My grandmother’s home survived last year’s blast. Beirut may never recover

One apartment. Five turbulent decades in Lebanon | 1843 magazine

8/4/2021 10:35:00 AM

“The blast has left its mark – on my grandmother and on the rest of the country”: margaretkadifa describes how the explosion in Beirut last year has taken its toll

One apartment. Five turbulent decades in Lebanon | 1843 magazine

When my 91-year-old grandmother heard the explosion, she thought there must have been an accident at the local hospital. The sound came from the direction of the port of Beirut where, in the 1970s, my grandfather had run the customs office.The Economist Today

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Hand-picked stories, in your inboxA daily email with the best of our journalismSign upShe had been sitting on her balcony, as she did every evening, enjoying the cool breeze after a sweltering day. Bougainvillea spilled over the iron railings, its magenta petals popping with colour in the dimming light. In the distance, pneumatic drills hummed and drivers honked their horns.

My grandmother stood up from her wicker chair and craned her neck towards the hospital. A second explosion knocked her back down. As shards of glass and splinters of wood flew towards her, she dived under the table. She guessed it was an earthquake.It wasn’t. On August 4th 2020, shortly after 6pm, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded at the port, two miles from my grandmother’s flat. It killed more than 200 people, injured 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless. It was one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history. headtopics.com

Apart from a few small cuts on her legs from the flying glass, my grandmother was unscathed. She had lived through Lebanon’s civil war, and had a lot of practice at throwing herself under furniture.My grandmother had lived through Lebanon’s civil war, and had a lot of practice at throwing herself under furniture

But her flat – her home since the 1960s – didn’t escape so lightly. The blast ripped the balcony’s French doors off their hinges. The kitchen door split in half. Every window was shattered. A shimmering carpet of broken glass covered the floor and furniture, as it did throughout Achrafieh, the district where she lives in east Beirut. For days, through her empty window frames, my grandmother could hear the clink of glass as her neighbours swept it up.

My grandmother first moved to this flat in 1965 with my grandfather and their two young sons. She didn’t love it at first: she was sad to leave their old apartment, which had been in a more upmarket part of the neighbourhood and near her close friends.

She told me this as we ate a plate of beefsambousek, the Lebanese equivalent ofempanadas, which she had prepared. It was late July, a week before the anniversary of the port explosion, and we were sitting on her balcony amid the bougainvillea. It was the first time I had seen her in two years. headtopics.com

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I grew up in California in the 1990s, in a leafy suburb in the heart of Silicon Valley. Despite the thousands of miles that separated us, I became close to her. She used to visit us for months at a time, but she always returned to Beirut. America never felt like home, she said.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beirut seemed like a cosmopolitan haven in an increasingly turbulent part of the worldHome was the place where she had lived for four decades. My grandfather and two of his colleagues had pooled their money to invest in an eight-storey condominium – building your own home is common in Lebanon. The three families had 11 children between them, so my uncle and father were never short of playmates.

The plan was to rent out the other flats until the children were grown up, when they would move into them and start their own families. My grandparents looked forward to growing old there, surrounded by friends and relatives.The flat was spacious, at least by European standards. Off the entrance hall, with an icon of the Virgin Mary on the wall, was a living room with large windows overlooking a nearby park. If you looked carefully, you could spot the odd Roman column amid the greenery. Ancient Beirut was an important Roman colony and the city is rich in ruins.

From the living room you got to my grandfather’s study and the dining room. Next door was the kitchen, where my grandmother would preparesambousekand simple salads drizzled in olive oil and lemon juice. At the opposite end of the flat were three bedrooms and a headtopics.com

TVroom. As she got older, my grandmother would spend most of her evenings there, watching the news and the occasional soap opera.The decor, like that of many Lebanese apartments at the time, took its cue from French interiors. France had controlled Lebanon from 1920 until 1943 and its cultural influence outlived its colonial mandate. There were beige sofas, beige walls, dark-wood side tables and peach, floor-length curtains.

But my grandmother made sure there were touches of Lebanese style, too. She laid oriental carpets over the sand-coloured marble tiles on the living-room floor. Wooden boxes with mother-of-pearl inlay on the side tables held poker chips and playing cards. She filled china bowls with chocolates and nougat to offer neighbours who would drop round for coffee every day.

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My grandparents soon built up a network of local friends. Nearly every night they would go out with other couples to a restaurant, to someone’s home to play spades, hearts or whist, or to a comedy show at the theatre. For a treat, they would have drinks at the glamorous Casino du Liban just outside town. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Beirut seemed like a cosmopolitan haven in an increasingly turbulent part of the world.

Then everything changed. In 1974 my grandfather died of cancer, aged 50. My grandmother, who was in her mid-40s, resolved never to remarry. She had enough to worry about with two teenage sons and didn’t need a husband telling her what to do.A year later, civil war broke out when tensions in Lebanon’s sectarian system came to a head. In April 1975 gunmen associated with a right-wing Christian militia, which had its headquarters in my grandmother’s neighbourhood, opened fire on a bus full of Palestinians, killing all 27 of them. One morning my grandmother looked out of the kitchen window to see two Howitzer guns in the garden below.

One morning my grandmother looked out of the kitchen window to find two Howitzer guns in the garden belowA neighbour feared that local militias were trying to drag a residential area into the conflict. My grandmother was typically matter of fact. She saw it as a sign that her building was protected and went about her day as normal. My father, then about 16, took a video of the guns on the family’s hand-held camcorder.

There were a few battles between Christians and Palestinians in my grandmother’s neighbourhood at the start of the war. Then the fighting moved to other parts of Beirut and spilled out into the countryside. Achrafieh was fairly peaceful until 1978, when it became a battleground once more. This time, it was the Syrian army fighting Christian militias.

During a week of heavy shelling, my grandmother and her sons hid with their neighbours in the basement of the building. They slept on furniture that had been stored there: a mattress, a sofa, an easy chair. Only when they needed the lavatory did they leave their place of safety, dashing to the concierge’s bathroom on the ground floor.

Did she fear for her safety? My grandmother shrugged. No, she said. Just that her sons would be traumatised. She thought only of them. Her memories of that week are remarkably happy. At one point a French reporter stumbled into the shelter. He had just come from Tehran. According to his sources there were about to be dramatic developments in Iran, which could have implications for the entire Middle East (he was right: a year later the shah would fall).

My grandmother and her neighbours ignored his doom-mongering and concentrated on a more pressing matter: a backgammon game that they were playing. The reporter, who had a camera with him, asked them if they could look more frightened for his photograph.

After the shelling had stopped, my grandmother and her sons walked up the stairs of their building, broken glass crunching underfoot, and opened their front door. Apart from a few smashed windows, the flat was more or less untouched. The warring sides, my grandmother told me with a chuckle, were so incompetent they couldn’t even properly damage her home.

My father left Beirut in the early 1980s for graduate school in California, married an American woman and never came back. His brother emigrated to California, too. But it never occurred to my grandmother to follow her sons. Even if she had wanted to, it wouldn’t have been easy. Money was tight and a Lebanese passport didn’t exactly open doors.

Though the war continued to rage, she felt safe enough where she was. After all, her apartment had made it through more than a decade of fighting with barely a mark to show for it. Just before the end of the war, though, her luck would turn.In late spring or early summer 1989, my grandmother recalled, a battle broke out in her neighbourhood between the Lebanese army and a Christian militia. The skirmish started in the early evening when she was at home. She hid in the lavatory because it was farthest from external walls.

My parents asked my grandmother if she wanted to stay in California. The answer was a firm noThis time she was actually afraid. A bomb exploded in an apartment building across the street. Though she was unharmed, she felt the impact of the shrapnel hitting her building. When the fighting ended hours later, she left the lavatory and opened the door to the living room.

