The World

A Lament for Beirut

The city prides itself on its resilience, but how much disaster can it take?

People at sunset walk on the highway amid damaged buildings.
People walk by a row of buildings damaged by the Tuesday explosion that struck Beirut, Lebanon, on Wednesday. Getty Images

On Tuesday, the world watched as Beirut exploded. To my untrained eye, it looked like a nuclear bomb, a mushroom cloud. Many others had the same impression. I later learned this was not the case, yet it was still able to vaporize a building in a single instant. When I saw the news from my Brooklyn apartment, I immediately grabbed my phone to begin reaching out to all of my relatives and friends who live in the city. I checked my WhatsApp to find a message from my aunt: “I never thought I’d see Persian carpets fly, but they did in our home.” The explosion had rattled her apartment, located high in a building more than two miles away from the blast site. In the hours that followed, I waded through opaque Twitter reports and news updates trying to figure out what exactly had happened. Was it an accident or intentional? What was the extent of the blast? Even now, as the dust begins to settle and the level of damage is becoming clearer, so much remains unknown: the precise cause, the total casualties, but also the long-term impact of this one devastating instant on a country that was already in the grips of political and economic crisis.

Like so many watching from afar, I don’t know what to do except wait. As I write this, I am waiting for the rest of my relatives to reach out, waiting as the phones of extended aunts and uncles who live near the epicenter go straight to voicemail, waiting as my grandparents try to connect with old friends in East Beirut, waiting for clarity to make sense of this senselessness. A single instant, and now we wait.

One second is not long enough for me to stand before the stove by the glass facade that overlooks the sea. One second is not long enough to open the water bottle or pour the water into the coffee pot. One second is not long enough to light a match. But one second is long enough for me to burn.

The Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote these words from Beirut, during a different but equally devastating moment in the beleaguered city’s history. He, too, was waiting in an apartment near the Mediterranean Sea, during the Israeli invasion in the summer of 1982, when Israeli forces bombarded Beirut from land and sea. They carried out airstrikes on Palestine Liberation Organization leadership based there, turning the capital’s horizon into what Darwish eerily described as a “Hiroshima Sky”. The city remained under siege through August of that year, as the Israeli navy blockaded the port.

As I wait, I find myself returning to the poem penned by Darwish during this period, Memory of Forgetfulness: August, Beirut, 1982. It is about Beirut, and about the great confluence in that city of political tumult, corruption, and foreign aggression. It is about the near instantaneous suffering that can be its consequence. But it is also about the everyday, how life continues even amid violence and chaos, how we continue, with single minded purpose, to make ourselves cups of coffee to greet the morning.

“I want the aroma of coffee,” Darwish writes. “The aroma of coffee so I can hold myself together, stand on my feet, and be transformed from something that crawls, into a human being. The aroma of coffee so I can stand my share of this dawn up on its feet. So that we can go together, this day and I, down into the street.”

The continuity of life in that cosmopolitan and vibrant city, even amid disaster, is something Beirutis pride themselves on. It is one of the great hallmarks of life in a city, which, over the past five decades, has witnessed more than its fair share of disruption: The Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990, the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, the 2006 war with Israel in the nation’s southern border, the estimated 1.5 million Syrians who sought refuge during the war in a country of only 6 million people whose area is roughly two-thirds the size of Connecticut, the protests in 2018 over the failure of the municipal government to so much as pick up the trash. Still life has gone on, often in spectacular fashion.

However, for even the most resilient of Beirutis the past year has posed seemingly insurmountable challenges. In October, massive protests against government corruption swept the country as people grew irate over frequent electricity blackouts and economic failure. Over the past six months, due to rapid inflation, financial mismanagement, and unsustainable debt, the Lebanese lira collapsed, and this fragile country, with very little by way of exports and massive overpopulation, has been struggling with a way to right itself, even as elites take their foreign dollars out of the country. Add to all of this the burden of COVID-19, which has shifted both the global economy and affected local productivity, and you get a country in the throes of failure, one that by some accounts, was already heading rapidly toward famine. These were the underlying cracks that have been building, and it only took a moment for them to explode.

We still don’t know what—if any single factor—is behind the explosion. First, it was declared purely an accident. Then the U.S. president told reporters, without showing any evidence, that he believed it to be an attack. However, what we do know is this: Somehow 2,750 metric tons of confiscated explosive ammonium nitrate were being stored since 2014 in an unsecured warehouse close to a busy port, residential buildings, and a populated downtown city. According to the New York Times, officials were aware of the risks but did nothing to address it. Six years of mismanagement, one second to burn.

Regardless of what we learn, this will remain a devastating encapsulation of Beirut’s underlying fault lines. It is city full of people who just want to live crippled by those who want to exploit them, a city still at war with itself—a war now defined more by special interests than by sectarianism. Or to return again to the words of Darwish, “only in war did the fighters realize that the peace of Beirut with Beirut was impossible.”