Director's Address 2021:
(From the yearly report 2021)
Writing this address in early 2022, in icy temperatures very unusual for Lebanon at this time of the year, feels just like continuing the rather dire reporting from last year when it comes to living conditions in the country. Since 2017, when I came to head OIB, living conditions have deteriorated steadily, first imperceptibly, then more and more dramatically.
It was in early November 2017 that then PM Saad Hariri could be seen on Saudi TV reading his resignation as prime minister of Lebanon. After this first public Lebanon- Saudi Arabia crisis of several, Gulf capital was withdrawn steadily from Lebanese banks, precipitating the currency crisis that led to the popular uprising two years later, in 2019. COVID-19 and the Beirut Harbor Explosion did their part to further aggravate the economic melt-down which now affects all walks of life.
The national currency devalued steadily over the last year, from 10.000 LL to the Dollar in March 2021 to 30.000 LL in December. Dollar reserves dwindled further, and a major fuel crisis ensued. People queued endlessly in long lines at gas stations and stopped using their cars, if at all possible. Whoever could work from home, did so. In August, an end to fuel subsidies was announced and gasoline reappeared at gas stations for high prices. The most severe crises turned out to be the shortage in electricity. In March 2021, the Turkish power company which had supplied electricity to Lebanon by power ships along the coast withdrew them after not having been paid in more than a year. The electricity crisis in the country soared. The long city tunnels of Beirut are without light, day and night which makes driving difficult. Beirut at night is utterly dark. Street lamps, in most living quarters, are switched off. In the old nightlife quarters of Hamra, Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, lately Badaro there is a bit of light until midnight or so – then it becomes pitch-black. To walk without a flashlight is dangerous.
There have been 2 hours of "official" electricity provided by the state in 24 hours in Beirut throughout the last year. The rest has to be provided by "moteur", meaning by private Diesel generators – for those who can pay in Dollars. Electricity bills reach 500 Dollars and more per month, depending on the management and constituency of a given building, and some colleagues in the OIB have moved to other apartments for this reason. The number of amperes of one's apartment and how to get more of those amps has become general household talk. Some people install truck batteries, others buy camping equipment in order to tie them over the hours without electricity. A camping battery enables one to operate a lamp, a laptop and a mobile phone for a good amount of hours. The internet has been a problem already during these past 2 years, now access is not available during the long electricity cuts, and if it is available, it is unstable. Also in this regard, people have to find solutions.
Remains the problem of heating and hot water in icy temperatures. Houses are usually badly isolated and have stone floors – the temperatures inside without heating are very low. Just about everybody is an expert now on the electricity circles of their apartment and the respective fuses. To have a shower means to switch off almost everything except the hot water fuse, and then quickly to switch this one off and turn on the fuse for heating a room, in order not to catch cold when coming out of the shower. In many cases only one or two rooms per flat can be heated thus. Sometimes electricity breaks down completely during the operation and one has to wait until it comes back. Some-times only the central fuse of the apartment is down and one has to call the concierge to put it up again. All in all a major logistic operation, especially for families. New apartments usually depend wholly on electricity, older ones still have "sobias", small oil heaters usually in the middle of a room, where families huddle together in jackets and blankets. (I am aware that many of my Lebanese colleagues and friends might not really want to see this general misery in print as it paints such a bleak picture of their country. Yet, I think it is important to let the world know under what circumstances people still manage to live and function. The overall situation is often described as "worse than in the civil war").
In some areas of Beirut and elsewhere there has not been electricity by the state for a year now, and the poor have no money to heat with Diesel-driven generators. For them the situation is just dismal.
The OIB is a haven of security in this situation as it has its own generators, needed to stabilize the temperature in our book depositories. Electricity goes down multiple times each day, but quickly comes back. Monthly bills for diesel are skyrocketing, but at least we can keep working. And in 2021 we finally installed solar energy on the roof! Connected to the electricity crisis is of course a clean water crisis and a food crisis – water needs to be pumped up to roofs, drinking water needs to be bought all along (it costs 6 times as much now than before the crisis), and the irregular electricity supply means that cooling chains are instable. Dairy products and meat have to be consumed with great caution, and food poisonings are frequent, even among OIB staff. Hospitals have suffered tremendously from the electricity crisis and everything that comes with it. Bakeries have struggled to keep working, and the queues in front of them get ever longer. Schools struggle, too.
Corona cases stood at over 4000 per day at the beginning of the year, and a prolonged lockdown was ordered which lasted until the end of February. For the first time, Corona-protesters took to the streets, but these were people whose livelihood was now acutely threatened, after two years of crisis. Hundreds were wounded, casualties ensued.
In February 2021, the judge who had been appointed to investigate the explosion of August 4, 2020 in Beirut's harbor was dismissed by a court after two ministers he had charged and summoned had filed a complaint against him. A day later newly appointed judge Tarek Bitar followed suit in leading the investigation. He went on to charge and summon senior political and security officials for questioning which annoyed the political establishment and led to campaigns against him, which turned violent later in the year.
In the same month prominent Shia intellectual and Hizbollah critic Lokman Slim, married to Monika Borgmann and founder of the NGO UMAM, with whom a number of German institutions and individuals cooperated over the years, including the OIB, was assassinated. Until today the assassins have not been brought to justice.
An international investigation is underway.
In summer, UN estimates claimed that over 75 percent of Lebanese households face severe food shortages. Given the devaluation of the Lira, the dramatic fall of wages and rise of prices, families have to spend five times the minimum wage just on food.
At the same time, high end restaurants which stayed in business (a lot of restaurants closed down) are full, and luxury cars like Lamborghinis, Ferraris and huge SUVs can be seen parked in front of them.
In August, fighting over fuel resulted in three deaths at gas stations, and a fuel tank explosion in the North of the country cost the lives of over 30 people, wounding over 70. Gunfire rocked Beirut in October, in the area where the Lebanese civil war first erupted in 1975, on a frontline between two city quarters, Ain al-Roummaneh and Chiyah, where rivaling militias (Forces Libanaises on the one side, and Amal and Hizbollah on the other) are strong. An initially non-violent demonstration, organized by Amal and Hizbollah against judge Tarek Bitar and his summoning of officials over negligence in the harbor blast was met with sniper fire from the windows of adjacent residential buildings, filmed by a German film team who happened to be on the spot. In the ensuing clashes, 8 people were killed and over 30 wounded. One woman, a mother of several children, was hit by a bullet while working at a window in her kitchen and died. It was the same location where during the popular movement in 2019 mothers from both sides had staged a women's march to prevent their sons from fighting. Sadly, this time they were not there.
On the political front, Saad Hariri resigned one more time in July 2021 after failing to form a government during the past 9 months. He had returned as PM after Hasan Diab's government of technocrats had stepped down over the Beirut harbor explosion – for which it was much less responsible than previous governments, since it had been in office for less than a year and was mainly preoccupied with successfully fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, until the blast hit. Then millionaire Hariri was followed by billionaire and former PM Najib Mikati who formed a new government under president Michel Aoun on September 10, consisting of 24 ministers in the Cabinet – after a deadlock of 13 months. Expectations of reform from this government were low.
On the regional level the rift between Lebanon and the Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, widened, when videos of Lebanese information minister George Kordahi's comments on the war in Yemen were circulated. He said the Iran-aligned Houthis were defending themselves against external aggression – thereby drawing ire from Saudi- Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Bahrain and Yemen who all recalled their envoys from Beirut
and banished Lebanese ambassadors. Saudi-Arabia banned Lebanese imports into the kingdom, after it had already declared an indefinite ban on all Lebanese products, es-pecially agricultural ones, after 5 million pills of Captagon had been discovered earlier in the year in a shipment of pomegranates at Jeddah port. All of this was another heavy blow on Lebanon's ailing economy. The minister resigned before French president Macron visited Saudi Arabia to discuss the diplomatic crisis and defuse the tensions between Lebanon and the kingdom. With regard to Lebanon's political elite Western governments continued to demand reforms.
In December Lebanon's first sexual harassment trial was scheduled, against a film director. A law had been passed in 2020. Yet, the trial had to be postponed since court employees went on strike.
By the end of 2021, over 70.000 of the country's best and brightest had left Lebanon, seeking security and better chances abroad. Emigration is ongoing. Every week somebody says good-bye, leaving family and friends behind. Departments at universities are depopulating with professors and students leaving the country.
