Beirut, Lebanon, Beirut Explosion, Nasri Atallah
Myriam Boulos

Inside Beirut’s Broken Heart

28 August 2020
After the catastrophic blast of August 4, Beirut was coming to terms with an unbearable trauma. In the days that followed, Nasri Atallah grappled with his country’s past, present and future

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted. You learn that early on. For three weeks in Lebanon during late July and early August, I spent a lot of time being heartbroken. Like many in the diaspora, I had been witnessing the deepening and overlapping crises in the country from an uncomfortable distance. By the time I was in Beirut in mid-July, the financial freefall which had led the currency to devalue by 80 percent and frozen life savings in the banks was all anyone could think or talk about. No one had time for Coronavirus, or any other of the world’s concerns. People spent their days juggling four different exchange rates, figuring out how to get essentials, how to feed their kids. Many friends were quietly figuring out how they might get themselves out of the country in a few months, once they’d scraped enough cash together.

A young volunteer named Ahmad, working for a Palestinian association, takes a break to pray in Mar Mikhael

By the time Tuesday August 4th came around, Lebanon had begun to exhaust me. The heat and the sadness, I didn’t know how to navigate them anymore. I left our new offices on the Beirut Waterfront, less than a mile from the port, earlier than normal. It was an inconvenience. We had just moved in the day before. The new office signalled a coming-of-age, moving from the informal setting of one of our flats, to this all-glass box by the shimmering Mediterranean. But the power generators needed to be shut down at 5pm, so we called it a day.

I went to my favourite barber shop, Mario’s, a few miles away. The shop was quieter than usual, pitter-patter muffled by our masks. Lebanon was about to go back into full lockdown the following day, and the embarrassingly vain amongst us wanted to be confined with a well-groomed beard. I called my wife, Nour, in London as I left. I couldn’t figure out if I should stay in Beirut where I was due to meet a friend for coffee, or head to my parents’ place a few miles up into the hills to drop off my laptop, putting a formal end to the workday. “Go sit with your mum a bit, she’ll enjoy that,” Nour said wisely.

It was a little before 6pm when we sat outside. The breeze was crisp and generous, a welcome interruption to the suffocation and humidity further down in the city. My mum sat in the lotus position on her chair, flipping through an interior design magazine – both things she has done for as long as I can remember, dog-earing pages she never comes back to. The breeze made its way through the jasmine and orange blossoms, the smell hitting us both at the same time. “It’s impossible how nice that smells!” we both say at the same time through a dramatic inhale. The coordination confirmed my suspicions that I have been slowly turning into my mother.

Then, 6:08 pm. The world tore apart. The steady, sustained roar of what felt like a million thunders shook us in our seats, before cracking into the loudest sound I will ever hear. It made its way through the tree leaves, the terracotta tiles on the roof in front of us, the concrete of the walls, the windows, our bones, our souls.

We both stumbled out of our chairs. We almost hit the floor, unsure if the blast had done it, or whether we just couldn’t find our footing. We scrambled to get indoors.

“They’ve hit us,” said my mum. At that moment, it could only mean one thing. We were under attack. We entered into the carefully rehearsed choreography familiar to everyone who has ever lived through war – move away from the windows, put your shoes on, grab your things, figure out what is going on before the phone lines go silent, head to the basement.

I kept repeating “Ya ‘aadra” (oh Virgin Mary) over and over again. Even as the fear started to take over my body, I thought it was odd that I had chosen this mantra. I started doubting my agnosticism as I darted around the flat. I would repeat it, as if possessed, for the next hour.

"I felt my heart might stop. I wanted to rip my chest out. I thought I would be calmer in a crisis. I’m ashamed. I try to hide this from my mother."

I started trying to call my father as I ran towards the other side of the house. From there, I had a vantage point over the city. I sent a WhatsApp voice note to my wife. Through my shallow, panicked breaths you could just about make out the words, “Hey hayete (my life). There’s been a huge explosion. We’re home, we’re OK. I’m trying to figure out what it was. Call your parents.”

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted.

I looked towards the airport, nothing. Odd. I wondered what they had hit. My eyes darted across the horizon. I saw a tower of smoke above the port. I felt my heart might stop. I wanted to rip my chest out. I thought I would be calmer in a crisis. I’m ashamed. I try to hide this from my mother.

