The day of…
The day before the explosion was ordinary, quiet, unremarkable. But I was unsettled. I was in LA visiting family, because these days more than ever, I needed to be with my people. It was Monday, and I was flying back home to New York.
I was traveling light but carrying excess emotional baggage. I stood in line at LAX, boarding the plane for New York. We were all dutifully six feet apart, masked and morose. Do we even smile anymore under these things? I wondered.
The flight wasn’t full, I had a row to myself. I wanted to be alone, anyway. I was thinking of the night before… How my six-year old niece cried when saying goodbye. How I hugged my sister last. How we held each other and sobbed. There was something different about that night. I didn’t want to go.
But work had piled up. Going back to my responsibilities seemed like the right thing to do. I hated that I was always doing the “right thing”. I felt like shit.
But I also missed my dog, Zazoo, my little furry anchor. He was the reason I stopped doing crisis work in the first place. I was addicted to my high-intensity job and had not found any reason to slow down, until I fell in love with this little dog and suddenly there was something more important than me in my life.
In my excess baggage, I also carried a heavy heartbreak that I could not offload. I was miserable. Appropriately, I watched Les Miserables on the plane and cried my way through five hours in the air. I was anxious, uncomfortable, jumpy. And snacking recklessly, hiding my face every time I removed my mask for a second to throw another almond into my mouth.
Once home, my apartment, my dog, my relatively-new New York life were sufficient distractions. But I slept terribly that night, flip-flopping like a dying fish caught in a net.
The next morning, I was on auto-pilot, up well before my alarm. It was still dark. I stayed in pyjamas – they are now also my work clothes, after all. I can’t remember the last time I woke up, showered, dressed and “went to work”.
I made coffee and carried it with me as I walked Zazoo. I let him drag me around as I stumbled behind, only waking from my stupor when I got tangled up in his leash and stepped right in his freshly-deposited poop.
“I tried to warn you,” a nearby pet parent called out, “but you didn’t hear me”.
“Ah, well,” I shrugged, trying to appear nonchalant. “It’s going to be one of those days”. Little did I know what kind of dog-shit day it was going to be.
I dragged myself home, flopped onto my desk and started work. Calls, emails, more calls. I was still thinking of California.
At 11am I got the text. It was August 4.
I had just finished my second work call and was on my third cup of coffee. The caffeine had no impact. I dashed to the bathroom before getting back to work. My phone was in my hand. It always came with me to the bathroom, despite knowing that it would one day end up in the toilet.
“A bomb in Beirut…” the text said. I jumped off and texted my mother.
“Where is Dad?!”
It was 6pm in Lebanon.
“He’s fine, fine!” One fine would have been fine. Two “fines” and something was clearly wrong.
And then other messages came flooding in. “Multiple locations”… “A fire”… “Lots of speculation”… “An Israeli strike”… “A horrible accident”… “Too early to speculate”… “The port. Wheat silos are gone”…
“Was anyone hurt?!”
And then the photos and videos started coming in. My Beirut was not the Beirut of the 1980s, in shows like Homeland, with stereotypes of blown-out buildings and bearded men with AK-47s.
My Beirut is a city of music. A marina with million-dollar yachts next to an old seaside hotel where celebrities used to dance. Where my grandmother used to dance. Fusion restaurants requiring reservations months in advance next to food carts for midnight falafel.
And now Beirut looked like New York on September 11.
“Are you sure that Dad is OK?!”
“I was talking to him. I heard the noise.”
And more texts: “Beirut is gone”.
I had just left Lebanon a year ago. I lived in a modern building in Mar Mikhael, an ancient part of town with its mix of old Lebanese architecture and ultra-chic bars. The building was like no other, with huge windows facing the Beirut port, and a balcony overlooking the old rooftops of the city, where laundry hung out to dry and old carpets held down by plastic chairs lounged in the sun.
That apartment no longer exists.
It was blasted away. My beautiful building, with its contemporary design and old Lebanese tiles. My building with its big windows where my dog would sit and watch cars go by. My building, where I spent four years. My building, where I still should have been.
I called my father.
“Turn on your video,” he said. “I will show you”.
I saw the images and started to sob. I never cry in front of my father.
The house was destroyed. Not a single window was left. Shattered glass littered the floor, and had found its way into the furniture, impaling it like icicles. It was a miracle that he was not hurt, but he had turned away just in time, to answer the phone that was normally by his side where he sat. Right by the window.
Instead, he had forgotten it on the other side of the house. And it was ringing. My mom was calling. My mother’s call had probably saved his life.
