Charif Majdalani’s Beirut 2020 – Diary of the Collapse

Lebanon’s recent history and collapse might serve as a forewarning and alarm bell for the entire planet. Charif Majdalan

In July, 2020, Charif Majdalani, a well known and respected French-Lebanese writer, began to keep a journal to document the economic crisis and political corruption enveloping Lebanon. Little did he know that his diary would have a dramatic ending. On August 4, 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate being stored in the port of Beirut exploded. Two hundred died, thousands were injured, and thousands of businesses were destroyed. Despite this tragedy, the Lebanese people, and Majdalani himself, remain hopeful as they struggle to rebuild.

In a forward to his diary being published on the one-year anniversary of the collapse, Majdalani reviews the history of Lebanon, going back to Biblical times where the mountains in the eastern Mediterranean were celebrated for their snow and their cedar forests. “From the very beginning of the Christian era, these mountains served as a safe haven for all the religious minorities that were persecuted by the various imperial powers in the region and or by other larger religious groups,” he writes. 

Charif Majdalani (Photo: Raha Askarizadeh)

From the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, Lebanon was controlled by the Ottoman Empire. That empire collapsed in 1918 and the Middle East was divided up by Great Britain and France. A privileged relationship existed between the Lebanese Christians and France. “In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally,” he writes. But after Lebanon received its independence in 1945, “the foundations for discord were already laid,” Majdalani says. While the Lebanese Christians identified with the West, the Muslim inhabitants felt connected to the Arab world. The two sides, to avoid conflict, chose to depict Lebanon as neither a Western or Arab country. “This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative,” he notes.

Things remained calm from 1945 to 1975 when a civil war broke out. While the war was indeed between the Lebanese people, foreign interests – Palestinians, Syrians, and Israelis – became involved. When the conflict ended, war chiefs seized control. “They took advantage of the huge public works program for the reconstruction of the country…to shamelessly enrich themselves.” Over the decades, a series of corrupt leaders has continued that “system of governance that was entirely based on clientelistic mafia practices.” The result is the Lebanon that Majdalani writes about in his diary where the economy is bankrupt, citizens cannot withdraw their money from the banks, pubs and restaurants close, appliances break down, and garbage clogs the streets.

In some respects, Majdalani and his family continue some semblance of normalcy, despite the chaos surrounding them, not only because of what’s happening politically, but also because of the pandemic. A professor at the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut, he continues to teach class and correct papers. His daughter is learning to drive and, to practice, serves as his chauffeur around the city while Nadim, his young son, meets with his friends. His wife, Nayla, a psychoanalyst, needed more than ever by her patients, begins to suffer her own mental breakdown. In several sections of the book, she conducts therapy with herself, serving as both doctor and patient to work through the emotional strain she’s feeling. 

On August 4, Majdalani is at home working. “Suddenly the floor starts moving with incredible violence, accompanied by a hideous roar, ” he writes. Thinking it’s an earthquake, he finds Nayla holding Nadim whose leg is bleeding. Soon it becomes clear that an explosion at the port is responsible. The emergency room at Rezek Hospital is overflowing with the wounded. There is rubble and dust everywhere. 

Majdalani writes that the cause of the explosion will continue to be debated. “Whether the fire was accidental or whether it was arson, whether there were weapons nearby or not, all those distinctions no longer matter anymore,” he says. He blames 30 years of “corruption and lies,” for generating a “five-second apocalypse.”

What’s remarkable about this diary, and what will stay with the reader long after, is the bravery and spirit of the Lebanese people. Although his children suffered bad spells of depression, they were soon out volunteering to help clean up the debris and aid those who needed assistance. In some instances, there were so many volunteers, Saria and Nadim moved on to find another place where they were needed. On August 19, he writes about passing through a district that was badly damaged. Red and white banners were hung up reading: “Nous Ne Partirons Pas, Nous Reconstruirons – We Will Never Leave – We Will Rebuild.”

Beirut 2020 – Diary of the Collapse
Charif Majdalani 

Top photo, Shutterstock: Aerial view during the explosion in the port area of Beirut, Lebanon. Ammonium nitrate stored in the harbor. Streets and buildings. Explosion that devastated much of Beirut’s port area.

About Charlene Giannetti (507 Articles)
Charlene Giannetti, editor of Woman Around Town, is the recipient of seven awards from the New York Press Club for articles that have appeared on the website. A graduate of Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Charlene began her career working for a newspaper in Pennsylvania, then wrote for several publications in Washington covering environment and energy policy. In New York, she was an editor at Business Week magazine and her articles have appeared in many newspapers and magazines. She is the author of 13 non-fiction books, eight for parents of young adolescents written with Margaret Sagarese, including "The Roller-Coaster Years," "Cliques," and "Boy Crazy." She and Margaret have been keynote speakers at many events and have appeared on the Today Show, CBS Morning, FOX News, CNN, MSNBC, NPR, and many others. Her last book, "The Plantations of Virginia," written with Jai Williams, was published by Globe Pequot Press in February, 2017. Her podcast, WAT-CAST, interviewing men and women making news, is available on Soundcloud and on iTunes. She is one of the producers for the film "Life After You," focusing on the opioid/heroin crisis that had its premiere at WorldFest-Houston International Film Festival, where it won two awards. Charlene divides her time between homes in Manhattan and Alexandria, Virginia.