To be Lebanese is to endure a life of tragedy. A country that endears tourists with its effervescent nightlife and scrumptious cuisine is simultaneously the source of constant misery for its inhabitants. And its people spend their years despairing at their beloved homeland, like witnessing a drowning child gasping for air.
Tuesday’s devastating explosion is but another on a long list of tragedies to afflict the Lebanese people. A list so long that its beginning is obscure. Where does the pain for Lebanon commence? Is it the 1860s civil war that left more than 10,000 dead? The Great Famine of the first world war that wiped out one third of the Lebanese population? The 1975-1990 civil war that killed 150,000 Lebanese, many of whom are still lying in undiscovered mass graves?
Lebanon is a tiny mountainous country that produces very little, save for two things: devastation and emigrants. Every Lebanese generation of the past 160 years has suffered trauma, bearing each newborn with the scars of old. And over the same time period, the country’s hopeful have been fleeing the misery besmirching their cherished homeland. More than 10 million people of Lebanese descent live outside the country of 5 million, making Lebanon one of the few nations with the majority of its people abroad.
For the diaspora, we live a life of exile, driven out by the unfettered rapacity of the few and the havoc they’ve wrought across generations. A paternal forebearer left the devastation of the mid-19th century to the United States in search of opportunity. A century later, my father made the same decision, this time to Australia. My maternal grandmother followed suit after seeing her life all but vanish in the civil war – her husband killed, leaving her a single mother of seven, one of them my mother.
Almost every Lebanese family has tales like this. The past doesn’t haunt our present – it is our present. I returned to Beirut, the only offspring of my migrant family to do so, between 2011 and 2015. My parents thought I was mad to return to the place that had caused them so much pain. Perhaps it was youthful naivety or an arrogant sense of invincibility that thought home in Lebanon was a possibility.
The apartment I lived in is likely destroyed. The neighbourhoods I knew reduced to rubble. My friends made homeless. Years of work and savings poured into a defiance to make Lebanon work, to make it the home that our parents and grandparents could not, eviscerated. All the physical damage of 15 years of civil war inflicted on Beirutis in a matter of minutes.
I stare at the rubble and dust-covered corpses on videos and recall my parents’ stories of the 1970s. They saw rubble too. I recall their grandparents’ stories of the Great Famine. They saw corpses piled on streets too. And their grandparents stories of the 1860s. The tragedy never ends.
Throughout the long list of tragedies, there’s a common thread that connects the bullet points from Tuesday’s blast all the way back to the 1860s: the culprits, with allegations of widespread corruption at the top. Lebanon is today suffering the worst economic crisis since the Great Famine a century ago. It’s the third most-indebted nation on earth. Its currency has lost 80% of its value this year. Hyperinflation pushed the inflation rate to an insane 90% in June. Half of Lebanon now lives in poverty, and the extreme poor are on the verge of starvation.
With the currency in free-fall and inflation through the roof, many Lebanese can barely afford basic foods – most of which is imported. Those imports come through Beirut’s port, the site of Tuesday’s atomic-like blast. To compound the misery of Lebanese, the blasts destroyed crucial wheat silos, edging sections of Lebanon closer to famine. Thousands of homes have been destroyed, including among friends.
There’s no clear path to how Lebanon can repair the damage. The ruling elite have for months been locked in stalled negotiations with the IMF to access desperately needed loans. The IMF is insisting on reforms that the elite are resisting. But Lebanon doesn’t have the funds to repair destroyed neighbourhoods from the blast, making international aid essential to provide desperate Lebanese with shelter and food. International donors and ordinary Lebanese share the same scepticism, however, of any donor money actually reaching those in need.
The blast has reignited the rage among Lebanese exhausted by the past year of protests and economic turmoil. WhatsApp groups blending local Lebanese and the diaspora are ablaze with fury amid calls for grassroots action against the country’s leaders. There’s little trust in the government’s ability to lead a transparent investigation to determine the cause of the blast. But for many Lebanese, an investigation isn’t warranted. The negligence in leaving 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate exposed next to critical infrastructure in the heart of Beirut is the same negligence that has kept Lebanon without essential services such as electricity and garbage collection. It’s simply part of the mould caused by a rotten core that has enveloped every aspect of the country. A rotten core long entrenched in the fabric of Lebanese life.
And for those of us abroad, we weep as the generations before us, broken by this seemingly never-ending tragedy.
• Antoun Issa is a writer and political commentator