North Africa, West Asia: Opinion

Why I’ve been dreading the anniversary of the Beirut port explosion

Since the explosion, Lebanon has slowly transformed into a living hell for so many

Ghassan Hage
3 August 2021, 12.01am
Relatives of those killed in the 2020 Beirut port explosion protest outside the home of caretaker interior minister Mohammad Fahmi, 13 July 2021
DPA picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Tomorrow, the world will realise that a year has passed since the Beirut port explosion, when several tons of ammonium nitrate detonated, killing more than 200 people and injuring a further 6,000.

People will not fail to note how this destructive, murderous explosion was born out of gross governmental negligence. Negligence so gross and so diffused that, in typical Lebanese governmental fashion, it is impossible to legally pin it on any particular person, group or government.

But everyone knows that they are ‘all’ responsible. ‘Kellun ye’neh kellun’ (all of them means all of them) was the revolutionary slogan directed at the Lebanese politico-economic ruling elite during the 2019 October uprising, when thousands across the country took to the streets to protest against corruption and the country’s deteriorating economy.

I am seriously dreading the anniversary of the explosion. There is no doubt that, first and foremost, I dread it because it will bring back the memory of the death and destruction it caused, which has affected so many people I know. But, from where I am in Australia, I also dread being subjected to endless re-runs of videos of the explosion.

Like many Lebanese, I find those videos traumatic and traumatising when shown in a purely exhibitionist manner. News networks will argue that they are providing their viewers with what is purported to be newsworthy ‘historical footage’. But even if this is true, the footage is never handled with the necessary care – and I cannot help feeling that many have actually shown it and watched it, and will show it and watch it again, with a pleasure akin to the enjoyment of snuff films.

However, there is yet another reason behind my dread. Since the explosion, Lebanon has slowly transformed into a living hell for so many. And for those of us connected to what is happening there, we hear and read – from families, colleagues, friends and in local media – about people’s experiences of economic and governmental collapse. We see them defining and redefining, before our very eyes, the boundaries between bearable and unbearable life.

We see friends and family defining and redefining the boundaries between bearable and unbearable life

For us Lebanese living outside of Lebanon, we hear people telling us how impossible life has become – to the point that they want to leave the country, or they are actually leaving, or indeed they have actually left. And here lies the source of the dread. We Lebanese immigrants do not often express this consciously, but many of us are quite upset by stories of people being forced to leave Lebanon. We are triggered by this, because it revives in us the pain we experienced when Lebanon expelled us from its shores. This is the pain of belonging to a country that cannot keep its children.

But if it is true that Lebanon cannot keep its children, it is also true that it has ejected them in very different circumstances and very different ways, depending on the era and on where they come from geographically and socio-economically. Some were pushed gently out into the world, some were coerced, some were seduced, some were driven harshly as war refugees – and everything in between.

Here lies the particularly traumatising dimension of the explosion as far as migration is concerned. In a country ruled by a particularly ravenous and venomous ruling class of competing economic hyenas, the explosion initiated a particularly ferocious migratory cycle. Shattered glass blended with and materialised the shattered dreams of its inhabitants.

The explosion worked as a centrifugal force in a cruel and brutal fashion. It neither coaxed people into leaving nor coerced them. It actually spat them out. From this diasporic perspective, the explosion has come to symbolise that very act of spitting. And this spitting out of people has occurred in what is perhaps one of the worst migratory times possible, when the hospitality of host countries, which has never been great, is at its vilest.

At its worst, as it is for many refugees, the Lebanese migratory experience today consists of being spat out by your own country, only to be spat at by your host country. For the Lebanese government to negligently let its own citizens migrate in such circumstances, when they do not wish to leave, and when it could have governed better to avoid them having to leave, is another crime to be added to a long list. No forced migration is free from this macabre and criminal dimension.

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Since the massive explosion, the state has been absent, leaving people to fend for themselves – while leaders seem more concerned with dodging blame.

In Lebanon, and elsewhere, there is a certain similarity between the way a country treats departing emigrants who are leaving because they have to and the way it treats its soldiers departing for war.

The emigrant who does not desire to go, much like the soldier going to war, is not particularly at ease with leaving. In all likelihood, they are scared of what is expected of them, scared of what will become of them, and they would prefer to stay.

But the official narrative portrays both as heroes to be celebrated, depriving them of a public space to voice their fears and anxieties and the undesirability of what they are about to engage in. Even today, Lebanese radio abounds with songs celebrating migration as a kind of national achievement and a form of heroism.

That migration can be positive should not be used to hide its ugly, criminal and traumatising side. More than ever, it is necessary to undermine those celebratory pretences and tear down the constructed social stages where this dark comedy is allowed to take place.

It is important to instead create a space where the fears, anxieties and refusals associated with forced departures, which are usually spoken only in private, can be voiced publicly. In so doing, we pave the way for those ‘neglectfully’ responsible – all of them (kellun) – for these forced migrations to publicly face the traumatic effects of their neglect, even if they are legally going to get away with their crimes.

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