Economic collapse, political chaos, wildfires, protests, pandemic and then a devastating explosion. Lebanese journalist and expat Lynn Chouman talks about how she and her countrymen are dealing with it all, why resilience is a double-edged sword, and how one relates to a country that keeps pushing you away, yet calling you home.
Music by Dyalla.
Transcripts are published for your convenience, but they are automated and not always cleaned up. Please excuses typos and occasional nonsense, and always check the audio before quoting.
Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:00] Hey, it's Isabelle. My heroes this week are my new patrons, Edward Sauer and Trafford Judd. I now have my hosting bill covered. Thank you. To help me make Borderline you can join at borderlinepod.com or look for it on Patreon. Members get every episode early, extra content and access, and a shout out right here. Thank you so much, Edward and Traff.
[00:00:21]Lynn Choumann: [00:00:21] this is why I'm revolting against the, the concept of resilience, because if you take pride in it, it becomes as if it's okay and you have to accept everything. I don't want to be strong. I just want to fix things so it doesn't happen anymore.
[00:00:38] Isabelle Roughol: [00:00:49] Hi, I'm Isabelle Roughol and this is Borderline.
[00:00:52] It's become a bit of a trope to say 2020 is an awful year. Yeah, none of us is having the year we'd hoped for or expected and except for a few strange ones, who've enjoyed lockdown -- and you know that friend -- we're all ready to move on. We get it.
[00:01:07] But if there's one group of people, who'd be excused for dwelling on just how terrible the past year has been, it'd be the Lebanese.
[00:01:14] It started with an economic collapse, which triggered political chaos in a country where politics is usually some shade of chaotic. There were wildfires, the worst in decades, and protests with up to a million people on the streets. Then only came the epidemic . And as COVID cases were rising, an apocalyptic explosion tore through Beirut, killing 200 people, injuring thousands and rendering hundreds of thousands homeless. Now unable to rise to the occasion, the political class has failed to come together and form a government.
[00:01:48] The Lebanese are used to chaos and used to leaving chaos behind. There are more Lebanese people outside the country, six to 9 million, than inside, about 4 million.
[00:02:00] One of those Lebanese ex-pats is my friend Lynn Chouman. She's a journalist in Dubai. We crossed paths at LinkedIn. She was on her way in when I was on my way out. She was home in Beirut in August and miraculously survived the explosion, not without injury or trauma. She kindly agreed to speak with me about how she and her countrymen are dealing with it all and how one relates to a country that keeps pushing you away, yet calling you home.
[00:02:27]Clearly, there was a lot weighing on her heart because she jumped right in. Let's jump right in with her.
[00:02:32] Interview [00:02:32]
[00:02:39] it's so good to talk to you. It's been a while.
[00:02:41] Lynn Choumann: [00:02:41] Yeah, thank you so much for thinking of me. I just really hope that I'll be able to put some, you know, points en relief or highlight them and maybe try and think with other people what they, um... their thoughts also would be amazing to have, because, it's still shocking to everyone that has been there and also to people who have heard about what's happening. It's still a shock that everyone is trying to absorb.
[00:03:12] Isabelle Roughol: [00:03:12] Yeah, I bet. Um, well, I, I don't know maybe that that's where we can start. I'm mindful of not wanting to repeat trauma, so feel free to share however much you, you want to. Um, and actually, you know, when you talk about a shock, are you talking about you know, the political situation, the explosion, both?
[00:03:31] Lynn Choumann: [00:03:31] Hmm. So I'm trying to think about this, right? Because I was directly subjected to the shock. I lived the shock, the explosion. I was super lucky because I got out of it alive. Um, and I'm observing myself. I'm trying to take notes of my reactions, my thoughts around it and the phases of how I'm dealing personally with this, and also how my friends and how the community in general is dealing with that.
[00:03:58]Um, So when I talk about shock, uh, I mean also absorbing the shock and realizing how used to disappointment um, certain communities are today, with also the world changing drastically around us. It's like you have to quickly get over things and quickly make sense out of things.
[00:04:23] So the shock, the physical one, the shock about death, the shock about you know, homeless people, we're talking about more than 300,000 homeless people, more than 200 deaths. We're talking also about, you know, a situation where we don't still don't have any understanding of, right?
