The suspended city
Beirut’s Ground Zero
Beirut, 25 September 2020. I’m having a coffee at the entrance to the highway which runs alongside the port: the waitress is gracious and thanks God she was not working that day. She refers to that day, without specifying. There is no need. “That day” is 4 August 2020, when an explosion wiped out the port of Beirut, taking all that stood in its course with it. “I would have died”, says the waitress, “like the girl who was filling in for me”. It feels good in that small café, in the Beirut I am familiar with, courteous and pleasant. However, now evil and fear have set foot in there as well. It was but a few seconds. Fist the smoke, then a thousand red fragments and finally the blast. Tears, blood and corpses swallowed. In just a few moments Beirut was once again hurled back into the fears that have marked its past.
War moves like a scythe. It goes back and forth. It acts steadily, reaping everything it comes across, without ever bearing fruits. It appeared in 1975 and, for 15 years, it never left the Country. It destroyed everything. To this day, walking down the city streets, you see buildings riddled with holes, as if eaten by giant termites. The sad legacy of that conflict between brothers. Peace, however did not last long. In 2006, like an unexpected tidal wave, the war between the Party of God and Israel burst forth. What was meant to be a reprisal for the kidnapping and killing of a group of soldiers in Tsahal turned into a full-blown military operation which affected (and destroyed) over half of the Land of the Cedars. Some say that Hezbollah won. That might be true. What is certain is that humanity lost.
These are the memories of Beirut, the city that has seen refugees and armies march across it and leave. The city was above all a port. Which now no longer exists. When I try to get nearer I am immediately stopped by the military. They are armed and have been ordered not to let anyone through. Investigations into what happened on 4th August are still on-going. Observers from all over the world have come to try and determine what happened that summer afternoon. But to this day nobody has understood how, and above all why, such an explosion took place. As these thoughts cross my mind, I inadvertently find myself walking along the highway. I’m a little worried: the Lebanese drivers will not pay much attention to a foolish Italian carrying a camera. However, as I stare at that pile of rubble everything becomes clear: it’s not like it is on TV. I immediately have a clear vision of the enormousness of the tragedy, of its vastness. Wherever I look I see structures contorted by the heat. Entire window fronts have been destroyed and lie on the ground. Houses and offices have no roofs. A lorry lies overturned. But it is when you look over to the other side of the street that you perceive the feeling of the lives destroyed lives. The facades of buildings, restaurants and offices are hollow. As my gaze lingers, inside I see the remnants of entire lives: photos hanging on the walls, chairs, armchairs and a few pieces of furniture with open drawers. On one wall all that is left is a melancholic open cage.
The nearer I get to the center of the explosion, the more I can see that mushroom, that initial and terrifying blast. The panoramic camera augments the landscape. As I walk, I see man with a crutch: I can’t understand if he’s missing a leg. I would like to talk to him but we are separated by language. What happened to him? That day, as the waitress referred to it, was he at the port as well? I watch him leave, taking all the answers to my questions with him. And so, almost without realizing it, I reach Beirut’s Spoon river, made not of words but of faces. Voiceless. There are only their photographs, their names, where they came from and their age and then a never ending and incomplete list of the victims. Around me just emptiness in- between the black cranes. When I reach the granaries I understand it was them, together with the sea, that saved most of the city from the shock wave, which collided onto them and fanned outwards, finally dying out at sea.
I cross the road. Only those who have been to this city know how dangerous such an operation is. And I once again find the Beirut I know: suspended in its bustle, its traffic, in its charm. Large billboards call out words evoking strength and hope: Beirut will rise. But the city and Lebanon always seem to be suspended, waiting for something. Which often turns into yet another tragedy.