From Beirut to Damascus: “Nowhere Is Safe” by Ghalia Al Alwani

I’ve been struggling to collect the words, over the past few months, to describe the rapid deterioration I was witnessing in this country. Every night I’d write a sentence or two, allegories about pain and corroding livelihoods. Then, like a macabre sitcom, a nightmare ensued, as if to answer our feeble attempts at humor when we’d ask: “could this get any worse?”

Agonizing proverbs manifested themselves into reality. The government’s negligence and rampant corruption, has quite literally, just exploded in our faces; specifically 2700 tons of neglected ammonium nitrate that caught fire, causing the port of Beirut to explode A 4.5 on the Richter scale that destroyed thousands of buildings in its surroundings, turning them into rubble within seconds.

 I was standing in the right spot. As my apartment crumbled into nonsense in a moment, I was standing in the right spot. I didn’t feel lucky about it then. When disaster strikes, your being comes into question and your body hurries to answer, to validate, to survive.

To those who don’t know Beirut, I live in what used to be one of the most vibrant, youthful, and historical regions in the city. Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, a long stretch of the two streets connecting, is where young adults, students, artists and many curious foreigners flock to every year, in the center of the city, closest to one of the most booming regions in the capital. This is of course, in addition to the thousands of families that have inhabited these areas, their homes centuries old. I used to envy those who lived there, with the colorful vintage tile patterns and the high ceilings; this was authentic Beirut and I moved there as soon as I got the chance. At night, the bars on the streets welcomed those from all around the country to escape their lives and enjoy their time with their friends. Even if it was not the main event, it was customary for people my age to at least make one stop in these areas for a few drinks and laughs before their weekend night ensued.

 I thought about those things when I saw the lady that owned the little supermarket next to my favorite bar stand on top of what was now debris of Lebanese chips and beer, her legs bleeding and her eyes fixated in complete shock. I thought about it when my closest friend described seeing the chef from one of my favorite sandwich shops being carried on a makeshift stretcher, fashioned out of the shop’s sign that had come unhinged, his head opened, bleeding through his chef’s hat. I thought about it when I ran, as lifeless bodies and bloody humans suddenly and aggressively became a new and gruesome addition to my visual archive.

When the explosion hit, the rumors started. If Israel had bombed us, it was not over. I ran through the rubble clutching my dog as if she were a newborn, since walking her was impossible in the pool of glass and blood that had become the new street. The vehicle that had decided to be my savior was shattered but still started, and I sat on the crushed crystals, my heart pounding, thinking: I am going to die here.

It wasn’t hard to imagine my death. There was death everywhere.

I’ve read and reported on war stories for a long time. I’ve shaken my head in pain at how trivial people’s lives were, dying under airstrikes back in my country, the world renowned international battlefield republic of Syria. But no one will truly understand their own insignificance, until they see the rawest version of it, represented by the cruelest and quickest loss of life humanly possible around them. Friends reached out, telling me how important I am to them, and how I should remind myself of my value, as a force 2,700 tons larger than them had made a devastatingly convincing argument for the contrary.

Hours of becoming acquainted with PTSD syndromes and survivor’s guilt later, I picked up the shards of glass from my bed covers. I heard the stories. I saw the names. I saw the videos. I found out who’d been injured and who’d been missing. I watched as people my age and younger, swept, fed, and carried, biting their tongues and working through their distraught mental states, dodging soldiers whose only job it seemed was to yell orders at cars coming through the ruins. I didn’t see a police officer lift a finger. 

I heard they knew. I heard that they knew the weapon of mass destruction was there. I heard that instead of warning the masses to get out from the port on the radio when the fire started, they were broadcasting statements from politicians, assuring the public that they were okay. I heard that none of those murderers were harmed and were now squabbling over whose fault this was. I heard people were petitioning for occupation, because a new colonial chapter with France would have more mercy than those who have held us hostage for decades.

 I heard many want to take those responsible to court.

What about us? We didn’t have the choice. We couldn’t negotiate our fate. We couldn’t defend ourselves, to try to convince them why we, our homes and our loved ones should be spared.

Four days later, I finally ask my mother how she’s doing. I knew from Damascus that she was holding herself together when she spoke to me. Today she finally tells me how scared she is. I hadn’t been keeping up with the news in Syria or anywhere else but here. She tells me Corona has killed three of her friends in the five days that have passed since the explosion. She tells me fifty doctors have died, out of how many that we’d had left? I’ve lost count.

I’d been wondering myself for a few days now whether I had Corona, so were many of my friends. We’ve been in heavily crowded areas, whether they were bloody ones, ones holding brooms, or ones protesting through their pain. Those of us injured were in hospital wards in which patients and doctors who were quarantined, were blown apart. I remember two weeks before how I didn’t feel safe being in my home even after wiping everything that was exposed outside with alcohol. I remember cleaning a neighbor’s apartment when one of the volunteers who was ‘lucky’ with a few stitches asked me if I’d seen a blue mask around somewhere in the rubble, and then went on to nervously wonder to me, “do you think I should care?” It was a danger we all knew we had no choice but to risk, and almost seemed a less horrifying fate than ours had been.

My mother frantically tells me she can get me a car back to Damascus. I think about how ironic it is that I’d feel safer there.

We’re dropping like flies. The doom is so damning, and friends nervously discuss how they feel like we are heading towards the end. I’ve almost made peace with the idea that everyone I know is going to die soon. I started to calculate: would I rather die with my parents in Syria? Or would I rather die with my partner and friends here? What if my parents die? Would I rather be there or hear about it from here? I should call my grandfather as soon as possible, I should hear his voice.

I have to stifle a scream when I hear any loud sound near me. I hear sirens and screams in the water running in the shower. At night, with my weak eyesight, I see bleeding bodies in blurry far away objects.

The furniture in the rooms at a mountain escape a friend graciously offered, provides more room for mental tricks. Like an art director, my eyes sculpt the room into rubble, to show me how it could be done in seconds. The windows, debris and blood could embellish the fluffy couches. I could see the innermost layers of infrastructure within the doors, chairs and tables left bare, for all eyes to wander in horror. Home items crushed and eerily dislocated out of their century old habitats. My mind has been molded and provided a new lens: to strip humanity naked, left lingering unhinged, utterly powerless. 

I was declared a waste person, I got lucky to get away with my life, but now nowhere seems safe.

My phone explodes with messages, telling me to let them know if I need anything. Wipe my memory of the past year, if you can.

I was attempting to write a piece describing what it was like to watch a country crumble under the curse it had been under for months before this explosion took place. I thought I’d add my conclusion to that piece underneath this one, unedited. To understand the extent of this blow, this is how I was feeling, before this catastrophe gripped all of us.

 “I’ve heard many of my expat friends look down on these areas and their people as desolate and hopeless. How could we be economically sufficient? What have we even cultivated for export to make us a rich country? The sad reality is that we, the lost Arab generation, are the true exports of the Middle East. We will continue to claw our way out, and sell our colors to the places that quietly watched our lands burn, and in some cases aided in the fire.

Out here we do not have the luxury of choice or dreams, but have committed to a life of survival. Corruption robs you. I’ve been robbed.

Lebanon, I’ve dragged many foreigners through your streets, and seduced them with your art and music. These days I tell these people that they were lucky to witness you shine before you fell to pieces.

This is my love letter to the wasteland I’ve grown up in.

*** this piece was first published in Daraj  ***

Ghalia Al Alwani is a Syrian poet, writer, and journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. After covering the Syrian war with the Washington Post for a year, she is currently pursuing her Masters in International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and now covers a wider range of topics relating to social issues in the Middle East.

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