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Children of Lebanon: Trauma, pain and optimism

How do you grieve for your country when you're 14,000 kilometres away?

Orange smoke from the ammonium nitrate explosion over lebanon. Photo credit المسلمون في البرازيل Hussein saifi Tv.

هل يغفر الأولاد للجيل الذي

. دكته خيل الحرب والمنفى وترتيب الذهاب

غسان زقطان-

Will the children forgive the generation

that’s trampled by horses of war,

by exile and preparation for departure?

– Ghassan Zaqtan

Much like the grand Arab poetry that is born in the midst of war and despair, Ghassan Zaqtan’s opening stanza of Will They Believe (هل سيصدقون) incorporates an amalgamation of immensely powerful emotions. There is the trauma of war and death, the pain of exile and departure and as with all rhetorical questions, an optimism that the answer is one that does not differ to that the questioner expects. Poetry is a remarkably appropriate impression of the experiences of the Lebanese and Arab diaspora. The tragic Beirut Blast drew my attention to Ghassan Zaqtan’s poem, who like myself, is a Levantine – a son of Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Amman. Why? Trauma, pain and optimism is an all too familiar triune.

A destroyed Port of Beirut after the ammonium nitrate explosion. Photographer:Mahdi Shojaeian.

On 4 August 2020, a nonchalant father, covered with sweat, is fixated on a laptop screen powered by Beirut’s intermittent power supply. To his left, his tired son rests on the living room sofa. The first explosion, induced by a fire in Warehouse 12 of Beirut’s port, ignites a dazzling pillar of smoke harbouring radiant sparks of fireworks. The abnormal spectacle and roaring blaze alarm the young boy, who immediately seeks refuge in his father’s arms. Intuitively, the father, despite being troubled by the explosion of cheap firecrackers, assures his son that the blaze is a passable affair.

Forty seconds later, at 3:08 pm, a second blast fractures the windows and a wave of grit and dirt consumes the room. The father, turning to God, prays and protects his son. In a moment of admirable rationality among the chaos, the father ushers the son under the dining room table upon which the laptop, now covered in dry grime, sits. Nothing but trauma has ensued.

Damage caused by the Beirut Explosion. Photographer: Mahdi Shojaeian

Much like the father, the citizens of the city are aghast and 300,000 are now left homeless. They, like the father, return to the vestiges of purity left in the midst of all this corruption: their prayers and their faith. In the span of a minute, Beirut’s physical appearance mirrored the corruption which has crippled it. The city’s beautiful features could no longer hide the dystopia its people have protested against in the past year. With an unemployment rate of 25%, a third of its population living below the poverty line, a sectarian kleptocracy and a health care system ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, one would think it would be impossible for Lebanon to suffer more than it has. The blasts were a further dagger of trauma and the tears, cries and lamenting of a populace who epitomise hospitality and resilience rocked the globe.

The tsunami of videos, breaking news headlines and bloodied videos reach the Australian diaspora. Their collective voice cracks, tears swell in their eyes and they are once again, by virtue of their incredible empathy and compassion, in pain. As a child of that diaspora, anguish was an experience I grew up with as I witnessed the devastation brought about by civil wars, foreign invasions and military occupation.

The Lebanese are a beautiful, resilient constituency within the Australian Arab diaspora who suffered the pain of colonialism, corruption and geopolitical tug of wars. The grievances that inspired the revolution of 2019, which brought about short-lasting hope, were thought to exemplify a state that could not get any worse. The blasts, however, dragged the country from a dystopia to a living hell, a hell tinged with an orange smoke caused by the nitrogen dioxide of the ammonium nitrate explosion. The externality which thrust the country from rock bottom to six feet under the ground was so  traumatic that my aunties, with their immense strength, could not  contain their tears.

In their tears lies the guilt and pain I so often feel when I witness a Middle Eastern nation on fire. Here I am, 15,000 kilometres away from people alike in every way except owning the capital to do what our parents did: leave. There is a sense of betrayal in not being able to suffer side by side with them. Perhaps, with our relatively greater luxury and wealth, we could have done more. By ignoring the plagued political class, the manner in which the capital we sent home facilitated the country’s deficit, the Palestinian and Syrian refugees who go hungry tonight and the exploitative practise of the kfala system, perhaps we failed those who needed the support of the diaspora more than ever.

