On Living through Plagues and Wars in Lebanon

In much of the Global North COVID-19 is wreaking existential havoc. For the war-seasoned Lebanese in the throes of an economic meltdown and ongoing protests, it is yet another in a long line of disasters to navigate and resist. 

 “Pestilence is so common, there have been as many plagues in the world as there have been wars, yet plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared,” writes Albert Camus in The Plague (1991, 37). As the coronavirus spreads across the planet in a wave of disruption that few have experienced in their lifetimes, a shudder passes through humanity. Many of those who inhabit what until recently appeared to be stable worlds, find themselves, as Camus writes, unprepared. But in life-worlds outside of privileged zones of stability, plagues, and wars are neither uncommon nor unexpected, and the inhabitants of such worlds are rarely unprepared. In Lebanon, a perennially crisis-ridden Mediterranean country that has long weathered wars and other existential troubles, the government took early steps to fight the virus that arrived in the middle of an economic meltdown and popular uprising (see Hubbard 2020). As the infection curve flattens amid a stringent lockdown, Lebanon appears to be an unexpected coronavirus success story (Sly 2020). Yet the socioeconomic situation tips into the catastrophic. Although well-prepared for disaster, this moment might exceed even the seasoned resilience of the Lebanese. People are calling it “worse than war” (Azhari 2020).

Ordinary people asking for basic things like a world that doesn’t threaten to fall on their heads every day; a sun that rises tomorrow.

War is often invoked to describe this invasive virus, its disruption of normalcy, its deadly impact, the fight against it. Metaphors of war drive home the existential danger of a destructive force that exposes our mortality and forces us to inhabit suddenly altered worlds. As someone who grew up in war and studies life in war, these comparisons resonate. During the Lebanese civil war that lasted all of my childhood (1975–1990), schools and workplaces closed for months and families holed up together in homes or basements sheltering from ambient forces of death and danger. The airport closed too. People died in droves; hospitals were overwhelmed. Shortages of fuel, water, electricity, and food staples triggered panics. People ran across borders or were trapped within them with nowhere to turn. And, in the aftermath of carnage, empty lots and traffic circles became impromptu mass graves. Within these disastrous conditions (then, as now), life went on. In time, people devised ways of surviving, and some of these practices became ingrained as resistant ways of life: cultivating informal, sustainable networks of protection and care (and subsistence if possible), expecting the worst, hoping for the best, living the moment, and always being prepared.

Although the Lebanese civil war officially ended in 1990, the war with Israel continued in South Lebanon. From 1978 to 2000 Israel occupied a strip of land along the entirety of the shared border, enclosing around 150 Lebanese villages. There, a war of attrition simmered and occasionally erupted. Inhabitants of the frontline villages are well-seasoned inhabitants of war and other difficulties: they also endure poverty and neglect, and labor in capitalist agriculture—their main lifeline and the reason they remain rooted in this war zone. For such beings, life as usual is a tricky pursuit that requires persistence, creativity, connection, courage, steadfastness, and hope. I study this.

In July 2006, a major war erupted between Israel and Lebanon that lasted a little over a month. Although the whole country suffered, South Lebanon took the worst battering: more than a thousand civilians died, entire villages were flattened, crops and orchards were scorched, livestock were killed, and fields were peppered with cluster bombs (see for example, Fattah 2006). I was in Beirut for most of the July War and did fieldwork in South Lebanon in the war’s smoldering aftermath. Apart from the epic destruction, what struck me were the life-making relationships and practices that are continuously nurtured and extend across seasons of rupture in this perpetually threatened war zone. Practices such as farming tobacco, a flexible and hardy cash crop with quick turnover that needs no irrigation or infrastructure; keeping nimble goats who can graze in minefields; cultivating a diverse and seasonal kitchen garden; stocking a larder with staples, pickles, and preserves; cooperating strategically with ascendant local powers but also, and even more importantly, drawing on supportive networks of kin and neighbors, both near and far, to carry on. I call these life-making practices and relationships in deadly times and places resistant ecologies. They are homegrown, diverse, durable, and (as counterintuitive as it may sound) rooted in the difficulty of life and the expectation that the world can end at any moment. Resistant ecologies are not immune to catastrophe, but they are the everyday soil upon which life in difficult places is stubbornly cultivated. Resistant ecologies emerge in the weakness or absence of stable and reliant systems and assist survival when these systems break down.

A song by the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz echoed across social media: khalleek bil bayt, stay at home! Almost everyone did.

The coronavirus attacks the human organism without regard to difference, but it spreads along the uneven fault lines of human life-worlds, exposing the concealed weaknesses of our social and political formations. Some places have been better than others at hiding their faults, and the shock that has emerged at the impact of the virus in the United States, the United Kingdom, and other powerful and rich countries of the Global North, illuminates the discrepancy between illusion and reality (see Packer 2020). The inhabitants of Lebanon (not unlike other places in the Global South [see Nyabola 2020]) have been living in a dysfunctional, predatory, impoverished, and often deadly system for so long, they have no illusions about its ability to care for them and expect either nothing or the worst from their government. Because of this, the coronavirus pandemic, entering an already crowded field of disaster, has been less an existential shock to the inhabitants of Lebanon as yet another layer of difficulty to navigate.

COVID-19 arrived in Lebanon in February 2020, as the latest in a series of unfortunate events. Since October 2019, Lebanon has been in the throes of a popular uprising against a corrupt, clientelist, and sectarian political elite who have driven the country into a catastrophic financial and economic crisis (see for example Sullivan 2019; World Bank 2019). But for decades, things have not been entirely livable in Lebanon, politically or economically. The small country of 6.8 million (including 1.5 million refugees) has stumbled from one crisis to the next. In 2005, the then prime minister, Rafic Hariri, who championed (for some) the post-war resurrection of the country, was assassinated in a massive car bomb, setting off an uprising that ejected Syria—effective rulers of Lebanon since the civil war—out of the country. In 2006, the July War with Israel, the backdrop of my fieldwork, resulted in much death and infrastructural and ecological devastation. Then came a period of car bombs targeting politicians, members of the military, and journalists that culminated in a “mini civil war” in 2008. And these are just a handful of the newsworthy headlines.

Throughout, there is a chronic shortage of electricity and other basic services as the cost of living and unemployment rises. In 2015, a garbage disposal crisis symptomatic of the dysfunctional state triggered protests that rallied around the cry “you stink!” Starting in the summer of 2019, the value of the local currency that for more than 20 years has been pegged at 1,500 liras to the dollar, began to slide due to a deficit in cash dollars in the banking system, and as of this writing, the lira has lost 60 percent of its value. Unemployment is climbing, and may stand anywhere between 25 and 40 percent. The financial sector is bankrupt. To protect their depleted liquidity, banks have slapped on capital controls, denying those with a Lebanese bank account access to their own money. The threat that their savings are gone for good is very real. For an economy that is 85 percent dependent on imports, the shortage of hard currency is disastrous and impacts all sectors of society, including the medical supply chain. Price inflation is out of control.

And that is not all. Lebanon has the highest per capita refugee population in the world. Every fourth person in Lebanon is a refugee, mostly Syrians from the civil war next door, but also Palestinian, both from the war in Syria and from the 1948 dispossession of Palestine. Many refugees are crowded into camps in the major coastal cities and in the interior, but some have found ways of weaving themselves into the local social fabric through relations of kinship or labor. Lebanon also has hundreds of thousands of multiply vulnerable migrant laborers. According to the World Bank, before the coronavirus hit, around 40 percent of the population (refugees included) lived below the poverty line; by now we are at 50 percent or more (see World Bank 2020; Qiblawi 2020). To get by, most people rely on several informal networks and practices—or resistant ecologies—to ameliorate the shortcomings of the public system and constant existential threats. But we might have reached a breaking point.

These constant troubles have allowed resistant ecologies to grow.

This was the situation, roughly, when “coronna” as it is locally called, hit Lebanon. The beleaguered and only recently installed Lebanese government acted swiftly, shutting down schools by the end of February, and quickly ramping up lockdown through placing limits on public gathering, shuttering businesses, banks, bars and places of worship, limiting traffic, and closing the airport. Many grumbled that these measures were a calculated effort to ensure the death of the revolution; to bolster the credibility of the unpopular new government that had just taken power in January; to give space to sectarian political parties opposed to the popular uprising to step into the void by providing services such as care packages, disinfection of public spaces, and medical care to their own constituents; to fragment the startling cross-sectarian solidarity of the revolution that was born through collective impoverishment; and to interrupt the revolution’s heady momentum. Still, people complied with the lockdown. A song by the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz echoed across social media: khalleek bil bayt, stay at home! Almost everyone did. They snapped into wartime survival mode, a familiar place for many. Beirut’s largest public hospital, already reeling from the economic crisis and relying on humanitarian donations of equipment and supplies, mounted a valiant response to the virus. Nurses and doctors rallied to the frontlines despite shortages, describing their fight against the virus—like many doctors across the globe—as war. But for many Lebanese doctors, war is no metaphor (see for example Kanji 2020). Here, war is an ongoing way of life: a fight for survival in shockingly suboptimal conditions. Resisting. Adapting. Making do. For the better part of two months, “coronna” kept protestors at home and appeared to temporarily stay the crumbing edifice. Today, as the fight against the virus appears to have somewhat succeeded (954 total cases, only 26 deaths, a sharp decline in new cases and no new deaths since early May), precipitous economic collapse is well under way. As I write, angry protesters are back on the streets of Lebanon’s major cities of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon, and Sur, throwing Molotov cocktails at banks, burning tires, and cutting roads.  

It may seem remarkable that Lebanon, with its dysfunctional state, polarized politics, depleted coffers, its refugees, migrant workers, the revolution, and ongoing economic apocalypse, appears to have fought off “coronna.” Paradoxically, the effective mobilization against the virus stems from life waged in longstanding troubles: a morally, politically, and financially bankrupt government with its back against the wall, a populace well-habituated to real existential threats, a system predicated on fragmentation and the constant threat of collapse. The virus in Lebanon, unlike elsewhere, did not trigger disbelief at the system’s shortcomings because these are clear for all to see and are struggled with every day. For example, the state, whose political elite are self-serving millionaires, businessmen, and bank owners, did not offer its vulnerable citizens anything in terms of support during lockdown beyond a meager one-time payment to the poorest in the fast-depreciating local currency—that never materialized. (And of course the millions of refugees and migrant workers were not considered). Whereas the government sought to tamp down the revolt against its corruption and ineptitude by springing into action against this viral threat, the angry people were up against one more dimension of difficulty among many others.

These constant troubles have allowed resistant ecologies to grow, the various alternative survival strategies that until now have somewhat held this perennially fragmenting social world together against the odds. These take the shape of privately owned diesel-belching electricity generators to cope with power cuts, unregulated artesian wells to address water shortages, and above all, a widespread reliance on familial, sectarian, and clientelist networks both local and global to stay afloat. Savings groups are key, as are various everyday forms of skimming and stealing (from the state, from each other) and remittances from abroad. And of course, almost everyone still inhabits wartime practices such as larder-stocking and keeping a stash of cash dollars underneath the mattress—or in foreign banks for the few who can. Meanwhile, the economic situation is deteriorating, exacerbated—like everywhere—by the lockdown. In the past weeks, several people have set themselves on fire to protest the layered, intractable disaster engulfing us all. Estimates predict widespread absolute poverty (up to 75 percent) and hunger in Lebanon, which even for this small country and its oft-tested ability to live through war and pestilence could be a new order of suffering. What will this disaster bring? Even more destruction? Or revolutionary change?

In life-worlds outside of privileged zones of stability, plagues, and wars are neither uncommon nor unexpected, and the inhabitants of such worlds are rarely unprepared for disaster.

Many are wondering what new worlds can emerge at the other end of this plague. We can run back into the arms of the predatory order that led us here: neoliberal, capitalist, sectarian, clientelist, patriarchal. Or we can push ahead with a revolution that demands new worlds, breaking away from the old. The nascent, revolutionary, cross-sectarian alliance of hunger that brews and boils over; youth who demand jobs, representational and accountable government, the end of the rule of warlords and their politics of personal enrichment—a future; workers uniting to protect their labor and their rights; women demanding equality; ordinary people asking for basic things like a world that doesn’t threaten to fall on their heads every day; a sun that rises tomorrow.

Both wars and plagues invade our worlds and create them anew. Wars, like plagues, erupt into our lives, unmasking a new more precarious ordinary that is always laced with mortal danger, wherein we must carry on. Wars and plagues show us the existing fault lines of our social worlds: the structural violence that constitutes it is exposed; the inequalities that we normalize suddenly can no longer be ignored. Yet at the same time that our differences emerge, we realize a common humanity and we recognize just how vitally interconnected we are. Can such contrapuntal realizations be reconciled and generatively approached? There is political hope in such realization. The challenge is to translate it into action.

Anthropologists, especially those who work on war, on poverty, on disease, on violence, and the environment, are critically positioned to describe the ordinary, inhabited grounds of catastrophic worlds. Rather than turning away from these disastrous realities to dream up better alternatives, a careful ethnographic rendering of life in war and plagues allows us to grasp brutal lived experiences as more than occasional, exotic, or other. For too many on this planet, life is waged in the midst of disaster. The focus must shift to the resistant hope that making life brings and the insistent demands for a better one. Revolutions are already underway.

Munira Khayyat teaches anthropology at the American University in Cairo. She works on war. Having grown up in the Lebanese civil war and lived through several others, her work turns on the life that resistantly goes on in and through war. She is currently writing a book entitled, A Landscape of War: Ecologies of Resistance and Survival in South Lebanon.

Pandemic series banner image
Image description: Grey text reads “PANDEMIC” on a black background. Layered adopt that are illustrations of individuals performing common activities during lockdown: one person carries an armful of toilet paper, a pair of people have a book open, one person sits in front of a computer screen displaying an emoji with a heart, and another person bakes bread.
Caption: Scenes from stay-at-home life by Charlotte Hollands, produced for the PANDEMIC issue of Anthropology News magazine.

Charlotte Hollands created artwork as well as spot illustrations of experiences from social distancing life for AN’s pandemic issue. Hollands is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is developing new ways to use illustration within social science research and is currently completing her first graphic nonfiction book, written by Alisse Waterston.

Cite as: Khayyat, Munira. 2020. “On Living through Plagues and Wars in Lebanon.” Anthropology News website, June 18, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1436

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