The Fourth Day of August

And why October 6th is as good a day as any to write about August 4th

Photo by Charbel Karam on Unsplash

April 4th saw the coming of age of Senegal from its infancy as a French colony.
May 4th saw the rebirth of Latvia after a (rather long) stint as a Soviet puppet.
June 4th is Tonga’s Emancipation date.
July 4th saw the birth of the United States of America.

August 4th though, was a sentencing hearing for the citizens of a small country on the verge of oblivion. 218 people were found guilty of belonging to this poor country and obliterated immediately. 7000 others were found guilty of being ordinary citizens minding their own business, and were put to the Question. Some lost a limb or two. Or three. Some lost their minds.

Some lost a child.

The remaining 300,000 suspects were found guilty of various offences and misdemeanors, and were stripped of their homes and possessions. Many were stripped of loved ones. A daughter. A sister. An uncle. Alexandra. Christelle. Tony.

And we, the Lebanese diaspora, stood and watched helpless, as the sixth largest artificial non-nuclear explosion destroyed the capital of our home country and whatever illusions of hope we still had by then.

Justice was not served, in case you are wondering.

I should have written this post on August 4th. Obviously, I did not. August 4th sounds to me like a perfect date to put candles as a profile picture on your social media, and write something like “On est tous Beyrouth” or “Never forget, never forgive” to feel good about yourself for a day and then move on, until the next year.

Some will stand by the motto they wrote on their facebook profiles. Many others, who will never forget and never forgive on August 4th, will have forgotten and forgiven by May 15th, right on time to elect the same scum we had been served over and over for the past decades, give or take.

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you have probably guessed the setting. It is past midnight and I am sipping an espresso with an orange peel, as usual, when I am invoking this small country on the verge of oblivion.

October 6th is as good a day as any to write about August 4th. October 6th is as good a day as any to remember.

Is it a good day to forgive though? Is there a day to forgive? Nothing is less sure.

Let the board sound

Rabih

What Will Remain

When the world has taken its final bow

Photo by Ian Wetherill on Unsplash

In the end only memories will remain. Oh, not even the greatest or the most vivid ones.

The most brilliant victories? The blatant failures? Frozen in a past watered down by a failing memory, they shall not remain. They will fly away like particles of dust, carried away by the breeze of oblivion, for time, you see, always ends up leveling the victories by their fair measure of failures and failures by their fair number of victories.

Will remain only the memories worth reliving, the sweetest, the most beautiful ones.

The warmth of the fire which, from its hearth, lit up the winter nights of your childhood in the Levant. The breeze of a summer afternoon by the sea. The sun of the village where you grew up, its fields, its meadows, its stones on which you scratched your knees. The bitterness of departure, yes, because even bitterness is softened through memories, and the joy of fleeting reunions, as well as the bitter-sweet nostalgia of a poor country lost forever…

Will also remain the golden and copper leaves of Parisian autumns, the delicious bitterness of an orange peel in a coffee on a terrace in Montmartre, and books of course. Do not underestimate their power, they will have left you with impressions as lasting as the most beautiful memories.

But first and foremost, the softness of a hand, the warmth of a lip, the reassuring routine of a day like any other, but still somewhat different through the little pleasures you share daily, hugs, sorrows, sun, showers, melodies that enchant the days and lull the nights.

And the warmth of love, the love of your life, the one which will remain when everything else will have disappeared in the meanders of oblivion, the love which even death cannot take away.

To Rita, for these 9 years that will have passed like a dream, and to all those years just waiting to be lived.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Ce Qui Restera

Quand le monde aura tiré sa révérence

Photo by Ian Wetherill on Unsplash

Il ne restera en fin de compte que les souvenirs. Oh, même pas tous, sans doute pas les plus grandioses ni les plus marquants. 

Tes victoires les plus éclatantes? Tes échecs les plus cuisants? Figés dans un passé édulcoré par une mémoire trop imparfaite, ils ne resteront finalement pas. Ils s’envoleront, poussières portées par les brises de l’oubli car, vois-tu, le temps finit toujours par les niveler, victoires à l’aune des échecs, échecs à la mesure des victoires.

Des souvenirs, il ne restera finalement que les plus beaux, les plus doux, ceux qui valent la peine d’être revécus.

La chaleur du feu qui, de son âtre, éclairait les nuits d’hiver de ton enfance au Levant. La brise d’un après-midi d’été au bord de la mer. Le soleil du village où tu as grandi, ses champs, ses près, ses pierres sur lesquelles tu t’es écorché les genoux. L’amertume du départ, oui, car même l’amertume s’adoucit à travers les souvenirs, et la joie des retrouvailles éphémères, ainsi que la douce nostalgie d’un pauvre pays perdu à jamais…

Resteront aussi les feuilles d’or et de cuivre des automnes parisiens, la délicieuse amertume d’une écorce d’orange dans un café bien serré sur une terrasse de Montmartre, et les livres bien sûr. Ne sous-estime pas leur puissance, ils t’auront laissé des impressions aussi durables que les souvenirs les plus beaux.

Mais surtout, la douceur d’une main, la chaleur d’une lèvre, la routine rassurante d’une journée comme les autres, mais quand-même différente par les mille petits bonheurs partagés au quotidien, câlins, chagrins, soleils, averses, mélodies qui enchantent les journées et bercent les nuits.

Et la douceur d’un amour, de l’amour de ta vie, celui qui restera quand tout le reste aura disparu dans les méandres de l’oubli, celui que même la mort ne te prendra. 

A Rita, pour ces 9 ans qui seront passés comme un rêve, et à toutes ces années qui n’attendent que d’être vécues.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Happy Birthday in A Major

With a mellow twist for a newbie guitarist

Photo by freestocks on Unsplash

Here’s how it goes if you ever feel like playing it, dear potential newbie guitarist. It only takes three very simple chords: A, E and D.

A                 E
Happy Birthday to you
E A
Happy Birthday to you
A D
Happy Birthday dear Rabih
A E A
Happy Birthday to you

Simple.

La simplicité fait la beauté, as we say around here. Nonetheless, there is a problem with the simplicity of this version: it is dull. Too sweet. Too optimistic, like a fairytale. Like everything is going to be OK. Like you’ll never stumble and fall. No illness, no hazards. No Coronavirus. No Sub primes. No war. No inflation.

Fake.

You can however add a chord to the last “Happy” to save the day: the B minor, or even better, the B minor 7th.

Bm7        E      A
Happy Birthday to you

This chord kind of breaks the happy path to which the birthday song was heading, making it more real. The B minor 7th does not sound happy, it does not sound sad either. It sounds, well, mellow, I guess. Nostalgic. Like a reminder from an old friend who’s been there before, that this new year on which you are about to embark will have its share of bliss but also its share of sadness. That you need to better manage your expectations and that time is flying. That today is gone forever, and tomorrow is not yet. That the past will always look brighter.

Trust your ear nevertheless, the chord is not sad. You can even notice an after taste. Something like Italian coffee with an orange peel. The story this chord will be telling you is one of hope. However rough, everything will be all right eventually.

In the end, when you find yourself playing the birthday song to your child or your parents, on the eve of leaving your home country to head back where you belong, it brings tears to your eyes and hope to your heart, hope for the impossible reunion, one day, with all the parents, siblings, friends, and memories you are about to leave again. That life will somehow bring us back together somehow, for good, in the country of our childhood.

Right now, on the plane back to Paris, I can hear the B minor 7th version of the birthday song resonating in my head, and I find myself hoping that the promise it seems to hold is as real as the mellowness of its sound.

To my parents who are celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary.

To my child who is celebrating her birthday.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Les Routes Millénaires — Thousand-Year-Old Roads

Routes levantines ou chemins de l’esprit, nous les sillonnons sans répit au risque de nous y croiser, frères ennemis, mais compagnons d’infortune d’un pays au bord de l’oubli.

This is a story in French about my home country Lebanon. Bon courage et bonne lecture chers amis.

Photo by Dorsa Masghati on Unsplash

Des routes six fois millénaires, chemins du hasard qui mènent vers des destinations improbables. Et sur ces routes nous marchons, pour marcher, sans autre but que celui de partir vers l’avant, pour paraphraser Baudelaire:

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; cœurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: Allons!

Routes levantines ou chemins de l’esprit, bitumes poussiéreux ou expériences de pensée, nous les sillonnons sans répit, au risque de nous y croiser, frères ennemis, compagnons de route néanmoins, d’infortune sûrement, d’un pays au bord de l’oubli.

Et je te poserai ces deux questions qui reviennent invariablement dans les conversations qui naissent entre deux inconnus qui se croisent sur ces routes.

من بيت مين؟
من وين؟

D’où viens-tu?
Quel est ton nom?

Ta fierté dépassera ta méfiance, tu me diras tout: ton nom de famille, ton village d’origine, me livrant par là-même ta religion, ta confession, ces identifiants sociaux et mêmes politiques sur lesquels repose le cœur de nos identité meurtrières, si bien décrites par Amine Maalouf.

Et alors, je me souviendrai. Je me souviendrai que vous nous avez pourchassés comme des chiens, que vous avez occupé nos maisons, brulé nos sanctuaires, massacré nos pères, assassiné nos femmes et nos enfants, que vous vous êtes tournés vers l’Extérieur pour mieux nous trahir et détruire Notre Pays pour le remplacer par le Vôtre.

Sur le point de me fermer à la conversation pour mieux te haïr, je me souviendrai aussi que nous vous avons fait de même.

Je me souviendrai que ce qui nous sépare n’est qu’un miroir dans lequel ce que nous portons en nous de ressentiment stérile et de noirceur se reflète pour mieux nous aveugler.

Je me souviendrai que vous avez pleuré vos morts durant quarante jours de deuil, ceux-là mêmes durant lesquels nous avons pleuré les nôtres, quarante jours de deuil qui transcendent les religions, quarante jours où les nôtres et les vôtres auront été Un dans la douleur et les larmes qui les séparent de leurs morts.

Je me souviendrai, et te dévisageant, je devinerai tes souvenirs. Je verrai dans tes yeux ce que tu vois dans les miens, ce reflet de méfiance, de souffrance, de deuil et d’incompréhension, et au delà, un soupçon d’espoir, celui d’avoir une conversation agréable avec un compatriote.

Alors, nous nous essaierons sans doute à ce jeu immémorial qui consiste à nous trouver des amis, des connaissances communes, des parentés supposées lointaines mais O plus proches que soupçonné, voire, des lieux dont nos mémoires se souviennent de la même manière, des plats qui nous rappellent ce qui reste de beau dans ce pays au bord de l’oubli. Nous nous raconterons nos vies, nos souvenirs peut-être, nos exils surement, nos échecs aussi, nos enfances et celles de nos enfants.

Et jusqu’au prochain carrefour, nous nous raconterons nos aspirations pour ce pauvre pays auquel nous croyons toujours, et nous nous quitterons à la croisée des chemins, meilleurs amis du monde, ou simples connaissances de passage, mais nous aurons laissé un Liban un peu plus beau à la fin de ce périple commun.

