An FBI report dated October 7, 2020 but recently reported by Reuters, disturbed me immensely. It showed how close the Lebanese came to a cataclysmic slaughter. The report noted that of the 2,754 tons of ammonium nitrate stored at the port in the capital city of Beirut, only 552 tons had exploded on August 4, 2020. Had the full amount of ammonium nitrate detonated, most of Beirut would have been flattened, leveled, razed. The number of deaths would probably have been in the tens of thousands of people, if not the hundreds of thousands. Following the report, the New York Times reveals that officials in the Lebanese government hampered the investigation into the port explosion. Clearly, the Lebanese government knowingly perpetuated fraud and raped the country.
As a Lebanese expat, it pains me to the core to see the suffering happening to my fellow countrymen for they are my family of the Middle East. This tiny country once coined the Switzerland or the Paris of the Middle East, a country where most people had advanced degrees and spoke three or four languages; where the American University of Beirut attracted students across the globe to medicine, engineering, nursing, sciences, arts, history, law, etc.; where the arts from all over the world came every summer to perform at the festival in the Roman ruins of Baalbek and Byblos; where many religions coexisted in peace; and where freedom of individual expression was enjoyed by persons from other Arab world countries that practiced institutional, societal and religious oppression — this tiny country now lies in ruins, stricken by poverty and neglect.
I knew, during every single one of my frequent visits to Lebanon, that there was desperation and instability all around us. But there was also vibrancy, a love of life and seeking joy in the small things – a vendor balancing a large tray of “ka’k” on his head (baked bread covered with sesame, shaped like a purse); the watermelon merchant pushing his wooden cart through the streets shouting “on the knife, watermelon,” (indicating he would cut a slice for the buyer to taste); the vendor of cooked corn on the cob with his clickety click of the metal tongs announcing his arrival; the cafes full of mixed sects sitting, smoking, drinking, laughing, eating. I have not been back for the past two years first due to COVID and then the horrific blast of Aug. 4, 2020, that uprooted the lingering magic of the country, and collapsed whatever hope was left in the long-suffering spirit of the people.
Plagued by sectarian tension that is also part of the governing constitution, and with the collapse and demise of its financial system (due to decades of corruption of its leaders), Lebanon’s crisis has been in the making for many years. Sectarian deep-seated antagonism, unworkable political institutions, mind boggling levels of corruption, the unspeakable effect of the Syrian civil war and influx of refugees, the grip of Hezbollah (and, by extension, the Islamic Republic of Iran), and the permanent tension with Israel not to mention struggling amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, have thwarted the possibility of any real political and economic stability. Lebanon has dangerously sunk into the darkest of times having been betrayed over and over by her leaders who are now nailing her coffin.
If Lebanon was already on her knees, amidst all these crises, the heinous explosion of Aug. 4, 2020, most certainly broke her back as the port at the heart of Lebanon’s capital Beirut was annihilated. Shock waves ripped the facades from every building in neighboring districts – and behind every shattered window are shattered lives, but deeper still are the wounds to a nation that was already reeling from economic crisis, debilitated by pandemic and weary from political chaos and corruption. It has rendered hundreds of thousands homeless.
In a recent article by Ben Hubbard of the New York Times (Aug. 5,2021, Section A, Page 1), he describes the “scores of people lined up for free meals from a charity kitchen, some equipped with cut off shampoo bottles to carry their food because they can’t afford regular containers.” Friends tell me that lines for food grow. My brother tells me fuel is in short supply. People wait for hours to fill a gas tank while others walk for hours to various destinations because they can’t afford transportation. Medicine is scarce. Power cuts can last 23 hours. Covid cases are increasing. Hospital staff have diminished. Food poisoning is on the rise (due to no refrigeration), and alcohol overdose is a given. There is a new kind of poor in the country. They are soldiers, bank employees, professionals, healthcare workers, educators, civil servants all whose salaries have lost 90% of the bulk of their value.
France and EU proposed billions in aid but only if the government restructured and eradicated corruption. The government did not. The government will not, as their own self-interests prevail. Self-interests that are made possible by corruption facilitating money that gets squirreled away in foreign bank accounts while the Lebanese, buried under a rubble of crumbling buildings, search for a crumb to survive.
I feel an unsurmountable surge of responsibility and concern for my fellow countrymen, my family of the Middle East. I feel that if we don’t exercise our humanity toward Lebanon, a country that served the West, Europe, Israel, Syria, Iran and the entire Middle East with boundless tolerance and freedom of thought among the pluralism of its society, with churches and mosques and a synagogue side by side, with centers of finance, commerce, learning, medicine, and a frolicking social life of fashion and style, I fear our humanity will rust and we will be indifferent to the corrupt elites of the world who find ways to prey on a country’s vulnerability, and shamelessly game every tragedy to their advantage.
Meanwhile, I live vicariously through conversations with my brother who still resides there and the memories of parents and grandparents and relatives that speak of the days of gatherings with a unique mix of culture, food and terrain that made Lebanon the place I loved and love in my imagination.
Photo by Brian Dento, NYT, Aug. 5, 2021