The seconds feel like hours. My father, who was in the An-Nahar newspaper offices less than a mile from the port, finally picks up. I realise he’s in shock.

“I’m in a car with some strangers heading to Tripoli. I don’t know what’s going on.”

I can hear screaming around him. I have been pacing too much to look at the television. My experience of the disaster is still only auditory. My first thought when my father tells me he is in a car with a stranger is, “I hope they’re all wearing facemasks.” It seems, now, a futile thought. The building my father was in caved in all around him. He survived one of the most powerful explosions in human history, less than a mile from its epicentre, and I was worried about social distancing.

“Will any of us sleep again? Maybe if we sleep, we’ll forget what happened. Maybe if we stay awake, the world can still see us.”

Days later, during one of my sleepless nights, I would stumble across security footage on Instagram from the building he was in. I would see my father being led out calmly and slowly by a young journalist and I would cry gently into my darkened living room.

As we waited for my father to get home, we also waited for another bomb. Which is what we still thought this was. I became convinced my mother and I would die up in those hills, that my father would die on the road back to us. I thought of my sister in Paris, how I texted her, “We’re fine,” to buy us time to find my dad before we brought her into our nightmare. I kept sending breathless WhatsApp voice notes to my wife, keeping her with me while I made sense of everything.

Of course, now all indications are that this was not an act of war. Or at least not the act of war we were expecting. Maybe this time there will be an investigation that will eventually tell us what happened. This explosion, which some estimate to be the fourth biggest in human history after Hiroshima, Halifax and Oppau, was the result of a kind of reckless and wilful neglect that has been hard for people who aren’t familiar with Lebanon to grasp. Two thousand seven hundred tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been stored unsafely in hangar 12 at the port for years, a hop and a skip away from some of the capital’s most vibrant and densely populated streets. In the days after the blast, people would share more facts about ammonium nitrate than I ever wanted to know. How Germany only allows 25 tonnes of ammonium nitrate to be stored in one place, for instance. We had 2750 tonnes, in the heart of Beirut, for seven years. A Damoclean sword hanging over two million people as they went about their lives – stuck in traffic, fumbling through a first date, coming home from school, sitting on the balcony with their grandchildren.

“A friend texts me to ask if he is still alive. In the following weeks I would see this a lot. People unsure if they were dead or alive. As if we had somehow all been dragged into purgatory together.”

As the images of the aftermath started to fill my various screens, what had been so real that I thought I was going to die an hour earlier became out-of-body and impossible to grasp. Everyone walking around with blood streaming down their faces, others already bandaged, everyone disorientated. A city of the walking dead.

For days, the shuffle of broken glass along the pavements and inside homes was the soundtrack of the city. A friend texts me to ask if he is still alive. In the following weeks I would see this a lot: people unsure if they were dead or alive. As if we had somehow all been dragged into purgatory together.

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted.

***

I wonder if anyone has slept since August 4? Will any of us sleep again? Maybe if we sleep, we’ll forget what happened. Maybe if we stay awake, the world can still see us.

For a week after the explosion, I cried at everything. It felt like my nerve endings weren’t on the outside of my body, it felt like they were extending away from me – like the filaments in those plasma globes I used to be fascinated by as a kid. Clear glass balls with bolts of light extending from an electrode to the glass edges to meet your fingers.

Two women, Ghida and Maha, working as volunteers in the clean-up of Mar Mikhael, one of Beirut’s most vibrant neighbourhoods

Everything made me cry. My obsessive re-watching of the explosion from different angles. Angelique telling the story of how a stranger carried her from hospital to hospital until she could get the care she needed after she was hit in the face by a shard of glass. A child born in a destroyed hospital, another child dying. Tributes to people who had died who I had had drinks with many years ago, Krystel and Jean-Marc. People I didn’t really know but who I did know in the way everyone in Beirut knows everyone. News stories about the firefighters who had been sent towards certain death, told they were putting out a fire in a wheat storage unit. Two barmen at Torino Express, my favourite dive, standing in the rubble of a place I called a second home for many years. A beautiful triple-arched home without its arches. A classic Mercedes caved in on itself. The range of things that were making me cry made no sense. There was no hierarchy.

