Thoughts on a walk across Beirut this past Christmas, 5 months post-port explosion.
Rusty metal tubing sprouts up, out of the rubble, above the waste haphazardly pushed into piles along the sidewalk, and into a radial array of welded steel members. Where roots should dig into soil, metal frames are anchored into asphalt. Branches of synthetic, evergreen fibers twist their way up towards tree toppers – stars, a pair of doves, a fallen firefighter’s helmet. Bells and baubles still decorate the trees this Christmas, but so too are the names and notes nestled gently into the ribbon and tinsel.
Furiously lettered scraps of paper are pushed into the branches in apology – victims not martyrs; never forgive; never forget. The branches strain against the weight of the words they’ve been made to carry.
Peace. Hope. Resilience. Solidarity.
Names – 218 of them – are listed alphabetically on panels set into a tree overlooking the port. The gravel beneath it glitters with the glass of a thousand lifeworlds long since splintered into the tiniest, most inconsequential pieces. They flow down from the tree into fields of mangled steel until, at the edge of a blue-green blast crater, they’re buried beneath what was once the national store of wheat. The sun that cooks each kernel to a spoiled, festering crisp elsewhere bleaches the color out of the flowers and photographs pinned to even the most conventional of tribute trees.
I shuffle aside as others arrive to take in the view. Some take photos, others share a prayer, but most just stare on in silence. The traffic on the highway behind us slowly guzzles past, staining the air with smog. Throats tighten. Suddenly, it is hard to breathe. A faint screeching slowly intensifies as the metal branches begin to buckle under the weight of each name, each photo, promise, and memory. The steel frames dig deeper into the rubble as ornaments begin to roll off the branches and slip through the rapidly fracturing earth.
Helmets and soot-streaked firefighting gear hit the ground with a shattering crash and send chunks of asphalt flying. Handwritten notes and photographs dislodge from their perches in a thunderous avalanche of unanswered promises. Entire lives packed into palm-sized prints. Endless lists, countless names, dragged down, deep into the fathomless void. I reach out a hand, but time and space no longer have any meaning around the tribute trees. The embodiment of a reality so unrecognizable, so incomprehensibly deformed, the Christmas trees simply collapse in on themselves in a storm of singularities.
We stare at the now empty stretch of gravel, at the shadow of a portal to elsewhere that had momentarily flashed into existence before us.