Black water from broken radiators gushed out, covering the floor. She turned her back (“I couldn’t look at my home like that”), collected some belongings and went to stay with some neighbours, whose apartment hadn’t been so badly damaged. Soon afterwards, she left Beirut to come and stay with my parents in California, taking with her just a small, carry-on suitcase.

What did she pack?“The necessities.”I was teasing her. Family lore has it that she filled the suitcase not with treasured heirlooms or extra clothes, but bags of Turkish coffee, which, unlike American diner coffee, was thick as tar.“You brought coffee, didn’t you,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, deadpan. “The necessities.”My parents asked my grandmother if she wanted to stay in California. My father, a newly minted American citizen, was able to get permanent residency for her. The answer was a firm no. Despite being surrounded by relatives, she felt lonely and missed her home. She soon went back to Beirut to repair her apartment.

When I first visited my grandmother’s flat in 2008, it looked as though little had changed since the 1960s. The twin beds my father and uncle had slept in as children were still in their bedroom. In the study, a framed studio-portrait of my grandfather hung on the wall. On his bookshelves were “Das Kapital”, which had influenced him when he was studying in Paris as a young man, history books with French titles and technical-looking Arabic books about trade.

My grandmother herself has never been much of a reader. The books, she said, were just “un petit souvenir” – a little memory – of my grandfather. On a table and surrounding shelves in the corner of the study was a collection of framed photographs: of her parents, her sister and her brother, the first family member to emigrate to America.

The tiles on the living-room floor still bore the marks of the explosion in 1989, where shrapnel had dented the marble and my grandmother had patched it up with filler. One of the iron balustrades on the balcony was misshapen. The building across the street still had pockmarks.

In 2017 my grandmother, in her late 80s, decided her apartment needed a facelift. She replaced her 50-year-old sofas. She installed new overhead lighting in the entryway. She retiled the bathrooms and kitchen. We joked that peace must be coming to the Middle East. Finally she had the confidence to spend time and money doing up her home without fearing that it could be destroyed in an instant.

Lebanon was already on its knees when the blast happened. The financial system had collapsed, causing spiralling inflation and shortages of basic goods. Things have got even worse in the past year. Power cuts – a fact of life since the end of the war – have been happening more often and lasting longer. The back-up generators that the Lebanese depend on during power cuts frequently fail, thanks to fuel shortages that also cause long queues at petrol stations.

My grandmother is without electricity for hours each day, but she remains her old self. After our conversation on the balcony, she made dinner for my husband and me: artichokes stuffed with ground beef and pine nuts.When my grandmother renovated her apartment in 2017, we joked that peace must be coming to the Middle East

She complained to us about Lebanon’s politicians and about a strict diet she was on for health reasons. “Pauvre Teta” (poor grandma), she said with an exaggerated sigh. She told us how she has struggled with isolation during the pandemic – she and her elderly friends have wisely been staying indoors. She gleefully beat my husband in several rounds of

basra,a card game popular in Lebanon.Looking around her apartment, you wouldn’t know that it had been damaged so recently. The windows have been replaced, the doors repaired. Yet the blast has left its mark – on my grandmother and on the rest of the country.

Rebuilding is something the Lebanese are good at. Dozens of articles have been written about their resilience, their ability to pick up the pieces and put things back together. But this time is different. The port explosion and financial crisis were not chance events; they were catastrophes caused by decades of government incompetence and corruption. Many people I spoke to said they felt more hopeless now than during the war. Building back is one thing, but what kind of future are they building back for?

A few days after the blast, my grandmother hailed a taxi and asked the driver to take her as close to the port as they could get. She wanted to see the damage for herself. They drove through Gemmayze, a neighbourhood known for its nightlife, where she used to take me for the best pizza in Beirut and where a friend owned a shop that had been badly hit. They drove near the Sursock Museum of modern art, a building that had once been a grand private villa, which had been devastated by the explosion. She saw concrete apartment blocks like her own, with all their windows shattered. Taking in her surroundings, she started to weep. It was the first time she had felt truly lonely in the city that has always been home.

Read more: The Economist »

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