Christmas and the New Year offer little to celebrate in Lebanon — not this past year, and not for some time. The streets, once vibrantly decorated with holiday lights and filled with crowds, remain a shadow of their former glory. Beirut’s legendary nightlife seems to be gasping for air in a country where people have lost their life savings and can no longer afford bread, much less traditional gift-giving and feasts. In somber silence does another year-end and the new year arrive, met with hopelessness and despair rather than good tidings and cheer.
And there is certainly not much to celebrate, following the downward spiral the country has seen in the past two years. At the same time, there is little to look forward to, because Lebanon in its current state is shrouded by ongoing crises.
The current economic state remains abysmal. A third of Lebanese live in poverty, barely able to afford common necessities. Food prices have jumped 576% since the October uprising in 2019, and being unable to afford food and other necessities, things like new clothes or Christmas presents are out of the question, according to Dalal Saoud in United Press International. Santa Claus, as if affronted by the skyrocketing prices, skipped over Lebanon. The usual questions of “where will you spend Christmas” and “what gifts did you receive” are replaced with the reality of starvation and the frightening loss of livelihoods. Even those that somewhat have the means are conscious of the overwhelming devastation surrounding them. “Whoever buys a sandwich does not seem to enjoy its taste. On one hand, its price is like a luxury item, and on the other hand, if he wants to eat it, he will notice for a moment that people near him cannot buy bread,” in the words of Adel Nassar in Al Modon. “We have lost the simplest types of joy and entertainment in Lebanon, and people are either unable to do anything because they do not have the money, or they have money and are afraid of the dark days ahead, reluctant to do anything.”
From the new strains of COVID-19, the rampant wave of depression, and the rise of suicide cases, it’s hard to see the top from the bottom of the abyss into which Lebanon has fallen. The country’s health sector has barely clung on amid the economic crisis and the loss of 90% of the Lebanese lira’s value. Surging costs in fuel and medicine prices stir anxiety about how the nation will confront the pandemic. Mohamed Abi Samra in Al Modon spoke of one man he knew who was visiting Beirut from Germany in December. His father had suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital, where the staff was hesitant to treat him unless he paid upfront. After the procedure, he returned to the emergency room to find they had stopped pumping the serum package into his father’s IV tube out of fear he could not afford another bag. His father passed at dawn.
Fewer than 65% of Lebanese are registered for vaccinations, while just over a third of the population have taken both doses, as cited by Kareem Chehayeb in Al Jazeera. In late December, the Health Ministry announced 3,152 new cases and 15 deaths in 24 hours, a record that has since been broken with the continued rise in reported cases, which at the time of this essay numbers over 6,000 new cases — a total of 826,000 cases and 9,397 deaths since the outbreak of the virus in 2020.
Despite concerns over the projected surge in cases over the holidays, many hoped the season would usher in much-needed tourist revenue to revitalize the failing economy, especially since Lebanon became a cheaper destination. A hotel room that used to cost $200 per night now amounts to $70, according to the United Press International. However, the country did not attract many foreign tourists over the holidays. “Being cheap alone is not an attraction. Our problem is political in the first place, and this resulted in a state of enmity with the international community and Arab countries,” Pierre Achkar, head of the Lebanese Hotel Association, told the United Press International. The growing influence of Hezbollah, the country’s instability, and political conflict with Gulf countries have warded off potential tourists, explained Saoud. As a result, Lebanon, a country heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, equally depends on relatives from abroad returning during the season to visit family and feed the economy.
But remittances are not enough to solve the threats against livelihood back home. “Lebanon is the country of farewells and loss,” wrote Nassar. In the past, only students or those looking for jobs migrated from the country, with the majority of the family remaining. For many Lebanese, entire families are now leaving the country, deeming it the only solution amid a plethora of problems. “The Lebanese do not think that they can create a better future in their country. They prefer to emigrate over changing the conditions and systems that pushed them to migrate and take risks in the hope of survival,” in the words of Nassar. Even politicians have been searching for jobs abroad — like Saad Hariri residing in the Emirates for business — or end up sending their children to live abroad.
Gradually, families will leave without looking back, leaving behind legacies, memories, and possessions. Widespread emigration threatens to change the social fabric of the country. Lebanon is a “country where kinship has become strained over the phone, Facebook, and short spaced visits due to dangerous events and insecurity. Families are separated due to distance, and with time, dispersed due to the death of the parents, so children do not gather together or return to Lebanon and become strangers to each other,” Nassar continued. The telecommunications minister, Johnny Corm, recently warned that a lack of funds and fuel would further strain Lebanon’s internet situation, making contact with loved ones abroad even more difficult and causing a “financial and social disintegration like no other,” according to Martin Chulov in the Guardian.
What, then, does Lebanon have to look forward to? Is there a cure, a reprieve? Unlikely, as it stands, with the political elite failing to enact meaningful change. To many, 2021 was a “year of bereavement” — a year that has ended, and at the same time, feels like it will never end, according to Fawzi Zibian in Al Modon.
In spite of the loss and the bleak future ahead of them, however, many still hang on. Lebanon’s cultural life, which suffered much damage to its arts and history after the port explosion, continues to slowly rebuild itself from the ground up. Hope is embodied in resilience: “the dedication of writers and artists to overcome an exceptional and bitter reality, where the collapse has reached its climax, and writing or theater are no longer priorities that man finds room to enjoy. Yet some have continued to produce,” in the words of Sawsan al-Abtah in Sharq al-Awsat. Fine art makes a slow but steady return despite destruction, a lack of electricity and fuel, and high prices, with the restoration of heritage buildings and the return of some book fairs and film festivals. So long as there is a will to fight against the odds, Lebanon and its people will keep trudging forward into the new year.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid