[Written by Sorana Horsia (She/Her)]
CW: Discussions of death or dying
Israa Seblani had been preparing for her wedding photoshoot for two weeks. In a video that went viral, you can see the gleaming smile on her face as she looks down at her beautiful lacy dress. The camera follows her gaze to the trail of her gown when the sharp sound of the explosion turns her movie-like wedding into a dystopian feature. Her dress is blown away by the shockwave; the camera jerks and follows the journey through the debris of the terrified person behind it.
The video was all over TV and social media in the aftermath of the blast. It showed how one’s life can change forever in a fleeting moment, which was shocking for most of the people seeing the footage. The event called for some context, so the news made passing mentions to the protests that started last October and Lebanon’s economic crisis, by throwing numbers like a devaluation of 80% of the currency and a public debt of 93.40 billion dollars. However, the consequences of these facts on the daily lives of Lebanese people were barely acknowledged by Western media.
The explosion in Beirut is just another example of how news distorts our sense of knowledge. We read the news to gain a better understanding of the world but what we see is a manipulation of our senses. Our attention will always be drawn to the new, the sensational, the fear or rage-inducing headline. Our media creates an environment where there is always something more important to worry about. Analysing one story for too long, trying to present the bigger picture, making people understand the underlying reasons for why an event took place, is more difficult to do and less impactful than the unceasing stream of breaking news.
‘Lebanon is more than a country or homeland. I cannot express what Lebanon means to me in just one word’ said the now-famous bride in an interview after she was found to still be alive. ‘After what had happened recently, after September 2019, there was at least a one percent chance that we could live here. But after yesterday, that is very difficult. It is not an option anymore’. Lebanon has become a lost cause for most. In the aftermath of the explosion, the only option is leaving the country. Researcher Joey Ayoub talks about how most people in Lebanon have several passports and that those who do not have the ‘right’ passport are ‘left to rot’. He finds it symbolic that the most youthful neighbourhood in Beirut was totally destroyed by the explosion, as though it was telling young people they should leave. However, because of the pandemic, visa applications have been halted and there are no more flights to take them away. If only the Lebanese had the choice to forget about the event when it disappeared from the headlines like most people did. Instead they are stuck in the aftermath of it while the rest of the world moves onto the next shocking event.
The most apt comparison of the blast is the 1986 Chernobyl Disaster, as it was a disaster that so clearly exposed the corruption and incompetence of the Soviet society. Many of the current Lebanese leaders rose to power during the Civil War that lasted from 1975 until 1989. The fighting that took the lives of more than 100,000 people, ended after the 1989 Taif agreement. The accord re-established a sectarian system that ensured the proportionate representation of all religious groups in all public institutions. The prime minister has to be a Sunni Muslim, the president a Christian, and the speaker of the house a Shiite Muslim. However, this system pervades over every political, economic, and social aspect of the Lebanese society. It is common to be asked for a letter of support from leaders of sectarian parties to get certain jobs or a business licence. Oftentimes families have to pay thousands of dollars for someone to enter a public service position. Basic services such as food provisions, education, and healthcare are also provided on a sectarian basis. Politicians say that this system guarantees peace, however, for the Lebanese people, it is plain as day that the only thing it guarantees is politicians’ wealth, while the rest of the country is struggling. After the war, politics became a ‘family business’ as put by the son of Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt – a party representing the Druze community – in a clip that went viral in Lebanon. As such, political dynasties are all too common. The current prime minister’s father was a prime minister twice before him.
In the aftermath of the explosion, the government failed to act effectively. Even French president Emmanuel Macron came to the site ahead of any Lebanese authority, proposing a bailout in exchange for massive reforms. While the authorities were more concerned with dispersing the protests targeted at government institutions, people took it upon themselves to reconstruct Beirut. Plumbers, carpenters, and other workers gave their labour for free, while social media was flooded by posts offering a place to sleep after 300,000 people were left homeless.
People do not expect anyone to be held accountable for the 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored at the port with no safety measures for the past six years. One, that eventually exploded on the 4th of August 2020, killing more than 200 people, and injuring around 6000. An inquiry into the Lebanese government is still ongoing, but as Ayoub put it, ‘it is like asking the criminals to be the judges’. International economic sanctions would not make any difference either, because Lebanese politicians are billionaires and have accounts all over the world. They would only hurt those already struggling. Protest has also proven to be largely ineffective, as bringing down one politician does not affect the power imbalance caused by the sectarian system. In October 2019, public discontent forced prime minister Hariri to resign, only for him to regain his position a year later after the political crisis caused by the explosion. There is not one bad guy that needs to be put down in order for Lebanon to change course. The system has been purposely designed in a decentralised way that makes political change almost impossible.
The news stream was not concerned with such trivial details. As with any tragic event taking place in a remote country, public concern did not last long. The Instagram stories with pictures and videos of the explosion soon expired and most people on social media were able to go on with their lives as another shocking event had probably already grabbed their attention. We are all victims of this phenomenon, we are pushed into negligence by a constant flow of headlines designed to keep us hooked. Everything is so urgent that, in the end, nothing is urgent; in the meantime, people are still suffering in Lebanon.
Ayoub, Joey, interview with Dagher-Margosian, Matthew, The Arts of Travel, Podcast audio, September 7, 2020, https://open.spotify.com/episode/5i7HU8sDu22ZcsKcoTLnkf?si=pul7bi1YR1WhTCKPu9Bjkw
Akleh, Tony, “Lebanon succumbs to the highest debt-to-GDP ratio in the world, Arrabian Business”, September 11, 2020, https://www.arabianbusiness.com/banking-finance/451713-lebanon-succumbs-to-the-highest-debt-to-gdp-ratio-in-the-world
Azhari, Timour, interview with Ayoub, Joey, The Fire These Times, Podcast audio, July 7, 2020 https://open.spotify.com/episode/6yqIkH2zlmnTJ4s1ev3GdH?si=bwircVF5RMaT_Svru0Zbrw Chulov, Martin, “Lebanon bailout conditional on widespread reforms, says Macron”, The Guardian, September 1, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/01/lebanon-bailout-conditional-on-wide-reform-says-macron-beirut
Chulov, Martin, “Saad Hariri returns as Lebanon PM a year after resigning”, The Guardian, October 22, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/22/saad-hariri-returns-lebanon-pm-year-after-resigning
Collard, Rebecca, “How Sectarianism Helped Destroy Lebanon’s Economy”, Foreign Policy, December 13, 2019 , https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/12/13/sectarianism-helped-destroy-lebanon-economy/ Collard, Rebecca, “Why Is Saad Hariri Back in Charge of Lebanon?”, Foreign Policy, October, 22, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/10/22/why-is-saad-hariri-back-lebanon-prime-minister
Encyclopaedia Britannica, s.v. Druze, Accessed: January 24, 2021 https://www.britannica.com/topic/Druze
“Interview: Mutual aid in Lebanon in the wake of disaster”, Freedom, August 10, 2020 https://freedomnews.org.uk/interview-mutual-aid-in-lebanon-in-the-wake-of-disaster/