Beirut Blackout: Like Country, Like Capital
On Monday night, Lebanon suddenly fell into darkness. Although most areas in the country are accustomed to severe power rationing, the residents Beirut were caught unprepared as electricity outages are kept to minimum in the capital.
People in Beirut are reminded of Dahiyeh (Beirut’s less fortunate southern suburbs) as soon as the electricity goes out at an irregular time. “Are we now like Dahiyeh?” they object.
But it is an objection that does not last for long, especially for those who know that people in Dahiyeh do not suffer much due to backup electrical generators.
There is no clear reason for the “spontaneous” comparison with that area in particular. But it is not devoid of malice, since many other areas also suffer from harsh rationing, such as Choueifat and the Matn, for example.
People in Beirut do not sympathize with those in Dahiyeh, whom the capital’s residents believed solved their problem by subscribing to electrical generators or pirating the state’s electricity. Over there, all it takes is to memorize the schedule for the power outages in the different neighborhoods.
The schedule in Beirut city is different. Rationing is based on a schedule and does not exceed 3 hours per day (between 6am and 6pm). The city’s residents have become accustomed to arranging their day-to-day activities according to that schedule.
They organize their work around electricity cuts. They have gotten used to it and it seems nobody is thinking of buying generators to supply homes with electricity.
People are also not ready to pay extra costs. A good number of relatively new buildings have their own generators. But the power cuts started playing tricks on them.
Rationing in some areas in Beirut has increased. Monday night, in particular, was a catastrophe. The capital suddenly fell into darkness for several hours, making city residents feel like it was “end of the world!”
When the electricity went out, Nadim, who lives in the Gemmayze district of Beirut thought it was a temporary fault that would be solved in an hour at most. He then discovered that electricity was cut throughout the city.
Is it a new round of settling political scores? This is what he had concluded, especially after news that striking “electricity workers stormed the office of the general director of the electricity company (EDL) Kamal Hayek.”
The lights went went out around 7:15pm. He waited for a little while before stepping out onto the balcony to find most of his neighbors on their balconies.
They began to chat but he did not feel optimistic. Everyone was saying sarcastically that “the summer seems promising.”
Suddenly the balconies merged and discussions became public. It seemed like a dialogue roundtable without the air conditioning. Everybody prayed for a soft breeze that would alleviate the harsh heat. Some did not even care to appear barely dressed before their neighbors.
The discussions turned into politics. Some neighbors promptly blamed energy minister Gebran Bassil, saying he is fully responsible for the situation. Others defended him, claiming the reason was deliberate sabotage.
Night fell and people started looking for alternative sources of light. The neighborhood grocery was packed. Everybody was looking for candles. Elie was one of them.
He was worried that the crisis will continue and his backup battery will run out. He seemed furious. Not able to handle the heat anymore, he decided to subscribe to a generator at the beginning of next month.
Hadi searched for a another place to sleep but could not find anything, since all his relatives live in Beirut. It is the same situation everywhere. But how could their toddler sleep in this heat?
They undressed him and moistened his body with tepid water. In the process, Bassil received his share of insults. They used a piece of cardboard as a fan to cool off the infant.
The place was surrounded with candles because they forgot to charge the emergency battery. They tried to create the illusion of a romantic family gathering, then apologized for bringing him into such a country.
They promised him they will immigrate and things will be better. But he was feeling very hot. He would smile as the cardboard fan stirred the air, and would burst into tears as soon as it stopped.
Electricity takes you from one era to another in a matter of seconds. “How will I disinfect the milk bottles?” his mother complained. But there is no escaping fate.
An infant knows nothing but tears to express its discomfort. But Yara, who is seven, realized that something is wrong. “Why did they cut the electricity at a different time? Don’t they know it is hot?” she asked her mother.
Her four-year-old sister surrendered to sleep, but kept moaning all night, her neck filled with sweat. Her family used to depend on a UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supply) battery backup system during the three-hour cuts. Her mother thought it would suffice.
But lately, she began hearing people demanding backup generators in Beirut, because nothing is sure anymore and severe rationing has reached the city.
She knew that the petrol station near her house in the Corniche al-Mazraa district of Beirut began supplying backup electricity during the three-hour power cuts. But what if it becomes longer? “We will have to look for an alternative then. As if we need extra bills!” she replies.
Maya bought her mother two apple-scented candles from Canada. They were intended for decoration. But her mother was forced to use them that night. She knew subscriptions are not allowed in the city of Beirut due to the short rationing period. If the situation remains the same, they might need to buy a small generator for their own use.
Many people did not return to their homes early on Monday. They waited for the electricity to come back on in areas that have generators. Their city arrogance was shattered suddenly.
Wafaa remained in her office until 10pm, especially since she has no way to light her home. She had known that she must always be ready for an emergency, but she could not fathom that Beirut would face such a situation.
Darkness did not spare students studying for official examinations, currently underway. The state seems to be testing their patience, not satisfied with their scholarly exams to measure their abilities.
Should Beirut be made equal with other regions or should it be the other way around? But if the second option is impossible, then what could the solution be? Who bears responsibility?
Abed was sitting at a cafe in Hamra when the blackout abruptly struck. He decided to take a short walk before going home. The darkness did not shock him.
He did not resent the two conflicting sides, Bassil and Prime Minister Najib Mikati, believing that the Lebanese deserved it because they keep electing the same people. It is a cliche that needs to be repeated.
He wished the electricity would go out for three consecutive days until the economy collapses and the authorities are forced to come up with real solutions, prompted by the people’s anger.
Generators, UPS devices, and candles are not a solution. They are merely sedatives that lead to people burning tires in protest at the end of the day.
“A Boy Can Shut Down a Whole Neighborhood”
With every power cut, groups of young men spill out into the streets to burn tires in protest. But who are they? And why are they burning tires?
Mohamed, who has been burning tires up until recently, says that “anger is the main driving force, but most people doing this are also poor. They do not have money or cars for entertainment. Therefore boredom could be another reason to go out in the street.”
Nader, on the other hand, says, “I know that smoke reaches our home and that people whose path we block are also poor like us and it is not their fault. But I am annoyed and other people should also be annoyed.”
The reason behind this type of protest is that the people affected cannot directly target those politicians responsible for their pent up anger, Ahmed believes. Only when they block the roads, do they feel a certain power.
Tires are chosen because rubber burns slowly and for a long time. They are also free. Next to any tire shop, there is always a pile of useless tires. Shop owners leave them there on purpose to get rid of them.
Recently, Sukleen (Lebanon’s sanitation company) started asking tire shops in the “hot” zones to deliver discarded tires daily. Those who abide by this decision usually tie the tires outside their shops with a chain.
Tire burners are not worried though. They say that anything that can burn will be suitable for the operation.
Mohamed believes there are two types of tire burners. “The first are those who choose the tires to represent them in the government. The second are the ‘troublemakers’ who wait for breaking news of burning tires to come down and partake in the ritual for no reason,” he explains.
He says the silliest thing a tire burner usually hears is about the damage this can cause to his health or the health of others. “In the year 2012, has there been more damage by anything than the lack of electricity?” he asks.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.