Dalia Khamissi, a photographer from Beirut, was sitting on her sofa trying to get a bite to eat and have a heart-to-heart chat with a friend on the phone when her friend suddenly stopped and said, “fire! There’s a huge fire right in front of me!”
“I wasn’t sure what she was talking about. I didn’t know what was going on. I just told her that I couldn’t see or hear anything, but her house was much closer to the port than mine,” Khamissi said.
It was only a matter of moments later when both Khamissi and her friend, still on the other end of the phone, heard the sound of the blast. “We were both screaming,” she said.
“Things started to get surreal. The plate of food I had on the table in front of me flipped up and down in the air but did not fall on the floor. It flipped in the air as if the room had been hit by a really strong storm.”
“It was so strange. We didn’t know exactly what was going on. We thought there had been an explosion outside the house. It took us a few minutes to see that the blast had been at the port,” she said.
In her mid-40s, Khamissi has devastating childhood memories of the civil war that hit Lebanon for 15 years starting in April 1975. Throughout her career as an independent photographer, she has been able to see and document the pain of people who have been struck by wars and natural disasters around the Middle East.
She has done projects on the agonies of refugees, women facing discrimination, and people living on the edge of life. In 2006, Khamissi took shots of the Israeli war on Lebanon, and in 2010 she worked on a photography project that documented the search of Lebanese families for relatives lost and never found since the Lebanese civil war.
“I already had war traumas, so I didn’t think there would be yet another. I couldn’t move from my chair. I thought I knew what was happening, but I just couldn’t face it. It was like I was paralysed,” she said.
It must have been after another hour or two that Khamissi’s phone started to ring. Friends and relatives outside Lebanon were checking, and newspapers were calling her for assignments. A while later, she found her way out onto the street, heading to a places worse hit by the blast, Mar Mikhael and Al-Jemeizza.
An elderly man sitting in what was once his room.Courtesy of Khamisi
On the afternoon of 5 August, a large, but still unspecified, amount of ammonium nitrate stored in the Port of Beirut exploded. The blast that hit the city caused an enormous fire and widespread devastation. Over 200 people died, including firemen who were sent to put out the fire without knowing its cause and not being equipped to handle one caused by a chemical explosion.
“I was just walking in the street, not able to take photos, and just thinking that it was positive to see people alive and walking on the street, even if we were all walking through a city that was hard hit and devastated,” Khamissi said.
The following day, she went on her first photography assignment. There were many pictures to take and more stories to document about the “horrible explosion”.
Khamissi. Courtesy of Khamisi
The Lebanese authorities admitted that a poorly managed shipment of ammonium nitrate had caused the blast. But an investigation to find the culprits is still far from being completed. A year after the explosion, people are still finding it hard to overcome the trauma.
“Yes, we are all the victims of the blast — those who died and those who lost family members and friends and those who lost their houses or their jobs. We are all victims. We all lost part of our city,” Khamissi said.
It is almost normal to hear people in Beirut talking about a city that is devastated, wounded, and almost lost. Even as the city starts to pick up, this sense of loss and pain is still persisting.
Abi Chaker’s glasswork
AFTERMATH OF THE BLASTS
Olivia Shabb, a Lebanese psychologist and blogger, wrote on her blog that “nothing could have prepared me, as a psychologist or a citizen, for the explosion of 4 August.”
“Patients feel like apparitions. They are tired of talking about their houses turned into shells, their investments to rubble… about crushing silence where life used to be,” Shabb wrote. They “talk about leaving — some mean leaving Lebanon and others mean leaving life.”
On her Twitter account, Emilie Hasrouti, who lost her brother a year ago, posted a picture of her devastated mother next to the coffin of a brother who died in the blast.
“This is a picture of my mother next to the coffin of my brother,” she wrote. “My mother is somehow still there, but she is not fully back. My father, who lived only a few months after Ghassan was killed in the blast, spent months asking us over and over again if we were sure that it was the body of Ghassan that was in the coffin,” she wrote.
Artwork depicting the blast by Khawam
“My brothers, who had to go through one hospital mortuary after another in the wake of the blast in search of the body of my brother, cannot find their way to peaceful sleep.”
According to Shabb, while a year has gone by since the afternoon of 4 August, “nothing feels normal about waking up in a city where the living survived by a miracle and those who died by a nightmare.”
Lynn Tehini survived by a miracle. “I had just left my Beirut house after having stopped over to water the plants and go back to my family at our summer house in the mountains. I left, closed the door, got in my car, and started driving. A few minutes later, I heard what had happened. I immediately headed back,” she recalled.
As she arrived at the door of her house, Tehini could hear screaming. She went up the stairway and opened the door to find the sofa that she had been sitting on to make a couple of calls covered with shattered glass. “I thought that if I had been there, I would definitely have been dead. It was really a matter of minutes that could have made me one of the victims of the blast,” she said.
Prior to the blast, Tehini was working with the Lebanese Ministry of Culture to help preserve the heritage of a city she loves. After the blast, “and when I saw the devastation that had hit the city, including some really beautiful old buildings,” she decided to resign from her job.
“The heart of our city was gone,” she said.
Today, Tehini is involved in projects that are trying to help Beirut find a semblance of normality. The Lebanon of Tomorrow is a NGO that has been trying to help people survive the blast, for example.
“The blast was devastating, but it also happened at a very difficult time when the whole country was already living through a tough economic crisis,” Tehini said. “I would say that we are perhaps living through one of the worst, if not the worst, economic crises of the past 50 years.”
