Lebanese entitled to ask ‘What about tomorrow?’
Ramiz, a simpleton from a mountain village who is uninitiated in the steamy politics of bars in the cosmopolitan Beirut of the 1970s, has just delivered a load of his vegetable crops to the kitchen of a downtown bar. He sits down with his cousin, Zakariyya, the barman, eating and chatting with other employees. Sharing the food they are eating, Ramiz asks for a head of lettuce, but his request is denied. For one of the least substantial side nibbles that could accompany a simple Lebanese meal, the cook asks for a substantial sum: “You must pay 8 liras for the lettuce head to come out and meet you now.” Ramiz objects, on the basis that he had just sold him the lettuce heads for half a lira apiece, but his objection is met with a smug retort. The answer he gets is a mathematical calculation based on how many orders of salad a lettuce head would make.
Shocked, Ramiz holds the leafy green tenderly and sings to it a meditative recitative: “Awf, Awf, Awf. The winds have changed, and the prices of all things have gone up. A lettuce I planted is no longer mine.” The mournful tune continues: “It hardly matters anymore, if someone insults me. My life has become full of humiliation.” The rhythm picks up and instruments join in, but Ramiz laments: “Yesterday, we were down to the wire; today, we are down to the metal. The single lettuce I delivered by hand, and for which the price is listed in the newspaper, has been repriced. Every moment there is a new price. Hurry up… eat the lettuce!”
One might think that this scene, from a 1978 musical by Ziad Rahbani, would no longer be relevant, since the country has managed to survive, remarkably, a decade and a half of civil war, numerous moments of dangerously deep internal rifts throughout the early 2000s, and a systemic destruction of the country’s infrastructure by Israeli warplanes in 2006. Yet, no sooner do things seem to be settling down, than a new catastrophe hits. This year it has been an accumulation of political and economic crises that have caused the value of Lebanon’s currency to plunge by more than 90 percent in the span of months.
The current political crisis is, in some ways, an ongoing reflection of the old disagreements that fueled previous crises in the sectarian social and power structures of Lebanon. But the economic repercussions currently unfolding have made life unsustainable. Pharmacies have shut down to protest medicine shortages, which experts warn will soon reach a dangerous scale nationwide. Electricity has become such a rare commodity that blackouts and power cuts have become the norm. Fuel shortages, which both cause and are caused by the electricity sector crisis, are testing the patience of people on the streets in new ways. But the real problem, analysts agree, is accountability. Business leaders, politicians and judges are all part of an interlocking web of interests that is causing the deadlock. But the people are still suffering. With more than half of them now below the poverty line and the other half having no access to cash or goods, the future is looking bleak.
The economic repercussions currently unfolding in Lebanon have made life unsustainable.
During one of his key public appearances in 2020, following the epic explosion in the Port of Beirut that wreaked havoc on the city’s structures and claimed 200 lives, President Michel Aoun was asked by a reporter, “Where are we headed?” Pausing for two seconds, Aoun raised his eyebrows and said: “To hell, of course.” The shocking, and seemingly punishing, response was not intended to stop the reporter in her tracks so much as it was to send a message of anger to those who are stopping him from carrying out his policies. To his opponents, the problem lies with those very policies. As the country continues to reel under the ongoing political crises that are precipitating an economic downslide, the people of Lebanon remain rightly worried about what comes next. The reporter’s question reminded me of Rahbani’s play, which is entitled “What About Tomorrow?”
Suraya asks Zakariyya, her husband, the same question during their shift at the upscale Beirut bar. She is about to finish her shift, but needs some kind of answer. Zakariyya, who had been arguing with her for a while about household expenses, is at his wit’s end. “You get me to a dead end, and then you ask: What about tomorrow?” This dialogue occurs early in the first scene of the musical. The couple’s verbal back and forth keeps tensions high throughout the play. While it is seemingly about money (children’s private school fees, high rent in the city, the car Zakariyya would not give up, Suraya’s relatives visiting from Abidjan) and while a national economic crisis is the backdrop to this couple’s mismanaged finances, the real dilemma lies elsewhere. In a presumably tacit agreement to enhance her husband’s income, Suraya had joined Zakariyya at the bar some months earlier, but her services involve a degree of moral compromise that he is not able to cope with. The play ends with attempted murder.
In a gesture of goodwill, Pope Francis this month invited the leaders of all Christian denominations in Lebanon to the Vatican for a special service of prayer for the country. Participants ranged from the influential to the honorary, and the attendees included politicians. Rumor has it that the pope had a behind-closed-doors meeting with his guests that lasted seven hours. Also according to rumors, the pontiff berated Aoun for declaring that his country was headed to hell. Hope, and faithful stewardship, received some emphasis in the special service. But if the people of Lebanon continue to wonder about tomorrow, no one can berate them.
- Tala Jarjour is author of “Sense and Sadness: Syriac Chant in Aleppo.” She is visiting research fellow at King’s College London and associate fellow at Yale College.