I should be used to this, this level of devastation. I’m an Emergency-Girl, after all. I’ve been doing this for decades, and in some of the world’s worst places. Wars and natural disasters are business as usual for me. But one month later the tears still flow, and I wonder if I was ever any good at this in the first place.
People always ask me: What is it like to work in emergencies, to be in the midst of a battle, to fly into – and not away from – danger. And – to do it by choice?
I have no choice. I was born for this, and born into this. I am Lebanese, I am Palestinian, I am a woman. Facing fear is my natural state.
In my experience during war or disaster when lives are lost, when livelihoods are destroyed, when economies collapse, when people are struggling for survival: they turn on women.
It’s true. People find ways to abuse women, in the very moments when we should stick together, support each other, show solidarity, save each other. Women are always victims. To do this work is to face fear and live with a broken heart, fists clenched and arms open.
I have spent my career as a humanitarian aid worker around the world, supporting women, protecting them. From Afghanistan to Mali to Haiti and Chad, from Papua New Guinea to the US.
My recent focus has been on the Arab region, a part of the world where instability and fear are the norm. The region’s many crises – Yemen, Syria, Palestine, Iraq – have destroyed systems of social protection, reduced access to safe services and support, displaced communities, and increased vulnerabilities. And now, disaster in Lebanon.
The port of Beirut, my Beirut, our Beirut was decimated by an explosion whose impact will be felt for decades to come. The city has been brought to its knees.
Lebanon was already debilitated by layers of disaster – economic collapse, government corruption, poverty, the COVID-19 pandemic. And now this. Lebanon relies on imports for survival, most of these come through the port of Beirut. No more. Those who were hungry before, now will starve. Those who could hardly pay for their homes before, now will lose them.
I spent the first week hardly eating and sleeping, not leaving the house. My sneakers still sat on the floor, one shoe lined with shit. I devoured every video and image. I would try to sleep, only to wake up startled, panicked that I did not know what happened to my favorite café, the pottery shop next door, the quirky little bookshop down the street, the grumpy old guy who sat in front of the church wearing the same dirty white tanktop, screaming at me every time Zazoo tried to pee anywhere nearby. I woke up wondering if George – my barber – was ok, if Baron – the restaurant where I spent too many nights to count – still stood, if anything at all still stood.
And I wondered about women. What would happen to our fight? To the momentum we had gathered on the streets day after day since October? To the movements we fueled and fought for and believed in? What setbacks would we face?
One might think that it makes no sense to speak of women now. Everyone suffers equally, right? But I speak about women because they are so often forgotten.
In times of crisis, women are the first to suffer, the last to recover, and the hardest hit by emergencies. Women are the ones who care for their families and communities. Living with food, fuel, medicine shortages creates new dependences, and women are forced to have sex for food, for rent, for supplies – in order to survive.
New homelessness will drive people to temporary shelter without lighting, water, toilets. These spaces will be over-crowded, putting women and girls next to men they do not know. All of this increases risks for women.
Women who were employed before will not work again, unless on the black market, with risks and without protection. Child marriage will increase so families can reduce their economic burden by “offloading” girls so there’s one less mouth to feed.
Violence against women will increase. I have seen this in every single emergency. Domestic violence had already increased as a result of the economic crisis and the pandemic. And now, what will happen? There is something fundamentally wrong with the world when – in a time of crisis – women are at risk in their own homes.
The Lebanon that I knew is gone.
We now need to rebuild a Lebanon that treats all equally. Let us start with women. We can do more – and do better – to make sure women and girls everywhere feel protected. If women are not safe, then no one is safe.
We will reconstruct our lives from the rubble, and we will find funding and support for women’s groups, to give them a voice in the new Lebanon. We will ensure that they have the tools and resources they need so that women will be engaged at all levels of leadership and decision-making.
Women need access to economic opportunity so they can rebuild their lives. Small businesses, like the Mavia Bakery, a social enterprise empowering and educating women and building community through baking sourdough bread, is one of my favorites.
Women are the face – and the force – of our recovery and our resilience. I do not need to tell you what male leadership has done for Lebanon. Perhaps it is time for women to rise from the ashes. And why not reimagine Beirut as the region’s first feminist city? If anyone can do it, it is our women.
After decades overseas, I now live in New York, but I carry the pain of women inside me. It’s the excess baggage I can never offload. And every day, I ask myself what I can do, in small ways, to make my space safer for women.
I came to New York to find that seemingly-elusive “balance”. Instead I sit somewhere between a global pandemic and a decimated Beirut. I came to New York to escape emergencies. But they have found me, and they will not let me go. Even my comfortable life feels uncomfortable.
Now Beirut has been buried under rubble for one month. And I am soon boarding a plane from New York, bound for a home I will no longer recognize, but will work to remake.