The work of Lebanon of Tomorrow had already started when the explosion happened. Its original focus was to reach out with financial assistance to those worst hit by the economic crisis.
After the explosion, the volume of those in need of assistance expanded significantly.
The money a taxi driver had on him when he was hurt during the blast. courtesy of Khamisi
The statistics on poverty in Lebanon are shocking, whether in relation to the value of the currency, the levels of poverty and severe poverty, or the lack of food, medicine, and fuel.
“It is crazy, totally crazy,” Tehini said. Every day, members of Lebanon of Tomorrow go on assignments with the intention of passing on a positive vibe, but every day they are dragged into the endless pain of a city living under an acute economic crisis made worse by a political crisis caused by the failure of the country’s political elite to form a new government.
“We do what we have to do with a smile, but at heart we are really sad, not just because of what happened, or what is happening, but also because it does not look like this suffering is coming to an end,” Tehini said.
In fact, she added, most people fear that things could get worse. “It is a disaster,” she said.
On 4 August last year, demonstrations took place by the families of those who died in the explosion and those who went missing. With the legal investigation still cramped by the inability of the judge in charge to question officials who are suspected of wrong-doing, not a single person has been put on trial.
This is infuriating — not just to the families who suffered the losses of relatives, houses, and friends, but also to the population at large.
There are expectations that there will be a round of angry protests on 4 August this year, not to mark the tragedy, but to protest at the continued failure of the state to get its act together on the legal investigation and to do what it takes to prevent the country from falling apart.
“We don’t know what will happen, but there is so much anger and frustration out there — with the blast, the problem of Covid-19, the economy, the government, and the fuel and electricity systems,” Tehini said.
Moreover, the Beirut Heritage Initiative, another civil-society project she is working with, is also racing against time to try to fix some 300 historic buildings that were so hard hit by the blast that they could be lost altogether.
“There are several initiatives from civil society that are trying to attend to this issue, and a year later I can say there is still so much work to be done,” Tehini said. “The government is just not here with us,” she added.
The problems of the present caretaker government cannot be over-stated. According to Tehini, it is Lebanon of Tomorrow that is lighting the streets of parts of the city hit by the blast to help people overcome their fears for their safety.
According to Ziab Abi Chaker, an industrial engineer with expertise in recycling, the failure of the government to attend to a daunting waste-management problem in Beirut cannot be over-emphasised either, especially during this past year.
“It is just a huge problem,” he said. With so much glass shattering in the blast, Abi Chaker said, the fear last year was that landfills would be filled with waste, including debris and shattered glass.
To help with this problem, Abi Chaker has worked with an NGO, Moatine Lebnani (Lebanese Citizen), to get the huge amount of shattered glass into the recycling system.
“There was the concern over the waste, but there was also the concern over the economic realities that many glass factories, including those working in recycling, were facing as a result of the economic crisis,” Abi Chaker said.
While the factories were not able to work with the glass that was shattered on the streets because they did not have the capacity to separate it from other debris, they were able to manage the glass from within the houses.
“Here we are talking about close to 250 tons of shattered glass that was collected from houses around the city after we assigned a WhatsApp number for people to reach out to,” he said.
GLASS INTO ART
Eventually, these tons of glass were turned into what Abi Chaker calls functional pieces — glass, mugs, carafes, and so on.
“This was a strictly non-profit project that was only designed to help the glass business, and also, most significantly, to help avoid a worsening environmental problem in the city,” he said.
The initiative stirred up controversy, with people arguing that the glass of the houses that were devastated by the blast should not be turned into glasses and carafes to ornament tables. Abi Chaker thought this debate was not about recycling, but was rather about the overall frustration that has been brewing and had been simply accentuated by the blast.
“I kept saying that we were not turning the shattered pieces of people’s houses into artwork. We were sparing the city a waste-management crisis and helping some factories that could have gone out of business,” he explained.
Turning tragedy into art, is, however, something that has been going on in Beirut for some time, as Semaan Khawam explained.
A Lebanese painter, graffiti artist, and poet, Khawam woke up on 4 August last year to the sound of two explosions that covered his house and adjacent studio with shattered glass.
Having arrived in Beirut in the late 1990s to escape “a political nightmare” at home, he woke up on 4 August to another nightmare whereby the Beirut he had wanted to believe in for close to 30 years was no more.
“There was a moment in the October 2019 Revolution when we thought that things could get better, but we were mistaken. We are as haunted today with sectarianism and political divisions as we always have been, and the blast just confronted us with it,” he said.
The entire city with all its people, including those who neither lost family members nor houses, are still living in the aftermath of the blast. “It is just as if the trembling was still there,” he added.
Khawam is convinced that this is perhaps one of the most important things to keep hold of, however. To help keep the debate alive and to help himself live with the aftermath of the blast, Khawam has been working on a piece that depicts it.
It could turn out to be the Guernica of Beirut to remind people of the pain of the city and the many political squabbles that led to the blast. He intends to put it on display on 4 August to help keep the debate alive.
“We should not allow 4 August to turn into a day to commemorate, not yet, anyway, and not before those responsible are brought to justice,” he stressed.
The families of the victims are still demanding justice. They are still saying that irrespective of the different accounts of each family, they are all united in pain and in the determination to get to the truth of what really happened on 4 August and for those responsible to be brought to justice.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly