That's the thing about this city, it breaks your heart whether or not you stay. You can leave and be forever haunted by a spirit that constantly reminds you that you don’t belong or you can stay, hoping not to die a stupid preventable death and spend the rest of your life trying to convince yourself that you’ve made the right decision. Beirut, also known as the city that never sleeps, not sure if it’s in relation to the wild nightlife or the trauma-induced insomnia. Either way, you get the point.
My eyes are still closed but I can feel my subconscious slipping back into the dark corner of my mind as my consciousness regains the spotlight. I extend my arm and fumble for the phone. The screen light blinds me for a second then it reveals the time: 6p.m. My friend should be here any minute. I dangle my feet from the bed and cold rushes through my body as they touch the ceramic tiles. I get dressed and turn off the air conditioner but leave the window closed so the cool air wouldn't be lost in the midst of August's heat. I step out of the room to find Leo, my German Spitz dog, hitting the door with its paws. I glance at my mom with a confused look on my face, "what's wrong with him?" I ask. Mom shrugs without turning her eyes from the television. I lift Leo up to my waist and go stand on the balcony. He immediately starts fidgeting in my arms. He puts his paws on the aluminum railing and pushes backwards. "What's wrong?" I ask. "You like watching the street." Suddenly, thunder rumbles in the clear August sky on a hot and sunny day. The sound lingers for a while. It's a bomb, I recognize from my transgenerational memory. I turn around towards my mom who is no longer lying on the sofa. She looks at me, "What's that?" she asks. "I don't know" I reply, even though we both know the answer. After all, denial can only go so far. I come into the living room still holding Leo who is now growling at an invisible threat.
6:07 PM: It's not true what they tell you, that your life flashes before your eyes. It doesn't.
My body bends forward, my shoulders closing in on Leo. Mom is grabbing my arm, I think. The sound is deafening. The building is shuddering. The walls are trembling as though in fear of collapsing on their owners whom they've watched grow, laugh and cry for decades. Someone is yelling, "My God, My God, My God, My God... My God." It's my voice. God is not replying. The war they have been warning us about for months has erupted... but why are they bombing our neighborhood? My eyes do not register the glass shattering but the glass shatters anyway. My eyes do not see the objects falling and breaking, nonetheless, objects fall and break. Screams are rising. I hear them but I can't understand what they are saying. Some of them may be calling God too but He's still nowhere to be seen.
Leo stopped growling. He finally surrendered to my restraints. My mom is still grabbing onto my arm. I have to take them to the bathroom. There is a better chance of surviving when all comes crashing down. However, my feet are reluctant to move.
Silence spreads in ripples through the shouting crowd as everything settles into a giant ball of dust. The building stops shuddering. The screams fade into the toxic dusty air. My eyes follow the trail of broken glass which leads to a wide gap in my bedroom wall where the window used to be. The aluminum frame is on the floor along with some concrete from the wall. Shards of glass embedded everywhere: my mattress where I was sleeping peacefully few minutes ago, the wardrobe, the door frame. The kitchen cabinets are broken. The refrigerator is not in its usual place. The statues of small chubby chefs that decorated the kitchen for as long as I can remember are on the ground in pieces. The magnets that we spent years collecting from different countries we visited are broken in half. The phones keep ringing: Relatives calling from a safe distance. I call the friend who was supposedly coming over. No answer. I redial, "What happened? What happened? Tell me what happened... Every... everything is... shattered on the floor.... The bbbuilding nnnearly collapsed."
"I don't know.... Breathe... breathe." he says.
