Beirut, forgotten. Blast, remembered.

Lina AbiRafeh
11 min readAug 4, 2022

The day before the explosion was ordinary, quiet, unremarkable. But I was unsettled. I slept terribly that night, flip-flopping like a dying fish caught in a net.

On August 4, 2020, I woke up well before my alarm. New York City was still quiet and dark. I stayed in pajamas, made coffee, and carried it with me as I walked my dog, Zazoo. I let him drag me around as I stumbled behind, only waking from my stupor when I got tangled up in his leash, stepping squarely into his freshly-deposited poop.

“I tried to warn you,” a nearby pet parent called out, “but you didn’t hear me”.

I tried to warn you…

I dragged myself home, flopped onto my desk and started work. At 11am I got the text. I was on autopilot — second work call and third cup of coffee.

“A bomb in Beirut…” from a group chat. I frantically texted my mother, barely able to find the right keys to type three short words.

“Where is Dad?!” It was 6pm in Lebanon.

“He’s fine, fine!” One fine would have been fine. Two “fines” and something was clearly wrong.

And then other messages came flooding in. “Multiple locations”… “A fire”… “Lots of speculation”… “An Israeli strike”… “A horrible accident”… “Too early to speculate”… “The port. Wheat silos are gone”…

“Was anyone hurt?!”

And then the photos and videos started coming in. My Beirut was not the Beirut of the 1980s, in shows like Homeland, with stereotypes of blown-out buildings and bearded men with AK-47s.

My Beirut is a city of music. A marina with million-dollar yachts next to an old seaside hotel where celebrities used to dance. Where my grandmother used to dance. Fusion restaurants requiring reservations months in advance next to food carts for midnight falafel.

And now Beirut looked like New York on September 11.

In the West no one ever sees images of Beirut. Or at least they haven’t since 1982. So in their minds, Beirut still looks like the war. “No, no!” I say. “You should see Beirut now. She’s beautiful!”

On August 4, 2020 the world saw those images. Yes, now Beirut looks like the war. Maybe, underneath the cosmetic façade, we were always the war.

“Are you sure that Dad is OK?!”

“I was talking to him. I heard the noise.”

And more texts: “Beirut is gone”.

I had left Lebanon the year before, after working there for four years. I lived in a modern building in Mar Mikhael, an ancient part of town with its mix of old Lebanese architecture and ultra-chic bars. The building was like no other, with huge windows facing the Beirut port, and a balcony overlooking the old rooftops of the city, where laundry hung out to dry and old carpets held down by plastic chairs lounged in the sun.

That apartment was blasted away. My beautiful building, with its contemporary design and old Lebanese tiles. My building, with its big windows where Zazoo would sit and watch cars go by. My building, where I spent four years. My building, where I still should have been.

Had I still been there, I would not be writing. My apartment was across from the port. Was.

I called my father.

“Turn on your video,” he said. “I will show you”.

I saw the images and started to sob. I never cry in front of my father.

The house was destroyed. Not a single window was left. Shattered glass littered the floor, and had found its way into the furniture, piercing it like icicles. It was a miracle that he was not hurt, but he had turned away just in time, to answer the phone that was normally by his side where he sat. Right by the window.

Instead, he had forgotten it on the other side of the house. And it was ringing. My mom was calling from the US. My mother’s call had probably saved his life. He was knocked to the ground, woken only by my mother’s screams into the phone from across the oceans.

“Look at my chair,” he said. Shards of glass over a foot long impaled the once-comfortable chair he occupied every day.

By now we all know the story. Two years ago today. Like yesterday.

On Tuesday August 4, 2020 the port of Beirut — and the city of Beirut — was decimated by an explosion whose impact will be felt for decades to come. One of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history. Lebanon, brought to its knees.

The country was already debilitated by layers of disaster — economic collapse, government ineptitude, unprecedented levels of poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic.

To love Lebanon is to live with a broken heart. And now, not just broken — decimated.

Lebanese have lived in insecurity year after year, decade after decade. And they continue to dust themselves off and rebuild. But beneath the surface, nothing changes. We are victims of a corrupt, rotten system. But we also feed and fuel that system. We are the hosts upon which the bloated parasites feed.

