One of the biggest conundrums of the Beirut explosion is probably the burden of knowing how to live in its aftermath. What words are there to describe what has happened? What meaning is there to give? What do we do next? As we were scrambling to make sense of living an economic and financial collapse, as we were trying to figure out what it means to live through a pandemic, on August 4, all the webs of meaning we had spun suddenly melted into air.
Was it fireworks? Was it an Israeli air missile? Was it 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate? A paper trail leads to a sinking ship, landing on our shores as it made its way from Georgia to Mozambique. Leaked correspondences implicate highly ranked officials, implicate almost everyone, including the President who knew. Criminal negligence or murderous intent? What, what exactly caused the blast, what exactly happened to us minutes past six o’clock last Tuesday? Suddenly, it seemed like a whole vocabulary that punctuated our daily existence – of fresh dollars, of haircuts, of hyperinflation, of social distancing, of quarantine – was now obsolete. We don’t live there anymore.
Now it is explosion talk. Now it is shell shock and trauma and coping mechanisms. Now it is geopolitics and peace treaties. After economic and health experts that crowded our screens, newsfeeds, and WhatsApp chats, now is the time of therapists and political analysts. We look at them for meaning. We tune in to get some direction. Now is the time of Michel Hayek, our ambassador to the unknown, who – as it turns out – had predicted this all along. Michel, what do you see?
As for us, we watch videos of the explosion on repeat. Here’s one in slow motion, you can see the shockwaves moving through buildings, before reaching the bystanders on balconies filming the blast, throwing them somewhere out of our sight. The camera is still filming. There is a guilty pleasure in looking. Perhaps for those of us who didn’t see it, we search for a vicarious experience through the gaze of others.
On television, two channels are still abiding by their boycott of politicians’ speeches, a decision they took after the blast, a decision that came three decades too late. In lieu of actual content, they provide live coverage of relief efforts and initiatives in the destroyed neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mkhayel. They speak to young volunteers wearing bright vests who brief us about their relief operations. Armies of volunteers have set up camp among the rubble. Theirs is a humanitarian response; but what we survived was not a natural disaster. It was not an accident. Those who killed us are still roaming free; they are eating their dinner, tanning by the pool, counting their dollars as we rush to help friends clean their homes, take turns consoling those who lost theirs, weeping for all the strangers we lost, and distributing sandwiches to broom-wielding youths. Meanwhile, real estate brokers are running around the neighborhoods in search of dilapidated buildings to buy, scaring away their grieving residents and calculating the value of the wreckage all around. Here, in this historic quarter of the city, the economies of relief and reconstruction are being born. Resilience, they call it. We write poetry of overcoming, we sing songs about rubble.
“Qoumi min taht al-radmi!”
October was ten months ago. Only two days before the blast, the revolutionary lyrics of the popular song – in many ways a patriotic ode to resilience – were omitted during a concert on the occasion of the Lebanese Army Day. The lyrics, “revolution is born from the womb of sadness,” were replaced with a series of la la las repeated by the choir, provoking a national controversy over censorship and leading to the song’s revival. Today, “Ya Beirut” can be heard on repeat blasting from car speakers around the city, becoming the unwitting soundtrack of the explosion’s aftermath. Time shifted from revolutionary to cataclysmic. Rubble, not revolution, is what the song revives, evoking as it does the cycle of destruction-reconstruction, the myth of eternal return to the wreck. There is nothing poetic about the song now. Even the metaphor is dead. People are still looking for signs of life under the rubble. The injunction to rise feels offensive, abusive even. We are still collecting ourselves; it is too early for resilience; the myth can wait. We are too broke, too sick, and barely alive to get into character, to act out a stale national mythology of survival expected from us.
Resilience romanticizes our loss and dispossession. It brands our survival, making it an object of fascination for foreigners and inspiration for locals, advertising it as a valorized mode of attachment. Resilience is a marketing stunt for a political and economic system that runs on crises, that manufactures crises in order to sustain itself. Resilience celebrates survival at the expense of justice. It is the rhetorical and symbolic symptom of the normalization of injustice.
We are still counting the days, still remembering the moment of the explosion. We are still discovering the faces of those who were killed, still learning their stories, still telling ours. Where were you when the world exploded? I ran down eight flights of stairs, I thought the building was collapsing. I looked up from the street and saw the red, pink, orange smoke in the sky. Is it safe to breathe?
Fireworks? Rockets? Never mind, all the ships are already here. What does it all mean? 334 new corona cases, a woman yells at the bank teller who won’t give her her dollars. We still live here. We are still alive. What a tragedy.
Sara Mourad is a writer and an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut, where she also co-directs the Women & Gender Studies Program. She is interested in questions of identity, deviance, and dissidence in contemporary Arab media and public cultures. She is working on a book about feminist narrative practices and the place of autobiography in identity making and movement building in contemporary Lebanon. Her writings have appeared in a number of journals as well as Jadaliyya, Legal Agenda, Megaphone, and Daraj.