Do you remember the mock gallows with man-sized cutouts of Lebanese politicians hanging from them? Remember how you had never seen anything like that before? Remember how it made you feel?
The Lebanese government has left its people for dead. The finale of thirty years of corruption and negligence and crippling theft played on fast-forward over the past three years. When people are not managing the daily survival of present-day Lebanon, they are standing in crawling passport lines or sitting in the dark, waiting for their luck to change. It is not a wonder that wishing death upon the warlords-come-parliamentarians is now commonplace. It drives them mad as they rail against the “rejoice in their demise” as they have picked up on the joy that laces these utterances. Since the 2019 revolution, there has been a burgeoning of our voices – in social media and news and websites and watch groups and think tanks – since we finally collectively understood that their demise is imminent – that it was either them or us. Even my six-year-old son is in touch with the desire when he asks: “Why can’t they go to another universe?”
This fantasy was exemplified in what became a funny and poignant moment on NourSat Television when a sweet-sounding woman called in to ask the priest on the show if she wished a politician death, would it be a sin? The priest spit out a chuckle. Even a gatekeeper of the Catholic Church could not hold a straight face. But he had to answer correctly and quickly: “Yes, it’s a sin.” The talk show host mumbled to the caller, “You’re not alone.” The caller pleaded for the priest to forgive the sin, to let it be.
“Hold on,” he said, “Leave it to God’s will. Tell Him, if the politician repents, then you will have won the politician to your side, and we will all benefit. And if he doesn’t repent, tell God it’s his choice how he will deal with him.”
“How will he repent? He’s been screwing us for the past 30 years!”
“Leave it in the hands of the Almighty. If he repents, he will be forgiven.”
“They won’t repent, they have been driving us to our graves for 30 years.”
The talk show host interjected, “Most people are feeling like this, Father.”
The priest had to admit: “Even I tell God we’re fed up.”
Most people living in Lebanon today are staring their lives down, struggling to climb out of the ditch they’ve been thrown in. At the time of this writing, government electricity has come for an hour in the past six days. The prices of medication and gas and the dollar are so high now that a trip to the grocery store for a family of four will easily cost more than the still-active pre-collapse monthly minimum wage. The banks are still filled with employees who follow orders to refuse releasing our retirement funds, our salaries, or our savings, such as my son’s small nest of dollars that we deposited from the time he was born until the day the banks shut down, and then implemented their own capital controls in October 2019 at the time they and their cronies were siphoning their millions out of the country. A walk around the city tells you a story you wished never was. Smeared or broken glass storefronts shelter empty shops. Waste grows in every corner as the Municipality of Beirut’s one-billion-dollar coffer ran dry (or off). As soon as the sun sets, the city is dark, a dark wasteland, an unrecognizable place that has been plundered by the ruling class’s vultures, bringing it to its deplorable state, which very accurately reflects the filth and void of their tenure.
Wishing members of our ex-warlords and murderer heads of state dead has become a deep-seated ache, one that is cradled in the burning curve of our bellies, in the rage of injustice that piles daily. But make no mistake, I, and the regular citizen who feels this, will not kill them — because we are not the murderers.
But the ache remains — there is a murderer inside me, us. This murderer inside the body begins its germination with a long period of missing things: electricity, water, quiet, trees, friends and family, security, a future. The missing things roil into a dull emotional lurking in the background of everything, like the ever-present groan of generators that takes over the air, belching soot onto our wet and blackening pillowcases. It is rooted in a growing rage and vengefulness for the intentional misery people have suffered for the personal gains of a pack of politicians. It is not enough for them to resign and retire to their palaces. They and their families need to feel the hurt they inflicted on us. Their disappearance, their vanishing from this universe is a fantasy that, like morphine, temporarily releases the deep-seated torment of resignation that they so expertly nurtured in people.
I hadn’t been to my tailor since pre-collapse, that is before 2019, meaning a bundle of clothes that needed repair had been stuffed into a bag since then, taking space amongst the things we bought before 2019 as well, when money was just a regular thing. This tailor is the only guy I know in Beirut who does “ratta,” a complicated skill to seamlessly stitch holes in your clothes. Before the collapse, his prices were high, unless you brought several pieces and then he would give you a discount. Now his prices are astronomical in Lebanese pounds, although still lower than buying a new pair of pants or a new shirt. But I still let him know.
“Trust me, I am paying out of my pocket at the end of the week,” he said. “The generator fee is 7 million. If I had to pay rent, I would have closed.”
