This piece was originally published on Mangal Media on September 22nd, 2020.
I have been racking my brain for several weeks trying to find the words to express what happened on August 4th 2020 at 6:08pm. If I were in Beirut when the explosion happened I might have forced myself into some sort of writing trance and written about the experience. The sound, the smell, the apocalyptic scenes, the mixtures of emotions – fear, anger, desperation – that kept being overtaken by shock. At least it would have been recorded. It could have been something to pass on to those who are younger than me, or maybe just something to pass on to others looking for the words to describe what they are going through, words that always seem inadequate.
I have been obsessively asking friends and acquaintances to share with me what they’re going through. As if I was afraid that it risked slipping away. One close friend, Christophe, with whom I now have roughly half of my life’s memories in common, put it to me simply: “The Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael that you and I know, where we formed so many of our memories – they no longer exist.” Gone. How can they just stop existing? I can still see them there, with my own eyes, through the screen. I was waiting for him to tell me because he knows what sort of answers I’d be looking for in my questions, which ones would even remotely satisfy me. I had to know whether it happened or not yet, whether it might have finally happened without me even being in the country – as I had planned to be.
It is a fictional, temporal and spatial line in my mind, denoting the moment and the place where the Lebanon I know, my home, would cross into a point of no return. In more ways than I ever allowed myself to accept, I always knew that it was coming, that ‘something’ would break us. It didn’t take much to reach such a conclusion, but still I equipped myself with various scenarios in my mind, re-adjusting each scenario based on the developments of the day or the week. My mind ended up compartmentalising these scenarios, preventing emotional contamination for the most part. I found no other way of coping with the emotional burden of what was happening without withdrawing myself from our reality’s cold implications for the near future. But the more I dissociated from my emotions, the more I found myself paralysed by the implications of reality on my friends and family. This system of emotional disconnection allowed me to speak about Lebanon when asked, as a writer, journalist, researcher, scholar, commentator – even if it was not always in the best interest of my mental health. But the writing was always on the wall, and the font kept on getting larger and larger until it screamed bloody murder on August the 4th 2020 at 6:08pm Beirut time.
We are not resilient, we are broken
Of all the stories that came out following the Beirut explosion one really caught my attention. A number of friends and acquaintances on social media were posting about the fact that their parents were fixing their houses shortly after the explosion. My own mother, whose stained glass work in churches and museums were destroyed in the explosion, would end her interviews with the media with “we will rebuild Beirut”. The reaction by some was to see this as a sign of Lebanese resilience, the sort of story that has come to define a lot of coverage of Lebanon and which we have also internalised to some extent. But one friend, whose house was heavily affected and whose father was one of those rebuilding what could be rebuilt, reacted with anger, saying that her father was not resilient, that he was in fact broken.
The title of this piece was initially going to be stolen from Wilfred Chan’s “The Infinite Heartbreak of Loving Hong Kong” (with Beirut replacing Hong Kong) published on May 23rd, 2020. I had considered this because loving Beirut feels like an infinite series of heartbreaks, or one long infinite heartbreak, with very few sparks of joy to compensate. Choosing to love it never felt like a good choice. I was never under any illusions as to the city that we were loving. The pain and trauma that come with loving Beirut are never fully compensated over by moments of sheer joy. Not for me in any case. Every lighthearted moment I spent with friends, every moment of deep concentration at cafes, every fool-hearted adventure on Beirut’s chaotic streets would be accompanied with a deep-rooted sense of unease. This has always been the case, even though I spent years of my life invested in the denial of that reality.
Beirut to me was always a place that never really existed, a place sustained by our ideas of Beirut. We inherited our capital city from the trauma-ridden generation of our parents, those same ones around whom the myth of resilience was created. It is one of many intergenerational tensions that were left unresolved in postwar (1990-) Lebanon. They grew up during the civil war, and we grew up in its aftermath. We inherited their traumas just as we inherited our destroyed city: without explanation. Postwar Lebanon failed at explaining Civil War Lebanon to those that never knew the latter. We not only inherited our parents’ heartbreak, but we did so without actually feeling and seeing the destruction all around us, for the process of shallow ‘reconstruction’ was well underway by the time many of us reached our teenage years. Ironically, this is what it feels like to be outside of Lebanon in these times. It feels like I have been attempting to mourn death without knowing whether the body was ever found – a predicament relatives of the ‘disappeared’ know very well in our country, our region and beyond.
