Leaving Lebanon Because it Left You
As I began writing, I got a personal LinkedIn message from a Lebanese TV newscaster who asked if she should apply to work at CNN after I’d posted an announcement about an opening at the network’s Dubai and Abu Dhabi bureaus.
Another TV journalist I know is leaving with her children to join her husband in Saudi Arabia and will probably go into public relations there — more stability, less controversy and probably better pay.
A third TV person I know is already in Dubai, having given up on Lebanon, and hopes to end up in Europe with his wife and child.
A fourth (former) TV person with whom I’ve worked on various media-related projects is waiting for an immigrant’s visa to Canada and hopes to leave as soon as possible with her husband and children.
They’re the tip of the exodus iceberg gripping Lebanon. The list is endless and heartbreaking, and that’s just media people.
Doctors, nurses, engineers, teachers, lawyers, artists, entertainers by the thousands are hastily heading for the exits from a country that once boasted about being the “Switzerland of the Middle East” with the capital Beirut dubbed the region’s Paris.
But it was a mirage whose leaders played a cruel game of mirrors on the Lebanese people and whose bankers and financial authorities pulled the biggest Ponzi scheme of the century on an unsuspecting clientele.
Yes, there were many self-inflicted wounds, but not as deep as the ones wreaked by a bottomless pit kleptocracy.
The succession of events from a financial/economic meltdown starting in October 2019 to the coronavirus outbreak in early 2020, to a cataclysmic explosion at the port of Beirut in August 2020 that killed some 218 people, wounded thousands, left hundreds of thousands homeless and wiped out large sections of the city were the multiple straws that broke the camels’ backs.
A sorrowful tweet by journalist Salman Andary included a picture of Hamra Street, Beirut’s one-time Champs Elysèes or Fifth Avenue, with illustrations on three columns showing three travelers carrying backpacks and dragging luggage.
In the last week I downloaded countless pictures and videos from social media of chaotic scenes at Beirut airport’s departure check-in hall of undulating crowds whose noise drowned out announcements on the PA system.
Roohi Malik, who I don’t know, replied to my tweet about a video of departures saying: “The worst thing is that all of us who have left are heartbroken, homesick, worried about those left behind and hopeless to there ever being a real change.”
She added an emoji of downcast eyes.
A video report by Asharq/Bloomberg Beirut correspondent Maha Hoteit showed long lines at the General Directorate of General Security’s (GDGS) Beirut center where passport applicants had arrived at 4:00 a.m. and others had spent the night on the street waiting to get a document allowing them to leave.
The GDGS described the onslaught of citizens as unprecedented and began accepting applications at new centers but the pressure didn’t let up despite the daily processing of 2,500–3,000 passports.
Veteran photojournalist Patrick Baz tweeted in French: “You’re still in Lebanon? Are you leaving? Do you have a second nationality?” and topped it with the hashtags #Lebanon #SadLebanon.
Many Lebanese are dual nationals and hold passports from North and South America, Australia, and, various African and European countries.
Lebanon has always been a country of émigrés — trade, wars, famines and financial stress — but nothing on the scale seen in the last two years since a financial collapse upended just about everyone’s lives.
“Almost two years after the famous October Uprising, Lebanon has collapsed. It is not ‘on the brink.’ It is not ‘on the edge.’ Lebanon has officially collapsed as a State,” wrote Dima Abou Abdou, a Beirut-based political science graduate and human rights activist, in Beirut Today.
The (90%) devaluation of the local currency against the dollar, the government’s failure to provide basics such as electricity and water, and the lifting of subsidies, has left Lebanon’s residents in a never-seen socio-economic catastrophe, she added.
Journalist Sanaa Khouri jokingly tweeted: “Which is the easiest country to live in if we’re to emigrate (I mean if that’s it we have to hit the road and leave hastily from here?). I want to go, my mind tells me to but I don’t feel like struggling and making an effort to build something difficult that requires fatigue. I want to go chill if I leave. Otherwise, I’ll stay here. Share your experiences.” She posted a sarcastic laugh emoji.
Mohamad Najem, co-founder of the Social Media Exchange (SMEX), replied: “Cyprus is close, or Turkey. I’m personally thinking of Greece.”
The American University of Beirut’s Crisis Observatory reported that successive crises had triggered the third massive wave of emigration since the late 19th century, with 77 percent of the country’s youth wanting to jump ship — the highest rate in all Arab countries.
Equally alarming is the thinning of Lebanon’s professional ranks as the brain drain continues unabated and destabilizes what’s left of the country’s institutions and services.
A new term was coined to reflect the current stress: Lebanonphobia, or the fear of spending the rest of your life in Lebanon.
An “Art of Boo” cartoon in L’Orient Today daily featured a person digging a hole from Beirut, going deep underground, only to emerge in Kabul with two gun-toting men staring at him.
Writer-creator Farrah Berrou tweeted: “It’s weird to watch this mass emigration from #Lebanon on social media. When I think about our parents’ emigration during the (1975–90 civil) war, I think of their silent yellowing photographs. Now, I wonder how loud and harrowing it actually was.”
Adding to the depressing mood, the Arabic-language daily Annahar published a series of pictures of a semi-dark hall at Beirut airport. One segment was lit while another wasn’t because of severe power cuts and a fuel shortage to run generators.
“Lebanese bid their children farewell and urge them not to return,” was the headline in the pan-Arab daily Asharq Al-Awsat.
“In the (Beirut airport) departure hall, a father hugs his daughter and urges her not to return to Lebanon, to find her future abroad and turns to his other children and says the same thing. ‘There’s no place for a straightforward/decent person here,’ he said overcome with emotion, after banks looted his life savings,” was the story’s lead.
Fears of the ugly civil war years loom large over Lebanon and those who survived it as the country disintegrates rapidly.
“If state structures continue to disintegrate, most importantly the security forces, if the institutional vacuum grows bigger, in the absence of a government, a Parliament at the end of its term, a presidency at the end of its term, i.e. a situation similar to the one in 1988–89, a Somalia-like scenario could happen. But we’re not there yet,” Joseph Bahout, director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, told Lebanon’s French-language daily L’Orient-Le Jour.
Lebanon has been without a functioning government since the prime minister and his cabinet resigned following the Beirut port blast, and they’ve been “operating” minimally in a caretaker capacity.
Bahout feared internecine outbreaks of violence that have occurred in various parts of Lebanon could lead to a larger conflagration, notably as the country remains gripped by sectarianism, clientelism and warring feudal militias manipulated by domestic and foreign interests.
Asked if he feared the sectarianism factor could become dominant, Bahout said social tensions that were present for two years couldn’t be contained without eventually leading to social violence.
“At some point, this violence will shift to political and sectarian violence, for reasons related to the Lebanese system, because the security forces are short of breath, are bankrupt, gripped by the crisis, and less and less positioned to safeguard public order,” he noted, adding that the situation generates a breeding ground for local or regional political forces to play on this dynamic to achieve gains.
All the more reason so many Lebanese want to take flight.
In September, birds migrate in the sky over Lebanon’s villages, much as old and young Lebanese are overcrowding the airport to depart, wrote Rosette Fadel in Annahar in a letter to the late novelist Emily Nasrallah, author of “Touyour Ayloul” (September Birds).
Fadel asked herself rhetorically why she referred to “September Birds,” and replied: “Because I stared intensively at these migrating flocks for the first time in my life. I felt these birds were free in their choice, able to migrate whenever they pleased, that’s what I’m totally incapable of doing today more than ever.”