It was a pink, cumulus-like cloud rising from behind the skyscrapers of Achrafieh, Beirut. A piercing headache and blood dripping. Screams morphing with high-pitched car alarms. A collective state of bewilderment and dazed faces looking up in disbelief. What just happened? Was it an earthquake? Did one of the ubiquitous, cobbled up electricity motors explode? Is Israel bombing? I recall the floor of my apartment shaking abruptly as my body entered into “fight-or-flight” mode. Monotone vibrations pierced the air seconds before a thundering sound rocked sea, land, bodies, and matter. “It is an earthquake,” I said to myself. A few miles away, my partner was running barefoot down a six-floor staircase, yelling at his neighbors to take shelter in the basement as Israelis were bombing. We each embody the defense mechanisms of previously lived trauma. Yet, none of these frames of interpretation fit the profile. Earthquakes do not start so abruptly and Beirutis do not remember Israeli attacks causing such widespread destruction, even during the Civil War of 1975-1990. Gradually, amid panic, victims flooding overcrowded hospitals, wounded bodies having to walk kilometers before reaching a medical center, and ruins across kilometers on end, the most absurd of all scenarios prevailed. 2750 tonnes of aluminium nitrate, a highly explosive substance, exploded in the port area of Beirut, sending a destructive blastwave engulfing most of Beirut.
It was the absent state and the active demos. In the days that followed, reverberations of the blast rippled through the collective stories we told each other about what had happened. Again, and again…stories on repeat in an attempt to collectively make sense of the surreal event. Before the blast, everyday life unfolded before and after the “October 2019” intifada, discussions focused on the fluctuating price of the dollar and the imminent COVID-19 pandemic. After August 4, we spend our time talking about chemical substances, accountability, international help, trauma, and emigration. “Before” seemed like another world, another time. In one week, we aged a year only to feel that the explosion happened a couple of days before. We were asking ourselves “A week has already passed?” while also feeling that “only a week has passed.” Everyone knew someone who died or was injured, and everyone had “5 minutes” escape stories. “I was in the port area five minutes before the blast. If I had not taken an Uber order, I would have been dead.” “I was sleeping. If I had not heard your messages, I do not know what would have become of me.” But these “if” scenarios do not apply to all. They do not apply to over 200 dead, to at least 150 people permanently disabled, to more than 6500 wounded, to those not found, and to over 300,000 whose homes and shops have been damaged or destroyed. (Citations below.)
To the aid of the alive, hundreds of national and international volunteers and organizations showed solidarity and commitment by cleaning the streets from debris, catering to those in need of medical attention, distributing food, and assessing the affected urban infrastructure. In all this commotion of solidarity, the only actor missing was the state. “dawle? Wein el dawle?” Lebanese always use this phrase to express a state whose failures materialize in the lack of basic utility services. A Beirut municipality incapable to assure the cleaning up of public spaces after the explosion or to collect the trash piling up on the streets. A government whose representatives roam the streets for marketing stunts and photo sessions. An army that sporadically got involved in the search and rescue efforts. Yet, it was this absent state that became present later on, during the massive protests on August 8, when people gathered to protest and ask for accountability and justice. A protest that was immediately met by a repressive army with tear gas, rubber bullets, and pallets. A state that clearly besieged the Weberian mantra and exercised its monopoly over violence against its citizens.
In the weeks that followed, sounds of a Beirut in recovery and re-construction filled the soundscape. Hours and hours on a row, one could hear the constant sound of glass being cleaned from the streets, from the houses, from the flesh. Thus, gradually, we discovered that our mental maps of Beirut no longer coincided with the desolate urban scenery before our eyes. Among cleaning hundreds of book and photographic archives at the Arab Image Foundation, and distributing food and clothing at the MJO (Mouvement de la Jeunesse Orthodoxe) social-medical center, I could see glimpses of the Lebanese army and police going from house to house, diligently assessing the losses incurred by Beirutis. This was all in the vague hope of a future state compensation. The few who had the financial possibilities rebuilt their houses. Yet, they are the lucky ones. The rest asked themselves how they can rebuild their homes during an unprecedented financial crisis, when their dollar savings are frozen by the banks, the price of the dollar is soaring, and the rainy season is just around the corner. Meanwhile, Facebook videos recorded by individuals and cameras seconds before the explosion were shared on social media. We were stuck in a temporal loop. Seconds turned into endless minutes of reliving the blast again and again, as anger increased again and again.
It was not out of the blue. The August 4 blast was such a surreal event that it has been difficult for each one of us to include it into our structural mechanisms of meaning-making. Channeling Marshall Sahlins, how foreign must a foreign element be to still make sense in structures of meaning? Yet, be not deceived as this surreal event has clear and real genealogies. Extracting it from the networks of eroding corruption, indifference, and sectarian politics will only contribute to absolving the guilt of those who need to be held accountable for this tragic event. Tribal politics reinforced by a sectarian regime that has replicated itself in a temporal limbo since the Civil War. A ruling system of no checks and balances, where nepotism is so ordinary that exceptions are to be praised as extraordinary. A Ponzi scheme that plunged Lebanon into a financial crisis looming, but never really expected. The blast has a very clear genealogy grounded in eroded, corrupt political sectors, in a port nicknamed “Aladin’s Cave” for its mafia-like business, and in a sectarian system that feeds on fears of war and conflict. All these systemic cracks made it possible for 2750 tonnes to sit in improper conditions for seven years in the port of Beirut and to implode on August 4, leaving marks in the bodies and the homes of Beirutis.
It is survival or emigration. In anthropology, we talk a lot about the agency of the individual, his ability to act within structures of meaning and power, through choice, language, and action. This blast allowed no agency to its victims. No agency over their bodies, their homes, their lives, their futures. Two weeks after August 4, Beirut is flooded with large posters inscribed with aspirational messages like “Beirut will survive,” and tired tropes of Beirut rising from the ashes like a Phoenix. Yet, I cannot help but think that these tropes of survival and rebirth are misleading. The aim here is not to survive. The aim is to have a safe standard of living supported by a financial and social well-being. The aim is to be able to offer one’s children a chance for a safe environment to grow and thrive. When did we get complacent with just survival? Also, the survival and resurrection of Beirut from its ashes is just a metaphoric illusion, hiding the gradual erosion of a collective will that finds comfort in emigration and resignation. Moreover, these optimistic tropes do not address the core of the problem, the reasons that Beirut burnt in the first place and continues to burn. This rising again and again from the ashes is not a success story, but rather an anxiety-inducing feeling of being stuck in a horror story on repeat.
Arwa Ibrahim, “Scarred for life: Beirut blast victims and life-altering wounds,” Aug. 25, 2020. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/8/25/scarred-for-life-beirut-blast-victims-and-life-altering-wounds
Ben Hubbard, “Beirut Blast Hit 3 Disparate Neighborhoods. Now They’re United in Rage,” The New York Times, Aug. 9, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/09/world/middleeast/beirut-explosion-victims-neighborhoods.html
Roxana Maria Aras is a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in the Anthropology and History Program. Her research focuses on sensory regimes, Christianity in Lebanon, and everyday life in the Middle East, while exploring multi-sensorial research methodology.