[00:04:39] So what happened is on the fourth, on August 4th, a massive explosion hit the, the port of Beirut um, and it was an explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, right? So this happened on a regular day. Um, The cause of it, we know the title, right? We know the, the, the, the general framework, the cause of it is basically criminal negligence. But we still up until today, don't have an idea about what actually happened.
[00:05:13] So this is, this is a shock, you know, this is even more shocking than the scenery that I was subjected to, or, you know, the, the fact that I, I had glass fall over and over me or the, the, the deaths that I've seen. So, you know, it's like different layers of shock. Um,
[00:05:32] Also mostly this is the shock of the analysis that you hear today. And the political analysis that basically reminds you of every single thing that happened in the past. So basically when you, when, when you hear that the, the explosion that hit Beirut, you know, has led Lebanon to a point of no return, this expression that we, that we're hearing a lot and the press and, you know, with analysis, et cetera.
[00:06:00] So when you hear that, you think, and I'm sure I'm not the only one, what we actually think about when we hear that kind of analysis is what, you know, return to what exactly. and from what you know, so it's, it's a general, you know, state of uncertainty and things we are, and I am personally, still trying to, you know, pinpoint and identify.
[00:06:27] Isabelle Roughol: [00:06:27] well, we're gonna. We're going to try and talk through some of it. Um, I don't know if this will help you make sense. Um, I, I certainly, I know it will help me understand and hopefully help the audience as well.
[00:06:40] So when you, when you were talking about, um, the political analysis, is this what you're hearing about Lebanon, coming from foreign media, from the outside? Or is this what you're hearing from, from the inside and from Lebanese people themselves?
[00:06:55]Lynn Choumann: [00:06:55] Um, it's, it's both. Both uh, the international media and the local media are saying basically the same thing. And then they're trying to, you know, reflect what's happening on the ground, um, be it with the latest statements we've been hearing from Emmanuel Macron for example, or you know, the deadlock, uh, that is actually happening on the ground. But the main message, the main conclusion that those reports are you know, ending with is this is that we are getting to a point of no return, right? Um,
[00:07:28] So recently the Lebanese leaders were not up to the promise they personally gave Emmanuel Macron, the French president, after the explosion. Um, The promise was basically about forming a government, right?
[00:07:43] And if I want to analyze it a bit, or at least understand a bit my reaction towards this, it wasn't really surprising the fact that they didn't actually you know, come together and form a government after the explosion. It's not a surprise. It's not a surprise because one Macron is basically asking those political leaders who are deeply attached to their sectarianism, he's asking them to shoot themselves in the foot, um, like commit you know, political suicide. And, and also it's not surprising because failing to form a government is something that Lebanon is quite used to um, in its modern history. And what's actually happening today is basically giving a new chance to a group of parties who have failed their people over and over again.
[00:08:39] But, but beyond whether he was right or wrong to make comments or judgements, vis-a-vis what should be done in Lebanon, the desperation of the Lebanese people, you know, it's making them accept this and wait for the French president. Um, to support.
[00:08:54] Also one important point is that they're waiting also for financial aid, right? The financial aid is in the hands of the international community and financial aid is something that is really, really needed now in Lebanon. So I read a tweet, like someone said, "no Macron, no money" basically. It's also this kind of dynamic that is happening.
[00:09:18] Isabelle Roughol: [00:09:18] How does that make you feel as a, as a Lebanese woman, you know, to both, um, you know, not have much hope in internal leadership and at the same time, be at the mercy of external leadership?
[00:09:30]Lynn Choumann: [00:09:30] I think as, as unfortunate as my sentence would sound, but I'm used to this and I have grown up and I have built my personality and I'm not, I'm not talking about me, Lynn. And I think I'm talking about a lot of other people um, from Lebanon. Um, We just grew up and we just you know, learned to be adults away from a system that will protect us. Um, And the whole idea of government being on your side...
[00:10:06] you were talking in I think it was your last episode on the podcast. Yes, I do listen to it. And you were talking, um, with, uh, Wade, uh, Wade Davis, about this, about the role of government. The faith in your country, right? So basically it's when you know that the government is us, is you. Unfortunately we do not have this and this is not new . uh, because we've never actually relied on any system for guarantees.