The Lebanese art historian Gregory Buchakjian has been writing the same sentence on his Instagram stories for two weeks: “We are not well.” In an interview with CNN Style, he talks about the material cost of the explosion. Beyond the hundreds of dead, the thousands of injured and the estimations of the cost of reconstruction, he expresses what these buildings actually mean to us, the people who care about Beirut.

“I would describe this as a cataclysm,” he says. “As something completely apocalyptic.” I never thought I would find myself crying at a video on a lifestyle channel. “The reconstruction is not only a reconstruction of the stones. It is a reconstruction of the hearts, of the minds of the people,” he says.

The areas obliterated by the blast, along the eastern edge of the capital, were not uncomplicated places. Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael, Karantina and Geitawi were all places that had been in the grip of an exponential gentrification drive in the past 15 years. They had already seen long-time residents edged-out by the upwardly mobile middle-class working in the creative industries, amongst others. Car repair shops sat side by side with hipster burger joints and art galleries. Like much in Beirut, it was a senseless cacophony, visual and auditory. None of it made much sense, but it was electric.

The short stretch of street between two bars – Floyd the Dog to Radio Beirut – looked like a post-apocalyptic rave in Mad Max on most Saturdays, the effluence of competing sound systems streaming out onto the thousands of revellers amassed on the narrow pavement. Now, in the ruins of these areas, there was also a flattening of social structures.

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted.

Every time my father watches the news for days after the blast, he has the same expression of disbelief.

“I was there,” he says to no one in particular.

How do we ever process this? Can the human heart process this and survive? In the days after the blast I have nightmares of shattering glass raining down on me, a hail of translucent shards. I was 7 miles away when it happened, and these are my nightmares. I think of Lama, Joy, Karim, Melanie, Charbel, Rabih, Kamal, Zeyn. Countless others. What must be in their nightmares? The blast blew through our lives and now it blows through the little sleep we can find shelter in.

A couple of days after the blast, I am scheduled to return to London. It feels impossible to get on a flight. But Nour is in London. She has been processing all of this alone. The destruction of her parents’ home, my panicked voice messages, all our friends’ lives shattered. I ask friends what I should do. They tell me to go home and be with my wife. Since I’ve been back, I have been sleeping in the living room to avoid waking Nour up with my nightmares.

One of them wakes me up at 5am. I scroll through Twitter and see a post by the author Lina Mounzer. I am happy she is OK. Her writing has been one of the few joys in recent months. I haven’t been able to text the hundreds of people I know who have been affected. So I text her as soon as I see this new piece of writing. We exchange the usual round of wishes. “Hope everyone you know is alive and well.” “You too.” I decide to tell her how guilty I feel to have left Beirut. She tells me I shouldn’t feel guilty, those who are guilty are those who have put me in this impossible situation. That even though I have survived and left, the debris from this blast lives inside me forever.

A man named Abdullah with his wife and daughter “Everyone helped everyone, but nobody came to help the Syrian people,” he said. More than 40 Syrians died in the explosion, the country’s embassy announced

“What should you feel guilty for? That you can physically leave but never emotionally leave? No, no. They’re the ones who should feel guilty for doing this to you.”

I know who ‘they’ are. You know who ‘they’ are. Her message gives me permission, for the first time since August 4, to sob. Not just cry quietly. But tear the universe open with a howling cry. I shake violently on the sofa as the early morning light cuts through the blinds. I end up waking Nour anyway.

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted.

***

The day after the blast, I went down to the seafront to try and find my dad’s car. It was parked in front of the An-Nahar building. It looked ludicrous, parked neatly amongst the devastation. The windshield had shattered and the roof had caved in. I beeped it open, an improbable, mundane action to unlock a vehicle that looked like it had been abandoned for 50 years rather than one night. I wore gloves to open the door and pick away at the glass on the roof; the same latex gloves that were best suited to light household chores, and which I had convinced myself were a barrier against the Coronavirus in March, were now meant to protect me against ammonium nitrate.

