Letter From Beirut: After Grief, There is Rage
"I know I will not forgive."
Time stopped in Beirut at 6:08 pm on the 4th of August. And I stopped counting. I stopped counting at 291 days since the beginning of the Oct. 2019 uprising, and at 144 days since COVID-19 hit the country. At 6:08 pm that day, time became irrelevant.
I do not remember a time when I did not write you, Beirut, or to you, or about you. But I have always done so with trepidation. I have always felt that I owe you more than I show and more than my writings reflect—that whatever I write would barely amount to a faint footprint on your streets. But you do not make this any easier. There is always too much going on with you, Beirut. Always too much to keep up with.
I have always boasted of writing you in fragments, of stitching you on cloths, and sleeves, and hearts. But I have always been cautious of wearing you on my sleeves in a country that taught us that our sleeves need always be rolled up. So I held you within me until you and I both imploded and exploded at the same time. And now we are both spilled over, scattered. But you have always been stronger than I am. And I have always been too fragile to write you when you are in distress. So allow me to try. But do forgive my intermittent silence. I promise it is only momentary. Allow me to pick myself up first, for like you, I now exist outside myself, my body like a fathom limb.
I never would have expected to ever see you like this, scarred, mutilated, disenchanted. I never would have expected to see you in ruins, for it is us who should be kneeling in front of you, Beirut. I would never have thought that I would be searching for you in the debris, trying to identify a street corner, a favorite shop, an abandoned memory, and displaced footholds. I would never have thought that the 30-year-old civil-war pictures I spent hours perusing in the archives for research, I will be seeing with my own two eyes. I would never have imagined that I would be stepping into similar scenes, and that the violence we deluded ourself into denying, into normalizing, into covering up with metaphors of stupid birds and narratives of resilience, would blow up in our faces.
I never would have thought there will come a day when you would need me to dress your wounds when you were always the first to bury my sorrows, the first to ask me to dance, and the first to promise me better mornings with every cup of coffee, and better nights with every glass shared with comrades. Yes, you spurred revolutionary talk every night, and instilled us with ideas and passions, and verse, and stories. But that was never enough and we should have known.
I have loved you in fragments, each day a new vignettes, that in my memory with you I would scramble as I would my magnet words on my fridge, each day a new poem. But you are scattered to pieces, as if you no longer appreciate a fridge poet, as if I am no longer enough. It is not only us who have been demanding our right to you, Beirut. But here you are, a wreck, in pain, silent, pleading. Look what they have done to me! Do something, you seem to be saying.
We have hung on too long to the same vinyl on loop, to the same film reel, that we have misheard your cries muffled under our peaceful cheers in squares and streets since October 2019. How could we have been so blind? We have hung on too long to stories we created about you that we overlooked the only one we should be writing. They shook you to your knees. They substituted your party glitter with sprays of broken glass and teargas. They buried your people underneath you. They tore your veins and ours open. They robbed us of our homes and safe places. And the only gatherings they seemed to allow were those of our funerals.
I will write everything down, Beirut. On the streets after the blast, I took pictures with my phone. I did not want to forget, as if that were ever a possibility. But I am not a good photographer. I know I will not forget. I know I will not forgive. But I am unable to withstand walking on the rubble of what you once were. No, this is not you, Beirut. But are we now to carry your corpse on our backs, your shards and rubble in our phones, your dismembered stories in our pockets? How far up should I roll up my sleeves?
They announced a second lockdown five days before the blast. The lockdown consisted of a total of ten days with a two-day break in between. The 4th of August was the first of these two days. You have taught me never to believe in coincidences, Beirut. And this is too real to be one. This is premeditated urbicide. Following the blast, a state of emergency was announced. But neither you nor your people were the emergency, Beirut. Instead of picking you up, instead of clearing the rubble, of pulling people from under your wreckage, they watched our misery at a distance, patrolling the streets, and harassing the volunteers, before teargassing us. The fumes of your blast were not enough. Our black clothes of mourning and the black ribbons on our pictures, were not enough. They needed to suffocate your skies. But what they do not know is that sky is no longer the limit. The heavens are.
Elias Khoury is right. You are not your past. You are your present. He is right. Beirut, we will avenge you. We will rewrite you from the rubble. We will redraw you ‘in the ink of [your] children’s blood!’.
Time stopped at 6:08 pm that day. It became irrelevant. Our lives after the blast no longer seek calendars save to count the days since. But how can I do that when each day I wake up I feel that the blast had just happened? Time is irrelevant. And the lives we led before the blast are all what remain of Beirut; some are disfigured, some are lost under the rubble, some are forgotten, others are displaced. And all we have left are words still stuck in our throats along with toxic fumes and teargas. This is no longer Beirut. This is rage.