The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Lebanese are despairing over their next meal as the economic crisis worsens

A woman looks inside a building in early May after it was torched during clashes in Tripoli, Lebanon, as the devaluation of the Lebanese currency triggered a new wave of protests. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

BEIRUT — The Lebanese love their food. Their elaborate spreads of grilled and sauteed meats, colorful salads and various vegetable dips, usually garnished with pine nuts, are a source of pride and the shared meals a symbol of generosity.

Today, more than ever, food is on everyone’s mind — because there is so little to be had.

From the butchers and taxi drivers of Beirut to the aficionados of Tripoli’s famed sweets to the anti-government protesters in the streets, hunger is on everyone’s tongue.

Lebanon’s escalating economic crisis and its collapsing currency are putting the price of many foodstuffs beyond the reach of the Lebanese. The price of meat, for example, has doubled since March, with ground beef now running at about $9 a pound.

Mustafa, a 73-year-old butcher in Beirut, said the same customer has been calling him every other day for weeks asking whether the prices have dropped: “He calls and says, ‘No, that’s expensive,’ and hangs up. But it’s only getting more expensive.” Mustafa who out of fear declined to give his full name, said he no longer bothers updating his price list.

Rarely does a Lebanese meal lack tomatoes — minuscule cubes hiding among parsley and bulgur in tabbouleh salad, or stewed with onions and garlic, a base for countless other dishes — but tomato prices have also doubled. Shoppers who used to haul away kilogram after kilogram of tomatoes without a second thought are rationing, buying half a kilo or a few tomatoes at a time, said one grocer, shaking his head in disbelief.

And in the northern city Tripoli, which is known for its sweets — the most famous featuring semolina-and-cheese dough wrapped around clotted cream and drizzled with orange-blossom syrup — and where desserts are never an afterthought, the city’s most famous confectioner, Hallab, was uncharacteristically empty. Even though it was Ramadan, when an evening meal usually lasts for hours and ends with the family gathering around the television with tea or coffee and a flaky or creamy dessert, there was no holiday rush.

“We can’t even buy dessert,” Um Ahmed, a Tripoli resident, said wearily. “The dessert shops are open, but there’s no money.”

“Well, there are those who have money,” her husband, Abu Ahmed, said sarcastically, “such as our ministers and MPs — may God protect them.”

Decades of fiscal mismanagement and corruption have deepened Lebanon’s economic troubles. The value of the Lebanese pound has collapsed, dollars are nearly impossible to find, and unemployment is soaring. Protests that erupted in October, demanding an end to corruption and nepotism, quieted down for a time but have returned on a smaller scale in the past few weeks as the local currency’s value fell below 4,000 pounds to the dollar, after being pegged for decades at 1,500 to the dollar.

Like the rest of the world, Lebanon is battling the coronavirus. After an early lockdown, the number of new cases declined. But as the restrictions were eased, infections increased sharply, prompting the government earlier this month to reinforce some public health measures. The cabinet later extended the restrictions, another blow to the economy.

A new wave of protesters, most of them poor and hungry, has taken out frustration on banks, which have enforced capital controls and limited people’s access to their money. Several banks have been torched.

On May Day, dozens of protesters descended on Tripoli’s main square. “It’s been six months of us saying ‘Peaceful, peaceful’!” yelled one man. “The hungry no longer has anything left to lose. He has nothing left to lose. What do they expect from someone who has nothing left to lose?”

Abu Ahmed, a retired soldier, went to his bank in Tripoli to withdraw his pension. Instead, he and his wife watched in disbelief as workers drilled metal sheets over their bank’s windows, doors and ATM. This was their second trip to a bank that day, and their mood was sour, having just found out that Tripoli’s taxi rate had doubled.

“Everything is so expensive. Everything is just beyond expensive,” said Um Ahmed, 45. “People have put up with so much already.”

“There’s no work. There’s no way to earn your living,” said Abu Ahmed, 50. In a flat monotone, he listed items with inflated prices: bread, chicken, eggs, meat. For every kilogram of meat they used to buy, they now buy less than a tenth of that.

“You used to live your best days in Ramadan,” he added. “In normal days, whatever food you make, people will eat. But in Ramadan, you fast all day for 13 hours to eventually eat a meal that brings you joy and brings your kids joy. But now, that’s over.”

Hatem Ajib, a Beirut cabdriver, said he tried to take out $66 from his bank but was told he was not allowed to withdraw less than $100.

“I’ve been working for a month without reaching $100,” he said, laughing somewhat maniacally through his face mask, before switching to yelling and slamming his palms against his steering wheel in palpable frustration. “How am I going to get you $100? Do I just sit without food?”

At a fish market in Beirut, one fisherman said the prices of the local catch have increased as the shortage of dollars have stopped the import of seafood. Even the price of the instant coffee Nescafé, a beloved staple in Lebanese households, has doubled.

In a sprawling market on the outskirts of the capital, where grocers in beat-up trucks buy their wares, four Syrian women in baggy, patched clothes and black headscarves appeared to be shopping. When asked what they planned to make for iftar, the festive meal that breaks the daytime fast during Ramadan, one said, “Depends on what vegetables they throw out.”

Their husbands are Syrian refugees and had lost their jobs. They had not had meat for the entirety of Ramadan. “Sometimes we go to sleep without iftar,” said one in a small voice, who did not give her name because of the shame of her economic struggles.

“A proper meal needs meat, needs rice, needs [cooking] gas and vegetables,” said Zahraa, 35. Now, she said, she cannot afford to feed her family a complete meal. She has to choose among rice, meat, tomatoes and potatoes.

“I would like to buy two trays of dessert to bring home. I can’t,” she said. “Nor can I afford to buy its ingredients to make it at home. I can’t buy sugar and ghee and butter anymore.”

Pistachios and pine nuts, essential in savory meals and sweet desserts, are a distant dream.

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