This Post Is Not About Sidon

I visited Lebanon four times during its 15-year civil war. The longest I stayed was a month in 1980, the shortest a week in 1984. The country was broken, its warlords were many, their militias, depending on their size, in control of anywhere between whole regions and small neighborhoods. Beirut itself was still reeling from Israel’s 1982 siege. It was devastated, filthy, rat infested, with a party scene like no other.

My impression was of a people very content to revel in a universe of colliding realities and fluid contradictions, not a few of their own making. The way my friends explained it and the way I saw it for myself: in times of war, make hay, make love, make mischief, make merry, and make fun as if it was your last day on this earth.

Anyone who has lived through bloody conflicts of whatever scale would most probably share the same experience. But in Lebanon, the proximity between life at its wildest and death at its most tragic could be mere meters apart. One evening in 1980, as we were about to sit for a sumptuous dinner on the balcony, a barrage of bullets and mortar fire was so close it provoked a desperate need in me to duck, only to be quickly reassured that the bloodshed was one street up–nothing to do with us.

But this tolerance in many Lebanese for our clashing modes of life never ceased. As we were in war, we continued in “peace.” Our ability to adapt to our deplorable politics, to lean on our so-called resilience, to concoct marvelous vistas from hideous panoramas, became second-nature.  

We are not technically at war today, but there is wretchedness everywhere, in some places subtle, in others blinding. Our GDP, at $18 billion, is 30% of its size in 2018. But we import now slightly less than we imported that year, and we are swimming in USDs in an effectively dollarized economy. The state is dead, most of its people are hungry or close to it, but it’s party time for the rest of us in this country. Up in the mountains and down by the coast, in the north of Lebanon and its south, in the east of Beirut and its west, traffic jams, cafés, restaurants, hotels, and beach clubs are telling another bewildering Lebanese story.

Party on, Lebanon!

Some of us, observers and analysts included, marvel at the scene, straining to make sense of it. It’s the remittances from the 300,000 who emigrated since 2019 that is fueling it, a few argue. Get real, I say. The $6.5 billion explains how many families are coping, but it doesn’t explain the madness.

Because alongside this round-the-clock rave, there’s round-the-clock ruin. It may be understandable that a people incapable of big, serious solutions in a state largely absented by them would opt for silly, day-to-day living.  But there are instances when the problem is very near and the answer is easy and within reach, and yet we still content ourselves living with the dire consequences.

This is what the National Center for Marine Sciences in Lebanon had to say in its latest report about Sidon’s sea:

In numbers, researchers at the Marine Sciences Center detected in the Sea of Sidon 500 colonies of fecal streptococci/100 ml, and 79 colonies of fecal coliforms/100 ml (bacteria from untreated wastewater, which cause poisoning and inflammation in humans). They also found more than 10,000 pieces of solid waste/100 meters on its beach, the majority of which were paper, glass, metal, and cigarette butts

The banner says it all

The reason for this contamination is known to everyone there. The water pumping station in Siniq, south of Sidon, which is connected to the sewers of the city and 60 other nearby towns, is only 10% functional. In other words, Sidonese are effectively swimming in their own shit, not to mention their neighbors’.

This is just one of Sidon’s myriad issues with filth. For 30 years, the city that is home to three of Lebanon’s prime ministers–all billionaires, it has to be said–suffered the sight, disease, and stench of a growing garbage mountain that became so big and menacing it was deemed a threat to the ecosystem of the Mediterranean. Sidonese were ecstatic in 2012, when a private waste sorting and treatment plant, financed by donations, was finally set up to solve the mountainous problem.

Left unsolved, however, was the insoluble waste that piled up untreated in the vicinity of the plant. When, last May, smoke and the most fetid of smells engulfed Sidon and its environs because of burning solid waste,  Sidonese were back where they started four decades ago. To boot, the sorting plant istelf is now operating at 25-30% capacity for lack of funds for equipment maintenance, spare parts, and other essential waste treatment services.

So, what prevents a rather small, close-knit community, whose relationship with the municipality is intimate and direct and whose well-to-do can without much effort help hammer out a permanent remedy, from pulling their city out of this misery?

Sidon is not unique. Few beaches on the Lebanese coast are swimmable, few towns are without overflowing garbage, at alarming rates we are growing progressively less forested, and none of us city folk can shield ourselves from air polluted by generator fuel in a country whose electricity, for all intents and purposes, has been subcontracted to private providers. 

But Sidon, because of its palpably acute pollution crisis, has become a showcase of our seemingly reflexive inclination to cohabit with our afflictions, even when the answers are clear and easily implemented without the intervention of a historically feeble state. Why? What makes us go to war over burkinis and bikinis on our beaches but not for a sea free of feces? What infuriates us about our presidential elections but numbs us to the disappearance of our trees? We are such heedless tormentors of this country, I can go on with these questions for an eternity.

That this devil-may-care attitude involves a certain class of Lebanese is obvious and precisely my point. The poor have no voice. But there is plenty that can be done by those who have it. Instead, we’re partying the night away as if it’s our last on this earth.

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