The first book I pulled out of my library in the aftermath of the devastating Beirut Port explosion in August was Of Cities & Women (Letters to Fawwaz), a collection of correspondence written by the artist, poet, writer Etel Adnan between 1990 and 1992. She wrote the letters from different cities and addressed them, as the title suggests, to her friend, Lebanese historian Fawwaz Traboulsi. Adnan’s words surged back to mind more and more during the mournful, exhausting, and angry month following the explosion—especially as I walked through the most affected areas facing the port along with thousands of others who came to assist in relief and cleaning efforts in the city where Adnan was born.
The book includes two letters she wrote from Beirut, one from August 1991 and the other from around the same time the next year. Both were written shortly after the brutal Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990; in her characteristically astute prose, they detail Adnan’s state of being in the context of her outings, encounters, and observations of conditions in the capital. Wars and displacement loom large, as the author lays bare each tragic history and tale of exile. In his review for the Nation in 1994, American poet and critic Ammiel Alcalay remarked that, in Of Cities & Women, “Adnan embodies the role of both visionary and chronicler, seeing what is to come by unveiling accepted ways of receiving and recording the past.”
I returned to this book to see if my own vivid, impressionistic memories of the people and landscapes of the city found echoes in Adnan’s descriptions from nearly 30 years ago. The more I read, the more I saw today’s Beirut in her writings.
In her letter from 1992, Adnan mourned the loss of her close friend and gallerist Janine Rubeiz, who had died of an illness. In one passage, Adnan notes that “what saves you from despair in Beirut is the very difficulty of living in it. It’s so hot that you feel you’re storing water for your sweating, when you drink. Your mind stops working. It takes long rests. Your thoughts take a leave.” Evoking the 15 years of conflict that had only recently ceased, she continues: “The war is over but it’s not. It changed forms and tactics. There is so much uncertainty and the only truth you can hang on is pitiful; the fact that this is an unmanageable country. Then, the sea beyond my windows isn’t an ally anymore. She resembles the sun too much and burns my eyes. She has become as terrifying as the militia’s heads.”
It was Adnan’s descriptions of Beirut—especially the way its light carries “a sentiment of death”—that drew me back to her letters. And indeed, her words are so painfully prescient, so exact, it’s as if she had written them in 2020, in the days after the explosion that blew up a city already reeling from successive financial and health crises from which it continues to suffer.
The devastation caused by 250 tons of ammonium that detonated at the port killed close to 200 people, injured thousands, and left entire neighborhoods in ruins, as more than 300,000 people went homeless. Six months after the explosion, Beirut’s residents have yet to receive an apology from the ruling class. Several officials, ministers, and even the president of the republic himself knew about the presence of the lethal chemical, which had been stored at the port for six long years. But still, not a single person has been held accountable and investigations remain—unsurprisingly—inconclusive.
Without waiting for the state to respond, the relief efforts and calls for donations that sprang up immediately after the tragedy continued in the months that followed. The neighborhoods closest to the site of the explosion—home to many of Beirut’s museums, galleries, design studios, and art organizations—had been decimated. The historic Sursock Museum sustained substantial damage. The Arab Image Foundation, which houses hundreds of thousands of photographs from the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa), was blown open. The walls of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery and the Beirut Art Center collapsed. And all the small and midsize galleries and art spaces established in the neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël over the past decade—plus the homes and studios of many artists who lived around the port—were a complete wreck.
It had already been a very difficult year for art spaces. The country sank into a catastrophic financial crisis in the fall of 2019, as the October 17 uprisings raged in the streets. Art spaces closed in solidarity with the uprisings, as artists and cultural workers joined in the protests. The financial situation continued to worsen and local banks made it increasingly difficult to work under the strict capital controls they imposed. People’s savings were gone when the pandemic arrived, only worsening the living conditions and purchasing power of an already precarious and impoverished population. When Lebanon went into its first lockdown in March, art spaces had cautiously prepared to resume activities in the fall.