It is not only that guilt that increasingly pressurises the diaspora, it is also the discourse that ensues after a Middle Eastern tragedy that contributes to the narratives which perpetuate orientalist, colonial attitudes. It is a common language many inside and outside the diaspora adopt in flawed oversimplification. Consider the petition that advocated Lebanon being put under French Control. The narrative is: if corruption was so ingrained in the Lebanese social fabric, perhaps a foreign nation, a leader like Macron, would be Lebanon’s only hope given the flawed albeit common assumption that it cannot govern itself on its own terms. When such narratives stem from the diaspora, it is rooted in helplessness and shock. When they come from those who see the Middle East as a hub of barbarous, chaotic social groups, it suggests the Lebanese are innately inferior to the West’s institutions, which we all know are just as susceptible to the collapse the Lebanese government epitomizes. Coupled with the common racist rhetoric towards Arabs and other minorities, the diaspora struggles on two fronts. The manner in which the West praised the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron unknowingly forwards the all too common narrative. To paint Macron as a saviour of the French colony suggests the Lebanese cannot govern themselves, that their political system needs a foreign force of stability and that they are incapable of taking their country in a new direction. 

The Western diaspora rejects such assumptions.Corruption is not inherent to the Lebanese identity, it is a product of a political oligarchy that represents a massive disjuncture between the Lebanese people and the ruling class. An externality like Macron would only further such disjuncture and disrespect the Lebanese struggle, and the diaspora in the West would never disrespect the Lebanese intentionally.

Now, I do not doubt the truth that Macron’s presence may be comforting in a country where the political class has completely failed them, especially to the French citizens residing in the city. However, the mainstream focus, praise and attention afforded to Macron incorporates very little of the detail, the passion of political life and the diversity of intellect the Lebanese truly possess to better their condition. The irony that it was France, just after World War I, that decided that sectarianism would be a defining feature of the country’s leadership cannot be overlooked. As a result, the children of the diaspora face the pressure of developing a vernacular that condemns corruption but does not prime the imperialist ambitions and the saviour complex of states like France. As citizens of the West, and children of the Middle East, we know far too well where that leads. 

Developing such a vernacular is difficult; but the Lebanese are extraordinary, vibrant and possess remarkable intellect.  Beirut was a space filled with peaked visor wearing, tobacco smoking individuals debating and discussing Marxism, socialism, capitalism and complex socio-political issues pertaining to the political development of a region battling imperialism and a lack of unity. It welcomed Arabs of all nationalities and religions, each driven to understand how to better a Middle East that was set on fire by colonialism, rapid industrialization and a lack of political capital on the world stage. Our language should reflect such immense capability, not a lack of it.

In such amazing heritage and modern struggle, lies an optimism. As Khalil Girban, the legendary Lebanese poet and one of the architects of the Arabic Renaissance, opined: “braving obstacles and hardships is nobler than retreat to tranquility. The butterfly that hovers around the lamp until it dies is more admirable than the mole that lives in the dark tunnel.” The English translation will never do justice to Arabic’s beautiful form. But there is an optimism that Beirut will reclaim its place as a prosperous hub, paying homage to the vitality, colour and faith of its people. Perhaps Lebanon may have the chance to truly redeem itself. The nation never truly lived up to the beauty of its inhabitants after 1990. However, a nation that produces a people as bright, cultured, hospitable and resilient as the Lebanese has more than enough capability to combat all that is inhibitive, corrupt and vulgar. Perhaps, in our hope and solidarity, the children Zaqtan refers to may in fact forgive us.

Photographer: Noor Ibrahim

Or maybe they will choose not to. However, the fact that we weep with them, we feel their trauma and their pain, and we fight to reclaim a language of protest that honours them signals an optimistic desire to win not only their forgiveness, but to ensure in our wealth and luxury that we do not forget them. In return, we hope they do not forget our solidarity. As Gibran surmises, “You may forget with whom you laughed, but you will never forget with whom you wept.”

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