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Burn Baby Burn

[Image from unknown archive--Protest in Beirut] [Image from unknown archive--Protest in Beirut]

I have been thinking a lot about electricity. A couple of nights ago, I spent 24 hours without it. At ten pm the lights went out, and they did not come back on until the next evening. With the lights went the air conditioner, the television, the refrigerator, the internet, the fan, my stove, and finally, my computer and my telephone. That night, I put a puzzle together by candlelight, opened all my windows, sat naked on my couch, and re-learned the value of a summer breeze. I slept on the marble floor of my bedroom.

I live in a middle class neighborhood that demarcates the border of what used to be “east” and “west” Beirut. In my neighborhood, the electricity ration is 21 hours a day. This summer, in addition to the 3-hour a day scheduled blackouts, there are additional cuts that last between fifteen minutes and several hours. I do not have a generator in my building, and there are few in my neighborhood. The lack of a generator dates back to Prime Minister Hariri’s directive issued in the mid-1990s that made private generators illegal in Beirut. This was during the year or so when the city had 24-hour electricity. I was in high school then, and I remember the novelty of taking my reading light for granted. Of course, one year later, after Israel’s 1996 Steinbeck inspired “grapes of wrath” invasion of Lebanon, we were, quite literally, plunged into darkness again. In fact, it is commonplace for Israel to target the country’s electrical grids, power plants, and oil tanks, most recently in 2006. In 1996, Families who lived in buildings that could not afford the new generators that satisfied the environmental and sound pollution requirements of the state suffered. They bought car and computer batteries and made use of the home-grown electrical engineering knowledge they gained during the country’s 15 year civil war. 

My sister lives in a higher-class neighborhood in “Ras Beirut.” Her building has a generator that guarantees her 24-hour security. My parents have the same luxury. Ironically, both my sister and my family do not need this 24-hour sense of security, because in their neighborhoods the power cuts are shorter and almost never at night. The night I spent sweating on my floor I contemplated sleeping at either of their houses. Several times I got up to put my clothes on and pack my things, and then sat back down feeling both defeated by the heat and resigned to it. To be honest, a morbid sense of curiosity also overtook me. I wanted to know how long this blackout would actually last, and I wanted to see if my neighbors would riot, as they have been doing in the streets parallel mine all summer. 

Beirut is lucky, in over areas of Lebanon the scheduled blackouts run from six hours a day to twelve. This summer, some areas have gone for days without electricity. Often this differentiation in electricity rationing is not reflected in the electricity bills delivered to apartments all over the country once a month. A friend of mine lives alone in Adonis, where on good days the electricity ration is 18 hours. Despite this, she pays about one and half times as much as I do for my (and my roommate’s) electricity. Another friend of mine, who lives in a 12 hour electricity neighborhood, refused to pay his inflated bill until the electricity company responded to his inquiries regarding his account. They cut off his electricity. He then paid his February bill of 100$ for twelve hours of electricity a day in his one bedroom apartment and was told he would be refunded when the clerical error was fixed. That was a year ago. 

Half a kilometer from my house the lights never go off. Downtown Beirut, one of the richest neighborhoods in the country and an orgy of consumption that brings together tourists, diplomats, and the upper echelons of Lebanese society, is given 24-hour electricity by the Lebanese state. And here is the perhaps not so ironic truth; in Lebanon, the rich receive more electricity and can afford private generators. The less rich receive less electricity but can still afford private generators. The middle class receives still less electricity and, depending on which strata of the “middle” they occupy, might be able to afford a modest allowance (enough to power the refrigerator, a fluorescent light, and a fan) of electric amperes from a local entrepreneur. This descending scale continues until we reach the strata of Lebanese society that never experienced the “miracle” of Hariri’s post civil war reconstruction. A large strata that still showers using filled pots of water, washes their clothes by hand, and for whom a few hours of uninterrupted electricity is a surprise. This is not a phenomenon that is occurring now, during the latest heat wave sweeping the Middle East. This is not a crisis. This is the status quo in Lebanon. This summer, the status quo is being stretched thin.

Corruption. The word falls from the lips with the force (and sometimes, resigned humor) of the colorful swearwords that the Lebanese are famous for throughout the Arab world. Corruption. Ineptitude. Disregard. Inefficiency. I am happy to hear these words, happy that there is a class dynamic to a political discourse that is not swallowed by the easy and convenient catchphrases of “March 14” and “March 8,” or “Hariri” and “Hezbollah”. They try. There is talk of the parasitic nature of refugee camps and “certain areas” of Lebanon. “Those people” take electricity and don’t pay their bills, many fans of the Hariri -Geagea alliance say ad nausea. They have no facts to support these racist inflected assertions. “Those people” don’t care about us, they just give electricity to their people, many March 8ers respond, forgetting that the infrastructural impotence of the state is old and that the entire political class of Lebanon, including parties such as Hezbollah and Amal, is implicated. Infrastructure is political. It is a public good. In Lebanon, the fattest parasite on the skeleton of our electrical grids, our water tanks and our natural resources, is the state. And it always has been, regardless of who was in government at the time.

There is hope in anger. If corruption unites the warring politicians in Lebanon, it should also unite the citizens who are the victims of that corruption. But anger is not enough. This discourse on corruption and the banditry of Lebanese politicians and their business allies is still not strong enough to rival the dominant political discourses of sectarianism, regional rivalries and the omnipresent international “plots” against stability in Lebanon.

When a tire is lit, the fire eats at its flesh slowly. It licks away at the rubber until a snake like black smoke moves upwards and away from the now burning carcass. The smoke thickens, undulating in the wind until it begins to choke passers by with its carbon monoxide. It smells like a mixture of burning garbage and burning machinery, a smell that those of us who lived the civil war in Lebanon are familiar with. It almost has the aroma of nostalgia. When several tires are set alight to block a road, the police and, more commonly, the internal security forces are called in to quell the “riot.” When the riot started the next day of the 24-hour blackout in my neighborhood, I was busy throwing away spoiled food from my refrigerator. I smelled it before I saw it, and I smiled.  

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