After the Blast

Last summer’s explosion in Beirut devastated much of the city. My efforts to repair my apartment reveal a lot about how Lebanon works—and doesn’t.

illustration of cracked glass and rose border over vintage black-and-white photo of Beirut
Beirut in the 1960s. Rebuilt after the civil war, the city’s downtown, west of the port, suffered significant damage in the 2020 explosion. (Photo illustration by Rana Salam; images courtesy of the artist)

This article was published online on March 12, 2021.

I had never really thought about my windows, about the thickness of the panes or the type of glass. Like so many things that I’ll never again take for granted, they were simply there, and then they were gone. My apartment in the Lebanese capital is a brisk walk away from the city’s now-infamous port, the site of a massive explosion on August 4. Shortly after 6 p.m., some 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, recklessly and improperly stored since 2014 in a facility called Warehouse 12, suddenly ignited. The explosion was one of the largest nonnuclear blasts ever recorded, with a force so great that it rattled windows in Cyprus, about 150 miles away across the Mediterranean Sea. It sent a mushroom cloud into the sky and lethal shock waves mostly through the eastern half of the city, killing more than 200 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, and damaging 85,744 properties: schools, stores, hospitals, and homes—including mine.

I wasn’t in my apartment at the time, and in an instant, I didn’t know if I still had one. Hundreds of thousands of people were abruptly, violently rendered homeless by the blast. My neighborhood of restaurants, bars, and art galleries, many lodged in Ottoman-era buildings with elegant trifora windows, looked more like the war zones I’ve covered for years as a journalist. Several neighbors were injured by flying glass and debris, requiring medical treatment, and all of the 21 apartments in my building were extensively damaged, as were all of the buildings nearby.

Where do you start? Whom do you turn to for help? In Lebanon, a small country of some 6.8 million, including more than 1.5 million refugees, the answer is: not the state. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the country’s affairs have been dominated by sectarian warlords turned sectarian politicians, and by dynastic political families. This entrenched political class provides little for its citizenry—not even the basics, such as 24-hour electricity and a clean, constant water supply in a land blessed with abundant natural springs. Lebanon is a do-it-yourself country, where citizens resort to private generator networks to get around the daily power cuts, and to private water companies to make up for water shortages. Paying two bills for a basic utility is a way of life.

In October 2019, large numbers of Lebanese took part in nationwide protests against their political overlords, fed up with rampant corruption and decades of mismanagement. The government resigned; another was formed. The new government resigned days after the explosion.

It is generally considered a basic responsibility of a state to protect its people, but after the blast, local investigative journalists produced evidence that a number of high-level security, judicial, customs, and political figures, including the current president and the interim prime minister, knew about the dangerous material stored in Warehouse 12, and didn’t remove it. Some two dozen low- and mid-level officials were detained as part of an ongoing investigation, but victims’ families are demanding accountability for more senior figures. Some are calling for an international investigation. Lebanon’s judiciary, full of political appointees, has not made any findings public or declared what caused the blast. Was it an accident, the result of negligence, a criminal act, terrorism? Without that verdict, most insurance companies won’t pay out compensation. Citizens are on their own.

Which brings me back to my windows, or what remained of them.

The shards were everywhere, biting into my parquet floors, shredding the curtains, lodged in concrete walls like razor-sharp diamonds. Everything was coated with a finely ground glass powder. Splintered doors had been torn from their hinges, curtain rods ripped from cracked walls. A broken pipe leaked water. Ceramic tiles on my terrace were uprooted and broken and covered in drops of blood. The trail led to bloody handprints on a wall. An employee in the office beneath my apartment had been propelled by the force of the blast through a skylight that opened onto my terrace. Despite sustaining head injuries and a broken arm, he’d somehow managed to climb over my wall and seek help from passersby.

