Samir Ayoub pulled his sister out of the burning car where her three daughters, Remas, Taleen and Layan, aged fourteen, twelve and ten, together with their grandmother, burned to death. The family had been driving to Beirut from their house in Blida, a village close to Lebanon’s border with Israel. They had gone back to pick up additional belongings for what now promised to be a long stay in Beirut. An Israeli airstrike hit their car as they drove through the village of Aynata. Ayoub, a local journalist, was driving ahead.
We had been in Beirut for barely two days when the concierge told us we had only half a tank of water left to use in the apartment. At ten the next morning, he knocked on the door to say we were almost out. The water delivery truck was arriving a bit later, he said, and asked if I wanted to pay him in advance the 500,000 Lebanese liras (slightly more than five US dollars). We had not been at home much since we arrived and, when we were, had been consumed by the challenge of not overloading the power circuit. The concierge had made his disgruntlement clear the second time we asked him to flip the disjoncteur which he alone had access to, as demanded by the private generator company that provided most of our electricity. Now he was telling us we were nearly out of water.
‘Instead of it being 7 p.m. let’s keep it at 6 p.m.,’ the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Nabih Berri, told the caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, in a private meeting last week, a video of which was shared on social media. ‘Just until the end of Ramadan. I do not want to burden you.’
‘It cannot be done,’ Mikati said. ‘There are flights, people, problems.’
Mikati submitted, postponing the onset of daylight saving time less than three days before it was meant to take effect.
One morning soon after we arrived in Beirut this summer the state-supplied electricity came on at seven and stayed on. It was still on at eight, still on at nine, still on at ten, still on at eleven. We did a few rounds of laundry; we even ran the dryer. We turned on the air conditioners and could not bring ourselves to turn them off even when the house got cold. The electricity was still on when we left at noon. It was out by the time we returned from lunch and never came back for more than an hour a day in the weeks that followed.
My toddler asked my father about the moon. It was night in Beirut, and the generators were off. My father’s face was lit only by the phone screen. The electricity provider ostensibly follows a schedule but, as he’s a one-man operation, that schedule follows his own: he turns the generator on when he gets up, and off when he goes to bed. The electricity provided by the state is down to a couple of unpredictable hours a day: you have to be home at just the right time to do a load of laundry; private generators don’t give enough power to run a washing machine.
Structural conditions – the protections afforded by kin groups, the weakness of state institutions, the state’s being shored up by the international community – make it reasonable to wish for a secular state but to turn to one’s sectarian group for protection, to believe in the law but circumvent it as necessary, to long for change but reject all existing alternatives to the status quo.
It was unimaginable that things could get worse in Lebanon. But they did. Weeks into the country’s worst economic crisis, compounded by the pandemic, 2570 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, stored in Beirut’s port, exploded on Tuesday. Because the blast was preceded by a fire, phone cameras were already trained on the port when the mushroom cloud went up. Most of the video footage lasts only a couple of seconds before the people taking it are knocked to the ground. Blurry upside-down images follow, to the sound of cries, screams, prayers, metal and glass shattering, walls collapsing. One video I have seen was apparently taken by a man who died from the explosion. The blast has so far killed 137 people, injured 5000, and made 300,000 homeless.