Letter From Beirut: From Revolution to Pandemic

Lina Mounzer on Life in the Midst of History

Beirut, April 3, 2020

Dearest M,

I was so happy to receive your email, and so happy to know you are healthy and managing, despite everything. That most unimaginative of all email openers: “I hope this finds you well”—I was tempted to write it to you just now, and I would mean it, of course. “I hope this finds you well,” as in healthy and intact, mind and soul and body, or rather, body first in this case, followed closely by the other two. That’s the thing about this crisis, every crisis, it loads everything with meaning, even empty turns of phrase. (From my never-to-be written instructional: Lessons from the Civil War).

As for me, well, there was one of those quarantine name memes going around on Twitter a couple of weeks ago: Your quarantine name is how you’re feeling right now plus the last thing you ate from the cupboard.

I kept seeing it retweeted by people across the world, and it always had dozens and dozens of replies:

Angry sardines. Depressed popcorn. Terrified tortilla chips. Sad cookies.

Every time I saw it, I couldn’t help but compose my own response in my head:

Serene tuna. Elated zaatar. Relieved kaak.

Of course I kept this to myself. I know how it sounds.

Part of this—this sense of joy and relief I feel (or at least felt then), despite the world falling apart—is purely mechanical. I don’t know if I mentioned this, because it’s not something I’ve ever been comfortable talking about, but shortly after the revolution began here in October and it became clear that we were headed for economic collapse much sooner than we thought, I decided to go off my mood-stabilizing medication. Everyone was talking about how we would soon no longer be able to afford imports, how supermarkets would soon run out of essential foodstuffs, and hospitals out of medical supplies because they have to pay their suppliers in dollars. And as you know there are no more dollars, no more liquidity for anyone because all the billionaire and multi-millionaire politicians smuggled their money (our money!) out of the country in anticipation of this very crisis into which their wheelings and dealings have sunk us.

We already had a few cases, and we were already in the middle of an economic collapse with a shortage of medical supplies—how could the country handle any extra pressure on its health-care system?

Anyway, the meds were already expensive, and we had suddenly become much poorer overnight and knew this would only get worse, and already we were on an allowance since our bank would only let us withdraw $300/week (little did we know that those were the fucking days!). So, I thought, why not get off the meds now, while they are still available and while I can still afford to buy enough pills to taper off gradually? I was afraid I’d somehow be forced to stop them overnight, and I was afraid of what that might do to me (if I forget to take them one night I can tell immediately by the little lightning storms that bolt through my brain the next day).

I figured that after a period of adjustment, I’d be fine. I’ve been in therapy forever; I feel like at this point I know the ins and outs of my mind like an evil twin I’ve reformed and made peace with; my life has been good and stable for a while, and most importantly, for a few years now I’ve been able to finish (a good proportion of) the things I start writing. Also, I was high, so high off the revolution, the thawra, I thought that would sail me through the worst of it. I was so high it was almost like a manic phase, except I also felt incredibly grounded and full of purpose: none of that all-over-the-place bounce and zing of mania.

(I look back on those first weeks of the thawra now and the memories are as saturated with color and light as they were when I lived them—thousands upon thousands of us in the squares, chanting together, pressed up against one another, bright red flares going up above our heads and burning out to wild cheers, unafraid of the authorities, and now too, I realize, of illness, of virus, of contamination. How full and whole we were in our bodies, how confident of their ability to stand up to any threat, because how invincible we felt in the very togetherness we are now avoiding, literally, like the plague).

So I started tapering back in early November, and by mid-December I was off the pills entirely. Maybe you can guess what happened next. From my journal, January 12: Pretty sure the withdrawals should be over by now but then why is my head still so groggy and woolly and thick. Full of shit-clumped hay. I think I don’t know how to write anymore. I know I’ve said this at many points in my life, but now it feels real. I feel stupid. Straight-up dumb. Bad diction, bad thoughts. Ugly perspective on everything. Not enough imagination to even think my way out of bed in the morning, let alone out into the streets.

Everything had fallen apart by then though, from my mind to the country to the thawra, and so it was hard to identify the source of the disease. Was it coming from inside my rotten brain or from the rotten world?

There were less and less of us at every protest, and sometimes, more often even than sometimes, I was one of those missing from the crowd. I was tired, so tired, but then so was everybody. There was a palpable sense of exhaustion and frayed nerves everywhere. The police got increasingly violent at the protests, always there like a line of monstrous beetles in the thick carapace of their riot gear. They attacked with a viciousness that made it seem like they had an actual quota of shattered bones and damaged brains and burst eyeballs to fulfill. I was constantly on edge when I went, fighting with my fear in order to stay put, always waiting for the first tear gas canisters to be fired and for all hell to break loose.

