Greetings from Beirut.
Yes, I finally visited Beirut again on Thursday. It took me a lot of time to plan and negotiate my full-time job and curfew hours. It was raining heavily all the way on the highway. We even had floods yesterday! Nothing new, right? Excuse my complaints so early in the letter, but I’m challenging the system. I’m now complaining regularly because this is what people normally do in such uncertain times. Complaining needs to be normalized again in the face of toxic positivity.
You left almost three months ago. You traveled all the way to London, our spirit city. Like many young Lebanese, you chose to leave. How does it feel starting a new chapter?
You forgot your books in the backseat of my car. You got five used books from that small bookshop we drove to in the village above Batroun. Remember how far that bookshop was? It was during our last road trip together before you traveled; and our last one before the explosion. The bookshop was the highlight of our day; but other than that, everything around us was uncomfortable. I can still remember how dim Beirut was, with its frequent power cuts, monopoly over fuel and generators, turned-off traffic lights, the speeding reckless cars, and numerous thefts. Beirut resembled the fictional Gotham City—gloomy, chaotic and hazardous. We were already living on the edge of tragedy, wondering if things could get any worse. The explosion answered that question.
Reem, these days, my mother rushes to the gas station to fill up all our cars. “I don’t want you to suffer,” she says. “We experienced the hardship of diesel cutoffs during the war; I don’t want you to live it again.” Is she being manipulated by the news, by a government disseminating false alerts and claims about our basic needs being threatened? Maybe she is, I don’t know anymore.
We are just desperate to remember what a decent life looks like. How did a walk in Gemmayze used to feel?
The other day, I went there for a cup of coffee with Caroline. I parked my car and walked. There was still rubble on the street. Some buildings were covered with gigantic announcements with the names and logos of the NGOs in charge of reconstruction. Others were left alone to collapse—if not today, in a few months. Everything was closed, but Sip never shuts its doors to loyal customers. We grabbed a latté and a cappuccino and sat on the edge by the shop’s front. I was facing the stairs of Saint Nicolas. Remember the Coffee Room? That cozy coffee shop halfway through the stairs? It’s not there anymore. Aaliya’s Books, as well, is not there anymore. I remember the last Persian poetry night we attended there.
Do you think we will ever enjoy those small moments or host those kinds of events anytime soon? Everything sounds luxurious now. Going out is luxurious. I lost the ability to imagine a simple future.
All I know is that the heart is so heavy, and we are not ourselves anymore.
December 2, 2020
Zainab Chamoun is a Lebanese journalist and researcher. Her interests lie at the intersection of community-led development, religion and politics, decolonization, and affect studies. She is passionate about collecting stories worth telling through words and photographs.