September 2021

by Helen Elliott

‘Beirut 2020’ by Charif Majdalani
The Lebanese writer’s elegiac journal captures the city’s devastating port explosion

In the 1990s, after 13 years in Paris, Lebanese writer Charif Majdalani returned to Lebanon to take up a professorship in French literature at the Université Sainte-Joseph. He has since lived in Beirut with his wife, a psychoanalyst, and their two children.

On July 1 last year, Majdalani began keeping a daily journal. He doesn’t explain why. It lasted until two thirds of the way through August, but those seven weeks encompass what it was to live in the afflicted country as the rest of the world watched, hands over mouths.

Lebanon, as he writes in his illuminating preface, is only 70 years old, a modern state punctuated by biblical cedars and the surprise of snowy peaks. The mountains have always been a haven for those fleeing persecution, and Lebanon was an experiment in mixing and governing these many religious and cultural groups. “This peculiar identity,” he writes, “could undoubtedly be considered as the source of all the conflicts to come, but it also proved to be Lebanon’s defining characteristic for many years: a nation straddling the great cultures of the East and the West, a crossroads, a herald of coexistence, openness, cultural exchange and integration.”

Majdalani is talking here about Lebanon between 1950 and 1975, before the 15 years of civil war. Since this gallop into confusion and conflict, Lebanon has been run by a mafia-like political class and the ordinary citizen is forced to be inventive and original in the smallest daily transactions.

The first weeks of Majdalani’s journal (translated by Ruth Diver) record this life with a bitter laughter. Exhausted, physically, mentally and spiritually, he is negotiating to buy a plot of land from a farmer so he “can gaze up at the peaks and the canopy of sky above them, with its ballet of stars at night”. But his adolescent children, a girl who is learning to drive by chauffeuring him around the city and a younger son whom he drives to see friends, love the city and don’t get their father’s ache for the land. And city life lived outdoors – on terraces, in restaurants, joking with friends, working with congenial colleagues – sounds attractive and fleetingly beautiful. Humans might not be able to bear too much reality, but Majdalani indicates they can get used to anything, even the deepest corruption, even the edge of danger.

On Tuesday, August 4 at 6.07 pm, while he is working on his terrace, “the floor begins to move with incredible violence, accompanied by a sort of hideous roar … I think it’s obviously an earthquake.” It lasts five seconds. Then Beirut is a devastation. In terse reportage, Majdalani relays the experience: alive, shocked, ferrying people to the hospital, checking, dreading, listening to stories, functioning.

All of his friends were affected in some way. None got off lightly. The explosion was the 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that was off-loaded in the city’s port in 2014, a terrifying stock that had no right to be stored near any population in a sane world. Investigations have since stalled about why it was there, and what actually caused the explosion, but the truth will never be known because of fear, collusion and corruption.

This journal (Mountain Leopard Press) is a bravura delineation of Gramsci’s maxim about living with pessimism of the intellect but optimism of the will. Despite the shining actions of the Lebanese people in clearing the aftermath of the disaster with brooms and shovels, the sturdy optimism of Majdalani and his friends is dwindling. The last line of his preface is chilling: “Lebanon’s recent history and collapse might serve as a forewarning and alarm bell for the entire planet.”

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

Cover of The Monthly, September 2021
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