First comes the absurdity, then, the drama. Without power at night, Lebanon is under a bell dome — a cone of silence from which some laughter, but mostly tears, break out. Sometimes, they even intermingle. Without power during the day, life returns to some degree of normality. But it tastes off and smells like sweat. In a country in freefall and without electricity, the Lebanese cling to any glimmer of hope they have left.
Nina moves around the apartment as she attaches a reading lamp to her forehead with a bandana. “You don’t have to be a geologist to find your way around this cave,” she tells her husband, Maurice, laughing mirthlessly. Maurice is meanwhile doing his best to make dinner, with a spatula in one hand and the flashlight on his cell phone in the other. The Beirut building’s private generator, which was supposed to kick in to bridge cuts in the state electricity supply, has just been shut down.
Outside, only the headlights of daring drivers, who still have some gasoline in their vehicles, are left to defy the stars of a summer sky. They pass the building, then drive on into the darkness.
Once in bed, Nina and Maurice, who are in their sixties, patiently try to fall asleep. It is a trying task on a sultry August night. Despite the wide-open windows and doors, there’s barely any wind, and the mosquitoes are having a blast.
Suddenly midnight strikes and a symphony of electronic clicks breaks the silence of the neighborhood, followed by screams of joy and a string of lights illuminating one after another.
Jumping out of bed, Maurice and Nina run in different directions. The routine is well established: Nina goes out to the main entrance to check if the elevator is working then shouts to Maurice that it is indeed state electricity before turning on the washing machine, which she had loaded earlier in preparation for a moment like this. Maurice, from his side, switches on the water heater, plugs in the phones to charge and turns on the air conditioning, as well as the fans.
After checking the condition of what little food she still has in her fridge, Nina sighs in relief. From her balcony, she watches her neighbors. Sorrowful just a few minutes ago, they are now also busy in the middle of the night with household chores, driven by the energy of survival.
Every minute counts, the next power cut can happen at any time.
Nina picks up her phone and calls her sister in Canada, taking advantage of the restored internet connection. Even before greeting her, Nina cheerfully exclaims: “Ijet al-kahraba!” (Arabic for “the power is back on”).
In a country floundering in a now two-year-old economic and financial swamp, and despite the familiarity of electricity cuts — an inheritance from the 1975-90 Civil War — the blackouts that Electricité du Liban for months warned of have recently materialized, at least in part, plaguing the daily lives of citizens already crushed by the multiple crises rocking the country. The power cuts, however, could spell doom for many, and threaten their lives.
Services that are taken for granted almost everywhere in the world are on the verge of disappearing in Lebanon.
Without electricity food cannot be stored, sick people cannot be treated and temperatures cannot be regulated. In short, against a background of absurd surrealism unworthy of the 21st century, the country’s tragedies appear to have become inevitable.
Better to laugh than cry
“My daughter will be in danger,” Khadija finally whispers, having initially refrained from saying it out loud.
Every evening, Nour, her 8-year-old daughter, must spend 10 hours on dialysis — a session that cannot be interrupted under any circumstance. To make sure of that, the family bought “a used mini-generator” to keep the machine running. The generator had batteries, designed to take over and keep it running during power outages, but alas these are damaged.
But replacing batteries is not an option. “I don’t even dare to ask for the prices,” Khadija says with an uneasy laugh.
Mohammad, her husband, is technically unemployed. The current power outages meant that the company he worked for as a carpenter was forced to temporarily close, so now he finds himself racing against time every morning. Zigzagging through the roads of the Baalbeck area in the Bekaa, where he and Khadija live with their three children, this father scrambles in search of open gas stations.
The shortage of diesel needed to run power-supplying generators came on top of an already established gasoline scarcity. How can one go search for diesel if one’s car is empty of fuel?
Every day, “we get up and go to bed with the same thought: how are we going to get diesel tomorrow?” Khadija says, refusing to imagine the worst-case scenario.
Life in the Karantina neighborhood — adjacent to the Beirut port and among the most devastated by the Aug. 4, 2020, explosion — is not any better.
“I stink,” Dounia puts it simply. “I get up drenched in sweat from a damp bed and I can’t afford hygiene products,” says the woman known as Em Khaled (Khaled’s mother).
The stifling summer heat constantly evokes in them the feeling they had when the Beirut port explosion occurred last summer, shattering Dounia’s apartment and causing its walls to crumble on her, her daughter and a guest.
“We have been offered psychological support, but what I need is financial support,” she laughs nervously. “Better to laugh about it than to cry,” she adds sarcastically.
On the living room wall hangs the portrait of her 17-year-old son, killed on his way home during the Hezbollah takeover of much of western Beirut on May 7, 2008.
Her other son fled with his family to Germany, crossing the waters of the Mediterranean aboard a boat with other refugees to save themselves from the Lebanese economic wreck — a last resort, but one that Em Khaled is ready to try.
“Either way, we’re going to die. So, I might as well die having tried to leave this country,” she says.
Dounia bought 500 grams of meat — an exceptional feat for the family of six that has not eaten meat for the past five months and is down to having just one meal a day. But now the odor of food that has gone bad emanates from her switched off refrigerator. “I have to throw it [all the food, including the meat] away, but I don’t have the heart to do so,” she sighs.
Where Dounia lives, electricity is provided for a maximum of four hours a day. At night, there is no electricity at all.
“Once, as I was walking down the stairs of the apartment building, a rat jumped at me. I screamed in fear,” she recalls, smiling — dark circles hollow out her face.
Her husband spends most of his days sitting in front of the café he runs. To survive, Mohammad needs more than nine medicines. He tours pharmacies lacking many medicines. He returns to his café and waits in the hope of getting the medicines he needs.