[00:10:39] Because if I would rely on a certain system, this system is corrupt, which means that I am signing up for that. So I am signing up for a sectarian um, system that basically will not treat me equally, uh, with my you know, other, you know, with another Lebanese citizen, basically. So this is, this is my situation and I think the situation of many Lebanese.
[00:11:01]Isabelle Roughol: [00:11:01] So I wonder then, how does your... How does your Lebanese identity kind of work? How do you think about belonging to your country if you don't believe in its, in its government or its institutions?
[00:11:19] Lynn Choumann: [00:11:19] This is actually, this has been you know, on my mind for a couple of years now, I've been living abroad for eight years now, a bit more. And I often reflect about my sense of identity, because I haven't actually felt that my identity got weaker when I moved away from my country. Of course I am developing other sides of me and other belongings, right? But I never felt that even, even after the explosion, I did not feel that my sense of belonging and identity, um, um, got affected because maybe I, you know, after years and years of political deadlock and of wars... well, I was not born, but I was, you know, I was raised right after the war, right, with a very negative outlook on how things are looking, you know, the, the road ahead.
[00:12:11]Um, the question is, why are we still attached to this country? Because I see it in myself and I see it in many other Lebanese, be it in Lebanon or also abroad. So what does belonging mean to those who are still in Lebanon, but still at the same time would jump on any opportunity to leave. And also, so those who are part of the diaspora, who are lost slash trying to figure out their new sense of identity.
[00:12:41]Um, so maybe one, one way to answer this question is, the culture that brings us together is the common history that we have. Um, And by history, I mean the history that we got from a personal level, right? Because we also have a major problem in Lebanon that for instance, after the civil war happened and ended after 15 years basically of the civil war, we still have no, you know, one, uh, history, uh, to actually, you know, understand what happened during those 15 years.
[00:13:19] So when I say history, I do not mean political history. I mean, we have also relied on personal experience to, to find our sense of identity. And it's quite strong because I feel like in myself and in many Lebanese friends I have, because maybe the culture is very strong and the story is even stronger.
[00:13:46]Um, So this is maybe, um, why we kept this side of, you know, this hold of identity. Um, I was reading right before the explosion, actually I was rereading, Amin Maalouf um, randomly, it was, I don't even remember what led me to pick up his book again. And, and, and I remember, I stumbled upon like one of his quotes that I really love.
[00:14:11] He says, "I come from no country, from no city, no tribe. I am the son of the roads. All tongues and all prayers belong to me, but I belong to none of them."
[00:14:27] And I reflected a lot about this because being an expat and also a Lebanese, I do feel a very strong sense of belonging. But at the same time, I feel a very sense of freedom from this because I don't rely on a system.
[00:14:49]Isabelle Roughol: [00:14:49] there's so much to unpack here. Um, the point you made about the history, is it that there's no kind of shared national narrative of, you know, what's happened in the past decades that, that everyone can agree on? Is that what you mean?
[00:15:03] Lynn Choumann: [00:15:03] Yeah, exactly. So, so, so the civil war lasted for 15 years almost, killed more than 90,000 people. That was the Taif agreement that came right after the war. And that basically this agreement stated, uh, that it's very important to abolish the political sectarianism, right? Um, And it basically gave all the leaders, the Lebanese leaders um, a chance, and even you know, an ask to abolish political sectarianism and for this to be a fundamental national objective.
[00:15:39] But years after the agreement came into effect, no reform actually happened. And those leaders were not able to come together and agree on, you know, one rhetoric, which puts us in this weird place. And obviously this led to like those political leaders, um, staying there and giving or doing absolutely no reform.
[00:16:11]Isabelle Roughol: [00:16:11] we hear a lot about sectarianism in Lebanon and, and you know, how much things are divided between the different communities. And then the Lebanese diaspora is, you know, one of the largest in the world, uh, if you look you know, comparatively to the population of Lebanon, and it's in my experience, at least it just feels like a diaspora that actually has a very strong sense of identity. There are people from all over the world that I, that I encounter as ex-pats and you feel like Lebanese people, like I will know pretty quickly that they're Lebanese cause it's just something that they, that they seem to put forward a lot and be proud of.
