Beirut trembled, hearts trembled with it. About a year ago from today, Beirut spent its hot summer in every direction. The sun’s rays on the afternoon of August 4 of last year could have been acceptable, had the sound that hailed in the Lebanese capital, whose echo was heard in Cyprus hundreds of kilometers away, not taken place.
Painting for the artist Serwan Baran
This explosion destroyed the hopes of millions of Lebanese, Arabs, and foreigners, those who loved Lebanon. This explosion destroyed many dreams in a country writing beneath the weight of political and economic crises and their repercussions on society.
The Beirut blast killed more than 200 people and injured over 6500. It destroyed many Lebanese neighborhoods. The government affirmed that the cause of the explosion was due to a storage of large amounts of ammonium nitrate without implementing precautions.
It was easy for international organizations and official entities in Lebanon and the world to count and value the losses, but what had not been realized, because of the horrible catastrophe and before anything else, that lives of entire families have entered the circle of terminal loss and pain.
The city had also lost something of its cultural identity, according to the UNESCO, round 8000 buildings including 640 heritage buildings, 60 of which were at risk of collapse, were damaged. The cultural and museum sector also suffered losses in Beirut, like the archeological museum at the American University of Beirut that lost 74 pieces from the collection of “glass through the decades” according to al-Fanar website. The windows of the Sursock museum also shattered and many of its hand-made walls and roofs collapsed. Al-Fanar also reported in “Beirut post-explosion: artistic and cultural losses,” 30 paintings were damaged in addition to many ceramic works, knowing that the museum had just undergone a renovation that cost 15 million dollars in 2015.
In a report prepared by the World Bank in collaboration with the European Union and the United Nations called “Beirut Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment:” the explosion reached the heart of Beirut’s historic neighborhoods causing severe repercussions on heritage assets and institutions of the creative and cultural sector. The explosion affected 240 out of 381 buildings and real estate of religious significance in areas that were assessed. It also impacted 11 out of 25 national monuments, 9 out of 16 theatres and cinemas, 6 out of 8 museums, 24 out of 25 libraries and archives, and 652 out of 755 heritage buildings (public and private) as well as historical residential buildings.
The damage led to almost a complete paralysis in cultural life in Lebanon generally and in Beirut especially. To top the repercussions of the Beirut explosion was the Covid-19 pandemic that remains the primary hand in controlling daily life in most cities around the world. Despite this, Beirut has some form of cultural activity that reduced the weight of occasional constant and complete lockdowns. The explosion stopped everything which prompted some creatives to immigrate or leave the country temporarily until the anger subsides and they can slightly recover from the horror that took place.
This City Gives and Does Not Take
Serwan Baran, a Iraqi-Kurdish artist whom the Institute for Palestine Studies’ website has particularly covered in a different file called “Special Focus: Serwan Baran’s Bronze Sculpture: The International Day of Solidarity with Victims of Torture.” He spoke of his experience with Beirut which began in 2007 after leaving Iraq and residing in Amman for 10 years since Iraqis were not yet allowed to enter Lebanon. Serwan describes his first visit to Beirut as “magic, even though I visit most of the countries around the world and the Arab region, I imagined that this was the city in which I would settle, just an initial feeling, and then the feeling was a constant.” Serwan returned to Beirut in 2013 on a tourist visit but he says that he has not left since then. Expressing that it is a city that “gives but does not take.”
Painting by Serwan Baran
Beirut became a tangible home for Serwan and other Arab creatives, the memory of freedom that Beirut offers is a refuge for dreams and belonging. Serwan Baran who is capable of becoming in most world capitals holds on to Beirut. “When it was at its peak, we held on to it, when it becomes sick, do we let go? That was impossible. Beirut isn’t just a city, it is companionship, friendship, safety, work, and nostalgia.”
Serwan Baran is filled with optimism when he speaks of Beirut that has suffered and suffers from pains and difficulties and wounds that only surrounding countries have faced. The artist, born in Baghdad which has suffered and suffers pains, difficulties, and disasters, says: “Beirut will recover soon and return more beautiful than it was.. these are great cities, Baghdad and Beirut and [Egypt] are always exposed to disasters but rise easy.”
