lec­tive trau­ma we’ve become inured to. So often writ­ers become agents of the words, flex­ing their lin­guis­tic mus­cles to repro­duce the same vocab­u­lary from a stock­pile of hack­neyed sayings.

So, how does one avoid writ­ing about the “resilient Paris of the East” with­out regur­gi­tat­ing one of its thou­sand clichés? Maj­dalani turns to the per­son­al. We fol­low him as he writes about the mun­dane and absurd details of his life in Beirut:

When I got home, Mari­am announced that the wash­ing machine was mak­ing a weird noise. And indeed, the noise was disturbing—a kind of reg­u­lar clack­ing, almost rhyth­mi­cal, to the beat of the rotat­ing drum. I had actu­al­ly just got­ten it repaired a few days ago, the day before yes­ter­day in fact. So I called the repair­man, who didn’t answer, of course. These details of dai­ly life which are out of our con­trol are frus­trat­ing and make me angry. It’s easy to get angry these days. 

On social media it’s always the same thing, inex­haustible, ad nau­se­am: 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.

He spends his days run­ning into banks to con­vert dol­lars into pounds, lis­ten­ing to his teenage daugh­ter about her desires to immi­grate; we observe police offi­cers iron­i­cal­ly con­trol­ling the one place where traf­fic lights work in a coun­try lack­ing elec­tric­i­ty, “as if they were venge­ful­ly mak­ing a point of remind­ing us that order no longer reigns.”

In anoth­er scene, we are giv­en access to his inter­ac­tions with a burly repair­man who has come to fix the air-con­di­tion­ing units and is embar­rassed to respond to how much the bill will cost, posit­ing “like a lit­tle boy caught being naughty by his teacher.” Not only is the repair­man hes­i­tant about ask­ing for mon­ey because the infla­tion has made the sum so enor­mous, but also because Majdalani’s wife, Nay­la, a psy­chother­a­pist, used to coun­sel him for free about his son’s prob­lems. As we read, there is an immense voyeuris­tic plea­sure gained in the awk­ward­ness of the sit­u­a­tion, like we are peek­ing through a win­dow our­selves into the absur­di­ty of a 2019–2021 Lebanese life. 

The nego­ti­a­tions with the repair­man are dis­rupt­ed by a pigeon who lands on the ter­race rail­ing, which pulls Majdalani’s dis­tract­ed mind into a lit­er­ary digres­sion. He starts think­ing about the 1938 nov­el by Claude Simon titled The Palace, and the “descrip­tion of the mag­i­cal trans­mu­ta­tion of a pigeon on a win­dowsill.” Sud­den­ly, he is brought back to earth by the repair­man who declares they will soon be so hun­gry that they will eat pigeons. And here, we are let into anoth­er dis­tinct­ly Lebanese moment:

“I replied that it would be a while before that hap­pened, that we were too proud for that.”

Maj­dalani could have just said that Lebanese are proud to the point that it does more harm than good. But this is well-known. As the writer Khaled Hos­sei­ni has said, the fact that clichés are clichés is because they’re dead-on and there­fore their apt­ness is over­shad­owed by the nature of their say­ing as clichés. Anoth­er exam­ple of Majdalani’s con­fes­sion­al inti­ma­cy takes the form of let­ters writ­ten by Najla, which he includes. In a pecu­liar exer­cise, she engages in a sort of self-ther­a­py — “for her­self, and with her­self,” where she jots down every day a ses­sion where she is both the ther­a­pist and the patient. I am remind­ed of how my own Lebanese ther­a­pist quit his job sud­den­ly with no warn­ing, per­haps because he could no longer deal hear­ing with the bound­less hope­less­ness and exhaus­tion. Instead of choos­ing for the easy route, Maj­dalani, as an astute observ­er, jots down the minu­ti­ae that elu­ci­date fur­ther just how bad the sit­u­a­tion in Lebanon is.

