When Outrage Is Justified: Protests Sweep Beirut After Explosion

Young people cleaning streets of beirut
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"The revolution is born from the womb of sorrows." - Majida El Roumi

In the comic book world, superheroes are often created by external forces: radioactive spider bites, mysterious cosmic rays, government super soldier programs. Serving the collective mission of saving humankind, these larger-than-life characters are able to fly, read minds, and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Suspended in the realm of fantasy, the idea of a superhero is fun to indulge in. We create these myths because we are finite, limited. We ache to imagine a better world, a world beyond the realm of the real, which strangles us with its cruelty and gravity.

In a year brimming with innumerable accounts of injustice, human rights violations, environmental catastrophes, famine, war, and viral pandemics, you may have found yourself wishing more than once that superheroes were real. It seems like it would take the intervention of an extraordinary group of beings to avenge the fallen, the disenfranchised, and the vulnerable. That is how helpless we’ve become as a human race, that we look to the skies of an imaginary world for supernaturally gifted heroes to come and save us. 

On Tuesday, August 4, 2020, Beirut splintered into a million pieces, hurled from one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in human history. The blast coated the city in dust and red fumes, a byproduct of the 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, negligently stored at the city’s port in one of its most populated areas.

It was both inevitable and not.

It was a ticking time bomb, a potent mass of chemicals designed for use in fertilizer, rocket fuel, TNT, and industrial explosives. So combustible that any contact with fire would force the chemical compound to shed its unstable atomic bonds, overload with oxygen, and then burst forth in a velocitous mixture of nitrogen oxides and water vapor, the ammonium nitrate exploded. From the micro level of atoms to the macro environment of a modern port city, it wreaked its wrathful destruction, leveling buildings, killing and maiming and scarring everything in its path.

We learned where real superheroes come from. They do not fall to earth from distant planets; they are not made in labs.

We say it’s inevitable because of the kinetic potential of ammonium nitrate, but also not, because there was no reason for such a dangerous compound to be stored alongside unwitting human lives. Typically, this kind of chemical would be kept far away from populations, in remote areas of the countryside — the idea being, if it was accidentally triggered to explode, there would be no one around for it to harm.

From the noxious dust, shattered glass, and crumbled buildings, we learned where real superheroes come from. They do not fall to earth from distant planets; they are not made in labs. They do not wear capes. They do not come from the government, they do not come from law enforcement that turn their weapons toward the citizens they are supposed to protect. They come from the people. Already bent and battered by a devastating economic crisis, the people of Lebanon spilled into the streets, cleaning, helping, and leaning on each other for support, their hearts still raw from grievous loss.

Beirutis walked the streets with brooms, they lifted broken walls off of cars, and scraped rubble from the sidewalk with shovels. They picked glass out of their mattresses, lugged the debris of their businesses to dumpsters. They carried the injured and elderly to safety, handed out food and water bottles, organized city maps of the damage and lists of the missing to be shared on social media.

Beirut protests
Photo: Courtesy of Reuters

Many of us have spent the past week pressing furled fists into eyes that brimmed with tears, swallowing nuclear gulps of rage. We have watched with helplessness at the trauma and devastation in Beirut, have wept, prayed, donated, shared, and wept some more. It is not unfair, it is unjust.

Sorrow quickly turned to anger. 

Anger should not be feared; it is an edifying force, it spurns action, it causes movement. As quickly as the people of Beirut took to the streets to help their neighbors, they spilled out once more to protest against the corruption, negligence, and ineptitude that left them failing and helpless even before the catastrophic explosion. They were met with live rounds of ammunition and tear gas. This is not the first time they have been forced to protest on behalf of their own survival.

What is lost in the fighting is that the Lebanese people deserve real change, but they are the ones tasked with providing aid to themselves, with being their own superheroes.

With power structures divided, more invested in serving their own interests and protecting their own sectarian factions than serving the people of Lebanon, the country plunged into crisis after crisis. In 2014, when the Naameh landfill became so engorged with garbage that activists forcefully shut it down, the country’s waste began to back up, creating an above-ground river of trash.

The Naameh dump originally opened in 1997 in response to the overflow from the Bourj Hammoud landfill. It was a provisional band-aid, created to receive –  at most – two million tons of trash. It was set to close in 2004, but the expiration date kept getting pushed back. If Naameh was full at two million tons, what do you think happened when it was packed beyond reason? Until it officially closed, it received over 15 million tons of waste – more than seven times its capacity. Protesters stormed the streets, demanding a solution.

On and on the crisis went, as Lebanon’s Cabinet rejected the winning waste management bid to deal with the river of garbage. The trash crisis in Lebanon serves as a vivid sketch of the government’s paralytic inability to create long-term solutions for the country and its citizens, for its preference to constantly pass the proverbial buck. This took the phrase “kicking the can down the road” to literal heights. To this day, the government has still not created an integrated waste management plan for Lebanon.

Beyond living in a country where mountainous heaps of garbage cause real health problems, the Lebanese people have been living with the crushing weight of hyperinflated currency, rolling blackouts, poverty, unemployment, increased suicide rates, and hunger-related crimes.

In late 2019, once again, protesters flooded the streets, holding the government accountable, but their cries fell on deaf ears. Evading responsibility at all turns, the government ignored every mounting crisis, but even the most stymied dam is bound to burst when surged by enough water. Every tear cried on behalf of Lebanon formed a towering tsunami of grief. And then Beirut exploded.

Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Neglect, greed, inaction — these are symptoms of a larger problem. What happened in Beirut is horrifying. In fact, it is so beyond what the mind can conceivably process that there needs to be a new word for it.

The outburst of protests are a necessary reaction. Yet, the cries for revolution are not new, nor are they isolated; the same refrain echoes throughout Lebanon’s tattered history. But, the odds are against the people of Lebanon.

With a government that is already divided internally, blame is diffused and too fragmented to pinpoint. The President blames the Prime Minister, who blames Parliament, who blames the Judiciary. What is lost in the fighting is that the Lebanese people deserve real change, but they are the ones tasked with providing aid to themselves, with being their own superheroes.

In Watchmen, one of the most famous comic-book graphic novels of all time, Alan Moore imagines what it would take to truly unite the world for a single cause. In the book, the world’s most intelligent man, Ozymandias, creates a secret plot to unleash a giant squid that crushes Manhattan and causes mass destruction and death. Because the threat is so enormous, alien, and unexpected, it unites the world. Superpowers lay down their egos and their weapons. Tensions between the U.S. and Russia evaporate. Everyone straps in together to help. Ozymandias’s repulsively clever plan works.

Correct your family and friends who have normalized an idea of a violent Middle East, who treat a tragedy of this scale like a foregone conclusion.

Likewise, the world needs to come together to remove the burden from the exhausted shoulders of the Lebanese people. As admirable as it is that they are indefatigable and endlessly adaptable in the face of repeated catastrophe, they should not be asked to carry their pain alone. We must be their superheroes. 

While we do not have the preternatural power that typically goes with the superhero job description, we do have the unity and strength of our voices. How can you be a superhero for Beirut? Petition your government to take action. Correct your family and friends who have normalized an idea of a violent Middle East, who treat a tragedy of this scale like a foregone conclusion. Gather goods and non-perishable items from your home and donate them. Give your money. Give your time. Give your heart and ear to your Lebanese friends who are suffering. Educate yourself, and share the information you learn with your social networks.

Hold Beirut in your heart and your prayers, but more importantly, lift your hands to help. Savoir Flair has compiled a list of places where you can donate. We will continue to update the site with actionable initiatives to participate in and share, as we stand with Beirut to rebuild and revolutionize. 

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