Beirut was a city shimmering with the remnants of people’s windows. Glass became the city’s soundtrack. It crunched underfoot, it tinkled as it was swept up, it clinked like icicles as it was poured into bins. Volunteers descended from across the country, armed with brooms and spades they bought themselves, to help clear the debris. Restaurants and NGOs provided free meals. Aid groups as well as individuals donated cleaning supplies, drinking water, and food parcels, all in the midst of a devastating economic crisis.

Starting in October 2019, the value of the Lebanese pound, long pegged to the dollar, had slipped and then nose-dived, effectively falling 80 percent. People’s purchasing power eroded. The banks imposed strict monthly caps on withdrawals, preventing people from accessing more than a few hundred dollars of their rapidly depreciating funds, even as some $6 billion was allegedly transferred overseas by members of the ruling circles. People lost their life savings. More than half of the population of a once middle-income country was plunged into poverty. These were the conditions when Warehouse 12 exploded.

The Lebanese diaspora, millions strong and spread across Australasia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, quickly rallied—as it always does—to collect donations and channel relief supplies to Beirut. Engineers and architects went door to door (although many apartments no longer had doors) to assess the damage for free.

My cracked walls, the engineers told me, were an aesthetic, not a structural, issue, and so I moved the task of repairing them down my to-do list. My first priority, after clearing the shattered glass and heavy debris with the help of a team of young volunteers, and after repairing the broken pipe, was to replace my windows. They had been virtually wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling in some rooms. Replacement glass was hard to find. The overwhelming demand had created shortages. The names and numbers of tradespeople who were volunteering their labor or supplying glass at cost circulated on WhatsApp and Facebook, but these vendors were soon overwhelmed. Some local NGOs and religious groups were offering to replace windows for free, but their waitlists were already months long.

Then a relative of mine told me he had a friend who imported glass and installed windows for a living. I had found my supplier. He had questions: What was the thickness of my panes, and did I want (in order of increasing cost) regular glass, the type that broke into jagged shards; tempered, which crumbled on impact and was less likely to kill me; or top-of-the-line laminated glass, which held together when shattered and, depending on its thickness, could even withstand a bullet? He also had demands: cash payment in dollars, or the black-market equivalent of the Lebanese pound. No bank checks. I opted for tempered glass.

Officially the currency remained pegged to the dollar at 1,507.50 pounds, but in practice the banks had a different exchange rate: 3,900 pounds to the dollar. At the time of the blast, the fluctuating black-market rate was about 7,500 pounds to the dollar. Companies also set their own arbitrary rates.

I had money in the bank, but the amount I needed to repair my windows exceeded my monthly withdrawal limit. Some banks, including mine, offered to consider increasing withdrawal limits if clients provided detailed paperwork outlining exactly what they wanted to spend their own depreciated money on, along with evidence that their properties had in fact been damaged. In other words, they wouldn’t consider giving us our money unless we begged for it. I wouldn’t do that.

Instead, I tapped into the diaspora suitcase economy—the safety network of family and friends whom we rely on in order to obtain everything from cash to medicine to some brand of moisturizer you can’t find in Lebanon. A friend was traveling from the United States and offered to bring me dollars. I transferred the equivalent amount from a new overseas account into hers, and paid for my windows.

Next on my list: curtains to cover the windows. I had bought my now-shredded curtains from Warde, a family-owned fabric business established in 1882, and that’s where I went for replacements. Warde, it turns out, was replacing curtains for free in blast-ravaged neighborhoods, complete with rods, sewing, and installation, if you weren’t fussy about the color and type of fabric. The store was also offering deep discounts if, like me, you were fussy. As a private company struggling with a roughly 36 percent downturn in yearly sales, Warde didn’t have to help. But the company’s CEO, André Warde, told me that not helping was never an option: “If you did nothing, you’d have a problem with your conscience. I don’t have a problem at all with my conscience. I did what I have to do.” So far, the company has distributed 41,000 meters of fabric free of charge, and helped 1,600 households. It hasn’t solicited donations in what is an ongoing effort. “Where is the state?” Warde asked me. “The state is not helping people.”