After some back and forth banter about how much of a haircut he is taking compared to me, we focused on the root of the problem. “They took all our money, Allah lay wafi’on, may God strike them,” he said, “Every night we go to sleep in shock at what happened to us. We cannot understand it.” He continued, “For the past 50 years, I put away $200 or $300 per month and now the bank won’t give them to me. If I went in and fucked up a bank employee, a police officer would come and arrest me. He is the same police officer whose money is also tied up in the banks and whose salary is nothing now. Everyone is in a coma, and the politicians continue to rob us in front of our eyes.”
“The only answer is that they all die,” I said.
He laughed and said, “I hope God hears you.”
We have long patched over the “missing things” in our lives with placeholders for an imagined future, when the phrase “This is Lebanon” is no longer spoken in resignation, but with a sense of pride. These placeholders are various and range from the groaning generators to the bribes fed to greedy policemen to trudging through the humiliation of being a woman or refugee or domestic worker with inferior or no rights under a government that sees you as filthy as the sewage water it dumps into the sea. For those of us who hold a hint of optimism for a future or have no other choice or are hell-bent on revenge, we accept these placeholders for survival. This may be mistaken for complacency. But it has always been survival, until one day.
Those who leave the country to take refuge from the place you still live try to alleviate your pain. They pay for you, they send you messages, they show their pain in their love toward you. They understand too well that position of defeat, of being beaten into giving up or the powerlessness we feel in the hands of murderers. They left, you stayed, for many reasons. But both will have to survive a loss that wraps around you like a hug that is too tight and too long.
Every day, our beliefs are tested, the limits of our understanding on display. How could they? How could they? How could they? We strain to understand. We know now, or we must know, we must remember: They are murderers. Remember, I tell myself. Every day since the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War, a life has been lost due to their lack of empathy. They brought us to the present day, the complete collapse, the fool’s gold. They waged the war, which left no less than 150,000 people murdered, and whose tactics they still use today to plead their innocence regarding August 4, 2020, another mass murder. No one else did this. Remember.
But who would have expected that our survival mechanisms would become part and parcel of the great crimes the murderous regime has bestowed upon the people?
The underhanded coercion of the black market -- because how can you survive without it? -- makes us unwittingly complicit in the great crumble of the country. The cruelty of this is compounded by turning against one another as we suspect the worst, our anger rising at the depletion of our lives, the competition to the front of the lines, the empathy that wanes and is replaced with the inward-seeking, insularity of self-preservation. My rage is pointed at the one who cuts in the gas line, the one who installed a faulty part in my house, the one who refused to give me a generator line. But my murderous thoughts are pointed at those sitting in those grand chairs, who swallowed our wealth and even our survival mechanisms. We spend hours talking about and dealing with the black market. And the conflict of taking part in the black market to survive. We talk so much that we have been rendered mute, unable to make sense of our lives in a way that aligns with our beliefs, with who we are, with what is left of who we were.
For the past two years, since August 4, 2020, the horror stories hit us every day. Every day there is a new story of a lost eye, home, leg, friend, something irredeemable that was lost in that titanic explosion and the shock waves in its aftermath. Or someone who lost their life now, from the injuries they sustained then. It was only four days after the catastrophe that the murderers buried pellets in the backs of men and women when they came to the great empty doors of the parliament to express their rage. One and a half years later, there were people still picking glass out of their bodies. With each story, my rage blossoms like a cactus flower in the heat of summer, full and exquisite, untouchable.
One story that hit me hard just after the explosion was the death of a beautiful young mother who was home with her children and her child’s friend at the time of the explosion. Their home was in a Bernard Khoury building with glass facades directly facing the Port. The mother knew the reverberations of an impending explosion, as those who have experienced them do, and she yelled to the kids to get to the hallway. As she made her way to them, she was buried under the rubble of her home. As the dust literally settled around them, the kids, barefoot and covered in debris, surrounded her, their delicate feet cut with glass. They tried to help her, but the rubble was too heavy for their small bodies and hands to move off her. They said goodbye as they watched her take her last breath. Her young son asked, as he watched his mother die, “Who will help me with my homework now?” The children flew down the stairs of the high rise to the street where they met their dad who was running toward them, having abandoned his car in the road, soon to discover that his wife was gone.
We all have heard the same conclusion to every victim’s story: “The government never even asked about us.”
I cried a river when I read this story in a Facebook post, told by the daughter’s friend, who witnessed the mother’s death. I am a mother too. I imagined my children watching me die, paralyzed by the inability to save me, just minutes after playing with their friends in the house. How would these children outlive the nightmare that transpired in front of them that seemingly innocent summer day? How does their mother’s face look to them now when they imagine her? How would we face the evil that brought this to our city? How would this tragic day ever leave our bodies?