Let the board sound

Rabih

The Most Dangerous Roads

Take a leap of faith and buckle your seatbelts

Photo by Robin Pierre on Unsplash

Driving on the most dangerous roads in the world.

Not because of the road itself, but because of the people. My people, who have lost all hope in life and do not expect much from their small country on the verge of oblivion, save for more trouble and even less hope.

They are not driving, they are wandering. They are not steering, they are sleepwalking. They do not follow directions, they have nowhere to go. And even if they had a place to look forward to, there are no directions to follow.

The folks around here are not living. They are just busy surviving. They are on the road, whether in a car on in their head, racing from one hassle to the next, waiting for luck, or fate, betting on the wrong horses, the wrong colors, the wrong hands more often than not, as always.

They just drive to escape the unescapable. They would drive until the tank is empty and they would keep on driving if they could. Alas, gas is out of reach now. You see, in this country, you need to keep moving, you do not have the luxury to stop on the side of the road and rest. You only stop to fade away…

The lines above were inspired to me a couple of days ago, while driving on the roads of my home country, Lebanon. It still is a beautiful country, despite its shortcomings, and people on the road are beautiful as always and crazier than ever. You just have to ride the wave, swim with the flock, cross your fingers and trust that you will make it home somehow.

Oh, and buckle your seatbelt of course!

Let the board sound

Rabih

The Summers of our Childhood — Les Etés de Notre Enfance

Images and impressions on a piano improvisation by Elie Maalouf — Images et impressions sur une improvisation d’Elie Maalouf au piano

Listen to this Summer improvisation on piano. Let it take you places. Here’s where it took me. In English and in French, because why not?

Elie Maalouf, Summer Impro!

A languid question, one that awaits an answer, slow to come. And then, an anxious lover who wants to know.

Is it true? Say it is not so! Tell me! Tell me… Is it true that you’re leaving? Is it true that you’re staying?

And the answer, the one he wishes to hear, which oscillates between the quiet happiness of a summer evening in the Levant and the torpor of an August afternoon.

This is the story that I hear playing out on the ivory and ebony keys, these are the characters and the moods that I glimpse between the notes, and which, through an eighth, a modulation or a silence, meet, dispute, discuss, or hold their peace.

And leave us dreamy and nostalgic of the summers of our childhood.

Thank you Elie

. . . .

Une question languissante, une interrogation qui attend une réponse qui tarde à venir.

Et ensuite, un amoureux anxieux, qui veut savoir. Est-ce vrai? Dis-moi! Dis-moi… Est-ce vrai que tu pars? Est-ce vrai que tu restes? Et la réponse qu’il veut bien entendre, qui oscille entre le bonheur tranquille d’un soir d’été au Levant et la torpeur d’un après-midi d’Août.

C’est l’histoire que j’entends jouer sur les touches d’ivoire et d’ébène, ce sont les personnages et les états d’âme que j’entrevois entre les notes, qui d’une croche, d’une modulation, d’un soupir, se croisent, se décroisent, se parlent, se taisent.

Et nous laissent rêveurs et nostalgiques des étés de notre enfance.

Merci Elie

Let the board sound

Rabih

أهواك بلا أمل — Hopeless Love

The perfect music for grieving Lebanese folks

Photo by Marjolaine Blaison on Unsplash

I’ve been listening to this piece of music in near-repeat mode for the past couple of years now. It is an instrumental rendition by a Lebanese flutist and a Lebanese pianist of a love song written by Zaki Nassif decades ago and interpreted by Fairuz, called أهواك (Ahwak) , which I think applies to us, the orphaned Lebanese, crying for a country on the verge of oblivion.

The song goes like this:

أهواك، أهواك بلا أملِ
وعيونك، وعيونك تبسم لي
وورودك تغريني، بشهيات القبلِ
وورودك تغريني، بشهيات القبلِ

أهواك ولي قلب بغرامك يلتهب
تدنيه فيقترب، تقصيه فيغترب
في الظلمة يكتئب، ويهدهده التعب
فيذوب وينسكب، كالدمع من المقلِ

I always imagine myself singing it to my home country. This song describes exactly what I have been feeling these days, especially the second verse. Hopeless love.

I love you and my heart burns for your love
You decline it, still it approaches
Estranged, it becomes alienated
In the dark, it is hopeless and tired
It melts and spills like tears

Look at us poor folks, scattered around the world, trying to rebuild a dream dreamt by those who came before, who shed their blood for it, hoping we will see it blossom. A dream to which we are still holding, to which we are still bleeding, hoping our children will see it blossom. Hopeless dream, hopeless love.

In this recursive maze of hopelessness, we are but shadows, writing from the end of the world to a lost love, orphans to a forgotten country, for the country where we grew up is no more, and we remain heartbroken over the shadow of what was once the land of milk and honey.

Anyway. Here’s the instrumental version of the song. Piano and flute. Give it a try and let me know if you can hear my home country. Or yours.

Let the board sound

Rabih

The Slaver and the Fool

And what remains to be undone

Photo by Hussain Badshah on Unsplash

The other side, mirror of faithful slavery
Of the fool who blossomed on unfaithful favors
Now paying dearly, hoarding ages in a day
And living merely through the days, not the ages

For a fool is slave not only to his folly
He is bound by the illusions of those above
His will enslaved by the greed of unholy realms
Tied to multitudes of unbreakable ribbons

Colorful threads, pink and purple, tiny and cute
Strings of dread, ropes of bondage, hiding in colors
Binding the fool, tripping the sage, trampling the voice
Of those who speak for what remains to be undone

By the Slaver, by the Fool, sides of the same coin
The left and right hands of a behemoth called Greed

To which all are slaves.

Let the board sound

Rabih

A Chess Lesson in the Midst of War

Only those who have lived through it really know war, and believe me, having lived through one, it is not the solution to any problem

Photo by Hassan Pasha on Unsplash

1990. February, or maybe March. The last phase of a war which had been raging for 15 years. In the living room, between to whistles of shells, a dad, scissors in hand, was cutting a piece of cardboard into small confetti he would color in red or black.

Thus emerged a king, a bishop, a knight. A pawn. Two pawns. A rook. A game of chess, with the means at hand.

The hard part

That was the easy part. He still had to teach the game to two kids, 7 or 8 years old, and avoid a civil war at the scale of the house, as a game won on one side of the chess board is lost on the other side.

It all depends on the point of view. Black or Red.

Us or Them.

Christian or Muslim, Maronites or Druze, Sunni or Chia. But also, Lebanese Forces, Palestine Liberation Organization, Amal Movement, Hezbollah, Aounists, Marada, Mourabitoun, Israeli Defense Force, Baath, and I am surely forgetting some of the antagonists in this God forsaken conflict.

The conflict

A nameless mayhem which would have lasted more than 15 years. A mayhem which would have cost 150 000 deaths, 100 000 physical disabilities, 250 000 net immigrations and displaced a million people, if we are to use a measurement unit better adapted to this disaster than months and years.

And in the middle of this maelstrom, a dad, a tiny chess board, and two children learning the hard way that a castling is better than a massacre of queens in the vast chess game of life.

I would like to end this short story with a message to those who promote war as a solution to liberate oppressed people.

Hang yourselves somewhere else.

Only those who have lived through it really know war, and believe me, having lived through one, it is not the solution to any problem.


This story was first written in French a while ago. This is the English version, completing the Frenglish loop, to be true to the bio.

I’m Rabih, Lebanese, French, writing in Frenglish and hoping to make a difference.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Shades of Gloom

An ode to a country on the verge of oblivion

Photo by Lukas Robertson on Unsplash

Shrouded in a thick veil of comfortable darkness
Purple drapes hiding your despair in shades of gloom
Diving in a sea of tranquil and somber bleakness
Hoping for oblivion, dreading the colors of bloom

For bloom is the rise of a phoenix from ashes
And to ashes returns to better rise again
Many returns carry century old flashes
Oblivious of the past the memories remain

Rise oh cedar, oh imputrescible essence 
In the Book seventy times chanted by prophets
Your name bears the promise of your children’s penance
A beacon in the rhymes of desperate poets

Rise Oh Lebanon, Oh land of milk and honey
Rise to the challenge and embrace your destiny

Let the board sound

Rabih

Hold on, Don’t Fade to Sleep

Just a few more hours, I’m on my way

Photo by Ramy Kabalan on Unsplash

I’m coming. Soon. I really am. I swear.

Now, to say that I am rushing to meet you again would be a slight exaggeration. Not that I dislike you. You know how dear you are to me, how hard I thrive to raise and hold your name high and how my heart bleeds over what your health bill has become. You know. I’ve already told you. I’ve shown you. Many times.

I am just afraid of what I will find. It has been a while now, and your situation is worsening by the day. By the hour. I am afraid of loosing the little hope I still have of seeing you recover. I know, advice is easier given that followed, and besides, you are beyond advice now. I know I will not find you home this time, I’m heading straight to the ICU. But hey, at least you are still awake, conscious, we can speak, hold hands, even hug. I got my booster shot, don’t worry about that.

I know what you will say. I have not been visiting as often as I used to, but you have stuff you’d want me to forgive too, so let us not go there for once. Come on, give it to me straight, I can take it. Is there hope? How long do you have left? God, do you realize how hard it is for me to utter those words? It is even harder than listening to your answer, which I already know by the way: not long. Unless…

Well, unless a miracle. Shall I hope for one? Can I hope for one? Do I want to? I mean, there are elections coming up in May you know? Will they yield a change? Aren’t people too busy surviving to vote a majority of the 128 MPs out of parliament? Too many questions, to which the answer can only be at the level of faith. You either have faith in your country or you don’t. And right now, I just don’t know. I want to have faith, I really do, but I just don’t know…

Here’s what I think. The current political system consists of two factions, both corrupt to an extent rarely seen in human history. Because of this, it will be impossible to form a majority which is not aligned with one side or the other, but it is always possible to elect enough “clean” outsiders to office to create a meaningful minority with which the factions will have to negotiate to reach an absolute majority in parliament. If they can tip the balance in favor of a few urgent changes, it could buy you months, even years, by unblocking funds or restoring confidence in your economy.

It is possible. Will it happen? Nothing is less sure. I any case, I am boarding the plane as we speak. Surprise… And to be totally honest, deep down inside, I do look forward to seeing you, even if I will not admit to it. I miss you man! It’s been a long time.

Try not to fade to sleep before I get there. Just a few hours. Once I land, I will take care of you, you will feel better, we will buy ourselves some months. At least until May, until the elections. Hold on to life, you’ve been doing that for centuries now. Just a few more hours. Got to go now, the plane is about to take off.