[00:16:49] Lynn Choumann: [00:16:49] I think that identity inside and outside of Lebanon is very strong. Um, but what is particular about it is that it is personal, and you do realize how, you know, uh, you know, it's homogeneous actually. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with the common sense of history, but it has to do with many, many layers of a culture. Be it music, be it literature, be it um, sentences and sayings, be it education. Um, And it's weird because you see a population that is super divided in terms of sects, and you see a population that is super divided when it comes to having one you know, political identity, one political power, and it's chaos, it's chaotic. But then again, exactly what you were saying, when you meet a Lebanese, you know that they are Lebanese, uh, and it is homogeneous.
[00:17:58] So the identity is there, but it's a particular one because it is the identity of culture. Um, so maybe that would, that is what makes um, Lebanese a bit, you know, Lebanese the way they are. Um, And it's in the details, but it's also in the values that they have.
[00:18:20] When they talk about, you know, resilience, for example, it's this word some people and including myself are now a bit sensitive to, but those values that we cultivated because this population has been through a lot. This is what gives us the common denominator. And this is what basically make us, makes us, you know, have this identity.
[00:18:47] Isabelle Roughol: [00:18:47] Hmm. Sort of unity in adversity. you just touched on something big I think here, you said you have an issue with, with resilience. Tell me about that.
[00:18:59] Lynn Choumann: [00:18:59] Yeah, because it's a, it's a concept that we were raised on. It's the idea of being strong and getting over things. It is what our parents' generation took pride of, which is amazing when you think of of it, right? Resilience is very important. Resilience helps you to deal with shocks and it helps you to think of the way forward, it helps you to basically build on um, your reality, whether it's a good reality or bad reality. So super proud of this resilience factor, um, after those wars and after all the conflict that that Lebanon has been through.
[00:19:47] I remember for example, my father and his best friend, um, you know, taking us to downtown Beirut at the beginning of the nineties, we were kids. The beginning of the nineties, the war had just ended. And they finally had the chance to go to downtown Beirut again, after 15 years. my brother and I , we saw them like super happy and you know, they didn't even believe that they actually were in downtown Beirut after all this time. So they would have tears in their eyes super touched, super proud that their city, Beirut is still alive after, you know, 15 years of blood, of death... maybe they were reflecting on themselves as well, right? They were giving themselves an homage, uh, for what they have been through, um, the inhumane um, situations they have bee, you know, dealing with, uh, because of the war...
[00:20:46] but us, my brother and I, you know, we would look at the city at the downtown, downtown Beirut, and not really understand the pride of, of my father and his best friend, the pride of resilience. of course now I do get it because the city is still there. But we would tell them, Hey, your buildings have bullets in them. the only thing you can share about your city and those places is the past, but still, you know, they would be proud of this.
[00:21:21] And now I'm a bit sensitive when it comes to mentioning resilience, because how I think about it today is that, "Hey, you know what, maybe I, I don't have to deal with this. there shouldn't have been an explosion because of someone being corrupt and, and having a criminal, you know, uh, either intention or whatever. Like I maybe, maybe I should not even deal with that." Um, so this is why I'm revolting against the, the concept of resilience, because if you take pride in it, at a certain point, it becomes as if it's okay and you have to deal with everything and you have to accept everything.
[00:22:04] And I think the Lebanese people have accepted so much throughout the year because they were not empowered to, to do anything about it. So this is why I have a problem today with the concept of resilience. Although deep down in me, I do take pride as well, exactly like my dad and I do reflect in the same way as he did when he saw downtown Beirut, and I have the same thoughts when I see my streets today, but I prefer to you know, hide it and say, I don't want to be strong. I just want to fix things so it doesn't happen anymore.
[00:22:46] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:46] Hmm. That's so important that yeah, you can be proud to be strong, but you shouldn't have to have to be so strong all the time, right?
[00:22:56] Lynn Choumann: [00:22:56] Yeah.
[00:22:57] Isabelle Roughol: [00:22:57] In a way, resilience is a, can become a renouncement just, just giving up on demanding better.