A WhatsApp notification pops up on my screen showing several text messages: my American friend all the way from California, my Italian friend all the way from Bolzano and my polish friends all the way from Gniezno. Are you okay? I saw the news. There was a massive explosion in Beirut. The third largest accidental non-nuclear explosion in the world, resulting in 200 deaths, 6500 injured and 13000 homeless. That’s the thing about wars and explosions, one “accidental” explosion and all of a sudden your existence, your identity, your laugh and love and life are reduced to a meaningless insignificant number, a body count with no soul to account for, and in this case, no body either. That’s the thing about Beirut, it’s stuck in a vicious cycle of destruction and rebirth. No wonder why its emblem is the phoenix - a mythological bird consumed by the flames and risen from the ashes - What a masochistic city! And what a masochistic population, fooling itself to believe that it is “resilient” while passing their traumatic legacy to their children and grandchildren and thus creating an immortal trauma everlasting in a mortal being.
I crouch down by my bedroom door and I weep, still clutching my phone in my hand. I receive a notification from Facebook asking me if I’m safe. I stare at it for a while thinking carefully about my answer as though it is a multiple choice question. I click “I’m safe” but I’m not okay, I think to myself.
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Thank you for recreating this for those of us who could only read about it or watch the news in horror. I'm glad you are safe. I hope you will be okay. Life is difficult enough without so much hatred. You are a good writer. I hope to read more. Peace.
Thank you so much for leaving this comment! It's heartwarming. You're very nice. People like you give me hope and help me see that there so many good people in this cruel world.
I also heard about that blast. What caused it was sitting in a warehouse for, what, four years before it exploded? Good grief! Anyway ... Shoukri, merci, and thank you for your story. Btw, I just read your comment and your story is true. I was hoping it was about a fictional narrator and that you were much further away from the blast than they were. Also btw, are you any relation to General Aoun? My ex-roommate is (if he's still alive) from East Beirut and we used to talk a lot about Lebanon back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. M...
Hello! First of all, thank you for taking the time to read my story and write this comment. I really enjoyed reading it. Actually the amonium nitrate that caused the explosion was sitting neglected in a warehouse for 6 years... We've spent 6 years unknowingly living, sleeping, partying, etc. next to a ticking bomb. And yes unfortunately, I live in Beirut close to where the explosion occured. No, I'm not related to President Aoun. We just happen to have the same last name. I'm also glad that your ex-roommate survived the war and I hope he...
You're welcome. Still ... 6 years just sitting there ... *shakes head in disbelief* It could've been so much worse. I can only hope that those who were responsible have (or will be) punished for it. This wasn't just irresponsible, this was idiotically irresponsible. Because if they didn't get punished, rest assured, something like it (or worse) will happen in the future. A slap on the wrist isn't a deterrent; it tells you, "Oh. Well, if that didn't make them punish me sufficiently, then I can just go and do it again, and maybe it'll b...
Unfortunately, the people responsible for the blast were not brought to justice and I have reasons to believe that they never will be because our system is massively corrupt. The story about your friend telling you about how all the people in the video are dead gave me chills. Sadly, a lot of people died in the war believing that they were dying for a greater cause, when in the end, the people who declared war on each other, leaving orphened kids, widows, grieving mothers, limbless veterans and damage everywhere, after the war ended they s...
Very sorry to hear that, but not surprised. *SIGH* I'm not sure it would've been any better were Gemayel still alive and President. Then again, when he *was* president, he was pro-Lebanon and that annoyed a lot of Middle Eastern politicians who weren't pro-Lebanon (like the ones in Israel, for instance). Not just shook hands but kissed each other on both cheeks (like Judas did to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane). The ancient Greeks invented politics as we know it today. I wonder if they ever suspected what it would evolve into. They...
I don't like baba ghanouj (which weirdly translates into "pampered dad" btw) because I don't like eggplant whether bitter or not. I don't like avocado either (people usually gasp when I say this out loud). My father was in the Lebanese army as well and fought during the war. He never talked about it though. I guess he was just trying to suppress the memories and go on with his life. My uncle tells me a lot about the war though and how he and my dad escaped a very close encounter with death on several occasions. Btw, I asked my friend if ...
I would really appreciate your comments and feedbacks on this story which also happens to be the true story of how I experienced the Beirut blast.