Flip the disjoncteur
One morning soon after we arrived in Beirut this summer the state-supplied electricity came on at seven and stayed on. It was still on at eight, still on at nine, still on at ten, still on at eleven. We did a few rounds of laundry; we even ran the dryer. We turned on the air conditioners and could not bring ourselves to turn them off even when the house got cold. The electricity was still on when we left at noon. It was out by the time we returned from lunch and never came back for more than an hour a day in the weeks that followed.
‘Why is the light out?’ our toddler asks. Because there is no electricity, we tell him. Why is there no electricity? Because in Lebanon sometimes there is no electricity. Why? Because there is no state, I say, only half joking. Why? We prod him down the stairs. He has taken to chanting in Arabic ‘the state has come,’ shorthand for the state-supplied electricity’s coming on, which used to be signalled by a blast of cold air from the living-room AC. Then the AC stopped working and we were told it could only be repaired when ‘the state was on’ but this happens at an unpredictable hour, often very early in the morning. The twins both move around by bum shuffling, and if they go out on the balcony they come back with the backs of their legs covered in soot from the neighbourhood generators. We keep the doors closed. My father has come to our rescue with battery-operated fans.
The building where we are staying – relatively new and fancy – has a private generator that is turned on for ten hours a day. The owner explained that it would allow us to operate only one appliance at a time, but with the summer heat kicking in, I have found a way to turn the bedroom air conditioner on before the washing-machine cycle finishes. This is an art, not a science, and the circuit still sometimes gets overloaded. My husband goes downstairs and flips the circuit breaker (disjoncteur).
When we last spent the summer here, three years ago, our apartment was supplied with electricity from a private generator for the three hours the state did not come. If the circuit overloaded we had to call the bad-tempered manager of the petrol station where the generator was housed. My husband’s Western accent only further provoked his disdain at our seeming inability not to turn too many appliances on: ‘You are not in your country,’ he would say.
In Lebanon, unlike most other countries, including poorer ones, the state, which has always struggled to provide continuous supply, now provides barely any. In my ancestral village in the south, the electricity rarely comes on – we found ants in the fridge. In the north, meanwhile, the city of Byblos has vowed to provide almost 22 hours of electricity during the tourist season. It has its own power plant operating as what is known as a ‘concession’ – it produces its own electricity but also uses the national grid. The only other city with its own concession is Zahle in the Bekaa Valley, but hopes have been building, and international grants provided, for solar power schemes that would make communities energy self-sufficient and not reliant on the state – fuelling in the process federalist aspirations.
Those who can afford it are not waiting for the collective schemes but have already installed private solar panels on their roofs and balconies. Loans are available from entities that traditionally provide mortgages, like the Banque de l’Habitat, a public-private partnership, and the al-Qard al-Hasan Association, close to Hizbullah. A licence is supposedly required to install the panels, though some friends have told me that they got one after the fact, others that it is in fact a bribe, not a licence, that’s needed, and yet others that the contractor who installs the panels sorts all of that out. Public servants, including those who would approve such applications, have been on strike for a long time anyway.
The main hurdle remains arguments over the use of shared spaces. In my parents’ building, someone installed panels on the elevator shaft, other residents complained, the municipal inspector showed up and the panels were removed. I’ve also heard of a lithium battery (for storing the solar energy) exploding in fumes a few days after it was installed in someone’s kitchen. The cat was home alone; he dropped dead a couple of days afterwards.
There are posters advertising initiatives to operate traffic lights using solar power. In the meantime, they only work when ‘the state is on’. Opinions differ as to whether or not this occasional appearance of authority should be complied with, increasing the risk of accidents. Most road tunnels are unlit and drivers will often turn their flashers on, creating a dingy disco atmosphere until you re-emerge into the smoggy light of the city. While the streets are dark at night in some areas of the city, others bustle and burst with lights and music from the busy terraces of pubs and restaurants.
After the elections in May, which brought in a small number of new reform-minded parliamentarians, the head of a polling station was interviewed on the news about the frequent power cuts and whether they could have led to voting irregularities. He retorted: ‘I told them that when the power cuts, they should just flip the disjoncteur.’