The moment I booked my flight back to Beirut, I started noticing a hollow sensation deep in my stomach. It had been two years since I left Lebanon, one since my last visit. Since then, numerous crises had befallen the country. On October 17, 2019, after the government decided to enact a set of punitive taxes, an uprising broke out in Beirut as protesters demanded the fall of the regime. Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War in 1990, successive governments run by sectarian consociationalism have led the country to ruin. This form of democracy is supposed to ensure stability and avoid conflict: everyone gets to govern, all parties in Parliament get representation in government and as such a piece of the pie. Here, it means that elected sectarian leaders carve up state institutions for their own profit and maintain patronage networks that distribute material resources and jobs along confessional lines. In 2015 they mishandled the waste collection process so badly that Beirut literally sank in trash. The electricity, produced and distributed by the state, is barely on for half the day in most of the country.
A few days after the October uprising, the government fell. During the protest, private banks closed their doors, citing the security situation; the actual motive was far more gruesome. Depositors woke up to news that their earnings, particularly those in dollars, had disappeared. Over the past several years, private banks had placed their depositors’ dollars in the Central Bank in exchange for local Lebanese pounds at artificially exorbitant interest rates, raking in millions. The Central Bank then lent these dollars to the state, which used them to fund inoperative, useless and failed infrastructure projects. Political elites represented in both parliament and government received lucrative contracts for such projects. Concurrent with this upward redistribution of wealth, the national debt skyrocketed to a whopping $100 billion. The government kept taking loans until all the local money dried up. By April, the pound had depreciated by nearly 300 percent, accompanied by steep inflation that torpedoed the country to the bottom of the Arab world’s minimum wage index rankings. Then came COVID-19. Suddenly a bankrupt nation with no hard currency needed to combat a global pandemic that crippled some of the world’s richest developed nations.
From my apartment in sleepy San Diego, just north of Balboa Park, life was alright, all things considered. While the virus ravaged California, leaving millions unemployed, I kept my job as a graduate student and teaching assistant. Teaching on Zoom was a nuisance, but manageable. Living in San Diego for two years I had grown comfortable—not exactly comfortable enough to call it my home, or fully at peace, but at ease. This April, the biggest decision I had to make was whether I should brave the risk of contracting the virus to grab a two-dollar slice of pepperoni pizza from Costco. I had watched my home country collapse on my laptop and phone screens, anxiously scrolling through Twitter feeds and WhatsApp group chats, but despite the distant heartache, I felt secure in my current surroundings—guilty, but secure.
Hence my trepidation about going home this summer. But I needed to for my research on Lebanese statecraft and modernization during the 1960s. I intended to scan the national archives for the necessary documents required for my investigation, or at least find something that would reassure my defense committee of the feasibility and merit of my dissertation project. Perhaps the looming question being avoided here was: how could one investigate the past of a country to which one is intimately linked all while witnessing its disintegration, its slow demise?
After a 27-hour flight, five days of quarantining and two negative COVID tests, I finally got to head out into my city, to walk its streets, the sense of precarity palpable at every corner. In the less affluent southern and eastern suburbs of the city, dejected faces roamed everywhere. The pandemic forced the closure of family-run business already burdened by the financial collapse. Small bookshops, favorite corner stores and cheap eateries that marked my mental map of Beirut were gone. I even struggled to adjust to a new sensory experience. Beirut is especially charming at night. The warm, dim yellow streetlights spray golden rays over cement blocks and winding sidewalks. The lack of dollars means the state is now unable to purchase the fuel needed to power the country’s electricity plants. Come midnight, most streets are pitch black, besides the headlights zooming in and out of sight, like fleeting shooting stars.
One relentlessly humid Saturday evening, as friends and I sat down to unwind, things quickly turned serious. We learned that a friend of ours, a bartender at a local hotel we frequented, had been abducted by the General Security and thrown into a holding cell. Initially we were told that he had overstayed his residency permit, hardly an offense that merits kidnapping in a country with millions of refugees. We learned, after some frantic calls to lawyers we knew, that General Security had observed him participating in one of Beirut’s recent protests. He had been wearing an anti-Khomeini shirt, thus inviting scrutiny from the local security branch with ties to Hezbollah, itself an Iranian proxy in the country. His fiancé later joined us at the terrace that evening for a debrief. We kept reassuring her that we would get him out. As I dropped her home that night, she asked just before stepping out of the car, “Do you think Sam1 knows there are people looking for him on the outside?” Having toyed with him long enough to leave a mark and knowing they had no actual case, General Security released Sam a few days later, traumatized, but alive.