See you on the other side of the Mediterranean my dear country.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Ecrire pour faire une différence

5959 jours, passés comme un songe. Les premiers jours, on est tout ouïe, à l’affût de la moindre nouvelle, de la moindre rumeur. Puis le temps aidant, on réussit à s’affranchir aurais-je dis il y’a encore quelques mois, des actualités de ce lopin de terre coincé entre la rage de vivre au jour le jour et les jours sans lendemains. C’est vous dire au bout de 5959 jours à quel point l’actualité politique et économique du Liban m’était devenue étrangère à défaut d’étrange, non pas par rejet de mes origines mais par réflexe d’auto-préservation, car prendre sur soi les soucis du vieux pays alors que l’on surnage dans une France que l’on essaie de faire sienne pour survivre à la séparation, ferait ployer le plus serein, rendrait fou le plus sage.

Photo by Joe Kassis

C’est donc relativement immunisé des actualités libanaises que je me suis lancé il y’a quelques mois dans cette entreprise un peu folle qui consiste à écrire des articles sur tout et n’importe quoi en espérant que quelqu’un dans ce vaste monde y trouvât une idée intéressante. Contre toute attente, je me suis retrouvé un beau jour à écrire sur le vieux pays et je me suis surpris à suivre l’actualité de ce coin du monde de manière plus qu’assidue, notamment à travers les colonnes d’un quotidien francophone qui a l’amabilité de publier certains de mes articles dans sa rubrique Courrier.

Et je suis, ma foi, assez surpris de ne pas être surpris justement par ce que je lis: nos politiciens gèrent toujours le pays comme une épicerie, ou plutôt comme une ferme dont nous serions le bétail, et ce, malgré une différence de taille survenue au cours de ces 5959 jours, à savoir une épée de Damoclès plus que jamais suspendue au-dessus de leur trône, celle du citoyen qui n’a plus rien à perdre, et qui a donc tout à gagner d’une révolution, et Dieu sait le sang que les révolutions répandent avant de répandre les bienfaits qu’elles promettent aux peuples qui se soulèvent, quand elles sont assez magnanimes pour le faire.

Quant à moi, je persévère dans cette entreprise un peu folle d’écrire sur tout et n’importe quoi durant ces longues nuits d’hiver de ma patrie d’adoption, en sirotant un Ron du Venezuela, un trait de cognac ou un café agrémenté d’une écorce d’orange, en ayant l’outrecuidance de vouloir faire une différence dans ce monde, ou tout au moins de l’espérer, pour l’amour de mon pays d’origine, le Liban.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Bonnes résolutions

Dernier jour de l’année. Minuit. Je songe à toutes ces années qui se sont terminées de la même façon, un 31 décembre, comme cette année. Toutes ces années qui ont commencé par des promesses non tenues et ont fini en forfaiture. Tous ces 31 décembre ou j’ai pensé pouvoir encore sauver cette infime partie de mon âme qui compte encore pour quelque chose, celle qui garde encore les quelques souvenirs d’enfance qui me restent, celle qui m’animait il y’a encore quelques années, quand je portais encore dans mon cœur ton nom gravé en lettres de feu, quand j’y croyais encore, quand j’avais la foi.

Tous ces débuts de janvier qui m’ont finalement mené à travers compromissions et trahisons vers le même 31 décembre, année après année. Tous ces 31 décembre où l’on se promet monts et merveilles tout en sachant que rien ne sera tenu, où l’on noie sa conscience dans les limbes du néant à grand renfort de champagne et de foie gras pour mieux oublier ces promesses que l’on est supposé se faire et que l’on nomme bonnes résolutions, trop honteux que l’on est de les voir pour ce qu’elles sont, des vœux pieux.

Cette fin d’année est néanmoins différente. Pour la première fois, elle n’a pas le goût du dégoût de soi vite noyé dans un verre d’alcool, une poignée de billets et des promesses sans lendemain. Elle a un goût amer, un goût de cendre. Les cendres de ton nom, consumé sur l’autel de la forfaiture par un soir d’août, par ma main, par ma faute. Les trente deniers que j’aurai touché pour cet acte me brûlent la peau, me crèvent les yeux. Je ne me savais pas avoir encore une conscience après avoir tant couru derrière le pouvoir et les vains honneurs, mais voilà, face au sacrilège suprême, elle se rebelle, elle se rebiffe, elle se rappelle à mon souvenir.

Alors en ce 31 décembre, je me fais une promesse. Celle de me retirer de la vie publique dont je suis indigne. Celle de me consacrer à ta reconstruction, non pas à partir du confort du fauteuil du pouvoir auquel je suis tellement habitué, mais sur le terrain, humble ouvrier sous les ordres de ces contremaitres, qui se dépensent depuis des années sans compter pour te garder à flot, envers et contre tout, pompiers sacrifiés sur ton port, urgentistes et infirmières sanglants cherchant les victimes de mon sacrilège dans les décombres de la ville, et tant d’autre sacrifiés sur le même autel que toi, soldats sur tous les fronts où ton nom doit être défendu.

Je reprends leur serment à mon compte, qui est celui de ton armée, institution qui n’aura jamais failli.

Je jure par Dieu Tout-Puissant de faire mon devoir jusqu’au bout, afin de préserver le drapeau de mon pays, et de défendre ma patrie, le Liban1.

أقسم بالله العظيم أن أقوم بواجبي كاملاً، حفاظاً على علم بلادي، وذوداً عن وطني لبنان

Un responsable – مسؤول

Optimisme prudent

Chers compatriotes. Comme vous vous en doutez, on ne résout pas un problème à 90 milliards en deux coups de cuiller à pot.

Certains signes néanmoins, au crédit des libanais de bonne volonté qui ne manquent pas dans ce vaste univers, semblent indiquer que nous n’avons pas encore touché le fond. Mauvaise nouvelle pourriez-vous me rétorquer, dans le sens où il y’aurait encore de la marge en termes de descente aux enfers. En ce qui me concerne, je voudrai voir le verre à moitié plein en cette fin d’année si vous le permettez, l’optimisme n’ayant jamais aveuglé les lucides, que les rêveurs.

On ne rembourse pas une ardoise de 90 milliards d’un coup baguette magique, mais…

Le peuple est aujourd’hui plus soudé face au pouvoir qu’à n’importe quel moment des 50 dernières années. La diaspora s’est mobilisée pour les élections de 2022 et plus de 230 000 personnes pourront voter depuis les ambassades et consulats du Liban un peu partout dans le monde, pour les candidats de leurs circonscriptions d’origine, malgré un suspense qui aura duré de coup de théâtre en coup de sort jusqu’à la tombée du rideau.

La satire politique et la critique des travers de la société sont bien vivantes, portées qu’elles sont par une nouvelle génération de stand-ups et de one man/woman shows, et plus généralement d’artistes et d’activistes qui n’ont rien à envier à leurs ainés.

Suite à la tragédie du 4 août 2020, les libanais se sont redécouvert une fibre sociale, puisqu’ils n’ont jamais été un peuple froid et fermé. Ceux qui pouvaient ont prêté main forte à ceux qui ont tout perdu. Des associations d’aide se sont mises en place spontanément, et la diaspora n’a pas été en reste. Le réseau des forces vives à travers le monde s’est mis en branle et il est considérable. Les associations de libanais de la diaspora, les entreprises qui ont des liens solides avec le pays, les fils et les filles du pays qui vivent sous des cieux plus cléments sur les cinq continents ont donné de leur temps et de leurs moyens pour le Liban, et les résultats sont visibles sur le terrain.

Une grande partie des dons et des aides cible aujourd’hui le système éducatif et en cela, les libanais font preuve d’une grande sagesse: les générations futures seront celles qui relèveront les défis que notre génération aura subi de plein fouet et si le Liban des années 2020 leur aura tout pris, il est permis de croire qu’il aura tout fait pour leur laisser l’éducation, c’est à dire l’essentiel.

D’autre part, les expatriés continuent d’affluer au vieux pays pour les vacances d’été et les fêtes de fin d’année malgré les milles outrages qu’ils rencontreront entre l’insécurité et les pénuries de carburant et d’électricité pour n’en citer que quelques-uns, et que leurs frères et sœurs de cœur restés au pays subissent quotidiennement, stoïquement, pour l’amour de leur patrie malgré ce qui leur en coute, malgré ce qu’ils en disent. C’est dire à quel point le Liban est chevillé aux âmes de ses enfants, qui, s’ils ont le verbe haut, ont néanmoins un cœur à la mesure de leur grande gueule.

En fin de compte, pardonnez la naïveté de mon ton et de cet article. Ceux qui me connaissent savent que je suis d’un réalisme pour le moins ennuyeux mais je me fais violence en cette fin d’année en affichant un optimisme à la limite du raisonnable. J’en ai besoin et vous aussi sans doute, si vous me permettez cette remarque.

Ceci étant, soyons lucides, soyons prudents. “Il suffit d’un peu d’électricité et d’une connexion Internet pour faire tourner la boite” pour citer un patron libanais qui porte le Liban en son cœur, et je pense que l’on peut étendre la métaphore à un pays, mais il suffit d’un grain de sel dans ce système instable qu’est devenu le Liban pour faire basculer les choses du côté obscur.

Optimisme prudent donc, car en effet, on ne résout pas un problème à 90 milliards en deux coups de cuiller à pot, mais il faut bien commencer quelque part.

Aux Amis du Liban,

A Wissam

Joyeuses fêtes à tous and let the board sound

Rabih

Le soleil se lèvera-t-il au bout de la nuit?

Il est 23h38. Je sirote mon café agrémenté d’un bout d’écorce d’orange en cette froide nuit de décembre. Un truc que j’ai appris de mon frère, un fin palais celui-là, et que je vous conseille vivement. L’écorce d’orange, pas le café de minuit bien sûr, si vous tenez au sommeil. Personnellement, le café ne me fait aucun effet, j’irai dormir sur mes deux oreilles dès que nous aurons fini cette conversation cher lecteur, sans doute à cause d’une accoutumance à l’adrénaline et aux effets du stress que je dois à mes origines.

Photo by Andres F. Uran

Je sirote mon café donc, et je pense à cette malédiction du départ, qui n’est que l’autre face de celle de rester. Au-delà des polémiques et autres diatribes sur le sujet, quand on y pense, peu de nos compatriotes partent par choix. Entre le départ et la famine, c’est contraints et forcés qu’ils font leurs bagages quand l’opportunité se présente, et des fois sans même attendre qu’elle ne le fasse. Quant à ceux qui restent, c’est dos au mur qu’ils subissent leur dur destin et le choix n’a rien à faire là-dedans non plus. Ils partiront quand leur heure sera venue, si tant est qu’elle viendra, vers d’autres contrées ou un monde meilleur et ce ne sera pas par choix. Partants, restants, ils partagent la même malédiction.

Alors qu’importe si tu pars ou si tu restes, quand l’avenir que tu contemplais t’échappe et que la faim ou l’exil sont les seuls choix qui restent. Mais s’agit-il vraiment d’un choix? Plutôt un dilemme il me semble. Le choix, tu le feras après: Porter ou pas le nom de notre pays bien haut dans les contrées où tu poseras tes valises après avoir laissé une partie de toi derrière, garder ou pas la tête haute dans cette vallée de larmes où tu restes quand tes amis, tes frères, tes compatriotes partent par milliers, par centaines de milliers… Je suis parti, il y’a de cela des années maintenant. Pas vraiment par choix, pas vraiment contraint, j’avais l’impression de suivre un destin, le destin de ceux qui m’ont précédé, de ceux qui me suivront. Un départ est toujours compliqué à expliquer. Il comporte sa part de lumière et sa part d’ombre et le voyageur n’est pas toujours prêt à faire face à cette dualité. J’imagine que ceux qui restent ne sont pas non plus épargnés par la part d’ombre que ce pseudo-choix comporte également.