People gather near a bus belonging to Kelna Ayleh, a collective of local NGOs who are delivering food and supplies to those in need

As the days went by, the mundane pressed up against the out-of-scale tragedy the whole city was living through. I kept checking my step count. Even though my whole body ached from something I found out was ‘acute stress response’, I still cared about getting my 10,000 steps in. I Googled “Can you run out of tears?” (short answer: no, not if your lacrimal glands are healthy). I frantically researched ammonium nitrate, this new thing I had to hate. I text a friend, she tells me she’s unsure if she’s dead or not.

A man tweets at the UN Secretary General who has just called the Lebanese resilient, “Bonjour Antonio habibi, I don’t want to be resilient anymore.” This is a common refrain. Our much-vaunted resilience has become a curse.

Lebanon’s myth of resilience is rooted in its long history of, amongst other maledictions, bombings. Everyone has a vernacular, a lexicon around explosions. “That was bigger than the Hariri bombing,” “that feels like a small shell,” “that’s too small to be a car bomb,” and other such sentences which we have come to consider normal. I mentioned this to my therapist once – in the leafy North London borough we were in – and she was visibly shocked by how normalised dealing with these things was for me. There was a time around a wave of bombings in 2012 to 2013 when a simple walk had become terrorising. The 1998 Range Rover over there looks parked by a low wall, so if I walk behind the wall, I might survive if it blows up, would go my macabre internal monologue on the walk to work. Every single vehicle was suspect and dangerous. I lived in anticipation of being torn to shreds.

Tony, a hairdresser, sits in his salon. When the blast hit, he hid behind his barber’s chair to shield himself

Andrew Arsan’s recent but already seminal history of the country, Lebanon: A Country in Fragments, is 500 pages of beautifully written prose, but everything you need to know is on page one of the introduction. Since 2005, the country has had three presidents, 34 months without a president at all, six prime ministers, a war with Israel, 48 bombings, 21 assassinations and assassination attempts, a refugee crisis, a conflict with Islamic State in the northeast, an unresolved trash crisis and the fourth-largest explosion in human history. These are not all the things we have been through since the beginning of the 20th century. These are all the things we have been through since Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” was in the charts.

These traumas are added to the death by a thousand cuts of the many daily injustices people living in Lebanon face: unequal rights, everyday corruption, power cuts, one of the world’s worst internet connections, water shortages and so on. When I read that page in Andrew’s book, I wondered how any of us had survived at all. How hardened, how calloused we were by so much violence and misery.

To be Lebanese is to be broken-hearted.

***

“If Beirut hadn’t been destroyed, we wouldn’t have discovered anything,” says Abu Naji, gesturing to ancient ruins in the heart of the city as he smokes a cigarette in Lebanese director Ghassan Salhab’s 2002 film Terra Incognita. “Seven times dead, seven times risen,” he continues, wistful. Carol Abboud’s Soraya responds, “We didn’t rise, she did,” with a finality that feels fitting two decades later. Just as the earth will survive climate change and we will disappear, maybe Beirut will survive as we evaporate.

My therapist had been on holiday during August. She emailed me the day of the blast. When a French person emails you during their August vacation, you know something cataclysmic has happened. When we eventually got to speak again, I didn’t know where to start. I told her about the nightmares, the sleeplessness, my father, my friends. I told her how I see broken windows in London now, where there aren’t any. I told her about all my friends who are giving up, those who just want to repair their windows and leave the country. Those who are in the streets being shot at in rage-fuelled protests. How nothing makes sense. How I re-watch the video of the explosion on different news sites, to make sure that everyone can see it too.

She tells me it sounds like I am talking of something that, “felt like an ending”. Absurdly, I hadn’t thought of it as an ending. But now that the word has been floated, I repeat it to myself. An ending, an ending. The end of what, I am still unsure. More importantly, I’m not sure what it is the beginning of either.

The language around our collective trauma is still emerging. We repeat each other’s sentences in our social media posts. But we don’t know how to talk about this yet. Or write about it. Myriam, whose poignant photos accompany this article, told me it is more important to document everything we feel right now, rather than to be aesthetic or well-executed.

The witnessing is the important part. There are no answers. All we have now are questions. To be Lebanese has always been to be broken-hearted. Can we hope that that is what has come to an end with this, the biggest heartbreak of all?


Photography: Myriam Boulos