The journal’s lin­guis­tic fresh­ness is also strik­ing. Writ­ten in French, trans­la­tor Ruth Div­er makes us feel the dif­fer­ence of Majdalani’s lit­er­ary tongue. Yet Div­er does not force the tes­ti­mo­ni­als to sound too for­eign. As read­ers of Eng­lish, we are trans­port­ed into the Lebanese fran­coph­o­ne world of Maj­dalani, the pro­fes­sor of French lit­er­a­ture at the Uni­ver­sité Saint-Joseph in Beirut. This is just an assump­tion since I haven’t read the French orig­i­nal — per­haps Majdalani’s French text is not as daz­zling, and the cred­it should go to the artistry of Div­er as trans­la­tor. At the very least, it pro­vokes inter­est­ing ques­tions about the long-list of Lebanese nov­el­ists who write in French and how their dic­tion and style dif­fers from those who write in Ara­bic or in Eng­lish. Of course, the nature of writ­ing in French (or Eng­lish) for that mat­ter is that there is more lib­er­ty in a coun­try that already exer­cis­es rel­a­tive­ly more press-free­dom than oth­er coun­tries in the region. But I won­der, if Maj­dalani placed as much blame on Hezbol­lah, “the most dan­ger­ous” of all par­ties, in an Ara­bic text, would he get away with it? The trag­ic  fate of Lok­man Slim, a promi­nent Lebanese crit­ic of the mil­i­tant group that was recent­ly assas­si­nat­ed, leads us to think oth­er­wise. It is the free­dom of Majdalani’s polit­i­cal con­fes­sions that also brings some of the same voyeuris­tic plea­sure I described ear­li­er, albeit different.

Where the account falls short is when it looks or sounds too famil­iar, as if I’d already read the sen­tence in a news piece — except here we are read­ing lit­er­a­ture. I must be hon­est and say that my bias is as some­one who is an avid con­sumer and par­tic­i­pant of Lebanese media. There are very good expla­na­tions in the accounts of con­tem­po­rary Lebanese his­to­ry. His tone is reflex­ive and mag­is­te­r­i­al, pro­vid­ing a geneal­o­gy of that his­to­ry to the layper­son: the past 30 years are pack­aged and told as a tele­o­log­i­cal rid­dle to be solved. For 30 years, before the war in 1975, Lebanese also lived roar­ing decades that were met with the same fate: col­lapse. Now, in look­ing back on these past three decades, marked by the end of the war, the sav­age pri­va­ti­za­tion and recon­struc­tion farces, where “noth­ing was pro­duced, agri­cul­ture was aban­doned, indus­try was nonex­is­tent, peo­ple lived on imports, and the gov­ern­ment decid­ed to bor­row US dol­lars from the local banks at absurd rates, in order to finance large-scale projects,” we under­stand why hind­sight is always 20/20. For Maj­dalani, cur­rent events are a form of déjà-vu: “Once again, we were danc­ing at the foot of a vol­cano whose threat­en­ing roars every­one refused to hear, or on the edge of a precipice into which we final­ly fell.” Yet of course, these past two years have been dif­fer­ent on so many accounts, espe­cial­ly as Lebanon wit­nessed a dash of hope with the mas­sive upris­ing that engulfed the coun­try in Octo­ber 2019 before its infer­nal descent.

In the part on the rev­o­lu­tion, Maj­dalani inter­spers­es a polit­i­cal account with a per­son­al anec­dote. He is hav­ing din­ner at the ter­race with friends and recalls the last time they met here was on the eve of Octo­ber 17, 2019. Days pri­or to the pop­u­lar upris­ing, mas­sive wild­fires spread through­out the Mount Lebanon region. Con­fla­gra­tions are not too uncom­mon in the sum­mer time because of the heat and lack of rain. But the long burn­ing exposed once again the utter incom­pe­tence of the state which had bought air­craft to extin­guish fires but had parked them at Beirut’s air­port with no mon­ey to main­tain them. So fires raged and fuel-less heli­copters remained parked, while Lebanon had to call on its neigh­bors for help.