Cher lecteur, il est 2 heures du matin et je vois tes yeux qui se ferment déjà. Partant ou restant, tu baisses les armes face au vainqueur universel qu’est le sommeil. Tu aurais dû te le faire couler, ce café agrémenté d’une écorce d’orange. Des écorces, il en reste encore d’abordables au Liban, à défaut du fruit qu’elles sont supposées couvrir, mais elles feront l’affaire. Fais-le donc couler ce café, et trinquons. Attends! Avant, fais couler un filet de bourbon dedans, ça porte malheur de trinquer à la bibine édulcorée. Et trinquons donc. Buvons ce café de minuit à l’honneur de notre pays qui n’existe que depuis 1920 mais qui a été façonné tout au long de plus de six mille ans d’histoire, tout au long des millions d’histoires que ceux qui nous ont précédés se sont racontées et que ceux qui nous suivront se raconterons peut-être, il est permis d’espérer, autour d’un feu de bois ou d’une chandelle, ou un peu comme nous le faisons, autour d’un café agrémenté d’une écorce d’orange, par écrans interposés, mais partageant un fardeau qu’ils seront seuls à porter: du fond de cette nuit noire au bout de laquelle le soleil ne se lèvera peut-être pas, ils sont les uniques dépositaires de l’histoire d’un pays au bord de l’oubli, ils sont les seuls garants de sa continuité.

Alors cher lecteur, où que tu sois, fais que le soleil se lève au bout de la nuit.

A Salim

Let the board sound

Rabih

Cet article a été également publié dans les colonnes de L’Orient-Le Jour.

Une leçon d’échecs

1990, vers février ou mars. La dernière phase d’une guerre qui grondait depuis 15 ans. Dans la salle de séjour, entre deux sifflements d’obus, un papa, une paire de ciseaux à la main, découpait un bout de carton en petits confettis qu’il coloriait ensuite en noir ou en rouge. Ainsi émergèrent un roi, un fou, un cavalier. Un pion. Deux pions. Une tour. Un jeu d’échecs, avec les moyens du bord.

Photo by Hassan Pasha

C’était la partie la plus facile de l’initiative. Encore fallait-il apprendre les règles d’un jeu millénaire à deux enfants de 7 ou 8 ans. Et éviter une guerre civile à l’échelle de l’appartement puisqu’une partie de gagnée est également une partie de perdue de l’autre côté de l’échiquier. Tout dépend du point de vue. Noirs ou Rouges. Eux ou Nous. Chrétiens ou Musulmans, Maronites ou Druzes, Chiites ou Sunnites. Mais aussi Forces Libanaises, OLP, Force de dissuasion Arabe, Amal, Hezbollah, Aounistes, Marada, Mourabitoun, IDF, et j’en passe. Une pagaille sans nom qui aura duré 15 ans et six mois, ou plutôt, qui aura couté 150 000 morts, 100 000 blessés, 250 000 émigrés et un bon petit million de déplacés si l’on utilisait une unité de mesure plus adaptée que les mois et les années à l’ampleur de cette catastrophe.

Et au milieu de ce maelström, un papa, un jeu d’échecs qui tient dans une boite d’allumettes et deux enfants qui apprennent tant bien que mal qu’un roque vaut mieux qu’un massacre de reines dans cette vaste partie d’échecs qu’est la vie.

En conclusion, à tous ceux qui glorifient la guerre, qui font sa promotion, qui en font une solution pour déloger les dictateurs et libérer les peuples opprimés, allez vous faire pendre ailleurs. Ne connait vraiment la guerre que celui ou celle qui l’a vécue, et croyez-moi, pour en avoir vécu une, ce n’est la solution à aucun problème.

A bon entendeur.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Une dernière fois

Il est 1 heure du matin, l’heure des braves, l’heure des fous. Je me verse un verre de Ron, ce rhum ambré hors d’âge du Venezuela. Pour oublier peut-être. Venezuela, oh, Venezuela. L’un des rares pays qui fait mieux que toi sur l’index de la misère. Il n’y a pas vraiment de quoi pavoiser une fois que tu sais ce que mesure cet index. Tu me vois venir. Tu sais de quoi je vais encore te parler. Le dialogue de sourd habituel. On va ressortir de vieilles casseroles, ressasser de vieux dossiers. Nous allons finir par nous gueuler dessus, nous invectiver, par nous jeter des chaussures, des assiettes, des chaises. Comme d’habitude. Ça finira comme Waterloo pour l’empereur. Tu m’as tellement fait de mal, tu ne t’es jamais soucié de mon existence. Ce n’est pas faute d’avoir essayé d’accaparer ton attention. Rien n’y faisait. Tu étais toujours occupé par tes mondanités, par tes codes sociaux pourris, par ta vanité. Tu as tout foiré et tu t’en moques! Tu… Tu ne réponds pas?

“Non mon garçon. Pas cette fois. Je n’ai plus d’assiettes, plus de chaises. Plus de chaussures. On a tout vendu. Regarde autour de toi. Vois-tu autre chose que du blanc? Entends-tu autre chose que ce bip de mauvaise augure d’un messager de malheur? C’est vrai, tu es venu me dire tes quatre vérités, tu es venu me dire que tu t’en vas. Mais rends-toi compte, ce blanc, ce bip ce sont les urgences. Même pas. Ce sont les soins palliatifs. L’antichambre de la mort. Eh oui mon grand, je suis au bout du rouleau. Je n’en ai plus pour longtemps. Je meurs, dans l’indifférence générale. Les rares personnes qui prennent la peine de me rendre visite viennent déverser leur fiel et leur frustration pour mieux s’en aller. Comme toi.

Photo by Jo Kassis

Dieu sait combien j’ai fauté, combien je me suis fourvoyé dans des combines qui ne sont dignes ni de mon héritage ni de mes fils et mes filles. Et pourtant, l’aventure avait plutôt bien commencé. J’ai connu des heures plus glorieuses, c’est le moins qu’on puisse dire. Est-ce que je mérite ce destin peu enviable? Peut-être bien, j’en conviens, je n’ai rien fait pour m’en écarter, pour conjurer le sort, j’ai couru tête baissée dans ce piège grossier. Mais s’il y’a bien une chose que ma fierté de pacotille a pu t’instiller, c’est qu’on ne frappe pas un homme à terre. Regarde! J’ai un genou à terre, que dis-je, j’ai déjà le nez dans la poussière. Je suis même 6 pieds sous terre. Par pitié pour un mourant, arrête de me cracher dessus. Arrête de me maudire. Je suis déjà bien mal en point, à quoi sert de m’enfoncer encore plus?

Viens, assieds-toi au pied du lit. Donne-moi ta main et arrête de pleurer. Oui, je sais, ça secoue. On a beau craner, mais face à la mort d’un proche, on est bien plus humble. Ne te fais pas trop de soucis pour moi, je me suis fait à l’idée de mourir. Viens plutôt me serrer dans tes bras, profitons de ces moments qui nous restent, ils sont assez courts. Ne pleure pas je te dis! Ce n’est pas la peine. Ne me parle plus de remède miracle. Il n’y en a qu’un seul et je crains bien que son secret ne soit perdu pour de bon. Je le partage avec toi quand-même.

Je suis toi. Tu es moi.

Un pays n’est fait que de ses citoyens et de leurs vicissitudes. Tant qu’une poignée gardera le souvenir des jours meilleurs qui lui furent donnés, tant que l’un de ses fils, l’une de ses filles se souviendra de lui comme d’un père, tant que ses enfants feront honneur à la partie lumineuse de son héritage parce qu’il y’en a toujours une, alors il survivra, même si ce n’est qu’à travers leur mémoire. Alors de grâce, laisse-moi une chance…”

Let the board sound

And don’t forget to vote.

For the sake of your country.

Rabih

Cet article est également publié dans les colonnes de L’Orient Le Jour.

Against all odds

They are too strong, tool powerful for us mere mortals. They pledged allegiance to gods too vile, to masters too dark.

They have taken our jobs, our homes, our families, our dreams, and trashed them on the altar of Filth.

Photo by Jo Kassis

They have branded us with the shameful iron of the corrupt and we have thus become slaves to their corruption.

They have shattered us around the universe in a diaspora spanning 150 years and 5 continents.

They have driven us to wars we should not have fought, to endeavors we should have blushed with shame to even consider.

They?

You know them. Some are people indeed. But some, most, are daemons lurking in our souls, deep within. The worm is in the fruit sometimes. Many times. All the time.

All is not lost however, dear knights, for as long as you can find a spark of light in you to outgrow the darkness within, we stand a chance. A spark, that’s all it takes. Your loved ones. Childhood memories. Summers. A long-forgotten dream. Whatever brings a smile to your face, some tears to your eyes.

And we will prevail. We must prevail.

Against all odds.

Let the board sound

And don’t forget to vote

Rabih

On some folks

Behold.

A hardcore right-wing capitalist, very vocal on free enterprise and economic liberties, a bit too much to the taste of

a fellow hardcore left-wing socialist, desperately trying to bring this impenitent capitalist to his views and into atonement, but to no avail, taking solace in

another hardcore left-wing socialist steering so much to the left she sometimes closes the loop, ending up on the right, next to

a right-wing conservative minding her own business, and

an anarchist, minding his own business as well, distractedly listening to

a moderate left wing progressist, always agreeing to disagree with his conservative fellows, while

another moderate, right in the center of the political compass this time, is carefully listening to the argument and then doing as he pleases.

Oh, and me.

These folks do not share many features, apart from the fact that they are human, speak the same language and happen to exist in the same place and time. Oh, and they share a very active chat group over WhatsApp and have lunch together at least once a week and have been for years.

Photo by MissMushroom

It happens that they also share the same origins. All Lebanese, living abroad. You saw it coming did you not?

As you might or might not know, religion and confession are core defining attributes of one’s political and social self in this small country, at least in the eyes of the Lebanese State, and this group is a good enough representation of the Lebanese society from that respect: Sunni, Shia, Catholic, Orthodox. But also, believer, agnostic, on a quest. And even more than that:

Despite their very heated arguments over lunch or over chat, they do appreciate each other’s presence on the table and in the chat group, and they appreciate each other even more as people. In fact, they are quite good representatives of the Lebanese society from that respect as well. Yes, the same society which tore itself apart in a 15 year long civil war and is still struggling in the midst of one of the worst economic crisis ever.

Why? How? Well let me argue, at the risk of puzzling the audience, that the people in this country are naturally tolerant and well meant towards each other despite the war and the difficulties faced by their homeland. How can they not be when they amount to 18 communities still cohabiting in this small land and having been for centuries? Had they not had minimal social skills, the landscape would have been much more uniform I suppose. Let us just say that the tolerance they display to each other has sometimes extended to leaders who should have rather been shunned.