The lira kept depreciating in value but the banks not only still refused to exchange dollars for lira except at the fake peg, they also lowered everyone’s withdrawal limits even further. All of it wholly arbitrary, oh, and also COMPLETELY FUCKING ILLEGAL, given that there is no formalized, centralized law to dictate any of this madness. But then I would speak to people, like the cashier at the butcher shop, like the grocer near my house, all of us fucked by the banks and the government, and realize that so many people assume that this is legal, because the banks are the banks, and how could the banks do something illegal? (Not that legal, ever, is a synonym for just or fair in the first place).

This is the world; this is the way it’s always been. How many wars or crises do you have to live through to finally believe that?

In fact, many people are convinced that the poor banks are just doing what they can to make up for government incompetence, that the poor banks are just trying to stave off total bankruptcy for the good of all depositors so that money can continue to circulate. Even among the thawra activists and the different groups into which we have organized there is this debate: some say we shouldn’t be directing our attacks or ire at the banks but only at the politicians and the sectarian system because this is a political problem and not, at root, an economic one. (Even among the activists the desire to cling to the delusion that capitalism and its coffer of dreams can be salvaged from the shipwreck it has made of this world).

I was so angry, so angry, so very very angry. Powerlessly enraged. I knew it wasn’t good for me, for my body: I could feel it coursing through my veins. There was an actual burning sensation along the entirety of my digestive tract nearly constantly. The massive injustice of it all, happening in your face, every day, all the time, to everyone you know and love. Even to everyone you don’t know but still love—out of fellow feeling, out of long weeks of marching in the streets and claiming common purpose. I felt like I could maybe handle my own grief, but what about everyone else’s? Old people who’d survived wars, plural, only to find themselves now robbed of their entire life savings at the very end. People already poor now on the brink of starvation. Burly men weeping brokenly in the banks, wailing to stony-faced managers: “I’m not asking for handouts, I’m not begging for anything that doesn’t belong to me. Just please let me take my own money so I can provide for my family.”

Hard to write, hard to think in the midst of all that rage, nuclear huge, nuclear unstable and scary. The only thing I know how to do with anger is to slowwwww it down. Tamp it down, press it down, throw piles and piles of wet sand on its boiling red glow. And so I, too, sink under the weight of that burden until I am barely able to move.

From my journal, February 18: You need to find a way to reorder all your priorities and live by that new configuration.

This is the world; this is the way it’s always been. How many wars or crises do you have to live through to finally believe that? It is you now who needs to change. You who needs to find a vision expansive enough, generous enough, flexible enough, wide enough, humane enough, imaginative enough, playful enough, curious enough, exploratory enough, tireless enough to accommodate all this ugliness without every new iteration of it being a possible brain aneurysm. This is a chance to know what it really means to live according to the parameters of the world as it truly is. What of the revolution enacted upon the self?

(I know. I should have just set the bar of tasks at maybe shower today and then worked my way up).

I decided to reread Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. After the third page, I could no longer see the words for my tears.

And then, some days later, after breaking down sobbing in the radiant sunshine on the corniche when an old man asked us for a bite of food, T gently suggested that maybe it had been a bad time to go off the medication, and that maybe we could decide it was a priority and fix our budget accordingly. I agreed to go to the pharmacy with him then and there and buy it provided it hadn’t already gotten more expensive. But deep down I was skeptical—had the medication ever really helped me in the first place, or was it just that things were better before? What kind of person anyway can grow a healthy mind out of the rotten root system that binds us all in place?

I started taking the medication again that night. Just over a week later the pandemic hit.

That makes it sound like it was a singular event, which it wasn’t. Like every other country, our experience of it was a gradual realization of severity, a curve the same shape as the graphs on worldometers (which I check less obsessively than T, but still at least once a day). For me though, the moment it turned sharply upward was when the women’s day march was canceled on March 8th. The night before, the thawra group I’m part of had had its usual weekly meeting, and we’d been discussing banners and meeting points and coordination with other groups. Usually upon arrival we greeted one another with at least handshakes if not hugs and kisses, but that night everyone shrugged with a smile, and made do with awkward waves. As though everyone was apologetic about being so cautious, but it was still better to be safe than sorry.

Afterward I met a dear friend for dinner—who had come from her own coordination meeting—and she told me that word was the march was going to be canceled. The news out of Iran and Italy was bad (but not as bad as it would become), and our government had done nothing to stop flights or check passengers arriving from those countries. We already had a few cases, and we were already in the middle of an economic collapse with a shortage of medical supplies—how could the country handle any extra pressure on its health-care system? The thawra groups had to be responsible and show that they, at least, were taking the pandemic seriously. Sure enough, I received a message on the group chat: the march had been officially called off.

