It happened all of a sudden, a little after 6pm on 4 August 2020, the timing of the port explosion forever stamped in memory and mobile. I was on the phone arranging an ambulance ride home for my father from the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) when the line suddenly went dead. Rola was in the adjoining room awaiting confirmation that we could tail the ambulance home. After two-and-a-half agonizing weeks in hospital, one of which was spent in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) battling late-stages of ALS, our father was finally being discharged. This was supposed to be a day of intense relief for our family, but it quickly turned into a national tragedy.
Still gripping my mobile, I felt the floor become jelly as I watched my cat dash maniacally into the furthest corner underneath my bed, not to emerge for a full twenty-four hours. Rola burst into the hallway screaming, “did you feel the earthquake?” Then the entire house shook, our window screens, false ceilings, and door hinges blowing out. Even the laptop went sailing through the air as plumes of fluorescent pink nitric acid blanketed the sky. When the laptop made its final landing I could see the cursor still blinking limply on the title of my book manuscript “War Remains.” War is the subject of our academic and artistic practices. After all, we both grew up in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), experienced major Israeli operations in South Lebanon in 1993 and 1996, witnessed the collapse of the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon (1978-2000), the 2006 July War, and most recently, the uprisings (2019-20). But never before had we undergone anything like this. The slow-motion-like sensorial experience of the explosion made the experience unlike the "usual" bombings of our childhood. It is as though my book keeps on rewriting itself, and Rola’s archives keep ballooning, adding on chapters to Lebanon’s perpetual state of misery.
Our knee-jerk reaction was that the blast was an Israeli rocket launched on the heels of border skirmishes a week ago, corroborated in the moment by friends calling in to report low flying jets. To be attuned to the seasonality of war in this country means that the end of summer is often the “preferred” timing for elective bombings. At that deafening moment when the second blast went off, our thoughts raced to our loved ones, who had lived through wars, and who are experiencing for the first time, a calamity of this magnitude. Cycles of violence in Lebanon thread generations into one continuous narrative.
Our mother is no stranger to war, having raised five children in Lebanon. Today, her memoir of surviving an explosion near the same hospital my father lay in at the time of the port blast, resounds loudly. She writes of the opening chapter of the civil war on 17 September 1975:
I lay in my bed and stared silently out of the window, a square of pitch-black night, as I listened to the insanity of people killing and people dying. It did not feel real. There was nothing to distract me from the ugliness surrounding me. Where was my mother and why was I alone without her? I lay on my hospital bed in darkened solitude while butchery and screaming violence continued outside my window. I was jolted from my fitful sleep the following morning in sheer panic by a thundering explosion that came from the direction of the sea, a five-minute walk from the hospital. I did not expect to survive, thinking that the hospital had been the target of the explosion.
Shortly after what seems like the second of two port blasts on 4 August, reports began to trickle in that it was the result of sheer negligence—2,750 explosive tons of negligence, epitomizing the abyss that catalyzed the peoples’ collective rage against rampant corruption last October—and all that remains of that chapter. An accidental spark caused by fireworks, they say, catalyzed the ammonium nitrate dumped for years in the port, into an indescribable fireworks display. “Fireworks,” Theodor Adorno writes, “are apparitions par excellence.” The humanitarian crime of neglecting 2,750 tons of explosive materials for six years in the heart of Beirut criminalizes the ineptitude of the government that cost people’s lives, livelihoods, and sense of being, to go up into apparitional smoke.
The day after is a different kind of brutal. As the initial shockwaves subside, the rage returns. Hospitals already heaving with COVID-19 cases, a curse lamented as “worse than war,” are now overwhelmed by the swelling number of dead and wounded. Rola returned home after donating blood on the night of the explosion, defeated by the scenes of misery, desperation, and rampant ruination in and around the hospitals. Reports are cascading of people still buried beneath the rubble and friends hospitalized. The port explosion was a kiss of death to an already implosive situation. On the heels of economic collapse, a viral surge, and imminent lockdown, the single-day vaporization of the only lifeline for severely dwindling imports, seems indeed like a curse worse than war.
We are the lucky ones who can write about this. Scooping my daughters into my arms and listening to their toddler babble about “da boom,” my heart breaks for the victims of systemic corruption in a country that continually strips its people of their basic human right to a life lived in dignity. And now of their very own lives.
War games. Our brother and cousin pretending to be militiamen in front of their makeshift checkpoint in the suburbs of Beirut. (1990)
Our brother's sketch of F-16 fighter jets made as a child during the Lebanese Civil War (1980's). (2016)
Beirut skyline. (2016)
Anti-government protesters shine laser pointers in the faces of riot police as they protested near parliament in Beirut. (December 2019)
An anti-government protester FaceTimes a friend. (December 2019)
Security forces fire tear gas at anti-government protesters in Martyrs Square. (February 2020)
Ammonium Nitrate clouds over Aub minutes after the explosion went off in the port of Beirut on 4 August 2020. (4 August 2020)
Volunteers pass out mattresses to the needy left homeless as a result of the port explosion in Beirut on 4 August. (5 August 2020)
Red paint covers an atm machine outside a Fransabank SAL bank in Beirut's central banking district in Hamra during the days of the thawra. (December 2019)