To be honest, I did not want this post to be about Lebanon and the Lebanese people specifically. I wanted it to be a nod to these seven folks who joyfully fuel their lunches and chat groups with their differences and idiosyncrasies. So here’s to you folks, you might recognize yourselves if you are reading me.

Let me know what you think in the WhatsApp chat. You know which one.

PS: who’s in for lunch on Friday?

Let the board sound

Rabih

Plaidoyer perdu d’avance

Votre honneur,

Je ne sais comment débuter cette plaidoirie, d’une part car je ne sais jamais comment en débuter une, d’autre part car le sujet que je souhaite plaider a été tellement rabâché que ça en est devenu le cliché le plus éculé de l’histoire moderne. Je tiens pourtant à rajouter sans prétention ma pierre à cet édifice auquel maints théoriciens de la chose publique et de la politique, tous bien plus éminents que moi, ont déjà contribué. Permettez-moi donc de m’adresser aux prévenus.

Prévenus. J’aborde ce sujet avec tellement de candeur, et je m’en rends compte, que je suis à deux doigts de lâcher ma plume par crainte du ridicule de ma position. Ou de la vôtre. Cela étant, c’est peut-être justement cette candeur qu’il vous faut, puisque vos interlocuteurs habituels et autres contradicteurs de circonstance sont tous sans exception des sherpas de la politique alambiquée et tordue de ce coin du monde. Expertise que je suis loin d’avoir, Dieu merci.

Allez. Candeur. Je me lance donc avec une première question plutôt candide vous en conviendrez:

Quand donc avez-vous fini par verser dans la prostitution?

Photo by Vadim Kaipov

Avant d’avoir vendu vos idéaux au plus offrant? Après les avoir perdus?

Avant de vous autoproclamer champions du socialisme et du progrès? Ou après, une fois que votre système féodal ait étouffé ce qui restait d’idéal chez vos ouailles?

A moins que ce ne soit avant d’avoir trahi la cause des déshérités? Après les avoir asservis à votre clientélisme, cette drogue dont dépendent aujourd’hui les enfants et petits-enfants de ceux qui n’avaient déjà rien? “Mais à celui qui n’a rien, cela même qu’il a lui sera ôté“. Je ne vous croyais pas si pratiquants, si pénétrés de la parole du Seigneur…

Quand donc avez-vous vendu votre vertu? Avant d’avoir renié le serment qui vous reliait à votre patrie? Après? Avant d’avoir vendu vos frères d’armes, ceux-là mêmes auprès de qui vous aviez juré de protéger le sol de votre partie, ceux-là mêmes dont votre serment vous rendait responsable? Ou après avoir baisé la main du maître de ce monde, le fauteuil du pouvoir?

Avant d’avoir pris les armes? Après avoir abandonné vos études, vos vocations? Au cours de vos luttes fratricides qui ont laissé sur le carreau tant de vos frères, de vos alliés? A partir de quel assassinat l’innocence de votre âme à-t’elle péri?

Au bout de combien de sesterces avez-vous réussi à changer d’allégeance? Combien d’expropriés, combien de pauvres hères conduits à la banqueroute aura-t-il fallu pour anesthésier votre conscience? Combien de fois avez-vous dû courber l’échine, combien de mains, de pieds avez-vous dû baiser pour toucher les piécettes qui vous sont aujourd’hui refusées ?

Quand donc avez-vous décidé d’oublier la piété de vos parents, les préceptes de votre prophète, le dieu de vos maîtres spirituels, celui que vous aviez juré de prier, de servir, pour vous tourner vers d’autres idoles, celles du pouvoir armé, celles de la corruption du pauvre peuple, celles des alliances opportunes et opportunistes?

N’êtes-vous pas revenus à la raison quand le destin vous a éprouvés dans votre chair? N’avez-vous pas ressenti l’urgence de vous racheter quand vos pères, vos frères ont été assassinés par une main sans honneur et sans nom? Quand vos fils ont péri sous les balles? Quand vous avez été bannis, quand vous avez connu la flétrissure de l’exil, de la fuite, la damnation de la prison, le poison de la calomnie? Quand la maladie vous a rongés?

Il fut un temps où vous aviez sans doute d’autres ambitions, d’autres valeurs que celles qui vous font tourner aujourd’hui. Vous étiez nés dans des familles humbles, dans des villages montagneux, des banlieues populaires. Rappelez-vous de cette époque. Puis les premières compromissions, avec vous-mêmes d’abord, petit coup de canif à vos idéaux d’alors, puis, de coup d’épée en coup de sabre, vous êtes devenus les apôtres sans vergogne de démons immémoriaux: la guerre, le pouvoir. La corruption.

Vous êtes trop puissants pour le commun des mortels, on ne peut plus vous atteindre. Vous avez le monopole des armes, du pouvoir, de l’argent. Et surtout la capacité, que dis-je, la malédiction d’accaparer les âmes des pauvres gens qui voient en vous la seule lueur d’espoir et qui sont nombreux à se damner pour consolider votre emprise sur ce qui reste de ce pays, de ce peuple. Vous servez des dieux trop vils, des maîtres trop sombres.

Vous pouvez toujours inverser le cours des choses et éviter de finir dans les poubelles de l’histoire. Faites-le pour la mémoire de vos pères. Faites-le pour laisser autre chose que des dettes infamantes, un héritage qui jette un peu moins l’opprobre sur votre nom. Et si cela ne vous parle pas, faites-le pour faire la Une des journaux. Pour vous refaire une virginité. Pour pouvoir vous regarder dans une glace sans vous cracher dessus, que sais-je! Mais faites-le vite car bientôt, il ne restera plus grand monde pour chanter vos louanges en ce bas monde. Et ne comptez pas trop sur l’au-delà pour vous couvrir de lauriers…

Je n’ai rien à rajouter à cette plaidoirie votre honneur.

Let the board sound

Rabih

Cet article est également publié dans les colonnes de L’Orient-Le Jour.

Lettre à une amie

Chère amie,

Je t’écris ces lignes sans trop savoir où elles nous mèneront, sans trop savoir pourquoi je prends la plume. Il est une heure treize du matin. Je n’ai ni la clarté des idées ni l’assurance du verbe qui légitimeraient un titre à cette missive, en introduction aux lignes qui devraient ou auraient dû en découler. Nous coucherons donc ces lignes ensembles, à la faveur d’une inspiration que le silence de la nuit, un verre de cognac et quelques souvenirs douloureux sans doute, joyeux peut-être, marquants sûrement, se chargeront de favoriser, pour donner corps à une diatribe, qui, j’espère, ne s’éparpillera pas trop. Mais il me semble que je m’éparpille déjà…

Il fut un temps, pas si lointain, où je n’étais pour toi qu’un inconnu de plus qui, débarquant à Roissy en ce 20 septembre, venait quémander une place au soleil. Le voyage ne fut pas des plus reposants: un aller simple, un retard de huit heures à Athènes et une arrivée mouvementée à la Maison des Elèves de Telecom Paris, Maisel pour les initiés.

Il m’aura fallu trois mois pour t’apprivoiser, Ô rouleau compresseur exquis. Que de jours n’ai-je savouré ta beauté sublime tout en subissant l’écrasante tyrannie de ton rythme. Que de fois, du haut de mon balcon au huitième ne me suis-je retrouvé la nuit à murmurer ces quelques mots de Baudelaire, cette incantation au Vieux Capitaine, cette injonction à lever l’ancre. Non pas pour fuir l’ennui mais pour mieux succomber à l’appel du vieux pays, à la tentation de plier bagage pour revenir à ma zone de confort, suicide symbolique de l’immigré raté, risée des siens pensais-je à l’époque, mais suicide Ô combien réel aujourd’hui, à l’aune des évènements de ces deux dernières années que rien ne laissait présager à l’époque.

Au bout de ces trois mois donc, point de vieux capitaine, encore moins d’ancre. Ce fut le coup de foudre réciproque, l’amour qui dure encore. Des hauts et des bas, nous en aurons pourtant eu, mais les départs fracassants auront toujours été suivis de retours, jamais de regrets. Je t’en aurai préféré d’autres, j’en aurai même courtisé quelques-unes, orientales, saxonnes, tu m’auras fait subir les rigueurs de ton tempérament, le feu de ta rébellion.

Car tu es rebelle chère amie. Tu as un caractère bien trempé dirai-je, si je voulais faire dans la dentelle ou l’euphémisme. Un caractère de chien si je prenais un ton plus familier pour cet article. Et pourquoi pas au fait? Je le dis donc, haut et fort: à bas la dentelle. Je concède pour autant que tu auras dû bien des fois composer avec mes humeurs massacrantes. Et mon Spleen …, tu auras dû te faire violence pour le souffrir.

Un couple comme un autre. L’un suit, l’autre se laisse suivre, les rôles s’inversent, et puis c’est le coup de foudre, l’état de grâce, jusqu’au rappel des troupes, cette réalité où l’on fait véritablement la connaissance de l’autre, et suite à laquelle tout passe ou tout casse. Tout est finalement passé.

Tu as fini par avoir raison de mon Spleen, j’ai fini par apprivoiser ton caractère. Je t’aime encore, non plus d’un amour éclatant et fougueux qui veut dominer, façonner à sa guise, mais d’une amitié douce qui réchauffe le cœur. Je t’ai tout donné, tu m’as tout donné: je ne suis plus un inconnu de plus pour toi, tu m’as adopté comme l’un des tiens et pour cela, je te suis à jamais reconnaissant.

Mais au bout de toutes ces années, une petite flamme vacillante brille toujours dans mon cœur. Celle d’une mère patrie vieillissante que j’ai laissée derrière pour suivre mon destin. Une mère patrie qui perd la santé, qui perd la raison, mais dont le cœur bat toujours, dont le cœur à défaut de la tête, se rappelle encore et toujours ce fils parti il y’a des années mais qui revient de temps en temps prendre des nouvelles.

Chère amie, souviens-toi, tu fus sa marraine à une époque pas si lointaine, elle fut rebelle aussi, à sa façon, il y eut des hauts et des bas… Aujourd’hui plus que jamais, ta filleule a besoin d’amis. De vrais amis. Elle a besoin d’espoir, elle a besoin d’un phare, d’une lumière dans les ténèbres. Pour l’amour de Dieu, ne te renie pas, ne la renie pas, sois cette lumière, ce phare, reste ce flambeau de civilisation qui éclaire le monde, garde le cap pour elle quand d’aucuns qui se prétendent de ses amis l’auront d’ores et déjà perdu, quand d’autres ne l’auront jamais eu.