In the neighborhood, under the blazing sun, children play soccer in the park, others play cards, taking advantage of the daylight to pass the time. In the silence of his unlit café, staring into space, Mohammad’s words echo: “I fought in the Civil War. But I have never seen or experienced anything worse than that we are experiencing today.”
Leaving to survive
In the alley parallel to Mohammad’s café, six young Syrians smoke hookah on the sidewalk in front of the two-room apartment they share. A business school graduate, Mahmoud fled the war in his country in 2013.
With two hours of electricity a day, these refugees spend their time outdoors because of the heat. In the evening, equipped with a small flashlight with a dim light, Mahmoud and his roommates fumble in the dark. “We want to leave, but where to go? We cannot go back to Syria,” he says.
Chipali knows where to go. It’s how to get there that’s the problem. “I can’t afford it,” she simply says. Wanting to escape the poverty in her country, this young worker came here from Bangladesh in 2009.
For three years, Chipali has lived in Khandaq al-Ghamiq, one of the poorest districts of the capital. Sitting outside on a chair with a missing leg, she is surrounded by pigeons, drawn to the neighborhood by the trash littering the ground. Her face soaked with sweat, Chipali says there is no electricity.
The apartment she occupies in a dilapidated building is plunged in darkness day and night. Inside, the humidity lodges in the lungs and the smell of rotten food is nauseating. Her fridge has almost become a cockroach nest. “Not a single hour [of electricity],” she repeats, as if she still can’t quite believe it.
In his humble house in one of the alleys of Bab al-Tabbaneh, one of the many disadvantaged neighborhoods of Tripoli in North Lebanon, Moustapha and his family could have benefited from four hours of electricity per day provided by the neighborhood generator. But the subscription became far too expensive for his family’s combined income and Mustapha was forced to suspend it.
Unable to carry out her household chores, Wafaa, his wife, rehashes the wars and conflicts that have plagued this region for so many decades, without finding a single event comparable to what they are currently experiencing.
Under the light of a small phone, Abdul Rahman and Salwa, who are no more than 10 years old, are fed up. Both sleep on the balcony, or sometimes on the forecourt of the house. It doesn’t matter to them where they are put to bed, as long as they find a breeze to help them fall asleep.
The future of his children is in danger and Mustapha knows it. Claiming to be too old to emigrate, he wants them to leave the country so that they do not sink with him.
His eldest, Nizar, in his late thirties, returns home at dusk, after scouring the city’s cafés in an effort to connect to the internet and charge his computer. An engineer, Nizar can no longer deliver his projects on time after his boss asked him to work remotely. His salary is worth no more than $60 per month at the parallel market rate, and the young man is seriously considering quitting his job.
Some time ago, this family of seven enjoyed a festive evening. Gathered with their children by candlelight and phone light, Moustapha and Wafaa celebrated the success of their 17-year-old daughter, Abeer, who had just passed her school exams. Everyone had pitched in to buy her a cake. However, a combination of electricity cuts affecting the refrigerators in the shops and in their homes spoiled their pleasure. Between purchase and consumption, the pastry had become inedible.
Escaping the abnormal
For Caroline, the cake was the least of her worries on her engagement day.
She had been preparing every detail of the ceremony for two months to make the evening unforgettable for her and her fiancé, Mohammad — preparations that had recently faced a series of setbacks between gasoline and electricity shortages. Having remained calm throughout weeks of adapting plans, on the very morning of her engagement, Caroline’s nerves got the better of her and she could not contain her tears: the owner of the reception venue in the South Lebanon city of Sur had called her to tell her that there was no more electricity and no more fuel to power his generators.
So, her brother, who came straight from Canada to attend the engagement, took matters into his own hands.
“While the hairdresser finished fixing my hair using the light of her phone, after the electricity cut off in the middle of the process, my brother was making phone calls,” says Caroline. The latter finally managed to secure around 30 liters of fuel oil, paying several hundred thousand Lebanese lira on the black market, i.e., “triple” the usual amount. “A quantity that allowed us to organize the reception for three hours. Not a minute longer,” Caroline emphasizes.
Caroline and Mohammad’s engagement was thus held, with time constraints, and dazzled the darkness of a city in complete blackout. Dressed in a sparkling emerald green dress, the young woman descended the steps with Mohammad, applauded by their relatives after being allowed, for an evening, to revel in a bit of happiness and dream of normalcy.
“Dreaming is the only thing they can never take away from us,” Rawan says. “Last night I started dancing. I imagined being in Saudi Arabia and danced.”
Rawan, who is waiting for her visa to travel back to the country she had previously left, is losing patience. “Abnormality has become a norm when it shouldn’t be,” she explains, describing the cheerful moment of having the electricity back as “a miracle.”
In this district overlooking the city of Saida in South Lebanon, electricity supply hours are decreasing. So, “we are adapting, unfortunately,” Rawan, who lives with her mother and sister, adds.
Now, “we are entitled to one hour of power supply between five and six in the morning and a few hours in the evening,” she states. In the meantime, “We count the minutes, hoping it returns by any chance, even when we know for sure that it will not.”
Unable to drive anywhere far due to gasoline shortages, Rawan’s household has found ways to pass the time: “We sit in the shade with a cup of coffee. We insult the politicians, all of them, for putting us in such a situation because we have nothing better to do anyways. And we wait.” Waiting to lead a normal life again, waiting for the abnormal to fade away, waiting for the sun to set, then to rise and slash through the night.
But in the midst of that night’s darkness, the Lebanese are lucky: the moon is full. The chiaroscuro offers the poetic Lebanese a chance to imagine themselves in a different place where their future shines with a thousand colors.
This article was originally published in French in L’Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.