Beirut Haunting

pic by Tracey Mansell

Kate called late last night asking if I’d come with her to Beirut to pick up her cat. After the bombing, Kate’s landlord pleaded with her to leave the blown out apartment, until the damage was assessed, repairs were made and the apartment was deemed safe to live in. Kate is intensely independent, so when she asks for any sort of service there’s no hesitation to say, yes, of course I’ll go with you. There was another, inaudible voice, laced with dark curiosity, that said yes for other reasons. I wanted to see Beirut after the blast. I watched videos of the mushroom cloud from different places and angles on WhatsApp and Twitter over and over again. I’ve watched the wreckage on local cable news stations for the past 24 hours. I wanted to be there, as if I were visiting a sick relative in hospital. I needed to see the invalid city with my own eyes. I needed to make amends with the city I disparaged for so long. “The city of lost dreams,” “The city of bacchanalian nights,” “The city of obscurity,” we’re some of the profiles I attributed to Beirut.

Deep down, I love Beirut. When I came to Lebanon 20 years ago, not knowing anyone, nor having any filial attachment to the country, I made a home, a life and felt a deviant devotion to the city. Now, although, I live 15 miles away, Beirut’s magnetism still tugs at my soul strings. In my apartment there’s memorabilia from Beirut. A framed calligraphy in Arabic, a brass coffee pot, and candelabra are just a few trinkets from the city. I remember watching the artist, bent over his work table, painting the names of each family member, each long letter overlapping another, tethered in harmonious consonants. The brass coffee pot was something my husband dug out of a flee market, and paid too much for. The street hawker had ascertained the price by eyeing my husband’s Sunday suit. The candelabra was something I carried with me from my old apartment, a housewarming gift from a friend. There are many other such trinkets in our apartment, emitting a radiant pulse of the city in our quiet seaside apartment.

At the moment of the explosion, the ground beneath our apartment rumbled, the glass windows quivered, and loose hinges rattled. An unseeable force entered our apartment. A silent snake left as discreetly and creepily as it came in.

I picked Kate up at 8 am this morning. She has been staying with friends in a mountain village, not too far from my home. Kate limped to the car.

“You didn’t tell me about that.” I pointed to her her foot.

She shrugged, and said she didn’t need to, it wasn’t a big deal, especially considering what happened to everyone else. All of her neighbors had been taken to hospital.

On the way to Beirut, Kate tells me the harrowing tale about how she survived the blast. She’d gone out to her balcony, like everyone else after the first explosion, to see what had happened, and as soon as she was walking back inside, through the sliding glass door, the second, much larger explosion went off.

“It felt like a vortex had sucked every thing in and out again. All the glass windows shattered in the apartment. The sliding door got sucked out onto the balcony and glass showered the street. My glasses flew off my head. I found them an hour later on the sidewalk.” Kate was wearing a spare pair. Her blue eyes flared behind the red frames as she told her story.

“It took Simon three hours to convince me to leave the apartment. I just couldn’t leave Murphy behind, he could’ve be hurt, he might’ve needed help. So, Simon called Reem, and asked her to check in on Murphy, and leave food and water for him in case he came back. Sure enough, he appeared the next day. Reem’s got him locked up in the bedroom. She said there’s not a scratch on him.”

As we approached Beirut, our conversation flickered and dimmed. Traffic was pouring in and out of the city on either side of the highway. Our silence was a holy respite acknowledging the tragedy that laid before us. We drove past the port. The grain silos stood out like injured soldiers made out of modern art. What was left of the port was reduced to rubble and corrugated metal and twisted aluminum. Warehouses looked liked crushed soda cans. Smashed cars were left at the side of the highway. People were taking selfies. News vans and camera crews camped across the road from the devastation. All of us were gawking at Beirut’s open wound. We were struck by the sadness and awe of it all.

We loved the city more when she became vulnerable and weak. All these years we’ve taken advantage of her, taken her for granted and disparaged her, like a mother not appreciated by her children. We came flocking to her side when she was open and raw. Suddenly, we wanted to make it up to her, all those years of neglec

As Kate and I made our way into the city my eyes fell upon the things that survived, the panes of glass that weren’t broken, signs that hadn’t toppled over, buildings whose proud facades were still intact, standing still and silent, presiding over a grieving city. Crews of volunteers swept up the broken glass. It laid in piles at the side of roads.

Kate said this sweeping sound was all she heard after the explosion happened. “I sat in shock for more than an hour, and listened to the symphony of broken glass and helicopter blades churning overhead. It was alluring.”

We stopped by Reem’s house in Achrafieh to pick up the key. Reem lives with her 82 year old mother. Their ground floor apartment was saved by the taller buildings around it, which stood like body guards and had absorbed most of the of the blast. Reem’s eyes had worry written in them. She was concerned about Kate, she worried about her elderly mother, she wondered what would happen to the city.

We made our way to Gemmayze. Drivers weren’t paying atttention to the road. They were all craning their necks to see the destruction of the buildings. Gemmayze was one of the worst hit neighborhoods. We had to enter Kate’s apartment from the side door. The front door had been blown off its hinges during the blast. It had been boarded up. The windows were covered in plastic. The floor was still covered in glass. White, green and orange glass crunched under my shoes as I walked through the apartment. Kate pointed out bits of potato salad stuck on the ceiling, her left over dinner from the day of the explosion. Small trinkets had flown across the room. A tea tin was under the couch. Book and papers had been scattered along the hallway, a paper trail left by that sinister snake. The kitchen was badly broken; the aluminum window frame had been torn out of the wall, and fell on top of the cooker. I stood in awe of how Kate survived amid all this. It made me want to believe in miracles, but then I thought about all those who weren’t spared, those who had died or watched someone they love die. There’s no justice when disaster hits. 2700 tons of aluminum nitrate exploded at port, and life became a game of Russian roulette.

Kate opened the bedroom door, and Murphy came out of his hiding place. She gathered him in her arms. He struggled a little, but was mostly docile when she squeezed him into the cat carrier. We walked down the middle of the road towards the car. Groups of masked young volunteers were carrying brooms and pushing wheelbarrows. They worked under the midday sun on a hot August day.

Behind all the broken glass and rubble, I saw my old self at the book shop buying a notebook and pen. There was a ghost of me drinking coffee at the cafe on the corner. At evening, the streetlights flickered on, and sonorous voices, laughter and the clinking of glasses and silverware spilled out of restaurants that lined the street. The past had crossed paths with the present. I was haunting Beirut with memories, trying to make amends for all those fleeting moments of missed gratitude. I left the city contented that she was in convalescing hands.



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