Reste Libre, Egale, Fraternelle, et garde dans ton cœur la nostalgie d’un Liban meilleur et le Liban vivra…

Bien à toi douce France

Rabih

Cet article est également publié dans les colonnes de L’Orient-Le Jour

On an old picture

I wrote a couple of posts on Lebanon recently, back to back, and it drained me out. I’ve never been good at managing sorrow or anger. So I thought I would write about something else for a change. And then I saw this long-forgotten picture on social media…

It was taken 27 years ago. A class of 12-year-old kids. People with whom I would be graduating some years later. It had been forgotten in the digital meanders of the Internet for the past 12 years. And you know what, I am going to write about it. Because I miss these days. Because I miss these people. Because they have all succeeded in their careers and most now have lovely families and beautiful kids, and because very few remain in Lebanon. Our new home countries are called France, Belgium, the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Nigeria or Dubai.

Those were the days of innocence; we were a thousand miles away from realizing what would be hitting us later. We were in a window where the civil war was behind and the future ahead, and boy what a bright future it could have been in the eyes of 12-year-old kids who were just out of childhood. Alas, time flew and with it our childhood dreams, trampled by Corruption and the Corrupt.

I want to write about this lost time where despite the challenges we faced in becoming who we are, we could still think that “everything will be fine” eventually.

But first and foremost, I want to write these few lines to fulfill a promise I made yesterday to a friend in this picture. A friend I had lost from sight more than a decade ago. A guy true to himself and to his origins, “droit dans ses bottes” as we would say around here.

So here’s to you my childhood friends,

to Antoine, Amira, Rita, Jinane, Cynthia, Diala, Youmna, Cynthia, Janine, Patricia, Joanna, Sarah, Ralph, Rony, Rashdan, Ryan, Mario, Fadi, Eddy, Michel, Ziad, Bachir, Rami, Fouad, Rami, Nada, Chadi, Rami, Christine, Zeina, Wassim, Hady, Hanane, Maha, Mirna, Maya, who all appear in the picture,

to those who do not, those I might have missed and the merry fellows who would join us later, over the years,

to our friends in other classes but on the same boat,

to those who taught us, to Marianne, in the picture as well, to Marie-Louise and Samir who reacted to the picture much to my delight, to Jean-Sebastien, may he rest in peace, and to many more, to you we owe a part of who we are today, thank you.

And to Chadi. Buddy, I promised I would post something for you to read when you are on call in the cold Belgian fall, unless you catch Wi-Fi where you are right now…

Let the board sound

Rabih

PS: I will not post the picture here due to obvious image rights. The school landmark should be good enough, right?

PPS: How about a reunion in the coming months? It’s been at least ten or twelve years since the last one…

On becoming comfortably numb

1:00 AM, somewhere in France.

Pink Floyd playing in the background, and I, wrapping up my previous post before publishing it. Comfortably Numb. Or Confortablement engourdi since we are somewhere in France. A masterpiece of progressive rock if you ask me. And by the time David Gilmour was kicking his haunting second guitar solo, hell was breaking loose in a sunny Levantine country which until then thought it had struck a golden deal with time… The post was nearing the end. You probably read it a couple of days ago.

We ended up believing that judgment day would never come…

Fools…

Hell broke loose on a Tuesday evening at 6:07 PM local time, when 2750 metric tons of unaccounted for and ill-stored Ammonium Nitrate went off in the port of Beirut in what would be later described as one of the largest artificial non-nuclear blasts in history, obliterating significant parts of the capital and causing 218 deaths, more than 7000 injuries and making thousands of people homeless.

I will not dwell on the causes. There is rant all over the place on the criminal carelessness of Lebanese officials or the endemic corruption undermining the country, including in some of my previous posts.

However, I cannot help but notice that the story leading to the disaster had been unfolding in broad daylight in the previous years, in general indifference. You know, the story on how 2750 tons of an explosive substance made it to a warehouse in the port of Beirut from an odd ship which would later sink in the port itself without anyone taking notice. “A ship? What ship?

Weirdly enough, you can find hundreds of documented stories, news and articles on the port of Beirut and its tales over the past 7 or 8 years, from stories on customs seizing anything between 3.6 million Captagon pills and 20 smuggled iPhones to information on the port revenue, year in, year out. You can even find articles on the customs fight against corruption. Ha ha.

But not a hint about the elephant in the room: A 284 feet long cargo ship, the Rhosus MV.

Stranded there since 2013, abandoned by its Russian or Cypriot owners who allegedly went bankrupt, owning the port of Beirut more that 100 000 US dollars in accruing unpaid fees, with 2750 tons of a potentially explosive substance on board, and which ended up SINKING in the port, on its own, in February 2018, out of lack of maintenance, after its load had been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities and stored in one of the port warehouses a few years earlier.

And nothing either on the six warnings formally issued by customs and port officials to the (not so) competent authorities about the danger presented by the substance stored at the port, in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. It unraveled too late, a couple of days after the disaster…

OK. For the sake of argument, let us put aside the warnings, the explosive substance in the ship or out of it, the Russian owner and those behind him. And maybe even the port administration and customs, or especially those actually, and the hidden hand behind. Maybe these factors and actors were not so obvious. Maybe they were out of reach because we were too busy finding a place in the sun. Or surviving. Or not in the details of an opaque administration, and its corrupting volutes let us say. Or too afraid, standing to loose too much. Too exposed.

Or maybe they were out of reach because of our acute intellectual laziness, and God knows how much of that we have to spare.

But a ship sinking in plain sight in the port of Beirut?

How did we manage to overlook that?

How could have we become so numb?

So comfortably numb?

Hello? Is there anybody in there?

Let the board sound

Rabih

On a bookshop where time stood still

There was a bookshop on the corner of Rue Saint Jacques and Rue Soufflot in the 5th arrondissement of the capital. That’s somewhere between the Panthéon and the Jardin du Luxembourg for those who have yet to visit the city of light.

It was one of those places where time seemed to have stopped. Or more like a place where time would sit back and share a glass of Porto with the owner. Yes, Porto, because that’s what the owner would be having. The man was somewhat old, but time had a tendency to relax itself in the bookshop, so I could never really tell. He seemed to be of Levantine origins, but again, I could not say for sure. His bookshop was open seven days a week. He had all the time in the world.

We would pay a visit from time to time, usually on Sundays, spending some time looking for books, or records more often than not, before hitting the Soufflot street down to the Luxembourg garden. Part of the tradition, informally agreed but strongly enforced, was to share a glass of Porto with the owner as time stood still. The ritual came to be when he realized we were Levantines too, although the subject was never brought up and our country of origin never had any place in the conversation. Very few words were ever spoken actually. Out of concern for Time taking a nap in the background maybe, who knows…

And one day, a Sunday as usual, we found the bookshop closed. It would never open again. We did not see it coming…

As it happens to be, I come from a country which, like the bookshop, seemed to have struck a deal with Time. Living there was kind of easy despite all the problems rooted in the after-war Lebanese way of being. Kind of, because we knew deep down inside that we were living on borrowed time but still, it seemed as if the passage of time would never bring forward the mayhem one would normally expect for a country eaten by corruption to an extent you could only try to imagine. Talking of a deal…

And so, things kept on rolling just fine in this sunny Levantine country and every day came with its glass of Porto to enjoy. We ended up believing that judgment day would never come. And indeed, we did not see it coming.

Hell broke loose on a Tuesday evening.

Time was up.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On revolution

Dear Revolutionary

Wherever you are, you would be glad to know that Revolution today is a word on everyone’s lips in a small country on the verge of oblivion in the middle east.

Photo by Joe Kassis

According to your fellow Lebanese revolutionaries, revolution is the only way forward, the last chance for their homeland. I can hear that. For many of those, “religion and religious affiliation are the mothers of all disasters happening to this country”. Not a very surprising point of view for a country where 18 sects representing a little north of 4 million people are trying to cohabit for better or worse, without too much bloodshed.

For many others, “we need to burn everything at the stake and rebuild the country from scratch”. 

So what’s the plan? How will you pull it off? With what would you rebuild it? With revolutionary ideals or whatever that is you had been daydreaming about in your long and boring calculus classes back when a US dollar was still worth 1507 Lebanese liras, and which you think you can put to action now that the country is ready for them? 

No my friend, you need resources to rebuild a country. Dollars that is.  And fresh. Don’t go burning these…

You also need people on your side and guess what, most people in Lebanon still define themselves by the religion or sect to which they are affiliated, and this reality cannot just be canceled by slogans like “religion is evil”. Besides, regardless of your own opinion, dismissing religious affiliation in the political arena and the people who hold on to it is a complete disregard to a majority of Lebanese who, like you and me, want the best for their kids, their families, their communities and yes, their country, believe it or not. They just have not read Marx yet, or whoever got you and me on the revolution track in the first place, and probably never will. Irreconcilable differences you could say, except divorce is not an option if you want to rebuild the country. 

I guess what I am trying to say is that building a country on the premise of religious affiliation is probably not a good idea but disposing of a country because it is built on such premises sounds a bit over the edge. Yes, some things must go, but some things are good enough to stay. And some just cannot go, because people are not ready to let them go, or because it would be too high a price to pay.

So how about finding common ground, a common project for the Lebanese and their country which transcends religion affiliation? I am sure that if we brainstorm for 15 minutes, we can come up with a couple of ideas worth starting with. They can be around Lebanese international influence through the expatriates network. Imagine what could lie behind such an idea with regards to the current sclerotic citizenship law, the expatriates voting rights and the Lebanese diplomacy in general. They can be around the environment and becoming an energy independent country. We have sun, we have water, we have brains. They can be around becoming an education and research regional hub once again. Or about becoming a health regional hub again. More than a regional hub actually, and why not. Any or all of these. Ideas which have nothing to do with pointing fingers and finding scapegoats. Stuff around which people can gather.

We need new blood to uphold these ideas of course, not the old guard currently in place and in this sense, I cannot agree more to a revolution. However,

Dear Revolutionary

One last thing, before the board sounds. I can hear frustration in you. I can hear it in me. I might even hear hate. And there is but a tiny step between frustration and hating your country and many of your fellow Lebanese which you hold responsible for the great collapse. It is easy to blame those you deem to be bigots or extremists or immoral vicious scum or whatever you want to call them when the real enemy is lurking behind. You know it, you’ve known it all your life. It transcends race, sex and religion, bigots, extremists and scum. 

Dear Revolutionary

Corruption is the opium of the people. Corruption is the enemy.

Fight corruption. 

Heal people.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On an old friend

I met him many years ago. I was new in town and like most people missing home, I would go there looking for, I don’t know, solace, or maybe memories. I found this old piano instead. 

He was sitting in a corner of the western lounge in the Lebanese parish of Our Lady of Lebanon in Paris. He seemed old, very old. Very lonely too. I would sit next to him with a cup of coffee, no words spoken, just two lonely beings in the cold Parisian winter.

Most old timers like him do not speak much. They have been long forgotten and very few people actually care to hear their stories, but you see, a piano still has a soul as long as he can sing. So one day, I thought I would start a conversation. I lifted the lid, tried to play a few notes. And boy was I surprised when I found out. 

He was a Pleyel.