The World Bank has estimated the damage from the Beirut blast to total $3.8 billion to $4.6 billion. The Lebanese government has established a compensation fund that, based on the black-market dollar rate, is worth about $18.7 million. The bulk of foreign relief money has bypassed the government and is being funneled to the Red Cross and the Red Crescent, the UN, and various NGOs, to avoid what French President Emmanuel Macron called “corrupt hands”—a comment he made during a tour of my neighborhood after the blast. (For decades, however, France, Lebanon’s former colonial master, had no problem shaking those same corrupt hands.)

The Lebanese state has tasked the army with surveying the damage for compensation purposes. Two teams of soldiers appraised my building, in August and September. Twelve of the 21 apartments in my building have numbers above their doors indicating that they’ve been approved for compensation. Mine isn’t one of them, even though the damage is pretty much the same everywhere. Repeated requests for clarification from the army went unanswered. Expecting transparency from any organ of the Lebanese state can be a futile exercise. I had other things to do.

I needed to replace the broken tiles on my terrace before the winter rains, to prevent water from seeping into the office below. I found a tiler through an online resource, the Daleel Thawra, or “Directory of the Revolution,” established after the October 2019 protests. The site had set up a comprehensive relief page for those affected by the port blast. It listed tradespeople, health-care providers, legal services, and engineering services, among others, and explained how to get free glass collection and help with removing debris. It also provided information on how to donate money, time, and resources to what had become a massive citizen-driven relief effort.

The “disaster-stricken areas,” as the neighborhoods around the port were referred to, had become noisy hives of activity by day, and eerie ghost towns by night after the tradespeople went home. Security forces were stationed throughout to prevent the burglaries of empty, damaged properties, and for the first time in living memory, our neighborhoods had 24-hour electricity. No one knows why, and no one I know wants to tempt fate by asking.

I still needed to replace my doors. Given the difficulty of getting money out of the bank, I took a neighbor’s advice and called an NGO that had helped her, Beb w’ Shebbek, or “Door and Window.” The organization was established days after the explosion by two friends, Mariana Wehbe and Nancy Harfouche, whose own homes and offices had been damaged. They called it Door and Window because that’s what most people needed. “It wasn’t like, Oh my God, what happened to us? ” Wehbe told me of the decision to help. “It was more this instinct of What do we need to do?

Wehbe, a logistics and supply-chain-management expert who owns a public-relations company, and Harfouche, a gallery owner, tapped into their network of friends and contacts in interior design and architecture to gather volunteers. Wehbe said she was fielding hundreds of messages from people offering to donate money to the relief effort. “It literally happened in an hour. I don’t know if there was a higher power saying You have the resources, you have the know-how, the street needs you—get your asses on the street and just run with it.” To date, Beb w’ Shebbek has replaced doors and windows in 585 homes, replicating exactly what was lost down to the color and type of border accent.

Citywide, no one really knows how much of the destruction remains unaddressed. The scale of the catastrophe is hard to convey. Take my own modest situation, multiply it by the number of damaged properties, then factor in the more specialized and expensive restoration work needed to fix fragile, centuries-old heritage homes, not to mention the larger-scale repairs to hospitals, schools, and businesses. On top of all this, superimpose the economic crisis, the loss of people’s savings, the mental agony of losing homes and loved ones, and the pampered arrogance of do-nothing leaders, and you’ll have an idea of what the Lebanese are dealing with. Then add the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of the same local NGOs that crowdsourced donations for repairs following the explosion are now crowdsourcing donations for ventilators and oxygen tanks to help pandemic victims.

Some tasks, such as disaster recovery, shouldn’t be citizen-driven, do-it-yourself projects. There is much that government can and should do. But Beirut’s brutal experiment in the absence of government means that, for many, confidence in the state’s ability and willingness to help and protect its people is about as brittle as my windows.

I haven’t fixed my cracked walls, and maybe I won’t. The cracks are ugly, but the walls won’t fall down. I don’t expect state compensation, but I am lucky and grateful. I didn’t lose anything that can’t be replaced. Too many people in Beirut did.