Those white grain silos that rose at the edge of the port of Beirut, and that were destroyed in an explosion barely different from that of a tactical nuclear weapon on Tuesday, were built the year of my birth, 1964, and completed the following year. Like the towering white statue of Our Lady of Lebanon atop a mountain north of the city or the ill-fated Holiday Inn high rise that went up a few years later in the city center, the silos were among those iconic sights that accompanied my childhood memories, there whenever we drove or walked anywhere near the Mediterranean, visible at the edge of Beirut’s sprawl even from high up in the mountains.
They were among the last landmarks I could see from the plane that took me away from that land in 1978 and among the first I could recognize from the plane that took me back for my last visit 20 years ago. The silos were damaged many times over during the 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. They were repaired every time, like so many of our lives, those of us lucky enough to have made it past the carnage of the 70s or 80s–those who stayed and made a life of it especially, the rest of us having it so much easier in the smug indulgences of the West.
The silos weren’t just concrete and symbolism but life-giving. They could store up to 120,000 tons of grain, about three months’ worth of consumption in the country. They were a hedge against hunger. They’d withstood it all, rising at the edge of Beirut in their rippling whiteness with the self-assurance of a cedar, that other symbol of Lebanese resilience.
But what the hell is resilience worth when incompetence, corruption and malfeasance are never far off to mock and screw it. Six years ago the government confiscated a shipment of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, the extremely dangerous chemical compound used as fertilizer and to make bombs. It stored it at the port of Beirut next to the silos, knowing the dangers. Customs officials petitioned courts repeatedly over several years to get rid of the stash. In the typical fashion of Lebanese bureaucracy, nothing was done. It is the same incompetence and criminality that had led to the collapse of the country’s currency and banking system over the past year and the economic ruin that’s followed, wiping out the middle class to a degree even the war never had. That’s before accounting for covid.
Sometime Tuesday evening a fire broke out in one of the warehouses next to the silos and the ammonium nitrate. Some reports blame fireworks. Whatever it was, the fire triggered one relatively small explosion, followed by the nuclear-like blast and that mushroom cloud that rose over the city and carved a crater 420 feet across, wiping out the land beneath the way atomic tests used to obliterate Pacific atolls.
It sounds like an exaggeration. It isn’t. Ammonium nitrate, you’ll recall, is the stuff Timothy McVeigh packed into a Ryder truck to demolish the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995. McVeigh used two tons. The explosion in Beirut was 1,300 times more powerful. Half the blast wave went off to sea. The other half leveled the waterfront area of the city and demolished buildings and hospitals in a fifth of a city of 1.5 million, killing at least 135 people, though that figure is certain to rise, and making tens of thousands of people homeless. The silos are demolished. Large parts of the city are demolished. People who lived through the civil war had never known anything like it.
Immediate reactions in Beirut and the international press was that the city was under attack, that it was a terrorist bombing coinciding with the imminent verdict by an international tribunal against the culprits in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a huge bomb in 2005, that Israel or Hezbollah or Islamists were at it again. That, the Lebanese would have believed, their role as the plaything of mass murderers still casting their standard repertoire. The disbelief is that incompetence and stupidity could be so catastrophic, the culprit so banal. Then again, when people’s lives are at stake, incompetence and stupidity are their own chemical reaction. It doesn’t take much for catastrophic results. Lebanon is used to that, too.
A few days ago I was asking my brother, who’s done a better job than me keeping in touch with family and friends in Lebanon beyond Facebook, how they could possibly be making ends meet with the economic collapse. They did what they could, he told me. They stopped eating meat. They make do with life without electricity 20 hours a day. They hunt and gather dollars where they can. They use inactivity as a way to keep covid numbers down.
On Wednesday the emails and texts were all about the sort of questions our families asked each other when we were still living there during the war and a deadly blast had gone off somewhere. Everyone would go into survival-check mode, going down lists to see if anyone was hurt. Here’s what my cousin Anne-Isabelle in Belgium relayed from someone else in Lebanon: “Thank God your uncle Andre was in Beit-Mery with Renee,” she wrote. Beit-Mery (where our family had been registered to vote, where half the family summered) is in the hills right above Beirut. “But their house in Ashrafieh, like all houses in Beirut anyway, sustained a lot of damage. The situation in the country is catastrophic. Many people are still under the rubble.” Ashrafieh was the neighborhood a mile from the port as the crow flies where I spent the first 10 years of my life, before the war chased us to the mountains for safety.
Later in the day my brother sent pictures taken by Myrna Boulos, one of our childhood friends, one of which appears at the top of this article. Myrna had grabbed a broom and randomly taken to streets and homes to help clean-up, at one point posting a brief video of a woman in her demolished living room, playing “Auld Lang Syne” on her piano to the sound of the sweeping of shattered glass. It’s an image of titanic helplessness, of impunity’s laugh as it notches up more victims with the force of habit. The neighborhood Myrna walked is half a mile from the port. But the buildings along the streets might as well have been the target of a direct hit.
Myrna’s sister Josyanne, a writer and TV personality who led a non-profit for children with special needs, replaced her Facebook profile picture Tuesday evening with three white words on a black background: “No To Resilience.” She posted the most convincing response to the decades of idiocy that led to that explosion: Don’t speak to us of “courage.” Speak of anger.
Josyanne’s cry from the heart has been catching the attention of the local and French press, for good reason. She’s not just speaking for Lebanon. She’s speaking for our times. Enough with the patronizing narcotics of thoughts and prayers, of rote calls to endure and power on while being led to slaughter. There’s a point at which even solidarity in hardship becomes its own trap, an illusion of resistance zip-tied to civility as those in power alone define trap and civility while tightening the noose. Submission is not civilized. It’s just stupid. It enables. Nothing less than anger, constant, uncompromising anger and retribution in its ravishing forms can do, must do, against weaponized incompetence on a Nurembergian scale.
I can’t help to think how there is something revoltingly familiar about this, and it has nothing to do with Lebanon.