Photo by Rabih

It might not mean much to many, but if you are a piano enthusiast, the name must have sparked some excitement. A vintage Pleyel to other pianos is like a vintage Ford Mustang to other cars: it cannot rival the modern day Aventadors or other Veyrons and R8s in performance, and maybe not even the 21st century version of itself, but it still has an aura and an appeal that eclipse more recent muscle cars and Italian prancing horses. At least in the eyes of a certain breed of car enthusiasts. 

But back to Pleyels and what makes their legend. Or who actually: Chopin for one. Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin himself played them almost exclusively. The Grande Valse Brillante was most probably composed on a Pleyel. The Fantaisie-Impromptu as well. His Nocturnes in B flat major were even dedicated to Marie Pleyel, wife of Camille Pleyel, owner of Pleyel & Cie. Following his footsteps, Saint-Saëns, Ravel and Debussy were also known to compose on Pleyel pianos. 

But as far as my new acquaintance is concerned, there is more to it than famous composers. What really made the legend of this piano to me is a tie it has to a country now on the verge of oblivion. 

This particular piano was born in 1913 according to his serial number and his birth certificate which I could find in the Pleyel & Cie archives, digitized by the Museum of Music in 2009 and made available online. I found another interesting information in these archives, on the same page: he had three brothers, three Pleyel pianos, n° 159937, 160328 and 160329 who were manufactured around the same time and shipped to Beirut in 1913 on the 12th of April and the 22nd of May, to a Mr. Wadia Sabra. Who happens to be the composer of the Lebanese national anthem and the founder of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music if the name does not ring a bell. The father of Lebanese art music or musique savante.

From then on, my piano friend also became a distant cousin: three of his Pleyel brothers settled in Lebanon and taught generations of Lebanese musicians the basics of music at the Conservatory. As for him, God knows what journey led him to retire in a Lebanese parish in Paris, down from good old Brittany and his first owners back in 1913, the Gauvu and sons house in Saint Brieuc. I tried to uncover the full story but to no avail, the Gauvu house seeming to have closed its doors before the dawning of the Internet age. I like to think he felt homesick to a country he had never really seen but only knew about from the postcards his brothers would send him from time to time… And decided to retire to it in a way. For many years, I sought professional advice on restoring it and pulling it out of retirement and into a real home but as time went by, I came to understand that some things are just meant to be the way they are. And although this piano is very old and very tired, he bears a name and a hidden story which make him part of a legend no illness or aging should take away. Hence this post.


If you happen to be in Paris, feeling lonely, and having some time to spare, I think you would enjoy a cup of coffee with him. I can imagine how it could have worked for Sabra when he was in Paris in 1922. He could have met him. He might have. The Pleyel was only nine years old then…

Let the board sound

Rabih

On coming back for good

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir, coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s’écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours : Allons !
Charles Baudelaire

People sometimes ask me if I’m ever coming back. Like for good. 
Most if not all of them are Lebanese and the question is usually rhetoric. Something you ask to keep the conversation going. To break the ice. And to that I usually have two or three interchangeable answers like “For sure!” or “Nah, don’t think so” or “Dunno man, it’s complicated” depending on the person asking and how much appetite I have for more rhetoric chitchat. 
But sometimes, the question begs for real answers. Reassuring answers actually. Your grandmother needs to hear that she will not remain heartbroken forever. Or your friends contemplating the road you took want to hear that leaving and coming back are two sides of the same coin, or maybe that they are not. And to that I usually come up with a diplomatic one-size-fits-all answer, because there is no point in making people sad or keeping them hanging, especially grandmothers, for the true answer is not a simple yes or no. 
You see, if you have lived in another country for months, a couple of years, or maybe a bit more, you might still be talking about coming back. But once you’ve been there long enough, “coming back” starts to sound like “leaving” to your ears and boy has it already been hard the first time.
Think of it in terms of investment: the time and effort you put into learning a language, calibrating yourself to new social norms, building a career, a network, making friends, getting yourself a home, feeling at home, securing an education for your children. The time you spent learning to like a country and its countrymen, even love them. As the list goes on, you are less eager to let go and besides, you had already done it once when you left what was your home country a long time ago.
Think of it in terms of commitment. Whether out of love or reason, this new country is now yours and you his, for better or worse, till death do you part as they say. And you do not get off a marriage unscathed.
That is my point. There is no leaving and coming back, there is leaving and then leaving once more.
But then again, when you think of it in terms of heartache if such a thing is even possible, you realize how great a deal of your life you left behind when you moved overseas, including parents, friends, memories and even food, and how your heart aches for it, how you crave it more than anything.
Breakfasts outside with thyme mana’ich, labne and thick Lebanese coffee, evenings with friends playing cards, dining or relaxing with a beer watching the world cup from a terrace on the heights of Beirut, while the sun sets on the Mediterranean and the fishermen’s boats start lighting like fireflies in the sea, …” as I put it in a previous post.
The true answer? 
Few people would understand that you can love a country with all your heart and care for it even if you left it long ago in the pursuit of some kind of fulfillment, even if you would not come back for good, especially if you do not come back for good. And that this love is heartbreaking.
That if you do come back to the country of your ancestors, eager and joyful as you are, you are still leaving a part of you behind, in another country you learned to cherish, and that it can be devastating.
That leaving is seldom a reversible process and that there is no such thing as coming back to the way it was before, that this 16 year long stint is not just a bracket in your life you can close at will and that there is no right or wrong answer to the problem.
– So do you ever think of coming back for good? – I do. More than you think.- And will you? 
Well, can I take the wound of another separation? One is not enough already? But for Lebanon, maybe… 
So I always end up saying “God knows Grandma, God knows…” as I walk the thin thread between the love of my life and my life’s true love, my heart silently longing for both. 

For France, 

For Lebanon.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On heartache and Lebanese summers

Two countries, both dear to my heart. One which chose me and one which I chose. One where I came to life and one where my children were born. One which gave me the words and one the means to speak them out. Lebanon who gave me birth and France who adopted me. 

One I owe to my parents and one I bequeath to my children. 

One which is alive and well. And one which is poor, homeless, sick. And dying. Lebanon is dying people. Not in a bed, not in an intensive care unit. In the street. In general indifference. 

And yet, there are Lebanese facets worth saving. I can name at least one: Lebanese summers. Not just the season but Lebanon in summer as a whole experience. 

Photo by Charles Assaf

Breakfasts outside with thyme mana’ich, labne and thick Lebanese coffee, evenings with friends playing cards, dining or relaxing with a beer watching the world cup from a terrace on the heights of Beirut, while the sun sets on the Mediterranean and the fishermen’s boats start lighting like fireflies in the sea, leaving the city on Friday nights to spend the weekend in the family village but still going back to Beirut on Saturday night for a drink, a diner, a shisha, anything as long as the gang is around and then stopping at 5AM at the Sea Sweet, Douaihi or Hallab pastry shops for a sweet knefeh on the way back to the village for the traditional Sunday family lunch, afternoons at the seaside, after-works at the seaside, evening walks in downtown Beirut, the smell of pinewood, the screeching of grasshoppers, the clear blue skies in the day and the stars shining for you in the evenings. And the sunsets…

I have a secret yet childish wish itching me from time to time: If only I had the financial means of a Jeff or an Elon, I could buy back the country’s debt, tear it away and bring back summer for good… would it not be nice…

But on other times, I feel the country is beyond saving. It has been through too many ordeals. Maybe trying to save it amounts to unreasonable obstinacy…

And when I am sobering up in between, I know there is one thing we Lebanese people can do: thrive to make Lebanon survive through his sons and daughters so that people judge the country not by what they see in the news but by what his children convey to them.

So here I am, Lebanese, French, sharing ideas in English and hoping to make a difference.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On Lebanon reaching an all-time low and a pinch of hope. Or not…

Or how on earth has Lebanon managed to fall short of the podium on the Misery Index.

Yes dear readers, there is a misery index which classifies countries based on a misery score. Without getting into the details of how the score is computed, top of the list is the most miserable country in the world. Lebanon made it to number 4 in 2020, out of 156 nations covered by the index. Only Venezuela, Zimbabwe and Sudan are faring better as numbers 1, 2 and 3. 

Photo by djedj


It must sound surreal to most Lebanese people who are still trying to fathom what hit them: The first default on Lebanese sovereign debt in history, the mass destruction and losses stemming from the sixth largest artificial non-nuclear explosion in history, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing Syrian conflict and its ramifications taking their toll on the country, all on top of the structural weaknesses of the Lebanese economy and political system. It takes less than that to bring a country to its knees.
From all the causes above, there is one which could explain at least two others: the structural weaknesses of the Lebanese economy and political system. And the corruption within.

The solution on paper seems straightforward. And very unattainable, like only a straightforward solution can be: a new political system and social contract to restore confidence in the Lebanese economy and currency, which would encourage foreign investment, unblock international aid and allow some leverage in the debt restructuring negotiations with creditors. Although this statement is true in essence, it does not sound like a plan. It sounds more like a slogan. A Manifest at best. I mean, where would you even start… 

We could spend countless hours debating on the abysmal trade deficit, the record debt to GDP ratio and the huge toll that debt servicing is taking on the country revenue, the artificial peg of the Lebanese Pound to the US Dollar and the opaque policies of the central bank, or the decline of the remittance share in the GDP as Lebanese expatriates are struggling  with the COVID-19 pandemic and other crisis.

We could also debate on the political system in Lebanon which consists roughly of two sides, each backed by different international players with conflicting interests and how this will not change in the near future, or the far one for that matters, because the people who can make it change are too busy surviving to vote a majority of the 128 MPs out of parliament. 

Hope as far as I am concerned, lies in some of the economic forces at large and with the Lebanese diaspora. The latter is obvious. Lebanese living abroad have always sent remittance back to Lebanon, either to invest in real estate, benefit from artificially attractive interest rates on deposits or to support their families, and they will keep sending remittance. Not for the same reasons perhaps but it will still amount to something.

Economic forces at large are successful companies with ties to Lebanon or which could have a presence in the country, and which make most of their revenue abroad and hence are less sensitive, if at all, to the Lebanese economic situation. If such companies operated part of their processes from Lebanon, they would provide great benefits to the local economy by creating jobs and value and still benefit from an offshore legal status provided by law, which offers tremendous flexibility from a legal standpoint and many tax incentives. They would also benefit from a less expensive and highly skilled workforce. They will obviously have to put up with the unstable political situation, the run-down economy and the challenges which come with them but I still believe a business case can be made, especially if the company has ties to Lebanon: a Lebanese founder or shareholder, a historic presence in the country, etc.
Some examples I can think of:

  • A software editor which operates its quality department from Lebanon, with minimal requirements to run production: A bit of electricity and an internet link. Servers can be hosted anywhere in the world, revenue is made abroad for the most part and there are no stocks to worry about.
  • IT consultancies which operate on IT projects in the Gulf region, Turkey, Greece, etc. and which can base their client support activities in Lebanon. Similar business case, all they needs is electricity, internet connections and brains.
  • Companies in any field externalizing their call centers to Lebanon. They need people who speak foreign languages and Lebanon is in no shortage of them. So far.

