Sunday, April 18, 2021

In Lebanon: A redefinition of what is middle class is due.

Fa - artwork by Tarek Chemaly

Middle class, a term frequently used but seldom understood here in Lebanon. I bet no Lebanese has a solid understanding of social stratification and its difficult nuances. Has anyone heard of Max Weber? I think not. And even those who have heard of Karl Marx probably did so through some reference by Ziad Rahbani. If I say this is it because, without any doubt, what is "middle class" in Lebanon is surely eroding.

The current economic crisis has brought many to change their spending habits, their ability to show off which is primordial to the Lebanese m'as-tu-vu system (everything is based on keeping up with the Joneses), the penchant for bragging (or as a friend put it, "I knew that restaurant was dead when my aunt stopped doing her children's birthdays in it"), the hype system (which makes a shop like Zara become high end or an eatery like Paul which is basically something you find in the French metro a proper exclusive restaurant), and the lowest-common-denominator comparisons (Marmaris in Turkey becomes a coveted destination). 

But now all this is gone. The new system is still being built. Surely political powers still hold sway on the populace, but even that is shifting and morphing. Even Zara itself has climbed the echelons to bypass the middle class at this stage. The proliferation of cash economy and pay on delivery as well as second-hand buying are but signifiers of how symbols of what constitutes middle class is changing.

One of the easiest signals to detect as house helps - many were left to their own devices at embassy doors, others quit outright because they were no longer being properly paid (due to the absence of Dollars in the Lebanese market), and economists who say that foreign workers are siphoning Dollars from the economy to their home countries seem unaware that - class restrictions withstanding - local women (even if unemployed and in dire need of money) would not accept to work in houses to replace helps coming from Ethiopia or other nations.

I recently told the story of how at a fancy store, many people would come in ask about the maamoul prices that tripled since last year (maamoul being the traditional Easter cookie) and leave without buying. Without having solid statistics, I can however tell you the cases of many supposedly middle class houses who bypassed maamoul buying this year under different guises - their mother has diabetes, "aslan ma 7ada 3am yeje" (to begin with no one is visiting), am on a diet - but truth be told, it all goes back to: The prices are exorbitant and better spent elsewhere.

A doctor I know, fresh from visiting her husband who works in an Arab country, told me she brought an extra bag filled with powdered milk and other such items for her kids considering how expensive - if at all found - they have become in the Lebanese market. 

Tailors and cobblers are making excellent business, suddenly everyone is waking up to having things that need repairing, because it is much cheaper than buying new items since the throwaway culture had taken hold of Lebanon. And again, what was something that took no time (changing a zipper replacing buttons) is now taking days at repair shops.

I am not saying all this with a negative mindset, on the contrary, a change had to happen and sadly it came about due to the wrong reasons. Still, a redefinition of what is middle class is due in Lebanon.