During this rather bleak year, the OIB kept working steadily. The major repair works
of the havoc that the harbor explosion had wrecked on the OIB villa were finished in January 2021. The year started off with an international workshop on "Diffracting the Mediterranean. Rethinking infrastructural environments beyond human scale". The workshop had to be held online as Lebanon was under lock-down. Further online events were a workshop on the "Role of new and social media in managing crises in post-2019 Lebanon", an online discussion with Maryam al-Ali on her book in OIB's BTS series Akh-bār Khadīja Bint Khuwaylid fī-l-Mas.ādir al-Islāmiyya: Abniyyat al-sard wa-l-dhākira wa-l-tārīkh (The Reports of Khadīja bt. Khuwaylid in Islamic Sources: Structures of narration, memory, and history) as well as an online discussion with Sarah El Bulbeisi on her newly published book Taboo, Trauma, and Identity: Subject constructions of Pales-tinians in Germany and Switzerland, 1960–2015.
Thankfully, later in the year discussion panels could be organized in person outside, on OIB's useful terrace. "Arabic as a Living Language: Challenges and Horizons" took place in September with AUB professor Mahmoud al-Batal and OIB research affiliate Abdallah Soufan. A public film screening could also take place in person: The second evasion, organized by Ettijahat.
The project "Relations in the Ideoscape: Middle Eastern Students in the Eastern Bloc, 1950s to 1991" geared up its activities after the COVID-19 pandemic had consigned it to home office almost right from its start. A whole 10 days of science communication outreach events, funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) took place in June in Berlin, the former divided front-city of the Cold War, under the title "From Cairo to Carl-Marx-City: Studying during the Cold War". The program consisted of a photo exhibition in the GDR Museum, two public panel discussions (available on Youtube), and a three-day film festival at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin in October. The exhibition was shown in Beirut and Warsaw, too. In July, a workshop of the international research group, which had to be postponed the previous year due to COVID-19, was held at the University of Sofia on the invitation of the Seminar for Arabic and Semitic Studies there. The members of the research group, who had not seen each other for more than a year, discussed their projects lively and enthusiastically – the long missed personal contact released a lot of creativity.
The research group was also prominently represented at the Max Weber Foundation's overall conference on the entire project of "Knowledge Unbound: Internationalisation, Networking, Innovation in and by the Max Weber Stiftung". The conference was or-ganized by OIB's project coordinator Ala al-Hamarneh; the OIB research group and its director featured in four of nine panels.
Three new colleagues joined the ranks of OIB – Thomas Würtz as new vice director, Ahmed Abd-Elsalam and Christian Thuselt as new research affiliates.
The 60th anniversary of the founding of the OIB in 1961 had originally been planned for May 2021. Given the global situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was decided to move the two-day Jubilee event to the end of the year, in the hope that the pandemic would have subsided by then. The appearance of the Omikron mutant dashed this hope, but the two days of workshops, panel discussions, festive speeches and honorings took place from December 2nd to 4th, mostly outside again on the OIB terrace and in the garden. The whole OIB team, not only the researchers, was present and enjoyed the occasion. Prominent speakers, including the ambassadors of Lebanon in Berlin and of Germany in Beirut, the president of the German Orientalist Society Stefan Weninger, as well as two former directors, Stefan Wild and Angelika Neuwirth, and AUB's Sari Hanafi, took part in the festivities, as did Sophia Grotzfeld, Michael Borgolte, Gudrun Krämer, Mouhanad Khorchide, Dina El Omari, Hans-Hinrich Biesterfeld, Peter Heine, Tilman Seidensticker and Dirk Hartwig. Topics ranged from the famous dictionary of Hans Wehr to the "Surplus of Quranic Studies" and "Islamic Studies and Islamic Theology in Germany: Disciplinary Boundaries and Epistemologies". Earliest and contemporary friends and supporters of the OIB, active at present, were honored – Asad Khairallah, Michel Geha, Ridwan El-Sayyid, Abdel-Raouf Sinno and Souad Slim. We are glad that we could honor Michel Geha, who was a cornucopia of delightful tales of the earliest days of OIB, before he passed away, sadly, shortly afterwards.
The director herself was honored, too, by OIB's research associates and visiting fellows – and very touched.
In addition to the academic program a photo exhibition took the numerous visitors, including several members of BTS and BI editorial boards, back to the 1960s, the founding days of the institute. Rare books of OIB's special collections were on display, too. The year ended festively.
I wholeheartedly thank the extended OIB family – staff, associate researchers, visiting fellows and the international research group – for making 2021 another fruitful year, with a number of highlights throughout and at the end, and for remaining steadfast and upbeat despite the difficult situation.
Director's Address 2020