In the moment after the blast and the months that followed, it seemed that nothing could save us from sinking further into despair. The pandemic having burdened us with anxious uncertainty about the future, the disastrous explosion destroyed any sliver of hope. Yet after the initial rush of relief and humanitarian efforts subsided, several events provided moments of reflection. Days before a second lockdown was announced in November, I attended a series of concerts organized by Irtijal, an international festival for experimental music in Lebanon (whose name is Arabic for “improvisation”) at Zoukak studio, another vibrant space in Beirut that was damaged in the blast but remained operational enough to host the event. Irtijal was slated to celebrate its 20th anniversary last spring, but was canceled because of the pandemic. The organizers decided to go through with a compact edition of the festival at the beginning of November, with a lineup comprising exclusively of Beirut-based musicians, and a sense of collectivity that came as a welcome surprise as it convened friends and people I had last seen covered in dust, with shovels in their hands. Though most of the music was raucous and raw, it summoned a reassuring stillness we had not experienced in a while—and proof that the blast hadn’t eradicated everything after all, that it was possible to continue making art and, above all, to take pleasure again in experiencing what art has to offer.
In the spaces that were able to open after the blast and before we went into a second lockdown, other activities were planned. Ashkal Alwan, an organization that fosters and exhibits contemporary art, opened its studios to artists who had lost their spaces in the explosion, and announced the resurrection of its Home Work Space program, with fellowships for artists “to explore free, trans-disciplinary, critical models of arts education in Lebanon and the Arab region.”
Across the globe in October, a residency program was swiftly put in place in the coastal village of Boiçucanga in Brazil by Temporary Art Platform, an organization created by curator Amanda Abi Khalil to host seven artists from Lebanon and provide them time and a change of scenery to recharge. When I talked over Zoom with Lara Tabet, a photographer who was one of the program’s participants, she expressed her initial reluctance to leave Beirut. “It was as stressful for me to leave as it was to stay,” she said, citing the intense anxiety about the near future in Lebanon and the fact that anything could go wrong at any time. “I’m sad to say that it was [a relief] to be away,” she continued, “although this sense of roaming or living in an alternate reality can be distressing as well.” Despite that, Tabet spoke of the importance of the kinship the program offered and the fact that she was able to get to know other artists, whom she had previously counted as acquaintances, much better.
On November 13, the day before the second lockdown started, I went to the Beirut Art Center to see an exhibition of new video and installation works by Beirut-based filmmaker and artist Mohamed Berro; featured there as well was work from a three-part “Micro-Commissions” series that invited local artists and illustrators to respond to different prompts around questions of state-sponsored surveillance, strategies of care, and reflections on Lebanon’s realities beyond the limits of representation. While the layout of the show was sparse, the works on view reflected thoughtful interventions on the political, social, and emotional conditions of an utterly relentless year.
Later that evening, I made my way to the Sunflower Theater to watch a production conceived and written by a young group of Palestinian and Lebanese actors led and directed by Lama el Amine and Victoria Lupton from Seenaryo, an arts and education organization in Lebanon and Jordan that works with young refugees. The performance took its title from Palestinian writer Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “I See My Ghost Coming from Afar,” in which the author—as described by Sarah Irving in an essay in The Electronic Intifada from 2015—“signals a kind of omniscience, laying claim to a knowledge of his own past which defies appropriation and distortion.” Young actors played the role of ghosts who were invisible to the world around them but made the best of their time as revenants. A bit of text in the program leaflet for the show read: “There are dreams of the sea and a sea of dreams. We attempt a revolution against the dead, the living and ourselves.”
For months now, some of us in Beirut have called ourselves the living dead—having survived while not being entirely alive. But these young spirits were a testament to the life that runs through the place that we call home. Their performance was an example of what can come from dedication and care for one another, articulated through an admirable creative obstinacy toward the conditions they continue to face as young people in a society that often vilifies and rejects them.
The part in the text about “dreams of the sea and a sea of dreams” brought me back to Adnan’s evocation of the sea beyond her windows and its dual potential to betray the dreams it can inspire. “The sea beyond my windows isn’t an ally anymore,” she wrote. But if everything remains uncertain and bleak, what stays true is the fortitude of the artists, musicians, writers, and all the cultural practitioners in Beirut who persist in the most frightful and trying times. If, as Adnan suggests, the sea is sometimes “of no help,” it still holds potential for those of us who feel invisible but very much alive.