We looked around us: the restaurant was half-empty, its many plants wilting and unkempt. But this in itself wasn’t so strange. Since at least the new year we’d grown used to the sight of everyone and everything looking tired, shabby, exhausted; even the streets. There was less traffic, less people in restaurants, less noise and buzz in the pubs, less people out and about, less things on the supermarket shelves, less money in our wallets, less work, less businesses open—so many, so many shuttered storefronts, going-out-of-business-sale signs—less light, even. The streetlights went out in my neighborhood and no one fixed them; on moonless nights it was like plunging into dark water, no sense of a surface even to gasp toward. That was, in general, how everything felt.

See, this indoor life, with dread consistently right outside the door: this is the life that forged me, the life into which I was born.

But I’d been excited about the women’s day march. The turnout had promised to be good—better than any of the marches we’d had for a while. And I felt another kind of (grim) hope now for the long-term potentials of the thawra. Joining the group had made a huge difference: they’d taught me that while it looked very dissimilar now to the way it had those first heady weeks, that didn’t mean it was over. We just had to shift the locales of our efforts. There was still work, lots of work to be done, and more importantly there were still people, lots of people, willing to put in that work. And of course somewhere deep inside my brain the pills, too, had begun doing their own delicate, mysterious work, and whatever small shifts and adjustments they had made possible had translated themselves onto the outside world, so that I could see into a future once more.

One illness was lifting from me just as I began to become aware of another.

That was the mechanical reason behind my answers to that tweet that first week of isolation.

But it’s much more complicated than that. Because I was also adrift in the most acute nostalgia.

See, this indoor life, with dread consistently right outside the door: this is the life that forged me, the life into which I was born. Throughout the whole long decade of the 1980s the civil war raged outside, and we children read and played pretend and made up games of our own devising in the shelter of bedrooms and bathrooms and hallways. There were long hours and days without electricity, often without running water, the squeal of battery-powered neon lights the background to every conversation. Though I didn’t see it that way then, what it comes down to is that all of us had to make a life worth living out of whatever we found in the interior spaces—of the house, of ourselves. And at the end of all those long, dark hallways, there was always the shining promise of a future that would gloriously unfurl “when it’s all over.” (Maybe this is why I’ve always found it more pleasurable somehow to dream of a life rather than to live it).

It’s my dirty secret that when I long for childhood, I find myself also somehow longing for the war, or at least the whole culture it enforced, of an indoor, interior space that had to be consistently fortified against the horrors of the outside with food and books and play and love. I guess it’s the same way that children who grow up in abusive households tend to seek out love that’s full of pain—love isn’t recognizable without its accompanying helping of pain; for me it is comfort, or rather safety, security, stability, that cannot be fully felt somehow unless it comes coupled with dread and danger and the threat of annihilation.

Understand though: war is also my biggest fear. Right after the new year when your fucking president (pardon my language, calling him your president) nearly dragged us into regional war, I walked around lips numb with terror for a few days, flinching at imaginary shells raining down from the skies.

Understand, too, that I hate all the comparisons being made between this pandemic and war. In war, nothing, not even home, is safe. In war there is no clear prescription for how to avoid danger or keep your beloveds unharmed. I am only able to tell you what I said above from the vantage of retrospect, because I survived, and so did my family, and because we cannot help the mixed feelings that childhood gives us and which we must then sort through for the rest of our lives. In war, too, the violence is not arbitrary and without intent, the way death by virus is. It is a willfully cruel effort to achieve some spoil or other by treating your body and the bodies of everyone you know and love as expendable meat.

These days too if the wind is right you can catch the scent of all the orange trees in blossom down on the streets. Despite everything, it’s spring.

The only thing this pandemic has in common with war is what it has in common with every collective crisis, which is that it lays bare all the ugliness and inequality in which we live and participate. But also, also, it is that for one exceptional point in time, all of our fears are aligned, and we are given a common language with which to speak of them. It’s like some great tuning fork has been struck, and we are all communicating on the same frequency, so that we can suddenly all of us understand one another. Or are given the potential to understand, at least, en masse, what has always been true: that any disaster belongs to us all. And we can no longer go on pretending that we are merely living individual lives, that these lives can simply proceed at a remove from the people around us, from the collective circumstances in which we all live. That illusion was the temporary aberration. This is the world: communitarian and mutual, whether we like it or not. If enough of us understand this at once, then everything can change. That’s what happened to us, at least, in those first few weeks of the thawra. And that’s why the “return to normal life,” that time of “when it’s all over,” can be such a fucking letdown if it feels like we haven’t carried what we needed to carry with us out of the rubble of crisis.

