Is There Anything Left to Say About Lebanon’s August 4?
Everything that needs to be said about the Beirut Port explosion on August 4 has been said. The suspicious circumstances that put the Ammonium Nitrate in hangar 12, the very likely reason for its presence there, the silence of multiple high, middle, and low level officials about it, the corruption it exposed in every nook and cranny of the port, and the collective guilt of the state and its resistance to a serious investigation. Debate still rages about Hezbollah’s culpability in storing the Nitrates, Israel’s culpability in causing the inferno, and mysterious deaths surrounding the case.
Everything is settled for one side, nothing is settled for the other, with a huge crowd of people swinging between the two in a Lebanese tragedy that is, as always, rich in nuance, deceit, and doublespeak. Meanwhile, countless question marks about this catastrophe still stand along with a million others about a million other wrongs in this warren of a country.
But at least we know how many people died in the blast (est. 218) and how many were injured (est. 7,000). We know some details about the lives of these men and women–the fathers and mothers, the newly wedded and those soon-to-be betrothed, the widows and their orphaned newborns, the firefighters, the refugees, and the engineers… We know the number of nationalities of those who went (14), the number of those who were displaced (300,000), the number of damaged buildings (77,000), and we can put a US dollar figure on the extent of the destruction ($3.8-4.6 billion).
Every year, the week before the anniversary and on the day itself, people, NGOs, and businesses take to social media to protest with taglines like “Never Forget,” and “It Still Hurts.” A media frenzy takes place as well, part of it earnest, most of it not. There are those who have written about the explosion in their books in real time. I have in This Arab Life. There are others who have devoted an entire opus to it. Lamia Ziadeh has in My Port of Beirut, an illustrated book of life in that explosive moment; “…portraits of the blast’s victims and its survivors–stories of heroism, blind luck, and tragic happenstance,” as Ursula Lindsey writes in the New York Review of Books.
Every Lebanese, in fact, is a victim and a survivor of August 4. Every Beiruti has a story, tragic or heartening, to tell about themselves or a loved one. Each one of us has a memory of that afternoon and what we were doing when the sky went pitch black and then stark red. I have my own encounter with the frightening probabilities of that hour. I have family who escaped serious injury or death, friends who ended up in hospital, friends who had bruises for weeks on end, friends who saved friends, strangers who stole from injured friends, and strangers who saved them.
August 4 matters. It matters to all of us.
And so I have to wonder. What is it about the “Never Forget” and “It Still Hurts” outpourings on social media that makes me roll my eyes? Why do I skip every coverage about that event and walk out of the room whenever people start sharing anecdotes of pain and debating the details of the explosion–again? Why do I catch myself reflexively thinking this is yet another asinine and fake display of solidarity?
Is it my suspicion that ours is collective protest at its laziest, all talk and then off to evening drinks? On-line activism that seems to betray voluntary impotence, a people subdued and rather content with their submissiveness? Is it the screaming contrast between the absence of presence on the streets and the massive outcry on-line? Fury from the safety of the couch? Is it the depth of our collapse and how well many of those hellbent on expressing their sorrow have coped?
Is it, no less, a deflection from my own sense of terrible inadequacy in the face of a terribly inadequate state? Inadequate in everything except in rendering me totally inadequate, that is. My fear that all that is left for me and others is to lament and shout and write about our country as it is made to disappear?
Or have I misread this annual ritual of grievance and dissent? After all, most of that destroyed section of town was cleaned up and rebuilt by us, the donors, the volunteering engineers, architects, carpenters, painters, electricians, furniture makers, contractors… So is the case with the injured and displaced of all ages and passports, the soup kitchens, the protection centers, the women’s shelters, the refugee assistance programs…
We did something in the aftermath of August 4. We cleaned up, rebuilt, and coped. Today, we also vent. None of it is the stuff of revolution or radical change or even grassroots pressure meaningful enough to coax concessions from a scandalously obtuse regime. It’s the stuff of those who can do practically nothing but this.
Why do I not, then, recognize these coping tactics for what they are and accord them the respect they deserve? That there are opportunists and incompetents and lurchers and informants in this civic space is as old as humanity itself. Every arena has them. Arab politics was jampacked with them when the grandest ideologies and their parties dominated the scene, and now when they can barely pay for their own meal.
So why do I dismiss all the good people who are committed, however incrementally, and focus all my attention on those in it for the buck or for the ride?
Enough cynicism for this year.
On Another Note
Virginia Wolf is often described as one of the great essayists of the 20th century. “A Room of One’s Own,” her masterful 1929 essay on the situation of women writers is as resonant today about the condition of many societies and their women as it was then about hers.
David Runciman does a wonderful deconstruction of the essay in his Past Present Future podcast.
For those who were wise enough last week to listen to Robert Harrison’s Entitled Opinions on “Amor Mundi,” here’s the second segment. Not every day we have the pleasure of listening to a conversation that features Hannah Arendt, Trump, and Heidegger. Harrison is joined this time by Ulrich Gumbrecht, Stanford University Professor of Literature (Emeritus).