We were standing in the middle of one of those stupidly large supermarkets – trying to decide if, given the increasingly limited electricity, we should buy any dairy products at all, and if so which ones – when a dull sort of recognition clicked in.
Everyone else in the store was suddenly moving more quickly, filling their carts with multiples of everything, talking on their phones and glancing at their watches. K pulled out his phone, which promptly started ringing. And, as was already becoming clear, we were told that Israel had announced it was going to start bombing Beirut, again. The dull panic – West Beirut being rather far from the areas of Beirut Israel had previously bombed – was offset by the absurdity of our surroundings, by the large-haired tantes chucking over-priced vegetables into their carts and scurrying to the cashier, their domestic maids in tow.
Leaving the supermarket, traffic in Beirut was horrific, but not necessarily in response to the news. The past few days have seen most of Beirut slowly return to a semblance of normality – itself a tragic absurdity as only hours away Israel bombs and villages burn.
The timing of Israel’s latest Beirut threat, then, is especially unfortunate, as Lebanon’s capital and main source of employment was just starting to function again, and people were returning to their jobs. Those employed by the government, the military, or large companies and banks will have received their July salaries by now, (assuming they have the means and ability to pick up their cheques.) But Lebanon’s economy is largely service-based, and the sorts of services supplied (luxury goods and beauty services, hotels, travel agents, restaurants, etc) haven’t really been much in demand as of late.
Of the 900,000 displaced thus far, the Lebanese government estimates that at least 700,000 are being housed by relatives. A rough survey would indicate that practically all of these new households have lost at least one July salary, if not more. There is a 22-person household in Karm el-Zeitoun (a poor East Beirut neighborhood) where no one got paid at all this month. Of those living in the schools, especially the families displaced from southern Lebanon or the Bekaa Valley, most worked in agriculture, and thus have lost their entire year’s livelihood (as well as, quite possibly, their homes).
Some of the international and local relief organizations are starting to calculate food distribution for the households swollen with homeless relatives, in addition to the schools housing refugees, and the convoys which, rarely, make it out of Beirut. Certain schools – those known to be well organized and on the receiving end of numerous relief organizations – re-distribute the food and clothing they receive as needy families from the neighborhood pass by.
But most Lebanese, it would seem, are living off their savings – never large in the best of times – and the money sent in from family living abroad. A quick visit to one of the innumerable Western Union offices in West Beirut witnessed a line out the door, and everyone was there to collect.
We, absurdly, had been tasked with sending a relative’s salary to him in Syria. “You’re sending money out?” the young man in a Western Union polo shirt asked us. “No one’s done that all day.”
August 3, 2006