Charif Majdalani is one of Lebanon’s most laurelled novelists. Born in Beirut in 1960, he writes in French and has been celebrated across the Francophone world. He lived in France for 13 years from 1980 and was later a professor of French literature in Beirut. Few of his works have been translated into English. One of them, Moving the Palace (2017), is a lively if convoluted historical satire with an unreliable narrator. It won both the François Mauriac Prize from the Académie Française and the Prix Tropiques.
Another is Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal, which has just been published in Australia. Part memoir, part first draft of history, it is a brilliant piece of writing, here translated by Ruth Diver. Majdalani records the monstrous explosion that tore apart his city last year, from which his country has still not recovered. The vignettes that constitute the diary-form cover all terrains: family, friendships, cityscapes, history, domestic and international affairs, economics and political corruption in the lead-up to a terrible event that took hundreds of lives, injured and displaced thousands and was the final straw in the collapse of a nation.
Lebanon is one of those countries, like the former Yugoslavia, that outsiders believe is too complex to understand. Majdalani’s preface for English-language readers is a model of clarity. He begins with the romantic designations of the mountains of Lebanon from antiquity, its multicultural welcome for refugees of all kinds over centuries and its division between France and Britain after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. France won the mandate, which the ascendant Christian part of the population preferred to British control.
He moves through the intensity of internal politics after independence, when the country was formally divided between its main power groups, with Christian Maronite, Shiite and Sunni Muslim and Druze sharing senior government roles. The Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990, was widely reported around the world and gave rise to waves of refugees, many of whom fetched up in Australia.
What came later was less well publicised as Lebanese politics subsided into the murky byways of Middle East powerbrokering and the international black economy. As Majdalani shows, Lebanese citizens struggle with day-to-day difficulties, from spiralling inflation to unreliable electricity supply, with disillusion and a disempowering sense of futility.
Beirut 2020 begins at the end of June last year, with a trip by our narrator to see a piece of land he is thinking of buying outside the city. He strolls among olive trees and holm oaks and has a totally unrealistic conversation with the owner about price. At home, his wife tells him the washing machine they’ve just recently repaired is making weird noises.
He finishes the day’s entry with, “On social media, it’s always the same thing, inexhaustible, ad nauseam: economic collapse, the bankruptcy of the country, capital control, exchange rates, the pound in free fall, inflation and penury lying in wait for us all.”
Day Two is about a night at the pub with friends. “Social distancing is sometimes a purely theoretical notion,” he points out, reminding us that Lebanon, like the rest of the world, is dealing with the pandemic. From there, the pages pass in an evocative tapestry of family minutiae, political observation, light touches of historical context and the disquieting sense of disorientation caused by an inability to plan for anything.
Majdalani’s wife, a psychotherapist, finds working with her clients increasingly difficult and resorts to self-analysis at one point to strengthen her professional confidence. Their son and daughter are in high school, dealing with adolescence on top of everything else. Majdalani and his wife meet socially with friends and colleagues, their conversations a mix of the intellectual and the personal with a constant circling back to the state of the world.
Chapter 51 contains seven words: “This afternoon, the rag-and-bone trader...” It was August 4 and he was writing on his terrace when interrupted by an inconceivably massive explosion. At first he assumes it’s an earthquake. He doesn’t pick up his pen again for six days.
“The devastation from the explosion reached almost every part of the capital to varying degrees,” he writes, combing his memory of blurry days finding family and friends, taking the injured to hospital, burying the dead, seeing the most glamorous part of a fashionable city once described as the Paris of the Middle East, with its boutiques and restaurants, destroyed. He is glued to news reports of the high-point of corruption that led to the disaster: the storage of thousands of barrels of ammonium nitrate offloaded from a Moldovan-flagged ship in November 2013 and shifted to a hangar in Beirut’s port in October 2014, with no one taking responsibility.
The death toll was 218; 7000 were injured; 70,000 apartments were destroyed; 300,000 people displaced and 163 schools and half of Beirut’s healthcare systems put out of action. According to the World Bank, material damage could total up to $US4.6 billion. The explosion has been called one of the largest non-nuclear blasts to date. On August 10, the day Majdalani resumed his journal, the government resigned. Last month, Lebanese lawyers sued for negligence the British chemical company they say owned the barrels. And in America, two lawmakers have proposed a bill extending the visas of all Lebanese passport holders.
Majdalani’s book possesses the precision of a legal mind, the understanding of a historian and the elegiac writing of a fine novelist. From the calm of late-night strolls home from dinner on balmy summer nights to the horror, bewilderment and rage caused by the scale of human injury on August 4, to the detailed explanations of chemical and financial technicalities, the author brings a poetic cast to a deadly reality.
Mountain Leopard Press, 176pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 18, 2021 as "Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilization, a Journal, Charif Majdalani".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription