The economic crisis in Lebanon is so deep that it is described by the World Bank as one of the worst to hit any country since the middle of the 19th century. Since the revolution in October 2019 its currency has plummeted in value by 90%. The queues to the country's petrol stations are long and the healthcare system has collapsed causing a shortage of anaesthetics and cancelled operations. The economy was already in shambles when the Beirut port explosion occurred on August 4 last year. Over 200 people died and as many became homeless. This has created a political crisis. The government was forced to resign, and accusations have been levelled at former prime minister Hassan Diab and three other ministers for not having done enough to prevent the disaster.
When a country is close to collapse, many are forced to emigrate, and among those who leave are its writers and journalists. But after the port explosion the award-winning Lebanese author and lawyer Alexandre Najjar, usually based in Paris, chose to stay longer in Beirut than he had intended. "If you have a friend who is ill, you cannot simply abandon her; one needs to take care of a dear friend, and therefore I cannot abandon Beirut. During the ongoing crisis, we must maintain our dignity and as writers we do so by continuing to write and to produce literature,” says Najjar.
Alexandre Najjar visited Stockholm in October 2020 where he participated in a discussion organized by Swedish PEN in collaboration with Re Orient and the magazine Karavan. He talked about the explosion in Beirut, the country's political and economic situation, and its literature. It was during his visit to Sweden that the idea of making this issue about Lebanon was initiated. Najjar, who is also the publisher of the Beirut-based French-language magazine L’Orient Littéraire, is the guest editor of this special issue of PenOpp.
This issue is a tribute to Lebanon and to the city of Beirut written by its own authors. Since Lebanon is often associated with the 1975-1990 civil war, the country's culture and riches have been overshadowed. Lebanon is a mosaic of various cultures, languages, and ethnicities, and has eighteen religious communities. And despite the conflicts there are periods of hope that the possibility of living together in peaceful coexistence still exists.
Beirut is a cosmopolitan city where Arabic/French/English trilingualism is readily practiced. The city has always been a shelter for persecuted intellectuals. Therefore, the country has played an important role for the entire Arab cultural sphere.
This issue contains a significant selection of Lebanon’s literary production, and we have sampled some influential names from the Lebanese cultural world.
Besides two essays by two significant specialists: the sociologist Ahmad Beydoun's "Dependence on Foreign Forces in Lebanon's Religious Groups and the Dissolution of the National Community" and the professor of philosophy Fares Sassine's "Lebanon's International and Constitutional Essence,” there are literary texts signed by the famous novelists Najwa Barakat and Charif Majdalani, who paint the picture of Beirut’s transformation from the revolution in October 2019 to the port explosion in the summer of 2020. And since Lebanese poetry has always been at the forefront of Arabic poetry, we present both established and younger poets. Bissane Elsheikh, a respected journalist at the London-based newspaper Al-Hayat between 2001 and 2018, writes a personal text depicting her impressions on her return to Lebanon after several years in exile.
From Sweden, Bitte Hammargren, Middle East analyst, journalist, and author, participates with "The Bottom has Not Yet Been Reached in Lebanon.”
"It feels like an earthquake, then comes an extremely violent explosion that blows out the windows, destroys the house façades and sweeps away everything in its path, like a hurricane. I am moved thirty years back to the era of the war, when car bombs and shrapnel exploded in the midst of a crowd, killing dozens of innocent people"
The quote is from "Beirut in My Heart," by Najjar written after the port explosion in Beirut on August 4, 2020, with which we begin this issue about Lebanon.
Wanting to spark hope and bring light into the darkness at a time when Lebanon, traumatized by the explosion in the port and undermined by an unsurpassed economic crisis, is undergoing one of the most difficult trials in the history of the country, this issue highlights the cultural influence of the land of cedar trees.