My other option was to title this piece ‘requiem for a lost home’. Once upon a time, in a previous life, a lost loved one would be met with a “requiem aeternam dona eis, domine“ (“eternal rest grant them, o lord”) in silent. I may have just told that persons’ relatives, dully, ‘allah yerhamo/a’ (may god have mercy upon his/her soul), or repeat to ourselves that ‘al massih qam, hakkam qam’ (christ has risen, truly he has risen). Christians have of course built an entire world from the idea that Jesus rose from the dead, so one could excuse those like my mother who see Beirut in the same light. In addition to Christianity, the myth of Beirut’s rise from the ashes like a phoenix runs deep regardless of one’s religious affiliation. It is the undertone of much of Fairuz’s Arabic songs and we could see it in Nadia Tueni’s French poems too. We have drilled the imagery of the phoenix deep in our psyche to avoid mourning too heavily.
But I do not want to take this feeling away from those who genuinely feel it. I will not tell my mother to stop viewing Beirut as the embodiment of Christ – suffering on our behalf – and I will not tell people to stop believing that Beirut the Phoenix has endless lives. I will not take that feeling away because I have nothing else to offer in its stead. I do not have a better system here. As mentioned, my system is only operational inasmuch as it allows me, occasionally, to write and talk. Besides that, I have the same nervous breakdowns as everyone else I know in Lebanon. I cope by struggling to cope. The irony is that this in itself can be interpreted as resilience if resilience is what you’re looking for.
The explosion is forcing many of us to also recognise that resilience is the act of the broken because it cannot be an end in itself. We cannot be perpetually resilient, we cannot just be resisting all the time, we cannot force ourselves to draw hope and joy and content from a dried-up well. It just does not work – not anymore. It may have worked for our parents for some time, but it will not work for us, and I think we all know it. We know it because so many of us have left Lebanon or are trying to leave Lebanon. Resilience only works for as long as it has to avoid breakdowns or the routine numbing of our emotions – and it never fully exempts us from those either – before being replaced by an urgent desire to leave it all behind as quickly as our world of visas and borders allows it.
I could have called it ‘the infinite heartbreak of loving Beirut’ because I am feeling the need to connect to other people who are going through difficult times, such as those in Hong Kong and elsewhere. I need to connect because the alternative is staring at the abyss that is my country and seeing no way out. The alternative is seeing the Beirut explosion as the beginning of something terrifying, something that our minds and hearts are unable to properly process. It is failing to comfort my friends by presenting them the dozen likely scenarios of what to expect next so that they could be better prepared. Right now, I have no hope, but not because I think that tomorrow cannot be a better day. I have no hope because even my optimistic side recognises that the likelihood of the Lebanese political establishment leaving without a fight is close to nothing. I have no hope because they have all the guns, all the soldiers, all the militiamen, all the money, all the power. We have nothing but ourselves against this mighty force, and we are exhausted. Every day is a fight to maintain some modicum of sanity, not to give in to despair. Every day is a failure after another. We are now at the stage where we are throwing rocks and hoping it hits the political class and their cronies hidden away behind their walls, their shabbiha and their soldiers. The French president can walk through our streets unharmed but the Lebanese president would never dare to, as he would not be safe, and he knows it.
Rage. Exhaustion. Heartbreak. The entirety of my 20s has been bearing witness to a series of disasters. We have developed exhaustive coping mechanisms that constantly require reinforcement or replacement. We rely on one another for support while also trying to avoid becoming too dependent and add to each other’s emotional labour. I know that for every breakdown that my friends tell me about there are a dozen more that they chose to keep to themselves. It is for that reason too that so many of those injured after the explosion did not seek treatment. They could see that the hospitals were full of patients who were much more heavily impacted. It took me a while to realise that this is how I relate to my friends. I see my friends as fragile homes full of injured emotions that could only take my own injuries in small doses, from time to time, when some of their own emotions are healed, even if only temporarily.
This is why after all of the car bombs and all of the wars, when friends in Lebanon ask me how I am, I tell them I am fine. When I ask them how they are, they tell me they are fine. We all know that fine is never fine, that there is no such thing as fine because we have no idea what normal even looks like. We just believe in the idea of a normal because we have ‘seen’ it in others, elsewhere, and in books or movies. I was 22 years old when a bomb was followed by the usual chorus of Lebanese voices calling the victims martyrs. They have been calling us martyrs all our lives. But not this time. I am not okay. I am neither resilient nor have I any intention of becoming a martyr. We quite literally have tens of thousands of martyrs. How many posters can they hang on the walls of Beirut before the entire capital is covered with dead faces? At what point do the dead overtake the living?