In his meticulous biography of the city, Lebanese historian Samir Kassir argues that until the mid-nineteenth century, Beirut was nothing but a minor fishing town, just a few scattered villages of fishermen, farms and marshland. The city’s great transformation came about fortuitously, when it was invaded during the First Egyptian-Ottoman War. Mehmet Ali’s son made Beirut his base of operations and inaugurated a series of infrastructural projects that placed it firmly on a path of modernization. Most importantly, a new and expanded port and cargo hold exponentially increased the traffic of goods through the city and placed it on par to compete with the likes of nearby Haifa, Alexandria and Tripoli, attracting newer residents and more investments. Scores of Maronite refugees settled in Beirut between the 1840s and 1860s, fleeing sectarian violence in Mount Lebanon and Damascus. They brought along tradesmen, craftsmen and money. French general Henri Gouraud made it the capital of the French Mandate. The Nakba of 1948 led Arabs to abandon the port of Haifa in favor of Beirut, as well as to an influx of middle- and upper-class Palestinians whose business acumen, capital and cultural richness enhanced the city’s cosmopolitan image. Without the port, and the string of both tragic and fortunate events it enabled, where would Beirut be today?
In the late afternoon on August 4th, I went to Ras Beirut to pick up some pastry for dessert. I was looking for some Da’ou’iyi, a Beiruti specialty where a sort of rosewater-sweetened fluffy cream cheese is enveloped by a sparkling glaze of pistachio paste. At first, we felt a tremor inside the store: the clerk yelled out, “It’s an earthquake!” Three seconds later the door blew out at the sound of a sudden bang. A woman grabbed her mother and drew her near, screaming, “ya ‘imi, ya ‘imi!” (Mom! Mom!). I rushed outside toward the car, looked up, and there it was, a giant, reddish brown mushroom cloud soaring upwards. I panicked; my mind raced, anticipating a second explosion. Living through an Israeli war and years of intermittent terrorist bombings had taught me that one explosion is usually followed by another.
Certain that the explosion hit Ras Beirut, my sole objective became to get out of there as fast as possible. I drove like a madman down to the seaside road, across the Manara, trying to cross into east Beirut. After several close calls amid panicked traffic, I finally made it to the eastern edge, at Saifi, only to be stunned by the total carnage. I realized the smoke was coming from the port, and everything in front of me lay in ruins.
The shattered glass made it seem as if a sudden blizzard had ripped through the streets of Ashrafieh; no storefront was left standing. The blast had immediately rendered three of Beirut’s major hospitals defunct. Pharmacies became field hospitals as the injured flocked towards them drenched in blood and glass shards, seeking bandages and stitches. In the cleanup after the explosion, I would grow to hate the sound of broken glass being swept and picked up.
On Saturday, we held a rally for our dead. We marched from destroyed Mar Mikhael towards Martyrs’ Square. Protesters held banners with the names of those who died, some cried as the names were shouted via megaphone, some carried nooses, promising to take vengeance on those responsible for destroying our city and killing our loved ones. When we reached downtown, security forces—who up until then had mostly stood idly near the rubble, sneering and useless, while swarms of volunteers descended on Beirut for the relief effort—met us with tear gas and rubber bullets. The street leading up to Parliament roared as protestors shouted thunderous insults at those in charge. The more smoke they threw, the louder we got. One tear canister blew up beneath my feet, I felt as if my face was on fire. I could not breathe. As I hurried back, I made the rookie mistake of throwing cold water on my face, which only worsened the situation. A fellow protestor helped drag me out of the melee, he sat me down and calmed me down—my ego bruised, my eyes puffed and red.
I thought I had at least escaped any psychological scarring. I was wrong. The next Tuesday, as I got ready to fall asleep in bed, I started hearing voices, hushed jabs, quickly followed by the sound of tremors; I was reliving the moment of the explosion. I had to move to the living room sofa with the television on in order to ease my mind into shutting down.