[00:23:04] Lynn Choumann: [00:23:04] Exactly. Exactly. It's basically acceptance. It's a double edge sword, acceptance. So accepting is good because it makes you absorb, understand, but it also makes you numb and it makes you passive. Not saying we're passive, not at all, but it is why I think some of us are being a bit sensitive about this notion.
[00:23:28]Isabelle Roughol: [00:23:28] And the Lebanese people are not passive. We saw, you know, before, before all this, before COVID, before the explosion, um, there were many protests, um, in Beirut, it was, it was, you know, kind of one of the, it feels like another lifetime, but it was one of the big stories of, uh, of last year and the start of 2020. Are you hopeful that things can still change?
[00:23:53]Lynn Choumann: [00:23:53] Last October, basically something huge happened in Beirut, it was supposed to be, you know, the disruption. You know, The Disruption with a, with a capital, everything. So the banking sector was starting to collapse basically, fires devastating our forests back then exposing, you know, once again another, you know, um, corruption file.
[00:24:17] So last October it was, um, millions of Lebanese. Um, Or a million, uh, sorry. Like we don't have the exact numbers , but they took to the streets to take back what's theirs basically. And this led to the prime minister resigning and then, you know, another political major political deadlock. And a couple of weeks after that the pandemic started and, you know, the acceleration of the economic collapse basically exposed everything, exposed what was happening way before October, and it all went you know, exponential.
[00:24:58] So basically before that, so the core cause, uh, or one of the core causes of the problem is that the central bank of Lebanon set super high interest rates, which led basically experts to send waves and waves of money to Lebanon to put them in banks. The returns on those deposits were at points like 15%, like huge. this money was used to finance the corrupt country, right?
[00:25:30] So everything crashed when the money from outside basically stopped coming. Um, and there was no longer, you know, any financing stream, uh, to the dues, to the bills that had to be paid. And this was happening before October, but with the movements, um, blocking, you know, um, you know, blocking the streets for instance, and also with the pandemic, all this accelerated. And it led basically to more and more economic collapse. In March Lebanon defaulted on its debt for the first time ever. Today, um, the situation is the following: Lebanon's foreign reserves are basically drying up. Uh, the currency, the Lebanese lira is expected to, you know, have more, uh, you know, severe dips. The central bank may even, you know, stop subsidizing basic items. And we talk about this, it's basically economic terms, but what it means is. Basically in the past year, um, the Lebanese in Lebanon, they started to get poorer by the minute, they started to suffer from an economic devastation. Um, they saw it, the, the, the money bills that they had in their hands turn into like a paper with super little value.
[00:26:54] The Lebanese in Lebanon also, they witnessed and took part of massive demonstrations that didn't lead to any change they were aspiring for. And then came the coronavirus. They had to close down their shops again, they had to see their salaries gods again, they had to lose jobs and then came the blasts.
[00:27:18] if you only take the blast, you think it's devastating. So imagine all this in one year. I don't know about the hope of things changing, and I don't know about the hope of the movement going back and being strong as they were because of the current situation basically. So, yeah.
[00:27:44]Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:44] How old were you when you left Lebanon?
[00:27:47] Lynn Choumann: [00:27:47] I was 25, 26. I would say 25, 26 when I left. Yes.
[00:27:54] Isabelle Roughol: [00:27:54] Is this something that you and maybe your peers in school, is this something that you always pictured doing?
[00:28:02] Lynn Choumann: [00:28:02] Yes. Um, in a typical Lebanese family, I don't want to say something that is statistically not correct, but I would want to say in every Lebanese family, there is at least one person living abroad. It is a concept we are used to, we've been used to for decades. We are migrants by nature as well, right? So from our old history, throughout you know the World Wars and our modern history, migration and going abroad, um, is something that we are very used to.
[00:28:41]What is different I think across migration cycles is the idea that people have about Lebanon or about returning to Lebanon when they go abroad. my grandfather for instance, he traveled and lived a couple of years abroad because things were looking better out there. They were looking fine in Lebanon, but they were looking better elsewhere. So he basically migrated for a couple of years to take advantage of that and to explore, you know, new horizons when it comes to his professional life and, you know, make a better living.
