Oppressive Blackouts Force Lebanese to Change Rhythm of Life

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The second the light above Hasmik Tutunjian’s bed came on at midnight, she said a prayer of thanks and got up quickly. She did not know how much time she had before she would be plunged back into darkness.

First, Ms. Tutunjian, 66, stripped the sheets off the bed — soaked with sweat from Beirut’s stifling and humid heat. She grabbed a phone charger hanging on a hook next to a tote bag that reads, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” and plugged it in. Then she moved into the living room to plug in three chargeable lights. Finally, she put in the first of as many loads of laundry as the electricity would allow.

“I become like a robot running around,” she said.

Lebanon’s electricity crisis is a subset of a broader economic crisis plaguing the country, its worst in decades and one that the World Bank said could rank among the world’s three worst since the mid-1800s in terms of its effect on living standards.

Power cuts have long been a part of life in this country because of a dysfunctional electricity sector. But over the past year, they have worsened with acute fuel shortages leading to severe blackouts across Lebanon and state-supplied power coming on for only an hour or two a day — at most — and on no set schedule.

Often that hour or two comes unpredictably in the middle of the night, and the rhythm of life here has been forced to adapt.

Ms. Tutunjian hanging laundry to dry on her balcony last month during a brief resumption of power.

A rechargeable light in Ms. Tutunjian’s apartment.

Privately owned diesel-powered backup generators can be found in each neighborhood or town across the country to make up for the long outages.

But with Lebanese inflation rising to 168 percent in the year that ended in July, and unemployment skyrocketing, a dwindling number of people can afford the extra generator power. And some of the generators provide only a few amps — enough to power a refrigerator, a fan and the television.

Ms. Tutunjian cannot afford any amps.

She has a chargeable fan, but the power does not come on long enough to fully charge it. She tries to cool herself with a folding fan, which does little to fight the suffocating heat of a Beirut summer.

“Sometimes I tell myself I’m not going to get sad, but I can’t help it,” she said, sitting in her living room. “At night, I get into bed angry, I cry.”

Two small lights — one on the coffee table and one hanging from the door — cast her shadow so that the frustrated gestures punctuating her words were echoed on the wall behind her.

Ms. Tutunjian can no longer buzz guests into her four-story apartment building. Instead, she lowers the front-door key, tied to a long string, from a window.

“We have to get creative,” said her friend Shoukhiq Terrisian, 62, a former bank teller.

Except for the country’s insolvent banking sector — where withdrawal limits might allow for only enough cash to pay a family’s monthly grocery bill — nothing seems to frustrate people here more than the unreliable power grid.

And nothing seems to capture the dysfunction of the Lebanese government like the political leadership’s inability to solve the electricity problems. Last September, the country’s newly formed cabinet won a vote of confidence even after a power cut and broken generator delayed the session for nearly an hour.

The Energy Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

A phone charger hanging on a hook next to a tote bag that reads, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
A key tied to a string that Ms. Tutunjian lowers to visitors, whom she can no longer buzz in to her apartment.

Ms. Tutunjian has lived in the same apartment since 1973, enduring the 1975-1990 civil war, the 2006 Israeli bombardment of Beirut and the 2020 Beirut port explosion, which broke her windows. She spends much of her time alone, staring outside or sitting on her balcony.

The dark windows of the buildings around her speak to those who, like her, cannot afford the private generator power. The darkness is also a potent reminder of the tens of thousands of Lebanese who have left the country since the economic crisis began in late 2019.

Last year, more than 79,000 Lebanese moved abroad, up from 17,000 in 2019 and 66,800 in 2020, according to Information International, a local research and consulting firm. The country is now heavily reliant on remittances sent by family in the diaspora.

Many more Lebanese would like to leave but cannot because they lost their life’s savings as the value of the local lira currency has fallen more than 90 percent since 2019.

Ms. Tutunjian said she wanted to go to Australia to be with her son, but her passport expired and the difficulties of renewing it, the cost of airfare and an expensive surgery she just had keep her in Beirut and mostly inside her sweltering apartment.

Most mornings, she goes downstairs to her neighbor Alice Delinian for coffee and to charge her phone.

Alice Delinian cleaning her apartment while the power was on.
Ms. Delinian washing her laundry.

Ms. Delinian, in her 70s but with a girlishness about her, gets about three amps a day to her apartment from a private generator. It is enough to keep the TV on most of the day, and it powers her refrigerator, where she lets neighbors store their food.

Ms. Tutunjian’s own refrigerator is as warm as a cabinet. She keeps cheese, yogurt and a few bottles of water cold in her freezer, buying bags of ice each day. She says she misses ice cream, but knows it would melt in her makeshift icebox.

On the freezer door are reminders of her former middle-class life: magnets from her travels with her late husband to Armenia, Cyprus and Australia.

“They ate our money,” Ms. Tutunjian said of the banks.

Last month, an armed 42-year-old man held a Beirut bank hostage for hours, demanding that he be allowed to withdraw his entire life’s savings — more than $200,000. But the amount far exceeded the paltry caps on cash withdrawals.

He said he needed the money to pay for an operation for his father, and threatened to kill everyone inside the bank and to set himself on fire.

“That man, good what he did,” Ms. Tutunjian said.

Eventually, he was allowed to take out a small portion of his savings in exchange for his surrender and arrest. He became an instant hero, capturing a nation’s frustrations, and was released days later amid an outpouring of public support.

“He said he’ll do it again,” Ms. Tutunjian said.

Ms. Tutunjian mopping perspiration in her living room.
Ms. Tutunjian’s own refrigerator is as warm as a cabinet. She keeps cheese, yogurt and a few bottles of water cold in her freezer by buying bags of ice each day.

Without being able to turn on her TV, she follows the news on a battery-powered radio. Her son, Parsigh, sent her the batteries as part of a care package from Australia that took two months to arrive and also included peanut butter, honey and vitamins.

Parsigh, her only child, moved to Australia 15 years ago after he married an Armenian-Australian woman. When she speaks to him, she tries not to convey her despair, knowing he sends as much money as he can.

She said she had already sold her wedding ring and that of her late husband.

Around her neck, she wears a bejeweled cross and a gold “P” pendant, and on her left hand, her grandfather’s wedding band. She hopes she will not have to sell these last pieces of jewelry.

This summer, a local charity and the Armenian Red Cross gave her the equivalent of about $20, which she used to buy food. But she is ashamed to approach them again.

“You feel so humiliated,” she said as her voice began to break.

It is nearly two hours since the electricity came on. She has done three loads of laundry and charged the lights, and the water in the boiler has warmed enough for her to take a comfortable shower.

As she steps out of the bathroom, the electricity cuts out, and she is plunged back into darkness.

She goes to bed on clean sheets, but it is hard to fall asleep in the muggy air. Two hours later, around 4 a.m., she is drenched again in sweat and gets up to take another shower.

She falls back to sleep, somehow, and later in the morning, she turns on the radio. The news is not good: The country could face a total blackout.

A view of the street from Ms. Tutunjian’s apartment.

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut.

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