What We Lost That Day


On Aug. 4, 2020, at 6:08 p.m., at the end of a searing summer day, the earth shook, the buildings swayed and the sky roared.

Windows turned into daggers and furniture into shrapnel. The air itself became a battering ram. It felt as if the very world — our cafes, offices, homes and hospitals, our places of leisure and work and shelter — was rising up against us and trying to bury us alive.

In Lebanese Arabic, there is a saying: “The world stood up and sat back down.” It’s meant to describe chaos — a world turned upside down. This is what happened on that day almost one year ago, when Beirut was devastated by an explosion at a port warehouse. Everything slid out of place, and we’ve been unable to return anything to where it belongs.

How can we be expected to rearrange our lives around this still-smoking crater? How do we even begin to make an account of what we’ve lost?

I am a writer — but I have often found myself at a loss for words since that day when thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate, knowingly left to deteriorate for six years in Hangar 12 at the Beirut port, caught fire and detonated in an explosion more powerful than the one that destroyed the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

We still don’t even know how many people we lost. More than 200, but each official source in this deeply corrupt country gives a different tally, and so the exact number remains unknown.

And in any case, numbers alone cannot begin to capture the scale of loss.

The explosion shattered houses, buildings, cars, trees, but also our mental health, our sense of security, our sense of the possible and impossible.

We lost friends, parents, grandparents. Limbs and eyes. Memories. Entire neighborhoods. Hope. Our faith in a better tomorrow.

The losses are still piling up. Many have left the country or are laying plans to escape for good. That day was the definitive proof that there is no stable ground in this country anymore on which to build any kind of future.

In a country where, after 15 years of civil war, the warlords simply granted themselves amnesty, replaced their fatigues with suits and ties and walked right into government, what hope is there for any kind of justice? Within a day of the explosion, it became clear that no one would ever be held accountable. No one in authority even deigned to offer words of condolence to the shellshocked and grieving.

We have lost the ability to provide our children with any sense of safety. The people raising this new generation are themselves the children of the civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990, and the greatest gift they wanted to give their children was to spare them the insecurity with which they grew up. This dream, too, is now gone.

My friends talk about how their children have changed in ways big and small. How they flinch at loud noises, how they regularly have nightmares about explosions, how they ask, over and over, the questions that run endlessly through our minds, too: “Will it happen again? When will it happen again? How do we know it won’t happen again?”

The parents who rush bedside to soothe away nightmares, who patiently answer these questions with the tremble of uncertainty smoothed out of their voices — they are the lucky ones. Their children lived.

As this grim anniversary looms, I’ve realized, too, that I’ve lost all sense of time. How could a whole year have passed? Even now we are still finding glass in the corners of our houses.

This remade world feels like the only one we’ve ever known, and the one we will live in from now on.

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