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“The land mourns and languishes; Lebanon is confounded and withers away; […].” – Isaiah 33:9
The word “Lebanon” comes from a Hebrew root meaning “white”, a reference to the snow-capped mountains in the region. The mountains were home to the source of a common phrase in the Bible, the famous “cedars of Lebanon”, a prized possession in the Ancient Near East because of their size, which made them perfect for constructing ships and large public buildings. Berytus, where Herod once built a monument and sponsored lavish games, was a city in Beirut; the latter being the location of the blast that injured thousands, instantly grabbing the world’s attention.
The blast in Beirut could not have come at a worse time. Lebanon, reduced to a byword among the nations, was already dealing with another explosive situation: an economic meltdown.
Long before the blast, the Lebanese people had been crying out, and it is unfortunate that it took a literal explosion in Beirut to get the world’s collective attention about the country’s explosive economic situation. The Wall Street Journal (April 28, 2020) cited Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, who commented on the anti-government protests in Lebanon. His words convey the gravity of their economic situation (that will, no doubt, be exacerbated by the blast): “It’s not so much a protest as an explosion. The desperation of not being able to feed your family will push people onto the streets in some kind of undefined rage for something to happen.”
As always, if people do not have a seat at the negotiating table (or feel they are being heard at said table), they take their “negotiations” to the streets.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s ancestral village, Amioun, is located in Northern Lebanon. In “Antifragile” he writes, “When my grandfather asked his friend during the Lebanese war why he did not go back to Aleppo, his answer was categorical: ‘We people of Aleppo prefer war to prison.’ I thought that he meant that they were going to put him in jail, but then I realized that by ‘prison’ he meant the loss of political and economic freedoms.” The Lebanese, then and now, agree with Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “A little bit of agitation gives resources to souls and what makes the species prosper isn’t peace, but freedom.”
We have seen the videos of the blast and the images of the aftermath. I propose two things now: tangibly help the Lebanese people and read a piece from a son of their soil. The details of the former I leave to the reader, but I insist that the latter take the form of Mr Taleb’s “Lebanon: from Ponzi to Antifragility”. First, the currency: “The lira was artificially kept too strong for any industry to survive, and the financial system (the Ponzi) was sucking up all the money and destroying the economic substructure. But my point was that the (unavoidable) collapse would lead to an adaptation, the weaning from chronic foreign ‘loans’ and, possibly, a huge bounce.”
He also talks about the positive adaptations the Lebanese people will be forced to make. He says Lebanon is entering a phase “when people are suddenly forced to remember there is such a thing as soil and something called agriculture, so they have started focusing on home grown items — when their ancestors had toiled to terrace the mountain to squeeze every grain of sorghum or wheat from it.” They are also “starting to understand that the central government has been too incompetent to improve things — actually, the government has been (and will be) the problem.” (After enforcing contracts, things get dicey with Leviathan.)
I end with Taleb’s thought on corruption, “It is bad, it causes a loss of social trust, it brings unfairness. But corruption does not necessarily slow down economic activity — red tape and patronage do.” But his article is only an appetizer. As he said: “See Antifragile for more details.” I go one step further: read “Incerto”. One hopes that Lebanon can get its act together.
The words of Isaiah, who expressed hope for the future, seem fitting here, “Shall not Lebanon in a very little while become a fruitful field, and the fruitful field be regarded as a forest?… For the tyrant shall be no more, and the scoffer shall cease to be; all those alert to do evil shall be cut off.” (29:17,20). One can only hope.