So I feel—hopeful sounds glib and untrue. I am certainly no longer elated. I am worried, and grieving, and yes, also angry again. The banks and political parties here have decided to take advantage of the situation, like every tyrant, despot, authoritarian, opportunist, money-grubber, bottom-feeder, corporate vulture and fascist the world over. The banks have shut down to regular customers and the ATMs are empty of dollars. We have a loose lockdown order in place during the day and a 7pm-5am curfew, but the government has not provided even a fucking lira of help to anyone. Remember, we are not anticipating economic collapse after this is all over: we are already in freefall. Our currency is already at fully half of its value, which means everyone lucky enough to still have a job is only earning half of what they earned before, while prices keep rising. The sectarian political parties we worked so hard to undermine in the thawra have all seized this opportunity to leap to the fore, distributing branded masks and going around their constituent neighborhoods in hazmat suits made to order in their political party’s colors and spraying “disinfectant” in the streets (turned out to be, I shit you not, pesticides).

This week, people have already begun breaking lockdown orders to resume day labor as well as to protest—how can they not? For many the choice is as stark as risking potential death by coronavirus or definite death by hunger. We are asking of certain people that they stay home in order to keep society safe while society provides absolutely no safety net for them. Mutual responsibility has to go both ways. So I don’t know how bad things will get on any front here or how many rights will be snatched from us before this is all over or how any of this might end. We have to stay vigilant, to keep an exacting tally of our own grievances and everyone else’s, to remember and keep naming the real enemy. Not the virus, not the innocent bodies that spread it. But the tyrants and opportunists who treat our lives the way war does: cheap collateral damage for the spoils they wish to collect. And of course, the system that normalizes their ability to do so.

Perhaps then “willful” is a better word for how I feel, because finally my grief and worry and anger feel like they are the right size and pointed in the right direction once more: away from my own heart. That small adjustment that was made inside my brain has changed every single thing I am able to see. What I felt to be objective truth—that I am worthless, that the world is unsalvageable, that there is nothing to live for—was really just a glitch in the system. One that had the potential to be fixed, though I had to get over my prejudice about the method. See, I always hated the pills I took; I saw them as a crutch, a weakness. Why do I not run, meditate, eat dark leafy greens by the barrelful? I could cure myself, but I’m a lazy piece of shit, so I don’t. Now I see how incredibly lucky I am, that I ever even found the right pills at the right dose. Just enough to allow my imagination to work again. And fuck it, we should all use whatever goddamned tools and weapons and talismans and support systems we are lucky enough to have at our disposal to keep us intact enough for the coming task at hand.

As for how I’m spending my days, well, I’m lucky enough to be able to stay indoors and self-isolate, so that’s where I am when it isn’t my turn to do a grocery run. It’s a life that mirrors many of the patterns of depression, but I don’t feel guilty about it the way I do about depression. (That’s the other thing about collectivity, it often eases guilt). I’m trying to stick to some sort of routine, which is just mostly that I take the dog up onto the roof of the building and play fetch with her every morning. This morning was bright and sunny and the distant horizon crisp between blue of sea and blue of sky. You could see all the details of the hills on the northern coastline. These days too if the wind is right you can catch the scent of all the orange trees in blossom down on the streets. Despite everything, it’s spring.

I’m reading (I can read again! Just finished The Buried Giant, have you read it?) but it’s slow going because I keep checking the news and chatting with people on What’sApp. I have the occasional page or two to translate, though I don’t know how anyone will manage to pay me. I realize that I’m drawing on much of what my mother did to keep us feeling safe at home when we were kids. Making sure everything is neat and clean. (I am especially strict about making the bed: I beat the mattress and air out the sheets before smoothing them tight, something I’ve never done). Getting creative with pantry ingredients and making every meal an occasion, no matter how humble (it’s where my mom’s hommos with debs remmen comes from). Trying to speak to a friend and one of my brothers on the phone every day.

And of course, I’m scrolling through Twitter obsessively. Many people on Twitter are reporting dreams of being out in the streets again. Just that, people out and about in crowds, bodies thronging the streets. I have the same dreams, only in mine everyone’s fists are raised in protest, their voices chanting as one.

Thanks for reading this long. I love you, I miss you. While I mourn the reason, I am still incredibly moved by the fact that we are currently aligned in our realities though across the seas from one another. I feel closer to you than ever. I can’t wait to see you again someday, and when I do, to hug the shit out of you and pelt you with kisses.

Now it’s your turn, tell me everything about how you’re doing, the bad and the better, and what you see in your “when it’s all over.”

xx,

L.

Lina Mounzer
Lina Mounzer
Lina Mounzer is a writer and translator living in Beirut. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Paris Review, 1843, Literary Hub, and Bidoun, as well as in the anthologies Hikayat: An Anthology of Lebanese Women’s Writing (Telegram Books: 2007) and Tales of Two Planets (Penguin Books: 2020) an anthology of writing on climate change and inequality.





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