BEIRUT—Rana Dirani once ran one of the largest Arabic-language schools in the Middle East. The Saifi Institute, which she founded in 2008, hosted roughly 200 students for every five-week term. Her clientele was mostly young people from outside the Arab world, and Dirani devoted herself to building a community for them.
Today, the institute lies in rubble. All that remains is a piece of artwork carrying an inscription: “I speak Arabic like a nightingale.” When the Aug. 4 port explosion tore the building apart, one teacher had been standing in front of a window. Suffering more than 60 cuts and injuries, he lost partial sight in one eye.
Still, Dirani was treated like a criminal by the same state whose negligence led to the blast in the first place. Following the explosion, she and her father hired workers to help them dig through the rubble to salvage whatever they could—but the police arrived and prepared to arrest the workers, claiming they were violating rules prohibiting entry into buildings in danger of collapse (even though Dirani’s team had planned to enter a building where the damage was less severe).
When Dirani’s 75-year-old father protested, the police twisted his arm behind his back and arrested him as well. In a video of the incident that went viral, a frantic Dirani screams that her father’s shoulder was already dislocated in the blast. She was questioned at the police station soon after by officers furious about her video.
As the situation escalated, Dirani’s brother and ex-husband were arrested as well. Eager to salvage their reputation, the police demanded that Dirani film an apology as a condition for dropping the charges against them. When she refused, they settled for a written statement—which they drafted themselves. In the statement, Dirani apologizes for a “misunderstanding” and any negative statements toward the security forces, “which stood by our side from the very first moment of the explosion.”
Two months after the explosion that killed more than 200 people, injured thousands more and caused up to $15 billion in economic damage, the Beirut neighborhoods it tore apart are still deteriorating. But the damage has also been accompanied by a collapse in trust in the state to care for its citizens.
These are also the parts of Beirut that I call home. My wife and I live in Mar Mikhail, a predominantly Armenian neighborhood on the eastern edge of the city. The anger here is palpable: “Execution,” reads one piece of graffiti beside a man hanging by a noose. The death notice of one young man, pictured in a tuxedo and smiling, dismisses the narrative that his sacrifice served a larger cause: “He is a victim and not a martyr.”
Residents are also growing further impoverished. A survey of the affected areas found that less than one-third are earning more than the minimum wage of 675,000 Lebanese lira per month (or roughly $80). More than half described the security of the area as “bad,” which corresponds to the country’s soaring crime rates. Since last year, the number of murders has doubled and car thefts have jumped 50 percent as people have grown increasingly desperate amid the economic crisis that’s gripped Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the pace of reconstruction has been glacial. Shards of glass are still embedded like tiny pieces of shrapnel in the walls of our apartment, and the broken wooden chairs and dining table are piled in a corner of the living room. We were lucky: The Syrian refugee family living in a dilapidated building across the street, as well as the nearby Armenian car mechanic, have not yet been able to repair the windows of their homes even as Beirut nears its rainy season.
Besides its large Armenian community, our ethnically and religiously diverse neighborhood is home to Syrians and other transplants who arrived looking for work or refuge, as well as Lebanese and American yuppies drawn to the bohemian bar and café scene. But it suffers from tensions that long predate the current crisis. One Muslim friend seethed that her Christian neighbors still treat her like an unwanted intruder, decades after she moved here. At one point, a Syrian man was caught puncturing the tires of cars in the area; he was being paid by a nearby mechanic, who hoped to profit from the repairs. The Syrian family across the street, which had nothing to do with the incident, was forced to temporarily leave its home until tempers cooled.
It would be a mistake to assume that the current crisis will unite residents around their shared anger at the state’s failures. The opposite is perhaps more likely: “Impoverishment typically throws people in the hands of particular sectarian groups who can support them,” said Mona Fawaz, a professor of Urban Studies and Planning at the American University of Beirut.
Fawaz sees this dynamic already playing out in legislation passed by parliament on Sept. 30, which placed a freeze on the sale of property in areas devastated by the blast. While advocates for the law describe this provision as a way to prevent property speculators from preying on residents in their moment of weakness, she believes it echoes previous attempts by Christian lawmakers to prevent the sale of land to Muslims.
Nicolas Sehnaoui, a parliamentarian from Beirut who helped draft the legislation, admits he’s interested in protecting the Christian identity of the area. He describes Christians as the “weak link” in Lebanon’s social fabric, more liable than others to respond to the economic and political crises in the country by escaping abroad. Freezing property sales, he said, would help prevent “this Christian part of the city suddenly changing demographically.”
Still, the state has done precious little to help residents rebuild. Sehnaoui didn’t even pretend to present a holistic reconstruction strategy: The most the government could do, he said, was conduct repairs on homes with minor damage. Buildings that were completely destroyed—along with schools, hospitals, and the port itself—would need to wait for international aid. In a sign of the state’s inability to meet the magnitude of the moment, the new law also allocated the equivalent of less than $200,000 to reconstruction. But it’s not guaranteed that even this meager sum would be disbursed, Sehnaoui said, “because the treasury has no funds.”
The reality is that returning my neighborhood to what it had been prior to the explosion is a pipe dream. Even before Aug. 4, many of the high-end residential buildings in the area sat empty as residents fled the area’s high prices. The cost of repairing those buildings, which went up when the value of the lira was much higher, is now prohibitively high. “Now that we realize, all of us, that we were living in la-la land, we can’t fix them,” said Fawaz.
But not everyone is ready to give in to despair.
Kalei is a café nestled into a quiet corner of Mar Mikhail, a corner of green amidst the construction and broken glass outside. With the prices of their coffee imports skyrocketing while their customers’ salaries remained the same—making it impossible to raise prices— it has struggled to stay open. The blast caused tens of thousands of dollars in damages and led many of the core staff to leave the country. “The thought of just not getting the shop fixed crossed my mind, I would be lying if I didn’t say that,” said co-owner Dalia Jaffal. “It’s natural after such a big thing, to just not want to invest any more—personally, emotionally, financially.”
But for Jaffal, making money is not the top priority. She considers the 25 employees at Kalei like a family and speaks with pride about how they’ve built a place where both staff and patrons feel welcome. What would happen to all those people if she shut down? Staying open is a powerful message of optimism despite the powerful forces seemingly arrayed against her.
“In a country like Lebanon, where your vote means nothing,” she says, “this business is my way of voting for the things I want to see happen in the country.”
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