A Blast that Awakened a Body in Pain
One moment shared between Beirut and anyone can transform into a moment of belonging and a connection to the homeland, as if in this city lies meaning for a person. The Iraqi artist Riad Ne’ma took Beirut as a place for his life and creativity, his relationship with the place is not one of a visitor or resident, but a relationship of a wound to the wounded. Riad wasn’t in Lebanon when the explosion took place, he was in Cyprus, and he heard the bang hundreds of kilometers away. “I didn’t understand at the time what had happened! But a great wound had been inflicted in that moment and I know that it will not heal easy. Minutes later I received the news.. I felt like it was a blast that awakened a body in pain, and forgot his pain for a moment. A body that lived through the rising of the soul and is no longer in pain. He had moved from a stage of pain to that of self-inflicted revolution.. it is another pain in the body of this living city.” Riad is an artist who does not separate big cities from its historical narrative. Beirut, to him, is difficult to be separated from the reality it passed and is currently passing. He thinks that Beirut cannot live without pains, as he explained, and adds: “the secret to Beirut’s cultural and social life lies in the repetition of its diverse tragedies. It is said that ‘what doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.’ Throughout history, this city has never stopped shaking, and that is the cost of its strong life.”
Riad Ne'ma - The Explosion
Beirut will rise and return to its cultural and political activities, this is its natural cycle. Riad says that “Beirut has an active role in our cultural and political lives… that is why its wounds and bruises are many… its activity makes it stronger.” Here, the strength of this city lies, despite its deep wound after the August 4 explosion in 2020, this explosion, according to Riad, has “positively impacted the type of artistic and cultural work… this positivity lies in the mechanism of giving that cultural production gives, artwork now speaks in a way different than war. Perhaps artwork turns into a love story or comical song, the opposite of war. Little are the creatives of spoke to the event as it is.” Riad’s experience in commemorating the event in artwork includes “strength and a dream that supports the city to rise, here lies positivity. It is diverse cultural production rooted in directly addressing and deeply understanding the event.”
The Explosion Brought Forward a New Era for the Country
The sound of the explosion that Riad heard in Cyprus was alive in Beirut. Camera were recording the scene moments before and after it took place. Some cameramen followed the smoke to determine the location of the explosion like photojournalist Marwan Tahtah who lives in Ashragiye near Rizk hospital. He left his home carrying his camera.
“I was at home when the explosion took place. I remember the sound and strong hail that destroyed the glass in my home and nearby buildings. I began chasing the trail of the spoke to identify the location of the explosion. After 5 or 10 minutes my wife sent me a text message confirming that the explosion was at the port. I was close. I did not realize how big the explosion was, half of the city was destroyed resembling a war zone. I am used to security issues in the city, but I was not ready for an event that took place in a moment destroying large areas of Beirut.
Marwan Tahtah’s photojournalism experience, especially during moments of unrest that Lebanon and Beirut have seen was nothing compared to what took place in the port explosion.
“I was unable to identify a geographical location for the extent of the explosion, the explosion itself grasped at me. I followed the smoke to find the place. When I arrived to the port, someone called at me to photograph a woman in a car, I found her dead, dismembered from the horror of the explosion. I did not take her picture.”
“When I arrived near the Lebanon Electricity Corporation, there were two young men working as guards at one of the institutions, one of them was laying on the ground, the other still standing. The man on the ground had lost his arm, he called for me to stay next to him and to place something under his head because of the glass on the ground. I found a pillow that flew from one of the homes, I cleaned it of dust and put it under his head. I thought of myself as a human being before I was a photojournalist. It was impossible for me to leave his side.”
Photography by Marwan Tahtah
There were tens like this young man, thrown by the explosion onto streets waiting for members of the red cross or army to take them to hospitals. Some hospitals stopped functioning due to the damage caused by the explosion or due to overcrowding of Covid-19 patients.
Beirut has experienced countless of bombings during the civil war and during onslaughts by Israel on Lebanon, but this explosion was a tragedy and disaster that had befallen the whole country. Marwan says: “It was very heavy and we still carry today the repercussions of a half-dead city… this explosion was the most violent in my experience. I don’t think I can forget the sound of the explosion. Of course, I cannot forget the dreadful August 4 day, even civil war photojournalist did not witness a day like this. In no time, large areas of Beirut were destroyed… in seconds only.”