I wasn’t born when the warlords still ruling us today destroyed Beirut alongside their Israeli or Syrian allies, but I was almost 14 when Hariri was killed, exactly 14 when Samir Kassir was killed, and a little over 14 when Gebran Tueni was killed near me. I was 15 when Israel bombed Lebanon, and 17 when Hezbollah overtook Beirut. I was just over 19 when I started university, and when our region erupted in revolutions. I was 22 when the counter-revolutions announced themselves with massacres in Egypt’s Rabaa and Syria’s Ghouta, and 22 when I graduated. I was 23 when Israel unleashed its savagery on Gaza, and 24 when the first large-scale uprising happened in Beirut. I was 24 when I left Beirut, 25 when I graduated again, and just over 25 when Aleppo fell to the Assad regime. I was 28 when I witnessed the October revolution erupting in Lebanon, and I celebrated my 29th birthday social distancing during a pandemic far from Lebanon.
This is how I recounted my life’s timeline to my therapist in one of our earlier sessions. I noticed right then that I am obsessed with numbers because they are my most reliable way of telling my own story. I can’t remember birthdays or anniversaries but I can recount a dozen or so yearly commemorations of horrors past. The act of remembering itself has become so difficult that I often find myself memory-less, unable to daydream anymore, unable to lose myself in the moment lest the moment overtakes me and destroys me. My only moments of relief are when I’m lost in a book or a movie or a video game, or when I’d be with my dogs, something that I haven’t been able to do for too long in years. No, I have my system, a system developed over the years, through multiple trials and errors, and I will not let go of that system until I know for a fact that a safer one is available.
The timeline that I just wrote down also serves as some kind of insurance against the temptation of self-fulfilling myths.
Let me explain…
The myth of Beirut dying multiple deaths and rising up from its ashes is a toxic myth. The last time that myth was imposed on us was in the 1990s when private interests overtook our city to privatise every inch of it. They did that with the help of this very myth. They privatised our present in the name of overcoming the past and stole our futures in the process. The timeline is how I remind myself that the myth is just that: a myth. It is not true. Beirut was never rebuilt after the civil war. It was simply privatised. Beirut never healed. It just learned to accept its predicament. Beirut, like our parents, is not resilient. It is broken. And the timeline reminds me of that fact, and it is how I know that Beirut will not be able to heal this time either.
The August 4th explosion is haunting me because it feels less and less real with every passing day. The speed, the sound. How did my tiny world evoke comparisons to Chernobyl in the span of a few seconds? The scale. The sheer scale of it. Everyone I know was either injured or knows someone who was. Everyone I know lost their homes or knows someone who did. 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrates were a few minutes away from where we formed so many of our memories and we had no idea. Lebanon’s ruling establishment has mimicked the destruction rained upon us by foreign forces; only they did it in a few seconds.
A few seconds. That’s all it took for at least 220 people to die and 80,000 homes to be destroyed. A few seconds. They have achieved what foreign conquerors only dream of in just a few seconds. There will not be a real investigation – my timeline guarantees it. The mock one set up by the government is set to fail because they are all implicated in the crime they are tasked to investigate. It really is that simple. For these reasons, we will never know what happened even though we all already know what happened. They are already in the process of taking over the narrative by choosing the terms by which we are discussing our own pain. They have turned Lebanese politics into a masterful experiment in mass gaslighting. They are already saying we should be wary of conspiracy theories while they push conspiracy theories. We shouldn’t be lying about the sectarian parties while the sectarian parties lie about themselves.
Nothing is true and everything is possible. The facts don’t matter because we already know them. We know that 2700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate was stored in the port of Beirut because of corruption, and carelessness. We know that they were trying to figure out how to get their cut. We know that they just forgot about it. The idea of the disinformation campaign is for us to spend less and less time simmering with the consequences of what we already know. It’s to prevent us from forming symbols of our own so that the only available ones are those they have created. It’s to prevent us from asking the right questions – ‘how could they be so reckless? How could they be so heartless? How could they lie so confidently?’ – and instead, spend our time answering theirs – ‘do you want a civil war? Are you going to take our weapons? Are you working for foreign interests? Are you just naive?’.
We have no reason to believe that many of those missing from the explosion will ever be found. We know this for a fact because those missing from the war (read: forcibly disappeared) are still there, buried in mass graves under our very feet. The cruel irony is that the August 4th explosion was the closest we got to find some of the remains three decades later, as mass graves are present throughout the city. The same warlords who put them there with the help of Israel or Syria during the civil war are now tasked with ‘finding out’ what happened to the most recent missing. They are now tasked with finding out why 2,700 tonnes of Ammonium Nitrate sitting in one hangar for 7 years exploded, like it’s some massive mystery. They choose the language and the rules by which we all must play. We now have to follow their timeline, we have to ‘wait’ for ‘the truth’ just as one waits for Godot. This is why I have my own timeline.