Beirut… I have no words

Beirut… I have no words
Damages after 2020 Beirut explosion. Photo: Mehr News Agency, 09 August 2020 / CC BY 4.0

Lina AbiRafeh is a feminist activist and the Executive Director of the Arab Institute for Women (AiW) at the Lebanese American University, based in New York and Lebanon.

On Tuesday 4 August, the port of Beirut – and the city of Beirut – was decimated by an explosion whose impact will be felt for decades to come. Beirut has once again been brought to its knees.

Lebanon was already debilitated by layers of disaster – economic collapse, government ineptitude, unprecedented levels of poverty, the COVID 19 pandemic. And now this.

I feel like I’m watching a bad movie, living a nightmare. And I’m doing so from New York, behind a screen. Had I still been there, I would not be writing. My apartment faced the port. No more.

My heart breaks for what I see. My cousin said “To love Lebanon is to live with a broken heart”. And now, not just broken – decimated.

While I admire Lebanon’s go-to “resilience” rhetoric, it is also time for a reality check.

Lebanese have lived this nightmare year after year, decade after decade. And they continue to dust themselves off and rebuild. But beneath the surface, nothing changes. And yet – surely this is the biggest hit we’ve taken. Surely this blow will bring about real change?! I am not sure.

Finally we face a harsh truth. We need to hear it because we failed to fix things many other times. Is it our fault? Yes and no. We are victims of a corrupt, rotten system. But we also feed and fuel that system. We are the hosts upon which the bloated parasites feed.

And now it has literally exploded in our faces, making it impossible to ignore. And yet – who has apologized? Who has resigned? Whose rotten backside has left their political throne? That’s right – no one.

Our politicians are still the same – without apologies or remorse or accountability. Have they gone to comfort people and clean up the mess (and the death) that they made? Or are they hiding in their undamaged houses for fear that people will kill them with their bare hands if they show their faces? Meanwhile, their rot exploded in our faces, literally and figuratively.

Lebanon is a toxic relationship. It’s like falling in love with a thug who has “potential” – but he doesn’t ever want to see it fulfilled. He’d rather be mediocre. He’s just a thug, after all. That’s Lebanon. We love it, but it lets us down.

And yet… here we are. Trying to reform the thug. In the end we are all big talkers who huff and puff and blow nothing down, generation after generation. The revolution’s “Kellon ya3ni… “ stuff resulted in not-quite-kellon just more of the same old bloated parasites who feed off the population until it’s dead. Kellon.

And – here’s what’s ironic. In the West no one ever sees images of Beirut. Or at least they haven’t since 1982. So in their minds Beirut still looks like the war. “No, no!” I say. “You should see Beirut now. She’s beautiful!”

And now they see these images. Yes, I guess Beirut still does look like the war. In these last 40 years we painted the facade and polished ourselves up and put on lipstick but underneath we are still 1982.

When I moved to Afghanistan in 2002, political theorists spoke of the “Lebanonization” of Afghanistan. I did not know what that meant at the time. Now I see: it is a collection of enclaves, tribes, clans, ethnicities, sects, whatever – lumped together by force and called a nation. There’s no such thing as Lebanon unless you bump into a fellow Lebanese on the streets of New York. For a few minutes, you’re both Lebanese, until one person asks for your last name or your village. And then poof! The illusion of Lebanon is no more. You’re reduced to a geography, a sect, and, by extension, a political persuasion. Even a color. It’s the only country I’ve ever lived in where people will make political assumptions based on your nailpolish.

A friend once told me that Lebanon is “sophisticated but not civilized” – that’s exactly it. It is a facade that appears pretty but is hollow underneath. And on the inside… rot.

I asked my mom once why Lebanese are so obsessed with the past, why we glorified the 60s. Was it better, really?! No. It was the same. We just look to the past telling ourselves that it was pretty and perfect, that we, and Lebanon, were pretty and perfect. A beauty queen has-been who can’t accept that she’s aged – and is dying on the inside. We look only to the past because we lack the courage and conviction to look forward.

Now we don’t have a choice.

This was originally published on 7 August 2020 on Lina’s blog. Read the original piece here. You can also follow Lina on Twitter

Featured image: Damages after 2020 Beirut explosion. 9 August 2020. Photo: Mehr News Agency / CC BY 4.0

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