The explosion killed 220 people, left 7,000 injured and displaced 300,000 of the city’s residents, and irrevocably changed all our lives. Stepping into any of Beirut’s still-standing cafés or bars in the aftermath, you would be hard-pressed not to notice someone in white bandages or stitches. Everyone I know is having trouble sleeping.
The president and speaker of parliament have refused calls to resign or for any impartial international investigations into what transpired. The government of Hassan Diab, a bumbling engineering professor, picked by the political class to lead a government of supposedly independent technocrats after the October uprising toppled the previous unity government, resigned a week later. Diab’s government was a cheap charade, a leaky buffer, devised by elites in a futile attempt to placate protestors and deflect criticism. Instead of being selected from the usual benches of Parliament the new ministers were partisan consultants, the sycophantic kind that flock around elected officials. It became clear that MPs and sectarian elites were maneuvering to throw Diab under the bus for what happened. Talks are ongoing now for a new unity government as sectarian elites drool at the prospect of billions of dollars coming in from international donors for the rebuild effort.
A recent report by Reuters revealed that Lebanese officials, from lowly port clerks to the president’s office, knew that 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate lay abandoned in one of the port’s hangars as early as 2014. Confiscated from a ship bound for Mozambique rather than being safely discarded, the explosives sat there for years as port officials jockeyed amongst themselves and with the courts to be allowed to take it outside to be sold for profit, for a meager market price of $500 a ton. For six years we sat on a time bomb so that elites and their cronies in the state could make a total sum of $1.35 million.
I have three more weeks left in Lebanon, three more weeks of worrying about the current day’s dollar exchange rate or whether another bomb might blow up as I sit in traffic. This is what living in Lebanon mostly means today for my fellow citizens, family and friends who remain. The political elites have robbed us of our money, buried us in trash and lit a fuse that tore the city to shreds. And for those who survived but are unable to leave, the regime has robbed them of their future, of being able to plan for tomorrow, of worrying about trivial things such as whether one should brave the pandemic to grab a cheap lunch.
In his poem “To Posterity,” Bertolt Brecht famously quips: “Alas, we / Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness / Could not ourselves be kind.” This is the emotional and ethical toll of political struggle: fighting to maintain one’s humanity and sanity against malevolent regimes can lead one astray from the moral principles they seek to uphold. When I speak to others affected by the explosion, common threads tying us all together emerge of bitterness, rage, revenge. If the uprising of October 17th unleashed our political imagination for a new social contract that transcends sectarian and regional lines, the explosion of August 4th demonstrated what we stand to lose if we do not uproot the current order. To pick up the rubble and bury the dead is to realize that this is now a zero-sum game. It is either us or the regime; we cannot coexist.
The more I brood about the explosion, the more I cannot bring myself to conjure a heartfelt, hopeful message about resilience or survival, Lebanon’s favorite trope. The events of the past year, culminating in the massacre this month, have blunted my ability to make any sort of rational or moral meaning of what has happened. Words such as surreal or clusterfuck or absurd do not do it justice. But the numbness of the first week has dissipated, and now I am slowly homing in on one sensation: I have grown angrier, and more hateful of those ruling my country. I desire revenge upon them, and not the righteous or just kind. I want those who make us suffer to feel thrice the amount of pain they made me and my friends and family feel.
Once my sleeping troubles surfaced, I began guiltily wishing I could go back to San Diego sooner. Beirut is home, but I did not feel safe or comfortable enough to function properly. At least in San Diego I could lay down with some peace of mind, I could actually read. Now, two weeks after the explosion, I cannot fathom how exactly I am supposed to just pick up and leave in September. The night of the explosion my friend and I drove around for four hours and visited five pharmacies trying to find him a tetanus shot. I have friends frantically failing at filing insurance claims for their cars, apartments and businesses. In the aftermath I saw a community mourn collectively and come together. Thousands of young volunteers descended on Beirut from all over Lebanon to take part in the cleanup. Armed with shovels, brooms and buckets, they swept streets and patched up people’s windows with nylon sheets. I would recognize the same faces during our march on Parliament later that week. Hundreds posted on Facebook opening their homes for those displaced. Many in the diaspora set up GoFundMe pages for donations to rebuild restaurants, libraries and museums. A fleeting sense of belonging, of what might be, of what I owe those around me—I thought I had lost this living underneath palm trees and teaching undergrads on Zoom. How am I supposed to leave now?
Image credit: Mehr News Agency