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Charif Majdalani: “In Lebanon, the political class is an oligarchy of thugs that does nothing”

The academic Charif Majdalani, head of the department of French literature at Saint-Joseph University in Beirut, author of a dozen novels at Le Seuil (History of the big house, possible lives…) and at Actes Sud (Beirut 2020: Diary of a collapseyou, Last Oasis) is one of the guests of Beirut Books, the French-speaking and international literary event created by the French Institute and the French Embassy, ​​which is held until October 30 in Beirut and throughout the country. An event during which Charif Majdalani, also president of the International House of Writers in Beirut, intervenes on several occasions, in particular to launch the publication of the collection what happens to us (Inculte), which deals with a few disasters (earthquake, explosion, nuclear or ecological accident, economic crisis) that have crossed the world, from Haiti to Fukushima via Beirut and Athens. We met him near his university to collect his testimony on the current difficult Lebanese situation. The writer does not mince his words on the degree of responsibility of the “political caste” which governs his country.

What does it mean to be a writer in Beirut right now?

Sharif Majdalani: As a citizen of this country, I feel immediately concerned, of course, by the difficulties in Lebanon. I am lucky not to have been physically affected during the explosion of the port silos on August 4, 2020, and to continue to work, like my wife, who is a psychotherapist. Our real problem is psychological. It is extremely difficult to watch, powerless, the collapse of a country, its ruin; in particular to carelessness, incompetence, corruption, but also to the total indifference of a political caste, of an oligarchy of thugs, which does nothing, and of which one wonders if, ultimately, it does not don’t help everything get out of here. This situation creates in the population a feeling of hatred of the political class and of rage.

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And as a writer, the question arises of testifying, or not, to all this. Me, I chose to testify with my book Beirut 2020, which is part of the literature of the real, And I will continue to do so, I hope, in a few months, in the form of a novelistic construction. I have to say that, in a way, writing makes it easier to bear the shock. Because it allows to distance, analyze, dissect and relate. After the explosion, I held up better than my wife, for example, because I was talking about it, precisely.

In Lebanon, freedom of speech seems total, especially in relation to institutions. Isn’t that a precious commodity?

Indeed, this country has always been a democracy, even during the war, a consensual democracy, somewhat by force of circumstance because when there are very many of us and very different people who want to agree to live together, we have to accept what the other says about you. I would therefore speak of “forced” democracy, but it works. Today, you can express your rage on social networks, in the street. Admittedly, this is not enough, but it is better than not being able to express it. Here, we criticize a lot, everyone has solutions, but it’s useful, because it channels the violence we carry within us.

“We realized that we all shared the hatred of the political caste”

Are the 2019 protests definitely a thing of the past?

The movement itself, this huge mass of millions of people in the streets, is a thing of the past; but it created momentum. We realized that in the end, we all shared the hatred of the political caste, and that above all resulted in completely discrediting it. It is a class that lives only for itself, in autarky. And then, it was born from this movement a political conscience in the youth. Young people, who were more into partying than political action, woke up and got involved. They still managed to send 13 or 14 young MPs to Parliament, MPs who come from all over the country and from all faiths.

Unfortunately, isn’t this youth also pushed into exile?

For a hundred years, there has always been a movement of exiles and returns, this is the history of our country. During the civil war, people left, then they came back, they built, they saw everything disappear, they left… We hope that it will be the same for all these young people who go into exile from our days, that they will return. Of course, we can say to them, “Look, some of you got involved and succeeded in politics, if you all did that, maybe it could help things.” The problem is that the political caste is well rooted and constantly regenerating itself, and that it will take, it is said, ten or fifteen years for the country to get back on its feet. But in ten or fifteen years, all these young people will be adults. There is no immediate future, how to prevent them from going to make their life elsewhere?

The French Institute is awash, we are told, with requests for information to apply to French universities…

I am not surprised. You know, my son has just obtained his baccalaureate, he is now at Sciences Po, in Paris. In his promotion from the Protestant college, which is a French school, they were 90. And of the 90, 80 left, 75% of them in France. What’s crazy is that, at all times, my fear was that one day my children would want to go and study elsewhere, and now I say to myself, “I hope they want to leave”.

And you, haven’t you had the temptation of exile?

No, I lived in France for thirteen years during my studies, then a little later, and I came back. That said, I am one of the privileged people, I can move around, go to Paris to take care of my books or visit my son.

That said, isn’t the Lebanese diaspora essential?

Since the end of the 19th century, the diaspora has always been very important. Today she sends money, votes for change and is much more involved than yesterday due to improved means of communication – so people experienced the uprising and then the explosion live. In my time, in the 1980s, I was totally cut off from my parents, there I am in permanent contact with my son.

The French ambassador paints a very gloomy picture of Lebanon, she speaks of bankrupt countries… A realistic picture?

Yes quite. I repeat to you, we are faced with a political class that does nothing. We have been waiting for an agreement with the IMF for three years, but this requires reforms, but the reforms will highlight the shortcomings, the corruption. Have we ever seen a country in such a crisis without anyone blinking? It’s hopeless, that’s how the country is sinking.

The mandate of General Michel Aoun ending at the end of this month, could the election of a new President of the Republic by the deputies change the situation?

No, because it has been like this for thirty years: you can only elect a president by consensus. However, the tragedy of this country is the consensus! It resulted in the parties agreeing on everything, dividing the pie, with no one watching them. Thus, the consensual president will be tied up because he will not want to anger either one or the other. Apart from the few deputies of the uprising, the parliamentarians are all part of the oligarchy.

You’re not really optimistic…

Not at all. How can we be in this nightmare? We survive, each according to his means, because the spirit of private initiative still remains: we manage to have our private electricity, our private water… Of course, the economy is recovering a little, trade too, people are starting over to work, this “Beirut Books” literary festival gives work… But the part of the population which is already more or less sacrificed will definitely be, not to mention the million and something Syrian refugees who are in terrible poverty and the object of incredible racism – nobody cares about it, it’s a real ticking time bomb.

Interview by Marianne Payot


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