It’s been one endless, torturous month already. One month since what were childhood nightmares of war exploded when we thought we were living in peace. One month since our lives came shattering down into unrecoverable pieces in front of our eyes, just like the glass that remains in every street and corner of this broken city. One month since we thought that life could not get any more despondent, but to our own despair, it did. One month since the Beirut Port blast, since all the paths we ever walked in the city were drawn in blood, since its sound continues to reverberate, viciously intertwined with ambulance sirens, cries of fear and pain, since the night’s mortal silence became a sound only few were brave enough to listen to. One long month and it feels like the wound will always stay open.
Never have I been at such a loss for words as after that horrific Tuesday afternoon. In the days that followed, I couldn’t put together a coherent paragraph, despite all the barrage of emotions blasting through my blood stream. All I could write was about what I felt – the despair, grief and rage – and what I observed in the aftermath, nothing more sophisticated. Friends noticed that my speech had become slower and repetitive, and I noticed I had become slightly forgetful, similar to others who experienced the blast first hand. At least I was talking, many others couldn’t for days on end.
At first, it seemed easier to talk about the blast in comparative terms, it was Lebanon’s Chernobyl, our own Beirutshima (in reference to Hiroshima) and a post-explosion scene reminiscent of Pearl Harbor. I think we just didn’t know where to start. This was appalling, even by Lebanese standards. Was this about us or Beirut? Was this about the victims of the government’s murderous incompetence or the homes destroyed? Was this about tales of miraculous survival or the trauma that we knew would haunt us for a very long time? Would this be about revival or finally giving up after a lifetime of fighting back? In fact, it was about everything. For the first time in a very long time, the Lebanese were not in denial so much as we were in too much awareness of an already crumbling world that kept on crumbling even further.
August 4 came at a time when we were already struggling to give meaning to our lives in a place that had let us down far too often. The blow had come on multiple levels and the devastation was simply too much to handle.
Economically, the blast came as the country was already in a freefall. Since October 17 2019, Lebanon has been witnessing the disintegration of its financial and economic system sustained by a political system built on corruption, nepotism, inequality, lack of accountability, poverty, confessionalism, power politics and an non-productive, rentier economy – piling up since the end of the civil war. Unfortunately, the political system has failed to follow suit. But it’s as if the blast was symbolic of what all this deadly mix would really come down to. It is this rotten political and economic system that paved the way for the tragedy. Few have any hopes that those responsible will be brought to account or that the truth will ever be known. In Lebanon, truths aren’t meant to be known, they are meant to be buried, even deeper than the dead. Such a tragedy of indescribable proportions would lead to the downfall of an empire, but in Lebanon, it doesn’t even force a single official to resign. The Lebanese aren’t surprised, but it further reinforces two of our long-held convictions: that nothing is as resilient in Lebanon as the political system and that there is little hope left for any meaningful change in our lifetime.
On the personal level, something in everyone died on August 4 at 18:08 pm and is gone forever. I am not the only one who has kept watching videos of the immediate aftermath of the explosion on a loop. We want to keep reliving the moment, because we can’t believe what happened, because we have a duty not to forget and because we want to understand what happened, but probably never will, or at this point, don’t want to. Like so many eloquent fellow Lebanese writers before me, we have felt the need to write about what happened, not so much to explain, but as a desperate necessity to deal with the aftermath. Not much will be left to be said after this, and even less people will want to listen. We are left to deal with the tragedy on our own and continuously mourn for the unknown victims who have become family, for family and friends of friends, for our city and whatever had any meaning in our lives that is now destroyed. Let alone our hopes and dreams, for those of us who still had them in and for Lebanon, which are now already covered in the same thick layer of dust that suffocated Beirut on that dreadful Tuesday afternoon.
But surely the most difficult part of the equation has to be at the level of our relationship with our own country, embodied by the city we love to hate and hate to love, ‘the lady of the world,’ Beirut. A source of much inspiration now inspiring nothing but grief, anger and rage, hopelessness and surrender. A city used to farewells of so many of its own who will now leave and never look back. A city that is no stranger to destruction and rebirth, following in the footsteps of that legendary phoenix it so often gets compared to, which keeps rising from the endless ashes this city creates for it. But has anyone bothered to ask if it really wants to rise this time and start all over again? Part of Beirut’s soul died on August 4, and subsequently part of the soul of anyone who considered it home. Two weeks after the blast, a friend of mine wrote that for the first time, he finally understood what was meant by “memories are all that is left.” This time something was truly gone, never to come back, and only our memories of the Beirut that was, are now everything we have left of it.
Long before October 17 sparked a tiny flicker of hope in a better future for Lebanon, I wrote about Beirut’s ungratefulness towards those who never left it or those who decided to come back. When I read it now, I’m neither surprised that I stayed, nor that I came back. We know what we risk by being here, and there was a time when we never stopped giving Beirut second chances. And we gave many. No one’s relationship with Beirut is rational, it never can be. “If Beirut were a force of nature, it would be a glorious sunset after a furious storm, though you’d always be left guessing when the next storm will hit, because it always does and stronger than the one before.” We know Beirut far too well. We know there’s almost no chance that it will change, but our tolerance to its capriciousness is what has.
One month already and if I were granted a wish, I wouldn’t know what to wish for. What remains of our dreams, hopes and future in this godforsaken land, a generation that already felt lost, is something that will take time to figure out. Until the shock settles, the tears slow down and the rage subsides – but nothing forgotten nor forgiven – we survive the best way we can.
In Memory of the Victims of August 4, 2020.