Meanwhile, the murderers of the country and the August 4 Port of Beirut explosion perpetrators cover for each other, kill people who can reveal their dirty truths, sign petitions to lobby for parliamentarians’ immunity, strike down laws that protect the silos, the city’s memorial of their murder. Every day, there is a graver and previously unimaginable aggression committed by the murderers. It was only months ago when they took to the streets with their RPGs and AK47s near the historic “Green Line” as a threat to judge Tarek Bitar, who dared to hold them accountable, when we all rushed to pull our children from school, imagining or remembering when this was a daily occurrence in this country in the 70s and 80s, when they too ran the country with the same arrogance and disdain for people’s lives as they do today.
It is exactly two years since the Port of Beirut explosion, one of the most heinous crimes in the history of Lebanon, and the world. This week, the northern end of the wheat silos at the Port of Beirut have begun to slowly crumble into the sea, after burning for nearly a month, the flames in the night sky taunting nearby residents, the imminent collapse reviving the nightmares they lived. The silos have become an icon of that day, a memorial of the devastation of a capital city as well as the protection of the west side of the city, where I live, as they absorbed the shock waves that would have been sent into our homes otherwise. But even the memorial became a battle ground with the murderers, who wanted to destroy them, as they do with everything that doesn’t serve their personal interests. They made excuses as to why they couldn’t put out the month’s long fire because they do not want us to remember. In two years, they did nothing to support the silos from falling. They just left them there, to eventually crumble, to erase the memory of their mass murder, to rise into dust, drown in the sea. To them, we are no different than the silos: Anybody or thing that exposes and memorializes the murderers in their true light should be destroyed.
Now, there are warnings about the dust from the silos, which contain construction waste and fungus from rotting grains. And how it may seep into our homes, our lungs. How can we protect our bodies from their murderous ways? They have spent three years without making a single reform while people have left the country in droves or sunken into poverty. They shot at some of these people when they tried to escape in a boat off the northern coast. They beat the victims’ families as they protested the delay of the Port of Beirut explosion investigation. They never offered their condolences to them. They didn’t pay any of the medical fees of those who survived but suffered long term injuries. They reinstated bread lines, with people’s hands reaching up, up for the next loaf. They have done nothing to provide missing cancer and diabetes and chronic illness medication nor punish suppliers who hoarded them as they waited for the subsidies to be lifted to make higher profits. They have left the country in literal darkness for two years now, swathes of people unable to afford a generator line, emptying their refrigerators. They and their cronies siphoned off the millions they plundered from the country and now they protect the banks who swallowed the fruit of people’s lifelong labor. They pay their public school and university teachers pre-collapse wages. They neglect the schools, which can only open classrooms on the sunny side of their buildings. They have money and weapons, but they have no water. They continue to live in spacious homes dripping with luxury, cooled and warmed with looted resources, bread piled high on their lavish tables, and they travel when they wish, with no need to wait in passport lines or for the bank to give them their dollars. They are free.
With them, there is no safe space. Not even our own bodies, which carry every memory.
When their evil becomes inherently part of us, what do we do with it?
Anyone who says we should not wish death upon these murderers has no empathy. This person cannot imagine what it’s like to lose a child or their life savings or the basic needs of daily life to blood-thirsty sectarian warmongers who hold onto power with the rhetoric of morality in the name of religion and the survival of a people while denying them a state but who wear suits and sit at the most powerful tables in the world, brokering their own future of profit and gain. They suck the life out of people so that their tyranny reigns. They lie and say their actions are for the people, for their karame, their dignity. True empathy and compassion for each other and all of those living under similar tyrants in the world, calls for their death.
When people went to the street on August 8, just four days after the Port of Beirut explosion, it was a day of rage and a promise of revenge. They carried mock gallows with cutouts of the murderers’ bodies hanging from them, a sight never seen in Lebanon. The murderers responded by shooting pellets and tear gas. The pellets lodged into protesters' bodies forever. Remember. Did those mock gallows scare the murderers?
Could it be that for once they felt our rage?
The murderers’ crimes had cut too deeply into people’s bodies, to their cores. Into the unimaginable, where the basest of desires lurk. We are capable, under these circumstances, of knowing what it feels like to want someone dead — even though we are not murderers. It is not important that their deaths will not change the country, which they run as their kingdom, in which their network and legacies run rich and deep. What matters is that, somehow, we see them hanged, ticking in the wind for days and days, from the same noose that they hanged the country from. It is the ultimate act of empathy.
Rima Rantisi teaches in the Department of English at the American University of Beirut and is the founding editor of Rusted Radishes: Beirut Literary and Art Journal. Her essays can be found in the New England Review, Literary Hub, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, Sweet: A Literary Confection, Past Ten, and Slag Glass City. She holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts.