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the Complete Review
the complete review - diary

Beirut 2020

Charif Majdalani

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To purchase Beirut 2020

Title: Beirut 2020
Author: Charif Majdalani
Genre: Diary
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 178 pages
Original in: French
Availability: Beirut 2020 - US
Beirut 2020 - UK
Beirut 2020 - Canada
Beyrouth 2020 - Canada
Beyrouth 2020 - France
  • French title: Beyrouth 2020: Journal d'un effondrement
  • US subtitle: Diary of the Collapse
  • UK subtitle: The Collapse of a Civilisation, A Journal
  • Translated by Ruth Diver

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Our Assessment:

B+ : effective presentation of contemporary Beirut/Lebanon (and how it got there)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 3/12/2020 Christine Rousseau
Le Monde diplo. . 10/2020 Tigrane Yégavian
Publishers Weekly . 26/4/2021 .
The Spectator . 24/7/2021 David Patrikarakos

  From the Reviews:
  • "Dans une langue poétique évitant tout lyrisme, Majdalani témoigne du quotidien des Beyrouthins (.....) Cette chronique se double de la dénonciation courageuse d’un système prédateur et dévoile le verso d’une carte postale gondolée par le temps." - Tigrane Yégavian, Le Monde diplomatique

  • "(A) razor-sharp reckoning with a tragedy decades in the making." - Publishers Weekly

  • "The broad dysfunction is interwoven with personal details, which brings the crisis alive. (...) But if much of the book's emotional power is channelled through its coverage of daily life in 2020, its analytical force is found in the broader themes it considers." - David Patrikarakos, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Beirut 2020 is presented essentially as a diary from July and August 2020, its seventy-five chapters mostly short (and not all dated), chronicling a city and country in which the long-seeping (and long-endured) rot finally overwhelms. It is a summer of Covid, complete with lockdowns and the like -- but it's revealing that Covid plays a relatively minor role here, just one more battering of small businesses and inconvenience to deal with. There's also a financial crisis -- now not just the abstract insecurity of the overwhelming national debt, but a long-teetering banking system now in crisis, limiting how much people can withdraw: "That's all anyone ever talks about, all day, every day, at home in offices, in taxis".
       Majdalani and his family muddle along much as in 'normal' times -- with part of the point being how they and most Lebanese keep simply adjusting over time to the changing(-for-the-worse) conditions, year after year, life somehow going on even as 'normality' is warped beyond recognition. Majdalani and his wife are both employed, their children are studying; they eat out with friends -- and Majdalani is even negotiating to buy a bit of land in the countryside, imagining building a house there. Things repeatedly need fixing in their home; somewhat surprisingly, repairmen and the like come quickly and work efficiently; the system may be jerry-rigged and chaotic, but is still surprisingly functional on many levels -- even as basics -- the electricity and waters supplies ... -- break down.
       Majdalani repeatedly makes the point that the present-day conditions are the consequences of decades of political corruption, a cozy arrangement of power sharing that was seen as the only way to maintain stability whose toxic byproduct was the personal enrichment of those in power, leading to a hollowing out of the functional state. A bloated bureaucracy keeps growing, complete with absurdities such as:

that entire pointless organizations continued to exist, and to be provided with directors and secretaries and orderlies to this day. The administration services for the railroads, for example, is stil operating, although there has not been a single rail or a single train anywhere in the landscape for sixty years.
       Even what seem to be signs of a seemingly vigorously growth-oriented economy in even the worst conditions are, in fact, evidence of complete degeneracy, laissez-faire libertarianism gone wild:
It is rare to see a conflict leading to an intense increase in building projects which, paradoxically, had more devastating effects than the destruction and ravages of the war itself. But that's what happened here, where paradoxes abound. During the civil war, total deregulation, anarchy, and the absence of any oversight in applying the laws led to wild urbanization, stimulated by population shifts, speculation, and conspicuous consumption caused by the influx of money from arms and drug sales controlled by the militias and by the intense development of unregulated commercial practices.
       Just how far from any normality life is is also suggested by Majdalani's limited discussion of Syrian refugees in the country; he devotes several pieces to them, but it is yet another issue competing with all the rest, with only a limited impact on daily life -- and easily shrugged off by the powers that be. (At the end of 2020, some 865,531 Syrian refugees were registered with UNHCR in Lebanon (with hundreds of thousands more not registered); there are also hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees registered in Lebanon; in 2020 the US resettled all of 9600 refugees ..... (There were hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers -- a different category -- to the US in 2020; nevertheless, one has to wonder about all the American whining about floods of immigrants when one considers what a country with a population of less than seven million like Lebanon has to deal with.))
       Majdalani acknowledges the great mental toll the circumstances take. His wife is a therapist, and finds her work increasingly difficult; several chapters include her attempt to come to grips with the situation by recording 'My Therapy with Myself'. The balance, between trying to keep one's sanity, as it were, and the absurd and terrible conditions, is particularly striking throughout the book, very effectively captured by Majdalani.
       The diary builds to an incident readers likely remember: the massive 4 August explosion in the port of Beirut (see e.g.). There is an entry from 4 August, and notes for another, but Majdalani only returns to his diary almost a week after the event, describing then, in fairly calm language, the extent of the destruction and his personal experiences. As he then sums up:
Six years of lack of transparency and accountability, the result of thirty years of corruption and lies, of mafialike practices, of collusion between various arms of government, the various ministries, political parties, and their clients, of devious geopolitical scheming and sinister warmongering by bloodthirsty, criminal militias, all this was concentrated, condensed in the most terrifying manner, and generated that five-second apocalypse.
       Majdalani neatly weaves in an overview of Lebanese history, pointing to the cracks that were there from early on but papered over or ignored over the decades; the willful blindness of practically all involved is staggering. It makes for good, quick picture of contemporary Beirut and how it got to this point.
       Beirut 2020 is a powerful read of a city and country rotted to the core -- though still, somehow, in limited ways, mostly functional --, with the 4 August disaster an all-too-clear example of where this path of endemic corruption leads. Majdalani notes the great outrage that came in the wake of the explosion -- and yet Lebanon muddles on much as always; the (lack of) success of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon -- founded in 2009 ! and still basically nothing to show for it -- remains typical (see also e.g.).
       Beirut 2020 offers a good (and disturbing) glimpse and overview of contemporary Lebanon -- the conditions and issues here ones that, sadly, are (or should be) familiar from far too many other corners of the world.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 August 2021

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Beirut 2020: Reviews:

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About the Author:

       Lebanese author Charif Majdalani was born in 1960.

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© 2021 the complete review

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