Lebanon’s col­lapse then start­ed with hope. That’s part­ly what makes it so lam­en­ta­ble. If 30 years is a sym­bol for the Sisyphean cycle of despair, then wild­fires (and What­sApp tax­es) rep­re­sent rev­o­lu­tion-turned-col­lapse. The diary fore­saw what many Lebanese vis­cer­al­ly felt: the August 4th, 2020 port explo­sion that turned the city upside down, bifur­cat­ing all that came before and after. It was as if “the entire col­lapse I was describ­ing was not hap­pen­ing fast enough… some unknown malig­nant force decid­ed to pre­cip­i­tate them and in a mat­ter of sec­onds hurled every­thing that was still stand­ing to the ground.”

I was not in Lebanon when the explo­sion took place, but so many friends and loved ones were that I some­times feel like I had expe­ri­enced it myself. Read­ing an account of what hap­pened that day — once again but from Maj­dalani very detailed per­spec­tive — filled me with extreme anx­i­ety. I would not rec­om­mend any Lebanese read it, espe­cial­ly those who lived through that hor­rif­ic day that has been blotched in our col­lec­tive mem­o­ry. This is my trig­ger warn­ing to you. For an out­sider, it pro­vides a human per­spec­tive of what hap­pened and anoth­er tes­ti­mo­ny, once again, of how bad the sit­u­a­tion is. 15 months lat­er and the vic­tims of the fam­i­lies of the port explo­sion still have no sem­blance of jus­tice that has turned both politi­cized and super­fi­cial­ly sec­tar­i­an. The same war crim­i­nal politi­cians con­tin­ue to stoke sec­tar­i­an con­flict while chortling around a mezze table.

While we are con­fess­ing, I must admit that Diary of a Col­lapse changed my mind on the futil­i­ty of writ­ing a Covid-Lebanese absur­di­ty nov­el. I’m not the first to have said that the best fic­tion, after all, reflects real­i­ty. I now start­ed writ­ing my own diaries. Here is one entry:

On Thurs­day, Octo­ber 20, I am sit­ting in Café Younes, tucked behind Ham­ra Street, with Lebanese nov­el­ist Rachid el Daif. It’s fall and the orange and lemon trees mask any rem­nants of the sun­ny day. Every­thing is rel­a­tive­ly nor­mal in the café, the longest sur­viv­ing cof­fee roast­er in Lebanon. It’s the same branch that my dad came to appre­ci­ate for its Turk­ish cof­fee laced with car­da­mon the first time he vis­it­ed me two years ago, when the cur­ren­cy was still some­what sta­ble. I am prepar­ing Rachid for an inter­view when our phones start buzzing. Sec­tar­i­an clash­es 15 min­utes away have bro­ken out on the same infa­mous front­line that divid­ed the city into two dur­ing the war. Peo­ple start pack­ing up; a look of wor­ry marks the face of a woman whose tod­dler accom­pa­nies her in a baby car­riage. Rachid tells me to go home and not to leave the house. We get up to depart. But before, he gives me advice: “Study close­ly these events, read the news and immerse your­self in the local pol­i­tics. These are the details that will make your book stand out.” It sounds intu­itive, but it’s some­thing I’ve neglect­ed recently.

These words — on the impor­tance of active­ly bear­ing wit­ness — were under­stood and trans­lat­ed much ear­li­er by Gha­da Sam­man in her accounts of Beirut’s war which she doc­u­ment­ed in the form of night­mares. Or, as George Saun­ders wrote recent­ly to his stu­dents on writ­ing about “the hard, depress­ing and scary time” that is Covid: “there’s still work to be done, and now more than ever.”

Sam­man, Maj­dalani, El Daif, Saun­ders — the writ­ers around the world are of the same mind when it comes to record­ing. Now, in this pre­cise state of over­lap­ping col­laps­es, we need writ­ers more than ever. I owe thanks to Diary of Col­lapse for chang­ing my once-pedes­tri­an thinking. 


A.J. Naddaff is a multimedia journalist and translator. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science from Davidson College and is currently pursuing a Master’s in the department of Arabic literature and Near Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut. His work has appeared in the LARB, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, the Intercept, and Columbia Journalism Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ajnaddaff.

BeirutBeirut port explosioneconomic collapse. wildfiresLebanon


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