All the examples above are real and are still operating in Lebanon. The software editor has been assessing the quality of its software in Lebanon for 25 years and has since put in place a consultancy department in the country serving the region and moved part of its production chain there. It still makes the bulk of its revenue abroad but caters for around 600 Lebanese families. The IT consultancies have been around for about 10 years now and still make the bulk of their revenues abroad. The externalized call center was set up in January 2021 and this last example brings a lot of hope to me: companies with no specific ties to Lebanon still choose to invest in the country and sees value in it and its workforce even after its economy has fell apart.

In conclusion, the idea here is to call out on men and women (and companies) of good will who can still see value in Lebanon, who can identify win-win business cases in operating part of their cost centers from Lebanon and who are willing to take a chance on this country, knowing they have a cheat code to enhance their chances of success in the game: they are part of the solution.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On basic economic education

I am not an economist by any stretch of the word. And for a long time, I had no clue about basic economic subjects, everyday stuff really. Like where do banks get the money to remunerate my saving account. Or what is backing up the currency I use everyday, what is it that gives it value. Gold in a vault somewhere at the central bank would it seem. Or would it? I actually had no clue that I had no clue, things were working the way they were and there was no need to ask questions. Until I started asking myself questions. And I found out that understanding these concepts is important. I should have been taught that at school, very early on. Would you not agree?

So where do banks get the money to remunerate saving account? If you deposit money at the bank and the bank pays you interest on it, it must be getting the money somewhere else to pay you. It is in fact lending the money you deposited to people or institutions who need financing and making them pay interest on the loan. Car loan, housing loan, personal loan, you name it. The difference between the rate at which the bank remunerate your deposit and the rate it charges on the loans makes out its profit. Pretty simple right?
Here’s a mind twister then. Where does the bank store its money? In a vault you could argue, and you would be right to a certain extent. After all, automatic teller machines at any given branch of the bank dispense cash out of a secure mini vault. But the bulk of money at the bank disposal at any given time is digital. A number on an account in a given currency, and treated exactly as you would treat your money: most of it is sitting on an account at the bank, and very little in your pockets. Realizing this opens up a whole new dimension of questions you could ask yourself. If the accounts under your name are sitting at your local bank, then where are the accounts holding your local bank’s money? “At your local bank” sounds like a reasonable enough answer, but think again. If you want to check your balance, you would log into your bank online page, enter a username and password and access your account. It is not in an Excel file on your laptop. It is quite similar for a bank, its accounts are held at another bank, the correspondent bank. For instance, a European bank which domestic currency is the Euro has Euro accounts opened at the central bank, which are remunerated just like any other interest baring account. It may also have US Dollars accounts held at US correspondent banks or Pound Sterling accounts at a UK correspondent bank. 
At this point, you might start to suspect how the United States can enforce fiscal policies like the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) to actors who do not fall under US authority. Given that any bank in the world accesses US Dollars through a US correspondent bank, barring US financial institutions from engaging in business with a European bank for instance practically prevents the European bank from engaging in any economic activity which basis is the US Dollar. It cannot initiate payment instructions in USD to its US correspondent bank and cannot receive USD amounts on its account. Given the prominence of the US Dollar on international markets, such a bank is essentially prevented from operating all along.
But then, why do banks want access to foreign currencies like the US Dollar or the Euro in the first place? Another way of putting it is why do central banks keep foreign currencies reserves? One of the main reasons is to allow themselves the means to protect the local domestic currency. Here’s an example: the central bank of Lebanon was keeping the Lebanese Pound in a strict peg to the US Dollar since 1997, maintaining an FX rate of 1507.5 LBP per USD. To achieve this, whenever the FX rate moved out of the peg target rate in favor of the USD, the bank would pump US Dollars in the markets, providing a higher supply of this currency, thus reducing its price and bringing the FX rate back to the target peg value. A pure supply versus demand mechanism to make it simple.
If foreign currency reserves get scarce, the central bank can always try to scrub Lebanese Pounds out of the market in an effort to decrease supply of LBP, since it cannot increase the USD supply anymore. It does so by increasing the remuneration rate on LBP accounts it is holding. This incentivizes commercial banks operating in the Lebanese markets to put more Lebanese Pounds in their accounts at the central bank, and to trickle this policy down to their individual customers by increasing the rates at which they remunerate customer accounts in LBP. The difference between this rate and the rate at which the central bank remunerates the banks accounts in LBP makes the operation very profitable to commercial banks at the expense of minimal risk it would seem.
The downside of such a policy is that it does not provide incentives for commercial banks to finance the real economy. Instead of lending money deposited with them to entrepreneurs, potential house owners, or students in need of financing, they deposit it at the central bank and gets “free” remuneration on it.What actually happened in Lebanon was that commercial banks started offering remuneration rates of  up to 18% on Lebanese Pound denominated accounts. This means that the central bank of Lebanon was offering commercial banks an even higher remuneration on their accounts. Obviously, no company or business yields net margins of 18%, and no individual can sustain a loan with such high interest rates, which meant that the banks did not have any incentive to finance businesses or sell mortgages, freezing the Lebanese economy in effect. 
The Lebanese economy of the 2020s is a large topic which I will probably tackle in a separate post. One last question though: How is money created? Some say it is “printed”, which is also true to a certain extent. We do use bank notes and they have to be printed somewhere. But the bulk of created money is actually digital: the central bank being the sole actor in a country’s economy to have the privilege to create money, it does so by buying financial assets like sovereign bonds from commercial banks, and crediting their accounts with an amount of money coming out of thin air. As simple as that.
The takeaway of this story is to run whenever someone offers you interest rates which are too good to be true: they are not. Had Lebanese people learnt the mechanisms behind some of the facts above as kids and understood a bit better how an economy works, they would have probably avoided stacking all their net worth in LBP saving accounts to get 18% returns. Too good to be true. 
In conclusion, I would like to make a case for basic economic education at schools, starting at a relatively young age because it would seem that many if not most people do not understand many of the economic concepts behind many aspects of every day life. Like the nature of money and interest rates or the basic operating model of a bank. And knowing that is of paramount importance, there’s just too much at stake. 

You know how a car works, so why would you not know how a bank works?

Let the board sound

Rabih

A proxy to the rather opaque USD/LBP unofficial rate

In the aftermath of the default of the Lebanese government on its debt on March 19th in 2020, the Lebanese pound reached abysmal lows versus the US dollar. Up to that point, the Lebanese government, or more precisely the Banque du Liban, had always followed a policy of strict pegging of the local currency to the US dollar, at a rate of 1507.5 LBP for a Dollar, to instill confidence that investments, typically in bonds, will retain their purchasing power in US dollars when they mature. This rate had been constant since 1997. The Lebanese pound intrinsic weaknesses started to unravel around October 2019 and the peg to the US dollar started to fall apart.

The unofficial FX rates on the local market have surged in the past months, reaching values as high as 15000 LBP per USD according to sources. These sources rely on polls from exchange houses and currency changers on the local market. Given the relatively small size of the Lebanese money market and its opacity, the local unofficial FX rate could benefit from a proxy on international marketplaces with a high enough correlation to allow a coarse evaluation of the fairness of the unofficial FX rate, and identify under or over valuations of the Lebanese Pound.

Lebanese sovereign Eurobonds (Bonds issued by the Lebanese government in a foreign currency, in this case USD instead of LBP) might be a good proxy for the specific case at hand with the following assumptions:

  •      The currency had been successfully pegged to the US dollar for decades  before a first default and an economic downturn.
  •      The country has successfully issued Eurobonds in the past decades, until a first default

When investors buy such a Eurobond at par (at 100% of the face value of the bond, quoted as 100 on fixed income markets), they are expecting full repayment of the principal amount at maturity. In the case of the Lebanese Eurobonds, the investors are expecting full repayment of the principal in USD from an issuer whose domestic currency is the LBP. In other words, they trust the central bank to keep the Lebanese Pound pegged to the US Dollar on a rate close or equal to the current peg rate, allowing the Lebanese government to easily finance itself in USD to repay the principal at maturity.

If the Eurobond is bought at a heavy discount, for example 20% or 30% of the bond face value, it means that the investors foresee a higher risk of default, which in the case of sovereign Eurobonds is due in part to the weakness of the domestic currency. In other words, the investor does not expect the central bank to have the means of enforcing a peg of the Lebanese pound to the USD and hence, the Lebanese government of easily financing itself in USD to repay the principal.

At the time these lines are being written, the Lebanese Eurobonds being considered are quoting at around 12 or 13. One could argue that this price can be seen as a “recovery rate”: the investor accepts to pay 12% of the face value of a Eurobond because it does not expect a scenario worse than a 12% repayment of the principal. The value of every dollar of principal must be reduced by 88% for the investor to incur a loss, having bought the Eurobond at 12% of its face value.  For an issuer like Lebanon which had successfully pegged the domestic currency to USD for decades at 1507.5 LBP per USD, it can be said that the value of every 1507.5 LBP of principal (one US dollar at the time the bond was issued) must be reduced by 88% for the investor to incur a loss, or that the central bank has to sustain an 88% downturn of the USD/LBP rate for the investor to incur a loss, at which point 1507.5 LBP is worth 0.12 USD.

Hence the proxy: USD/LBP black market = USD/LBP peg * 1/Eurobond price = 1507.5 * 1/0.12 = 12562.5. This value is very close to the unofficial FX rate quoted by different sources on the local Lebanese market.

To ensure the soundness of the idea, I have back tested the values of the black-market FX rate for the past year against the price of a Lebanese Eurobond, ISIN XS0250882478, as quoted on the Luxembourg exchange. It is an eight-year Eurobond maturing on April 12, 2021, which makes it old enough to have been issued at a time when the USD/LBP peg was effective and maturing around a year after the first bond default following the economic downturn of the Lebanese republic. This ISIN was suspended on the Luxembourg exchange where the values were taken shortly before its maturity.

USD/LBP rate computed from Eurobond prices versus USD/LBP unofficial rates

In the figure above, on the day of the bond default in March 2020, the bond price used as a proxy gives a USD/LBP rate much higher than the black-market value. This is probably due to the fact that an economy has a given inertia due in part to capital restrictions and other measures imposed by commercial banks and the central bank of Lebanon on depositors to avoid a bank rush and to try to control the FX rate to a certain extent.

Starting July 2020, the curves seem to be much more correlated. In fact, the correlation (Pearson) is computed as 0.771 on the values of both curves between July 29 and March 31. The gap towards the end of October 2020 could be explained by rumors on the formation of a new government by the nominated prime minister, which drove the local unofficial rate down through a relative increase of the confidence in the Lebanese Pound. This gap has persisted until right before the bond maturity, where we see a correction. It could also be due to other biases linked of the exchange where the Eurobond prices were sourced.

Further steps are planned, to refine the findings on this proposed proxy. They include running a back testing exercise on another Lebanese Eurobond and using quotes from a different exchange, for example, USD/LBP rate based on Eurobond XS0471737444 maturing in 2024 and quoted on the Frankfurt exchange.


Let the board sound

Rabih