You Need to Know

Ma3azef 24 Aug 2020English
This article is part of the Beirut Diaries, the Post-Explosion Dossier commissioned in Arabic and first published by Ma3azef.

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Contextual note
This text is part of the bilingual (English/Arabic) collection and publication series 'Cairography', which was initiated by HaRaKa (Egypt) and supported by Sarma (Belgium). It features in Cairography #2, also referred to as the 'Emergency Edition' (January 2021), edited by Adham Hafez, Ismail Fayed, and Myriam Van Imschoot and supported by Moussem Nomadic Arts Center in response to a year of losses, between a deadly pandemic and a series of political catastrophes. This text is also available on Sarma in Arabic

The longest ten seconds of my life.

My friend Rita Kabalan and I were at a café in the Sodeco neighborhood, which is three kilometers from the Beirut Port. The first explosion blasted, and we thought it was coming from inside the cafe, everything around us shook. We were apprehensive of the momentary silence, which was soon followed by a deafening roar.

“The sound will stop when the building collapses over our heads,” I said to myself, as a cloud of glass, stones and dust hit us. The sirens went off at the bank next door. Did they blow up the bank? We walked to the street, which became covered with glass. It must be an Israeli strike, which means that another strike is undoubtedly coming.

The red cloud appeared in the sky.

We went towards my house, which is in the same neighborhood. I almost forgot my keys on the table, where our drinks and the cake were not touched. I felt guilty for not paying the bill, then the guilt disappeared with the sight of the young man who had placed our order rushing away on his bike. “This is the last time I will order a Mint Lemonade,” Rita said, without any expression on her face.

My neighbours’ doors were open,and it seems that they were not physically hurt. We exchanged some murmurs that sounded like crosswords: Thank God for your safety, an explosion, the door unhinged, a missile, Harriry’s Downtown House (Bayt El-Wassat), the red cloud, the port, the warehouse of fireworks.


That night I went with Rita, the photojournalist - to Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhael. The scene at these neighborhoods was horrid, comparable to images of devastation from the memory of the civil war and the numerous Israeli wars on Lebanon. We passed one of Mar Mikhael's shops, whose owner in tears insisted that she must enter it and protect what was left of it, despite the building's dangerous condition. "Frankly, she is right." A passerby whispered to Rita, "The Syrians are passing by on their motorcycles and stealing!"

The next three days were hazy and bitter, the heaviness slightly alleviated by Riad Kobeissi’s TV appearances, and messages from friends. Including an audio message from Nour Ezzedine: “I have witnessed five explosions. I became very familiar with how to handle post-blast shock. Be well, and reach out for anything.”

By Saturday, slogans like: “Lebanon will return,” “Tell them you are Lebanese,” “The time has come,” “Rise and Challenge,” (1) and this whole family of slogans disappeared. The anger, the gallows and the sculpted figures of the leaders hanging from ropes were present instead. The army and police came in, those who smoked and devoured sandwiches and harassed passers-by. They stood by watching the thousands of volunteers who filled the streets of Beirut, sweeping, cleaning and helping the afflicted. The army and police came in, raining the protesters with live and rubber bullets, and with clouds of teargas. I received an unusual dose of teargas that day, which brought me a little closer to the revolutionary slogan “Teargas is an addiction here”, which emerged at the beginning of the Lebanese uprising. I got away without injury. As for my friend Rita, a soldier broke her left collarbone with the bottom of his rifle while she was filming the army’s assault on protesters. He did not confiscate her camera or order her to delete the videos, as he knows that he, his peers and their masters are above accountability and questioning.

On August 4, an hour before the explosion, for some reason I saw a YouTube video made by a former student at Saint Joseph University in 1991. The video includes pictures of Beirut during the civil war, accompanied by Chopin's music and a student voiceover saying:

“You need to know that I love you.

 You need to know that despite everything, I cannot leave you.”

I am not a fortune teller like Michel Hayek, nor do I pretend to have felt the disaster coming. Perhaps it is the weight of the days leading up to the explosion, and my desire to vent, based on the principle of cry to feel better. I do not know how to describe my relationship with this city, but these two lines express how I feel about Beirut. Even two hours after the explosion, when my friend Ali from Jordan called me and reprimanded me, "Enough!Come back, for God’s sake!" I could not stop myself from laughing at the idea of leaving Beirut, to which I moved with love and willingness more than three and a half years ago. I do not sugar coat death, and I refuse to resort to images of the phoenix, myths of demolition and reconstruction, or the hallucinations of resilience and the love of life, but I will pull out one image at any moment of doubt: Rita's shoulder wrapped with a white strap, her right middle finger raised to the camera with the comment: "To the Sulta." (2)


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 (1) Translator’s note: Sulta means authority in Arabic. The author of the text preferred to keep that term Sulta rather than translate it to power or authority, which would have been the English translation of the term.

 (2) Translator’s note: These are all Chauvinist Lebanese pop songs, based on which such slogans were emerging. The translation only aims at hinting at how this emotional and melodramatic regurgitating of pop nationalism was present during the protests.


Omar Thawabeh is a Beirut based, Amman born writer and researcher, working on performance and politics, and has researched and written about Fairouz’s music during the Lebanese civil war. Photo is by Rita Kabalan.