With elections looming, Lebanese state is invisible to most of its people
As Lebanon prepares to vote, the film ‘State of Absence’ introduces very different people all struggling with the worst economic collapse in 150 years
Seated against a splash of colours on her studio wall, Ilat is pensive. Her face is grave, in stark contrast to the mirthful mood she has created in her workspace in west Beirut.
“The impudence of the ruling class has surpassed all our expectations.” A sardonic smile escapes her face, as llat mocks disbelief. The 30-year-old artist and art director is not surprised that the Lebanese economic crisis, which the World Bank says is the worst in 150 years, continues to unravel.
The afternoon is sweltering when we meet to record the interview, but luck is on our side. The generator is working, so we have a fan, despite the daily 18-hour electricity cut. Power supply in Lebanon has been brought to the brink, like most necessities – food, water, fuel and medicine. And with the Lebanese lira falling by 90% of its value amid the financial meltdown, buying art supplies is out of the question for Ilat.
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Lebanon’s economic tumult started as early as 2018, with the national GDP falling from $55bn to $20.5bn over three years. With no end in sight to the crisis, Ilat has felt ambivalent about voting in the national elections on Sunday.
Many others living in Lebanon share her daily distress, as they survive a quickly worsening economic situation with negligible state support. With most landlords hiking rent prices to counter the devaluing lira, Ilat fears that soon she will need to pay in dollars, at a rate that will empty her bank account.
About a 100 kilometres away, in (name), a village in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, the buzz of Beirut’s generators disappears. There is a semblance of solidarity among the rural landowners and homeowners, who do all transactions in Lebanese lira to reduce the escalating costs.
Jamileh and Salim are one such elderly couple, who rent out a part of their house to make ends meet.
“Of course, I told my tenant that he should not pay more than what we agreed to before. When the government is not supporting us, we should learn to support each other,” Salim says, pausing to name the different fruit trees in his orchard.
Salim, now in his 80s, worked in construction and farmed his ancestral land until he had to stop because of old age. Now, he and his wife are barely mobile. The childless couple struggles with daily tasks, and have received very little social support. Yet they refuse to raise rent amid a crisis that they say is exacerbated by a Lebanese government that behaves like a “gang”.
“My husband can no longer cut the wood. We need it for heat, especially when there are so many government power cuts,” explains Jamileh, who has lost part of her eyesight.
“In our case, who will support whom?”
Jamileh’s question has become a preoccupation for most Lebanese. In the economic crisis, many people in the country are surviving through temporary safety nets that they have created within their communities and with relatives living overseas.
Rural landowners, farmers and herders, who have historically received little state support, are feeling the crisis acutely. While their lands have gone dry due to water shortages, most agrarian workers receive little or no social security benefits.
Oum Khalid, who lives farther into the Bekaa, has heard about some families receiving “social services” cards that offer medical support.
“I tried to ask local authorities for support for my family, but received no response,” she explains while laying out the vegetables that she has bought in her village to sell in Beirut. Part of the Bedouin community of Lebanon, Oum Khalid is among the few who have received nationality. Many of her neighbours are stateless and entirely invisible to the national census.
To add to Oum Khalid’s daily woes, transportation costs have spiked so much due to the fuel crisis that she barely breaks even. But if she cannot travel between the Bekaa and Beirut she won’t be able to feed her family. Oum Khalid would rather try than sit at home.
Fatima, a Syrian entrepreneur who lives in Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp, echoes her sentiment.
“The many women I work with, who do embroidery – Palestinian, Syrian and even Lebanese women – are all under the poverty line,” the 45-year-old explains, while taking orders by phone and online. Her colleagues gather around her to measure new items for production.
Amid meagre profits and massive power outages, the women continue producing and selling their work. It saves their sanity to “do something”, Fatima explains.
Many of Fatima’s neighbours, who have fled conflict in Syria or are Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, are battling daily hunger. With food prices going up by 998% since October 2019, about 90% of Syrian refugees are living in extreme poverty.
Refugees have little freedom of movement, but Lebanese citizens with higher qualifications are leaving the country in large numbers. This brain drain is already creating gaps in critical sectors, such as healthcare – and the loss of human capital will take generations to recover.
As the Lebanese economic crisis reached a fever pitch over the past year, film-makers Preethi Nallu and Rania Itani shadowed these individuals living in Lebanon as they soldiered on, despite the glaring ‘State of Absence’. You can watch their film at the top of this article. It was produced in collaboration with the Centre for Social Sciences Research & Action and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.
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