A big bang on Lebanon’s 100th anniversary

| August 29, 2020

The explosion that destroyed the Port of Beirut and parts of the capital on the 4th of August 2020 shattered the hearts of every Lebanese resident and expatriate. The direct human, material and mental toll suffered by the Lebanese residents is enormous. But there is another, less visible toll inflicted upon the Lebanese diaspora.

It is not new to suffer for Lebanon. Explosions, big and small, newsworthy or low key, are sadly not a rarity in the Land of the Cedars. Not even the scale of destruction is unprecedented. Lebanon and its darling capital Beirut have seen more, they have seen it all. Yet this explosion is different. Its nature, timing, location and scale make it historical, in the dramatic sense of history, the Mediterranean edition.

Problems, I mean big problems, have been fomenting in Lebanon for many long decades. The 15-year long Civil War that erupted in 1975 merged with an 18-year Israeli occupation, morphing into an even longer Syrian control. In 1991, the civil war officially ended.

In 2000, the Israeli army withdrew from South Lebanon. In 2005, the Lebanese prime minister was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut, leading to mass demonstrations and exit of the Syrian troops from Lebanon.

Supposedly, the civil war legacy should have ended in 2005, paving the way for a new era of freedom and prosperity for Lebanon. However, more violence and turmoil were in store. In 2006, a month-long war erupted with Israel.

By 2013, the ongoing Syrian war had spilled over into Lebanon in the form of more than 1 million refugees, violent clashes and terrorist attacks. In 2015, Beirut witnessed mass demonstrations over the ‘garbage crisis’. In 2019, Lebanon underwent the mother of all economic collapse, followed by the mother of all explosion in 2020 at the Beirut Port.

Lebanon never properly made up after its brutal wars and infighting. There was never a Truth commission or national reconciliation similar to what occurred in South Africa or Northern Ireland. After every conflict, the country turned over the page and kept walking on fire, jumping between traps and mines. Yet, a love-hate relationship of unfathomable chemistry bonded the people together.

Not uncommon among old families. Lebanon was surviving almost by a miracle through continuously offsetting discord and violence (of all sorts) with a mixture of luck and unwavering love and sacrifice of its people at home and away. All the while, the country was being drained of its soul and resources by unabated migration, especially among the youth, and corruption.

Corruption is legendary in Lebanon. It is sustained by intricate and deep-rooted webs of sectarianism, feudalism, nepotism and other chronic diseases. By mid-2019, Lebanon’s luck was running out and all of its unresolved problems and unforgiven sins have come home to roost, spurred by an acute monetary crisis and the near-collapse of its banking system. The national currency plummeted against the dollar and lifetime savings of residents and expats in local banks vanished.

On 17 October 2019, the people took to the streets in most cities and towns around the country mounting unprecedented, sustained popular protests. However, the disparate opposition movements failed to dislodge the firm grip of the ruling elites on power.

After months of protests, Covid-19 put an end to the large street demonstrations. But no one was content, nothing was resolved, reforms were not implemented, and everyone was buying time. The people, opposition and political system have all reached an impasse. The Port of Beirut exploded.

Beirut Port has a fascinating history. Its fall, rise then explosion symbolizes the story of modern Lebanon. During the 18th century, Beirut was a small coastal town with a little port. Towards the end of the 19th century, port management has passed from the hands of ruling Ottomans to the French, who later assumed mandatory power over Lebanon at the end of WWI.

During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, Beirut Port served both Lebanon and Syria thanks to a Beirut-Damascus railway (no longer operational) and a highway built by the French to link the Mediterranean with the Syrian hinterland across Mount Lebanon.

The busy Port, the dynamic banking system and the bourgeoning tourism sector gave post-independence Lebanon its short prosperous years, and its long-lived reputation as the Paris or Switzerland of the Middle East. On the eve of its 100-year anniversary on September 2020, Lebanon has lost all its three traditional economic pillars; tourism, banking and now the Port. The civil war rattled Lebanon but the mismanagement of the Peace blew it up.

As elsewhere, Covid-19 is compounding the crises. Today my native homeland is bankrupt, wrecked and unreconciled with an uncertain future, and my heart aches. Every Lebanese is destined to watch over their beloved country turned to dust then rise from the ashes, several times in a single, short, mortal lifetime. It is too much to bear!

In a way, I am lucky. Australia, my adopted country is free, beautiful, accommodating and full of intrigue. I am also lucky because my life and experiences in Lebanon have been mostly tough. I should easily move on with my life, and to a large extent, I did.

I also reached a phase in my life where my perception of home and identity have become more abstract and less urgent. Or so I believed. Perhaps the main thing a long-term migrant like me wants of their homeland is for it to look after itself and be heading in a good direction.

It is difficult to explain one’s relationship with an impossible homeland. After I came to Australia, I enclosed my troubled country like a little gem and placed it in the deepest part of my heart. I protected it from negative comments or attitudes.

When necessary, I would defend it, or end the exchange when it is not going in Lebanon’s favor. Then, Beirut Port exploded in the most dramatic of ways. Its guts spilled out on the screens, airways and newspapers for everyone to watch, listen and read. The gem in my heart shattered into pieces. Everyone wants to help and knows where Lebanon is on the map.

My story is now everyone’s story and my sorrows are not personal anymore. Beirut has become a public story, and I watch bewilderingly as my sorrows play on the world stage. The big powers have come to Lebanese shores offering to help this dysfunctional country climb out of its self-dug hole.

Now what? For me, I will pick up the pieces of my shattered gem, mend them back together and deposit it back deep in my heart. After all the friends leave and lose interest, the attention lights are turned off, Lebanon will go back to being my personal story, now adorned with more fractures and injuries.

As for the Lebanese people, they will lick their wounds, pick up the pieces and rebuild their capital as they have done many times before. Lebanon has its ‘own’ ways of fixing problems and moving on. I have faith it will do it again. It will not be easy this time as the country has literally spent all its credits and those of its people, and has invited everyone to meddle in its business.

Yet, today more than ever, an honest national dialogue and a genuine reconciliation are prerequisites for charting a decent path into the next centennial. The Lebanese people from all walks of life, professions, social classes and creeds, at home and abroad, need to talk and renew their understanding and agreement about their shared identity, past, fears and aspirations for a common, peaceful and prosperous future.

Lebanon needs to reinvent itself economically and politically, and the Lebanese people need to reach closure with their many ghosts and demons. Only then, I can stop fearing for my homeland like a sick child or a threatened treasure.

Lebanon, I want to see you free, peaceful and happy, and you can be as incorrigible and awkward as you like. My enfant-terrible, after all those years and everything you have done and endured, I still love you. Please, don’t give up.