33 Days at 6:07

Tuesday 5 January 202111:52 am
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ثلاثة وثلاثون يوماً.. الساعة السادسة وسبع دقائق


This piece is part of Beirut Without Windows, a Raseef22 series, made possible through a grant from QARIB project led by CFI and funded by AFD.

"One must listen to them carefully to understand that while pain is universal, it is also utterly private. We cannot know whether our pain is like anybody else’s pain until we talk about it. Once we do that, we speak and think in ways cultural and individual."

- Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Sympathizer (2015)

It was July 2006, the TV was on, and every time a bomb went off, my mother would point and say, “That’s our building!” Bombs rained here and there, and what was once a neighborhood became nothing but rubble over rubble, reeking of death. In 2006, the war between Israel and Lebanon began outside my bedroom window.

My mother woke us up. I did not understand what was happening, but I can never forget her arms around us or my brother’s determination to sleep despite the noise. We spent the summer in my village.

This time, the explosion did not involve the suburbs of Beirut. This time, there were NGO’s, international donors, volunteers, and all kinds of humanitarian assistance. This time, the world cared.

We were seven families living in one small house. I remember the men sleeping outside on the terrace, and us, the children, positioned one after the other depending on size and shape. My aunt’s husband wrote a song and hung it on the bathroom door to chant every time a person takes too long in there.

We ran out of mattresses but never out of empathy. I remember the truck parked next to the walnut tree, with a man dressed in black, giving my aunt blankets, canned food, even pots, and pans. It was years later when I understood the politics behind that truck.

We watched from a distance the smoke. Day after day, the war went on. We played cards and watched the adults try to hide their tears. I never realized it was a war on one side and beach parties on the other side of Lebanon until years later. I recall narrating my trauma to my friends of different sectarian groups who, for them, the year of 2006 was like every other year.

I was astounded but mostly furious to learn that it was the Shiites who were grieving, while the rest of the children in the country were spending their summers at amusement parks and shopping malls.

Then came the promise. The promise of the man who leads the Hizballah forces. The promise to rebuild. Now, if you were to take a walk in the suburbs of Beirut, every building that went down during 2006 has been rebuilt and stamped with the word “الوعد” translating to “the promise.” Western countries were displeased with the funding Hizballah received from Iran.

Some scholars divulge how funds raised by other Arab and Western countries aimed to match or thwart Iranian ambitions. Some even describe Hizballah’s role in providing temporary housing as merely politically motivated. This theory, however, is entirely rejected by the Shiite people who support Hizballah. Traditional forms of aid were not available to the displaced families during the war.

An article by Michael Lavalette and Barrie Levine points out how a “vast number of civil society organizations in the voluntary sector and the more limited state sector both removed their staff and closed down under the air assault.” The authors focus on the social welfare movement called “صامدون” translating to “steadfastness,” founded in the summer of 2006.

The activists in this movement stress their involvement not solely as humanitarian but also as political. They organized themselves and coordinated the shelters to serve immediate relief.I have spoken with many who consider the year of 2006 as a victory.

In July 2006, there was a war on one side of Lebanon and beach parties on the other side 

But I remember the week after the war ended, we were driving back, and it was dusty and hot. People were wearing masks, and my parents instructed me not to look outside the window. I wish I listened. The pain of living in Beirut is endless. I heard countless bombs go off.

There is one, I remember distinctly, because I was alone at home. It was very close. The building vibrated. The electricity went out, and my phone’s signal was lost. When I heard the explosion, I ran around the house panicking, listening to the footsteps of the neighbors running on the staircase. “Do I leave, or do I stay?” I stayed for the second bomb, and then, I swear I heard my heart break as I surrendered to the floor, covering my head, and screaming. This was 2014, the suburbs of Beirut again.

BLAST!

August 4, 2020: I am sitting at home with a new haircut. I am standing in the kitchen when the ground beneath me starts shaking. I turn to run, but I feel imbalanced. My brother comes quickly. We stare at each other. Pause. Cabinets blast open. My brother wraps his arms around me. We hear: Boom!

I look outside, and I see broken glass. People by their windows searching the sky. They often come from the sky. Where is the enemy? News began unfolding the entire story of how there was an explosion at the port of Beirut. Israel immediately denied responsibility. The Shiites trembled with memories of the past as if anticipating death and displacement. Are they coming after us?

This time, the explosion did not involve the suburbs of Beirut. Instead, it was Karantina, Ashrafiyeh, Saifi neighborhoods… This time, there were NGO’s, international donors, volunteers, and all kinds of humanitarian assistance. This time, the world cared.

A woman on the TV declares, “We, the Christians, must leave Lebanon!”

“Who came to our aid in 2006? All the media, local and international, covering what happened at 6:07 in Beirut… receiving all kinds of aid… None of them helped us when we had no homes”

Oh, no, what did the Muslims do this time? Hizballah’s weapons at the port? Who says? They say. They, they, they.

A supermarket owner expresses, “The Shiites do not care! They are uninjured!”

“We know pain. We lived 33 days homeless. Of course, we care.”

“Who came to our aid in 2006? No, we do not care! All the media, local and international, covering what happened at 6:07 in Beirut… receiving all kinds of aid… None of them helped us when we had no homes.”

“We donated blood on the same night when the explosion happened, and we volunteered to clean the streets the days after. I am a Shiite, but I live in Hamra.”

There is no discrimination when it comes to pain. All mothers who lost their children can attest to that

“To hell with them all. They were partying all summer in 2006, while our children were left to die. Who asked about us?”

“Mar Mikhail, Gemmayzeh, Ashrafiyeh… those are the streets where we went to drink and spend time with our friends. I mean, to say we do not care is unfair, because I am broken to see it all gone. Where do we go now?”

“Frankly, I have mixed feelings. Part of me cares, but part of me still holds a grudge against them. What happened in 2006 was not their fault, but they really lived in another world… and now, if we were to do the same, who is to blame us?”

There is no discrimination when it comes to pain. All mothers who lost their children can attest to that. Are the Shiites empathetic? When a group of people experiences war and trauma, there is no doubt of their empathy. They are reminded of those days when they had to run away from home and live in fear that they will never be able to go back. We, the people of Beirut, must move beyond thinking of pain as an isolated experience. When buildings tremble due to an explosion or bomb, we all tremble together.

In both pictures above, there is a doll amidst the debris. The first, taken in 2006, a young girl is holding the doll, and she is carried by, whom I assume is the mother. While the other doll, photographed in 2020, has broken limbs, shattered glass above her head, and there is no child around. Photographs, fragmented and fleeting, invite a comparative perception where two incidents are equally distressing.

“Like the dead relatives and friends preserved in the family album, whose presence in photographs exorcises some of the anxiety and remorse prompted by their disappearance, so the photographs of the neighborhoods now torn down, rural places disfigured and made barren, supply our pocket relation to the past,” illuminates Susan Sontag.

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