While I was at my house south of Beirut, 15 minutes away from downtown by car, my phone rang. My friend, Rana, had called from her house located in Verdun in the city. She had just walked in, taking the seaside route from work, passing by the Port of Beirut. It’s 5:45pm in Lebanon, Rana entered her home 10 minutes ago and called to check on whether I had accepted a job offer I received earlier in the day. August 4, 2020. I surprised her when I said: no. She advised me to reconsider and accept the offer because the country was going through the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Perhaps, she said, it will be difficult for me to find another opportunity, now is the wrong time to take risks.
I told her that I do not take risks but that I would like to take a break from work, that I’m considering changing my profession of journalism because I was tired of listening to social and depressing stories but that I do not know what I'll be doing right now. It was best for me to sit with myself and make a decision calmly.
I don’t know if Rana heard the last sentence I told her.. I barely blinked when I heard her scream loudly: “In the name of God, what is this sound? What do I do? Where do I go? What do I do?”
I did not understand what had happened. Rana, what happened? “I don’t know, maybe an explosion? I don’t know where.” She said.
Seconds later, my house shook… I ran out quickly, I thought it was an earthquake so I asked Rana not to be scared and to leave her building. It is still seconds later, I see children playing inside my residential building. I asked them if they felt an earthquake. The question barely leaves my lips as I begin screaming like Rana, but this time the sound was closer, quicker, stronger, and it seemed like it was surrounding me… the sound of the explosion had arrived with a big bang.
Rana is still with me on the phone… I tell her this is not an earthquake…
“Israel, be careful, Israel is bombing us, I will hang up, I want to see where my siblings are, maybe there was a strike by their workplace.”
What is that sound? Who do I call first, my brother, my sister, or my father? Where are they? It’s 6:10pm. Expressions of fear are evident on my face and my heart is beating fast. Israel is bombing us… I am sure, this sound is familiar, I know it, I remember it from war nights in July 2006. I remember when we escaped in the middle of the night from Israeli strikes at the building across from our home. This image comes to mind and I run, lost in the rooms of the house. I head to the bedroom and open the closet, I place a bag with my identification papers and pictures that hold beautiful memories. This is how it is, we must always be prepared, the house may be demolished, we may lose shelter, and of course, we are going to lose relatives and friends. I must keep hold of this bag, we die with it, or perhaps we take the pictures inside of loved ones that we could hang on walls. Unfortunately, this is how the game of death is in our homelands.
This is how the Beirut we loved changed. An open wound and bitter anger. Human and material loses. Not the loss of a city but the loss of an entire nation, a massive explosion has shook the Port of Beirut and with it, our hopes and dreams. We do not know who did this and why. All we know is that it is the third largest explosion in the world. I found out when my curiosity pushed me to visit the location of the explosion the next day. I thought that the images I saw on TV and social media were exaggerated, I thought it was old footage or taken from wars that had taken place in nearby countries. My mind could not comprehend that all this devastation took place in a matter of seconds. I remained confused until I witnessed the Nakba (catastrophe) of Beirut. After the shock, I asked myself the five questions: what? How? Why? When? Who? I returned to the field on that day. I returned a journalist moving between the houses of victims and missing persons, listening to their stories and living the trauma, hope, and disappointment with them; how could I forget wounded Siham, and the story of the martyr Amin al-Zahed, and the family of Muhammad Talis who had found his doppelganger amongst the martyrs before the DNA test showed that it wasn’t him, which prompted them to continue looking for him at hospitals. His mother received a flutter of hope the week after the explosion, but that hope disappeared and she returned to sadness when she found our he had been indeed martyred. There are many stories and scenes that stayed in my memory, may they not be repeated, and may the last hope for Beirut return.