As one of Lebanon’s most fascinating literary figures, it’s always interesting to see what Charif Majdalani is working on. After all, this is a 61-year-old writer who, through many award-winning novels, has deftly chronicled his people and the place he calls home. But even he couldn’t have foreseen the exact shape of his next project when he began walking the streets of Beirut last summer, keen to document a city he loved, but was increasingly worried about.
“I started to write a diary in early July, because I felt that we were living something incredible, something really absurd, Kafkaesque,” he says of a country he saw mired in social, political and economic crises. But even then, what would become Beyrouth 2020: Journal d’un effondrement (which has just been speedily translated by Ruth Diver as Beirut 2020: The Collapse of a Civilisation, a Journal) started out as fiction, until Majdalani realised everything he was writing came from his everyday life.
“Everything was collapsing around us, and we carried on living as if nothing was happening. It seemed so unreal. I decided to turn it into an actual diary. And then August 4 happened and my text became urgent testimony.”
It’s certainly that. In his short, critical snapshot of an existence in Beirut he likens to “living at the foot of a volcano”, the explosion a year ago is, in his profound prose, merely the culmination, the physical manifestation, of a worrying trend of denial and obfuscation regarding how the country was being led and run. The rumble of the volcano was ignored, he says.
“I believe that the history of Lebanon and of the Lebanese people is a history of permanent denial,” says Majdalani. “It is impossible to live in a country poisoned by corruption, with no economic prospect other than speculation, and with such debt, without suspecting that this wouldn’t all come crashing down. Deep down, everyone must have suspected it.
“But we carried on regardless, because for years the country offered us an exceptional quality of life. And yet, that quality of life was hiding an explosive situation of growing decay. This is why I consider the explosion of the port a metaphor for the situation of the country.”
At the time of the explosion at Beirut port, when the city collapsed under the force of 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, Majdalani was – perhaps aptly – writing an entry for the diary on his terrace. About to take a plate of fruit he’d just finished back to the kitchen, he was interrupted by a voicemail. And then, out of such mundane, quotidian details, the floor began to move with “incredible violence, accompanied by a sort of hideous roar”.
The terrace came and went beneath him “like an old swing”; he thought of an earthquake and “the children, the children”. They were inside, his wife holding them “together in her arms like a rampart against who knows what”. And yet he stood stock still, mind frozen.
“What I lived was relatively less violent,” he says, “so I was therefore fully conscious in that moment. But the impression of time slowing down was very real. Because what you are living, what you are feeling, what you are seeing in those instants doesn’t immediately reach your consciousness, you are paralysed by your emotions. You can only make sense of it gradually, and that is why, afterwards, you feel like time is being stretched, and that everything happens in slow motion, like in a movie.”
Every viewpoint of the explosion was unique. But Majdalani makes sense of the totality of the experience in the most virtuosic passage of the book, in which a chorus of unnamed Beirut voices blends into one testimony. Interestingly, through others, Majdalani was able to better process August 4 himself.
“The days that followed the explosion were just as traumatic as the moment itself, because they were rocked by relentless news from friends and acquaintances, and it was all the same: the casualties, the dead, destruction,” he says. “I needed to find a way not to say what was happening, but to convey the impact it had on me.”
That impact quickly travelled from the personal to the political. In the immediate aftermath, it seemed as if the enormity of the event would perhaps elicit change in Lebanon. Whether that has actually happened, whether the good governance that Majladani craved has really been addressed, is in flux a year on.
“Some of the destruction has been repaired, Beirut has tended to some of its wounds,” he says. “But there is still so much to do, and the financial crisis isn’t helping. We thought the political class would be blown away, when in fact it was the country and the people.
“The real wounds are emotional and psychological. Within each of us, that’s where the real damage lies. So even when everything has been repaired, we don’t feel like being here; carrying on here. It is the first time our confidence in the future has been so low, and that is the worst of all.”
Yet one of the incredible achievements of this book is its celebration of a strong, hopeful and passionate people. At the very least in translation, it will shine a light on the country Lebanon is – and could be – to the English-speaking world.
“I live with the constant feeling that the country we knew has been lost for ever,” he says, concern in his voice. “And I am very anxious about what the future might hold for us, and what kind of country we’re going to have to live in from now on.
“But what I saw in the reaction of Lebanese readers was gratitude for having described our everyday life, for putting it into historical context and establishing a timeline of the disaster. And I believe that this is also something that non-Lebanese readers will appreciate.”