The pain of watching Lebanon’s currency freefall from afar

I left my home country with a note in my wallet worth almost $100. Now it's worth $1

A $1 bill and a 100,000 Lebanese pound note. AFP
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Tucked away inside the cash compartment of my wallet is a single banknote with a face value of 100,000 Lebanese pounds, or lira.

The green paper currency has accompanied me on every flight to Beirut and back over the past year and a half. But with every trip, it has become worth less and less.

This is not a magic trick, nor is it a mind game. The reality is much simpler, and much more disheartening, than that.

Lebanon’s national currency has lost more than 95 per cent of its value since the onset of the economic crisis in late 2019. The financial collapse, a result of decades of corruption and mismanagement, is one of the worst in the country’s history. It has led to soaring inflation and the erosion of the local purchasing power, significantly slashing workers' minimum wage.

I remember some of the headlines I wrote for The National from Beirut when I was covering the crisis and its effects on the population.

“Lebanese lira's fall to speed up as political paralysis goes on, experts say” ― I wrote that in March 2021. It’s safe to say the experts were right.

The Lebanese lira has depreciated so much that analysts believe the currency is dead, with no chance of being revived. Dollarisation could entirely take over Lebanon's economy in the near future, leading to the abandonment of the national currency.

Perhaps that is one reason why I hold on to my 100,000 pound bill.

Alone, it barely holds any monetary value today, but it was once a note that people would carry around, not wanting to spend it all at once.

It was the kind of money that public taxi drivers would make from 50 passengers, down to almost zero. It was more than enough to fill a car with petrol, certainly not the case today. It was a reasonable amount for grocery shopping and stocking up your fridge, but is barely enough for a packet of crisps or chocolate bar now.

People in Lebanon have not fully given up on the 100,000 pound bill yet. It is, after all, the largest banknote produced in the country, although it no longer carries the same weight.

The currency's freefall means going out with stacks and stacks of 100,000 bills, tied together with a thick rubber band to keep them organised.

Everywhere you go in Lebanon, people pull out wads of cash and start sifting through them to make a purchase. Restaurant bill holders cannot contain the amount of banknotes that descend on the table at the end of meals, and supermarket cashiers could do with money-counting machines during rush hour.

Before the economic crisis, before I ever considered leaving my home and family in search of a better life, the 100,000 Lebanese pounds in my wallet were worth $67.

When I relocated to the UAE in May 2021, that banknote was worth $8.

When I visited my family for a Christmas break recently, it was worth approximately $3.

And now, as I plan a trip back home for Eid, at the current rate of the lira’s freefall, I could be flying home with less than $1.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 6:02 PM