[00:29:20] But recently in the last couple of years, the migration has been happening because of desperation unfortunately. So that's the difference.
[00:29:31]Isabelle Roughol: [00:29:31] What does that mean for, you know, the prospect of returning? Like, do you think of, of returning to Lebanon?
[00:29:39] Lynn Choumann: [00:29:39] Personally and you might think I'm very crazy, but I do. And I've always had that in mind and I've always had this goal. Of course I do um, question it a lot and sometimes I fight with it when I'm faced with a challenging situation, like the explosion. And it's cute, I'm mentioning "challenging situation," it's a devastating situation, but I'm trying to be as chilled about it, just in order for me to keep thinking the way, you know, rationally, right?
[00:30:14] But for some reason, and maybe because of the, the set of you know, culture layers that I have, um, and also because of the good story that I have in my mind about Lebanon... I know this is super emotional. It has absolutely no rational basis because I'm just explaining to you how messed up and how chaotic the country is. But still, for some reason, I still do want to come back and explore, um, you know, what the country and you know, its stories can teach me.
[00:30:54] Because I'm always in a, I'm always surprised every time I go there, how much I learn. And I'm always surprised by the level of you know, richness, I'm not talking about money. Money is unfortunately not there, especially now. I'm talking about, you know, the reflexes of people, I'm talking about the, those conversation that you have in very random setups. I'm talking about streets that have history that speak out, you know, that speaks out to you. Um, stories everywhere, basically. Um, I'm talking about very witty jokes that the taxi drivers would tell you and he would make your day. And I'm talking about women who are, who basically never let go, who are always fighting so gracefully , who are always fighting with so much tenderness.
[00:31:58] And, and this teaches me a lot, even when I go there for only three days, you know, I come back and I say, wow, that was a trip. And I know I'm from there, right? I'm like a hundred percent Lebanese, but I still learn a lot when I hike somewhere in the mountains and then I meet this family. And it's my country and it's my culture, but still it's crazy.
[00:32:25] And maybe it's that, it's you know, I'm, I'm, I'm charmed. Maybe it's the state , or the, the element that we all have in common, right? Maybe it's that.
[00:32:37] Isabelle Roughol: [00:32:37] That's what, that's what belonging is, what you're describing.
[00:32:42] Lynn Choumann: [00:32:42] Yup. Exactly.
[00:32:45]Isabelle Roughol: [00:32:45] I just had a big smile on my face. You made me want to go to Lebanon and see it through your eyes.
[00:32:51] Lynn Choumann: [00:32:51] my God. I would really, really love to. And trying to be as rational as I can, but I would really love to extend this invitation to you in the next couple of months, because, you know, I have slight hope that is absolutely not rational that things might be okay. So I really hope that you'll be able to make it.
[00:33:16]Isabelle Roughol: [00:33:16] Well, let's hope. Um, It's not the best traveling time right now, but when it is, uh, when it is, I will meet you in Beirut. Absolutely.
[00:33:25] I can't think of a better definition of belonging than Lynn gave us -- the good story you have in your mind about a place. It makes me think global citizens do belong: they're just listening to many stories.
[00:33:42]Lebanon certainly knows how to tell one. But it can't be a bedtime story, one that makes you close your eyes. Resilience, Lynn reminded us, is not resignation and we should all expect more than just getting by and sort of making do.
[00:33:57] I want to thank Lynn Chouman for opening up so generously, and thank you for listening.
[00:34:02] Remember you can help me make the pod and get every episode early by joining at borderlinepod.com or looking for Borderline on Patreon. You can also help absolutely for free by sharing Borderline with your friends and giving it a quick five-star review in Apple Podcasts.
[00:34:18] And to you Frenchies still listening after 35 minutes in English, bravo! There is a French podcast now, Borderline : La V.F. with a new episode just out about Australia.
[00:34:28] Everything I just mentioned, you can find at Borderlinepod.com. There are now transcripts too for every episode on the website. Again, borderlinepod.com.
[00:34:36] Borderline is a One Lane Bridge production. Music is by Dyalla. Talk to you next week.
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