Beirut is a place I feel nostalgic about even when I’m in it.
It’s fixed in our collective memories as a place of glamour and danger. I’ve lived here five years, and sometimes it’s hard to separate these visions of past and present.
One image, fixed in my head from childhood, is from the civil war. It shows a bride, Areej Estephan and her groom, crossing the green line, the no-man’s land separating the factions in the war which ran from 1975 to 1990.
In the photograph by Georges Semerjian, Areej is wearing a white rented wedding dress, her husband Abed Joumaa, a white tux. All around them is destruction. It’s a snap of the surreal; beauty and dysfunction, captured in a single frame.
Thirty seven years later another bride, Dr Israa Seblani stood not far from where Areej once posed, in her own wedding dress. She is filmed with a dazzling smile and brilliant hijab and long white train.
As the cameraman Mahmoud Nakid pans down, a few kilometres away a massive detonation takes place, the deadly explosion from Beirut’s port, Dr Seblani’s dress ripples with the shock wave as the dust and debris falls and she runs for cover.
The Lebanese have tried hard to escape their past.
In October last year they took to the streets chanting “Thawra” or “Revolution” and they brought down a government. Sick of the warlords who’ve held power here since the civil war, their corruption and mismanagement, they demanded change. Some change came, but not enough.
For months the government insulated itself from the cries for change, building reinforced concrete barriers around their parliament and official offices. Walls to keep people out, while thousands of tonnes of ingredients for high explosives were left dangerously exposed in a ramshackle warehouse.
I arrived back here after Tuesday’s explosion and found a city of shattered glass. The homes and faces of some friends damaged and scarred from this man-made catastrophe.
On Wednesday in Gemmazye, not far from the port, I stopped to look at a car which took the blast directly. Its airbags had deployed, its roof was crushed as if by a great weight. Inside the seats and footwells were covered in blood.
Nearby I spoke to a woman who showed me her destroyed shop. She railed against Lebanon’s politicians and lamented.
“We don’t have new horizons or something to plan for the future. We just eat and make, give for our children education and clothes – and that’s it – we are not promoted. We don’t have dreams anymore,” she said.
The Lebanese are famed for their resilience – who wouldn’t be after 15 years of civil war, and invasion and foreign occupation?
But they’re sick of making do, only just surviving a country that was crumbling around them, even before the explosion ripped across its horizon.
See extent of damage at Beirut blast site
5 August 2020
25 January 2020
More on the explosion in Beirut
Can there be any greater symbol of Lebanon’s dysfunction than the detonation of what amounts to a homemade bomb, in the heart of its own capital?
And so I look back at the pictures of two brides, generations apart, bright white visions against the dark chaos of a country’s dysfunction, I wonder when will Lebanon’s past break with the present, when will things get better here?
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