The day the world broke open in Beirut

The night was filled with the dissonant music of broken glass and in the distance, sirens

Lina Mounzer

It began as a rumble. A deep bass rattling through the building. And then a roar for seven, eight, nine seconds, an eternity. A sound that could be made only by the world itself breaking open. I was certain it was an earthquake.

My husband rushed from the balcony to our bedroom. Waves of pressure rolled over us; we crouched and clutched at one another. Glass broke, doors blew open, objects shattered. From the street rose screams and oaths. And terrified exhortations: “Ya Muhammad! Ya Muhammad!

What was it?” I asked, when I could breathe again. “Infijar,” he responded. Explosion. A word we have used far too often in this country. Thinking the blast had come from underneath our building, I went to the balcony to survey the damage: the ground glittered with glass as far as the eye could see.

My hands shook as I scrolled through my phone, trying to call or text friends, checking Twitter to see what happened. The internet connection went in and out of service. My husband coaxed me back inside. “Get away from the windows,” he said. “Put proper shoes on! We might have to run.”

Messages poured in on various WhatsApp groups.

“We’re OK, all our glass is broken.

“Has anyone heard from H?”

“I spoke to him, he’s fine, but his house isn’t.”

I slowly processed the magnitude of it. 

There were photos of the people still missing;

 the homes shattered, books and clothes and 

furniture underfoot. The neighbourhoods 

of Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael and Geitawi,

 coveted for their red-roofed, century-old

 houses overlooking the port from the east, 

all nearly flattened

“The newborn kittens at my mom’s house all died! From the pressure I think but my parents are OK.”

We didn’t know what had actually happened, but the reports seemed certain about the location: the Beirut port.

Truth in bits and pieces

From our bedroom balcony, I saw a thick plume of pink smoke rising in the cloudless sky. Speculation was rampant: Israeli warplanes! A Hezbollah weapons cache! A suicide attack! The truth, which came in bits and pieces over the long and terrible evening, turned out to be far worse.

Lebanon has been pushed into a full blown economic collapse by corruption and influential families who have commanded the seats of power in government since the end of our 15-year civil war in 1990.

Our currency has devalued over 80 per cent. Stories of destitution abound. Yet I couldn’t imagine how spectacular and lethal the incompetence of the Lebanese state could be.

The explosion turned out to be 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, which had been confiscated from a ship and stored in a hangar at the port since 2014 without proper safety measures.

Customs officials sent numerous letters to the courts, seeking guidance on how to dispose of the material. The judiciary never responded. The chemicals sat in the hangar until the inevitable happened.

I slowly processed the magnitude of it. There were photos of the people still missing; the homes shattered, books and clothes and furniture underfoot. The neighbourhoods of Gemmayze, Mar Mikhael and Geitawi, coveted for their red-roofed, century-old houses overlooking the port from the east, all nearly flattened.

One friend narrowly missed being decapitated. Another friend, seven months pregnant, was briefly buried under debris.

My friend’s father was waiting for his wife in the hallway of a hospital near the port when the explosion hit. The ceiling collapsed on him. He came to his senses surrounded by bodies buried under the rubble. He wished he could see his wife one last time.

And then someone pulled him out. Fortunately, my friend’s mother was unscathed. There were messages from friends, colleagues, acquaintances from all over the world. The news had travelled far and fast, another measure of its horror.

Broken glass everywhere

My husband spoke to his uncle in New York; I surveyed the damage in the kitchen. Glassware had flown out of the cupboards. I pulled out the broom and began sweeping. The night was filled with the dissonant music of broken glass and in the distance, sirens.

Growing up in Lebanon taught me that an explosion resonates across time, that the shock reverberates forward into your life, and the pressure reconfigures the landscape of the mind.

I know that it comes to shape everything you think you deserve from the world. The people of Beirut have been shaped by the bombs that reconfigured this country.

We haven’t even begun to assess the damage that this bomb has done to us, to our city. More than 135 dead and 5,000 injured. And then there is the loss of the port, a lifeline for a country that imports nearly everything it consumes. We were already facing food shortages. The explosion took out two massive grain silos; wheat spilled into the rubble and the ash.

A war crime

This is not some lamentable accident. “I can’t stress this enough but the international community must respond to this as a war crime and not an accidental tragedy,” the Lebanese-Palestinian author Saleem Haddad wrote on Twitter.

In 1989, when I was 10, during the final and deadliest phase of the Lebanese civil war, we were huddled with our neighbours in a vestibule on the fourth floor of our building when a shell screeched into the floor below us and exploded. I thought that was the loudest sound I had ever heard in my life. Our upstairs neighbour was screaming; our downstairs neighbour’s face was grey with concrete dust.

We referred to that phase of the civil war as the “Aoun war,” after Michel Aoun, the general who commandeered the Lebanese Army like his own militia, decimating West Beirut in his bid to oust the Syrians from Lebanon. Aoun is now our president, allied with Hezbollah and Syria.

I mention Aoun to remind myself how long we have been at the mercy of the same people and their pernicious ambitions.

Beneath the rubble, beneath the sadness, an immense rage has begun to boil.

Lina Mounzer is a Lebanese writer. She has taught creative writing at the American University of Beirut

The New York Times