Marwan concludes his conversation with me in sorrow.
“I photographed Beirut through multiple occasions since the year 2000. I never imagined that I would see and photograph it like this. To me, yes, the explosion has brought forward a new era for this country. Here, I speak as Marwan the photojournalist and how he looks at the city today and how he documents its daily life, especially as we are witnessing a complete [socioeconomic] collapse in the country.
Priority is Given to Continuity and Not to Expression
The language of Beirut has never been farther from its required depth. Beirut has always been a space to launch culture and art. Anyone who passes by Hamra street will run into a creative artist who impacted them or enriched Arab culture in general, from Paul Shaou, to Khaled al-Habr, to Ahmad Kaabour and others. None of them would have expected the catastrophe that had befallen the city when the port exploded. It was an earth shattering experience for everyone; Omar Zawaba, a cultural activist and the former coordinator for Dar El Nimer for Art and Culture said that “the echo of “Beirut is a cursed city” follows us. But the explosion itself was an expected outcome in a series of systematic collapses that preceded it and the boiling point in the country that hit its peak before August 4. The Beirut cultural scene was the most lively and diverse in the Arab region. It has now received multiple blows because of the economic collapse and its damaging repercussions. Then, the global pandemic arrived and eliminated any spaces founded for discussion and meeting. Continuity was not written except for those who were able to provide alternatives in the absence of infrastructure that allows a complete virtual existence. Then, the Beirut explosion came along, shaking the entire country and causing destruction on all fronts. The cultural sector has lost people, buildings, resources, and morale and has yet to recover.”
With the grand collapse that Lebanon is facing, that reached all aspects of life including cultural life, the need for cultural and artistic expression has raised a serious question, as Zawaba says: “How can this sector continue while there are constant collapses and morale is destroyed and the pandemic has suffocated every outlet? Priority has been given to continuity and not to expression. Many efforts perpetrated by local and regional entities in an attempt to build partnerships aimed to reduce the amount of damage that everyone has suffered in this sector. Except that the space for expression has shrunk to make space for survival. Life came back slowly and heavily to the Beirut cultural and artistic scene, but the situation in the country transformed creative spaces into margins, what space is there for art and culture in a country writhing for the resuscitation room.
The Last Arab Capital Capable of Listening to the Other
Palestine’s relationship with Beirut was not only baptized by blood, but a long history of Palestinian cultural and cognitive achievement was linked to Beirut, the capital written by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish through poems that immortalized his homeland and the country that embraced the Palestinian people’s revolution over the years. During this stage, the Palestinian and Arab creative experience was distinguished. Its output was the Palestinian Research Center and the Institute for Palestine Studies, which has been established in Beirut since 1963, and whose director general Khaled Farraj says that the institution “owes loyalty to Beirut.” The Institute did not halt operations but rather added took on more responsibilities, especially after the port explosion, like other institutions it "gathered its cadres and employees and took care of them and continued to perform its mission and duty, especially at the cultural and research levels, it maintained all its usual responsibilities."
The Institute is known for its research on Palestine and had allocated a large space on its website to cover the most prominent event at that time. Faraj adds: “We covered everything related to the port. The Institute also released a special issue of the Arabic Journal of Palestine Studies in September 2020 under the title ‘Salut To Beirut’, this painful conversation that befell Beirut was an occasion to preserve the Institute’s mission and duty, and to promote cultural work in the last Arab capital that capable of listening to the other.
Support for Arts and Culture in Lebanon has become Secondary
Every cultural event in Beirut held festive character and a diverse focus, as it was a meeting place for diverse segments of the country; In it, various dialects and languages meet in an artistic event that addresses everyone in a clear and understandable language, but political events since October 2019, through the economic collapse and measures related to the Covid-19 pandemic, to the explosion of the port, have prevented this fine language from fulfilling its message in society.