Meanwhile, our politicians remain without apologies or remorse or accountability. Or leadership.

Leadership is not about power, position, or politics. It is about modeling the kind of behavior that inspires others, it is about galvanizing the collective toward a common goal. It is about doing the Right Thing.

Hours after the explosion, Beirutis picked up their brooms and began cleaning their own streets. Weeping and sweeping, that’s what we do. No matter how much we sweep, the garbage reappears.

Our politicians do not deserve us. They remain in their seats while we take to the streets, to mourn and to rebuild whatever they have left us. On that day and for many months that followed, Lebanon was shattered glass, bloody streets, broken hearts. And righteous rage.

In Lebanon, we have a refrain that we repeat ad nauseam: We are resilient! We will rebuild!

Aren’t we sick of these platitudes and pats on the back?! How many times do we actually want to rebuild Lebanon? It’s supposed to be a viable country in which its occupants can live in security and stability — maybe even progress and prosperity.

It’s not a fucking Lego set.

We like to tell the story of all the layers of Beiruts we have, one on top of another like a mille-feuille. How many earthquakes have flattened the city? I forgot, so I looked it up and found an article from 2014 titled “Beirut is Ridiculously Unprepared for a Major Earthquake” in a publication called Resilient Cities — ironically.

(The answer is seven — seven times Beirut has been demolished and rebuilt. Was this blast the eighth time? Would it be the last time?!)

Indeed, I think our common theme is that Beirut is “Ridiculously Unprepared”… for everything. But whose role is it to prepare us, anyway? Our so-called leadership.

The article reminds us that Beirut was — was! — the “Jewel of Phoenicia”. And the “Paris of the Middle East”. Yes, yes. We know. It was.

The country is not prepared, the article said in 2014, because — I swear I’m not making this up — “the country is too busy with the political situation to take this seriously.”

How long have we been busy with our political situation?! Since before there was even a Lebanon to argue about. We are unprepared because we were never built on anything solid to begin with.

In response to these challenges, the government says it is determined to become a “flagship of resilience”. Yes, really.

As an ominous closing, the article says that we “need something to shake people into being prepared for this.” And, even worse, it predicts that if something does happen, the face of Lebanon will be irrevocably damaged, and it will be “another Haiti.”

I know about Haiti: I was there for six months as part of the emergency response following the earthquake. That was twelve years ago — and the country has still not recovered.

We can rebuild Lebanon for the next twelve years. But we’re still ridiculously unprepared for whatever will hit us next. We need a total overhaul, a sea-change. Our sea is polluted — literal and figurative. It’s not just dirty water we’re worried about.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a good swimmer when the water is full of sharks.

***

For weeks following the blast, I hardly slept, leaving the house only when absolutely necessary. Those other sneakers still sat on the floor, one shoe still lined with shit. I devoured every video and image. And I wrote and wrote. It’s how I process. And how I vent.

I would wake up from restless sleeps startled, panicked that I did not know what happened to my favorite café, the pottery shop next door, the quirky little bookshop down the street, the grumpy old guy who sat in front of the church wearing the same dirty white tank top, screaming at me every time Zazoo tried to pee anywhere nearby. I woke up wondering if George — my barber — was ok, if Baron — the restaurant where I spent too many nights to count — still stood. If anything at all still stood.

I should be used to this, this level of devastation. I’m an Emergency-Girl, after all. I’ve been doing this for decades, and in some of the world’s worst places. Wars and natural disasters were once business as usual for me.

People always ask me: What is it like to work in emergencies, to fly into — and not away from — danger. And — to do it by choice?

I have no choice. I was born for this, and born into this. I am Lebanese, I am Palestinian, I am a woman. Emergencies are my natural state.

After two decades spent from Afghanistan to Mali to Senegal to Papua New Guinea and many more, my attention shifted to the Arab region, my home, a part of the world where instability and fear are the norm. In 2015, I took on leadership of The Arab Institute for Women, a pint-size powerhouse at the intersection of academia and activism.

