Thursday, October 15, 2020

Lollar, Bira, and Lebanon's cashless economy

Bira logo design by Patrick Chemali
Concept coined by Dan Azzi

First was the Lollar. Now the Bira. If it seems am talking gibberish, then welcome to Lebanon.

Both terms coined by Dan Azzi, both logos by Patrick Chemali (disclosure: Both Dan and Patrick are friends).

Ever since, a year ago, Lebanese banks closed for two weeks when the political tumult started (known as thawra), and saw people's trust in them nosedive, Lebanon went steadily into a cash economy as people mostly tried to avoid having their money in banks and exchanged everything with cold hard cash. Throughout this year, I only used my bank card (which is in USD) only once. Pay on delivery stores proliferated everywhere. Once I was at a fancy store and picked a steeply discounted jacket, when I tried to pay for it, the system repeatedly declined my card. I told the assistant something was wrong as the card had a lot of money in it. She shrugged and said "I know, it is our bank machine going insane!". Another design store had a sign that said, "please pay cash or in Lebanese cards, our machine is declining Dollar cards".

Sweden is on its way to becoming a cashless economy, and yesterday, the Banque du Liban thought Elias the grocer and Ali the barber and Fatima who sells Islamically compliant scarves and Carole who sells fake perfumes are all equipped with credit/debit card machines. Basically, and understandably, BDL was unable to get the fuel, medicine and bread un-subsidized, so trying to stretch its meager reserves as much as it can, it capped the Lebanese cash withdrawal from banks and suggested using cards would be just as fine, thank you very much. Elias, Ali, Fatima and Carole beg to differ.

Well, I might be stretching my logic, but it still stands. People have zero faith in banks at this stage, they want to avoid putting their money there. So the idea of cash under the pillow was truly comforting for them. "I Like My Money Right Where I Can See It. Hanging In My Closet," said Carrie Bradshaw in Sex And The City. Many Lebanese would agree. Though the money is not hanging, but rather hidden in the green jacket's upper pocket or in the second shoe box to the left.