Most of the cultural programs and exhibitions completely stopped for about a year and a half. Dar El-Nimer for Arts and Culture was one of the institutions that used to put together cultural programs for exhibitions, film shows and other events on annually and monthly. In an article published on our website entitled “Lebanon’s Cultural Scene: A Call for Integration to Sustain,” Mrs. Lama Koubrously stated the following: “The arts and culture sector in Lebanon still hasn't recovered from this series of unfortunate events, which have severely impacted local institutions and their activities. Many collaborations and programs are still on hold as strategies are revisited to keep the industry accessible and productive in the scene.” Despite the fact that large groups see interest in culture and arts in such trying times is a form of entertainment and does not capitalize on the needs of people in Lebanon or round the world, the human need for beauty and the process of searching for beauty has surpassed many difficulties. In her article, Koubrously adds: “Despite all these challenges, Dar El-Nimer has witnessed an unexpected high volume of visitors once the institution reopened its doors in January 2021. The film program was re-implemented in the spring of 2021 on the roof terrace taking into consideration COVID-19 precautions.”
The Horror of the Explosion Gradually Appeared
The massive explosion took place on August 4, the city was left complete silence until the shock was comprehended, absorbed. The explosion cut deep wounds through the souls of everyone connected to Beirut… The Work for Hope Music School, which includes Lebanese citizens, Syrian and Palestinian refugees, have reacted to the incident, and tried, through its teachers and students, led by the Lebanese artist Ahmed Kaabour and the Palestinian artist Amal Ka’ush to treat some of the pain that the city and its people suffered by holding a concert on the stairs of Mar Mikhael…
The Bouzouk instrument teacher at the school, musician Farah Kaddour, told the Palestine Studies website: "We planned the concert on the occasion of the forty day commemoration of the explosion, of course, we planned quickly but also in complete shock. I remember that on September 10, a fire broke out at the port and we were rehearsing in Bekaa; we were confused as to whether proceed with the concert or cancel it. We postponed it to September 12. During rehearsal, we were worried that we may bother residents nearby the stairs while they were still gathering the shattered glass from their homes, so we worked on programming the concert as a memorial, with no expressions of joy of course, but rather using Syriac chants and a paragraph of patriotic songs performed by the graduates, a segment with Amal Ka’ush and one with Ahmad Kaabour. The concert had a positive impact on people, everyone, including the artists and residents, felt like they had finally taken a deep breath after the concert.”
Farah, who have participated in many concerts in Beirut, said that the explosion came at a suspicious time, specifically after the “partial failure of the revolution.”
“After outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, that largely physically, psychologically, and financially impacted people, the explosion was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The horror of the explosion that appeared gradually revealed the problems, feelings, questions and thoughts that we have carried towards this city.”
For Farah, the effects of the explosion did not end, nor did impact left behind in the city or inside the souls of its people.
“I think we are still in the ‘processing’ stage, we are still trying to comprehend the size of the impact, we are trying to deal with it and with all that it revealed in us. Some artists were able to express this processing stage faster than the others, as evidenced by the recent artworks, and some preferred to stay silent and to calmly absorb what had happened. I don't have a clear and explicit answer to what the explosion left in me, but it feels like the explosion is repeated every day inside me."
It was The Last Tremble
The author of this article was not external to the context of what had happened and continues to happen in this city. Years ago, Beirut was a beautiful and amazing concept and an attempt to reach meaning in this capital that I knew well before coming to it through a lot of literature that has written about it, scrutinized it and lived it in detail.
The explosion was massive. I was in the Mar Elias camp standing in my room looking for something. I felt a trembling that put me off my balance. Suddenly, there was another tremor. I fell, as did the city. I am still fallen when I roam Beirut looking for what was there two years ago, looking for joy and sadness when they met in Beirut and mixed to form a tale about music on the city’s stairs, and in the theater that has completely disappeared, and if the theatre appeared, here and there, it appeared to evoke the tragedy.
If the Beirut explosion was the beginning of a new stage in Lebanon’s cultural and artistic history, then this stage is a new beginning for Arab culture and art, to be influenced and to influence new creators, and to bring about a new awareness of creativity post-tragedy and its revolution.
Beirut is a story that begins so that it does not end, and the story with Beirut is not just a book, a poem, or a movie, nor is it a newspaper that writes freely. Beirut is the safety required by life to exist.