Beyond the stories and tragedies I had inherited, I knew very little about Lebanon when I landed.

Years earlier when I lived in Afghanistan, political theorists spoke of the “Lebanonization” of Afghanistan. I did not know what that meant at the time. Now I see: it is a collection of enclaves, tribes, clans, ethnicities, sects, whatever — lumped together by force and called a nation. There’s no such thing as Lebanon unless you bump into a fellow Lebanese on the streets of New York. For a few minutes, you’re both Lebanese, until one person asks for your last name or your village. And then poof! The illusion of Lebanon is no more. You’re reduced to a geography, a sect, and, by extension, a political persuasion. Even a color. It’s the only country I’ve ever lived in where people will make assumptions about your political persuasions based on your nail polish.

Lebanon is complicated. It is sophisticated but not civilized. The façade, beautiful. The inside, not.

On the inside, Lebanon is dying.

The last time I was in Beirut was September 2020 — one month after the explosion. And now we are two years from the blast. Where are we? No one has been held accountable for the “man-made disaster caused by a handful of men across the ruling political class.” A handful of men. In particular, the political and financial leaders — men — who have forced the country into poverty.

The economic crisis — a “deliberate depression” — spirals further and poverty has become the norm. A once middle income country, Lebanon now has 82% of the population deprived of adequate access to health, education, employment, housing, and electricity. Those who were hungry before, now will starve. Those who could hardly pay for their homes before, now will lose them. Another refugee crisis is likely. Are we prepared!?

Anti-government protests continue, even as nothing changes. Poor governance and corruption also continue, even as nothing changes there, either. Political and economic uncertainty has led to mass emigration — a total brain-drain of Lebanon’s potential.

Even worse, Lebanese are forced to relive it again now with the recent fires at the grain silos. The wounds will not heal. People continue to be re-traumatized, reminded of the needless lives lost, the denial of justice, the utter neglect by the ruling class, and the hollow promises of the international community.

All of Lebanon is suffering. But right now, I’m also thinking about women. I speak about women now — and all the time — because women are so often forgotten.

In my experience in crises, when lives are lost, when livelihoods are destroyed, when economies collapse, when people are struggling for survival: they turn on women.

Women are the first to suffer, the last to recover, and the hardest hit by insecurities. Women are the ones who care for their families and communities. Poverty and new homelessness drives people to temporary shelter without lighting, water, toilets. Food, fuel, medicine shortages create new dependences, compelling women to engage in sex for food, for rent, for supplies — in order to survive.

Women who were employed before will not work again, unless on the black market, with risks and without protection. Girl-child marriage increases, so families can reduce their economic burden by “offloading” girls — so there’s one less mouth to feed.

Violence against women increases. I have seen this in every single emergency I’ve been in. Domestic violence had already increased as a result of the economic crisis and the pandemic. The explosion only fuels this fire.

There is something fundamentally wrong with the world when — in a time of crisis — women are at risk in their own homes. I am still shocked that people find ways to abuse women, in the very moments when we should stick together, support each other, show solidarity, save each other. Women are always the frontlines.

For all of this and much more, we remain ridiculously unprepared.

***

Lebanese love to glorify the past, as if they lack the courage and conviction to look forward. We no longer have a choice. We need — we deserve — more than cosmetic solutions to profound problems.

If we are truly committed to rebuilding a better Lebanon, a Lebanon that treats all equally, let us start with women. Fund and support women’s groups, to give them a voice in the new Lebanon. Ensure access to economic opportunity so women can rebuild their own lives. Provide women with the tools and resources they need to be engaged at all levels of leadership and decision-making. All levels.

Women are the face — and the force — of our recovery and our resilience. I do not need to tell you what male leadership has done for Lebanon. Perhaps it is time for women to rise from the ashes. And why not reimagine Beirut as the region’s first feminist city? If anyone can do it, it is our women.

I used to say that Lebanon is a toxic relationship, like loving a thug whose potential only you see. The thug does not want change — he wants to be a thug. That was the Lebanon I saw. It could be so much better — but it refuses to be so.

We love it, but it lets us down. Today, two years later, we say ENOUGH.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!