Stop normalizing tragedy just because it doesn’t affect YOU.
A letter from a Lebanese woman.
My city exploded on 8.4.2020, with my family, friends and memories right in the middle. I wasn’t in Beirut, I was in Brooklyn. Though I never felt a pain as great as the one felt at that moment, I somehow didn’t cry. At all.
“Aren’t you guys used to that?” a friend asked me after a halfhearted “hope your family’s ok” text. “No” I responded.
But then I wondered, aren’t we?
I’ve been through bombs and war, but I don’t actively remember them.
Upset and lonely in my tiny Brooklyn bedroom, I decided to distract myself with a romantic movie that night. I cried the whole way through it.
I didn’t shed a tear watching Beirut blow up but I was sobbing at teenagers kissing at prom. “Weird”, I thought to myself, but it felt nice so I let the tears flow.
I remembered my first kiss.
It was November 2009, I was 15 and he was my boyfriend. For privacy reasons, let’s refer to him as K (his name’s Karl. But we’ll call him K).
We were at the top of the stairs up Beydoun Street in Beirut, named after the Beydoun Mosque at its entrance, and also the street I lived on. We were far enough from my apartment where my family (+ all the Gods and prophets) wouldn’t see me, but close enough to home where I felt safe. K and I ran 100 steps up so we could kiss privately, albeit out of breath. At the bottom of the stone steps was a police station. Those sleazy officers blew kisses my way every time I walked by them. We were hiding from them too. We kept the kiss short so I could run back home before the 5AM call to prayer that always woke my mom up.
I thought back on my mom and how strict she was. When I was five we were at a fair and I begged her for cotton candy. “No” she responded, “it’ll make you sick”.
As soon as she looked away I snuck off and secretly ate a whole batch (got her!). I spent the ride home projectile vomiting pink liquid all over the car. I never had cotton candy again. She knew how to protect us, but only from small things, sweet things.
I thought back on my dad, who wasn’t strict at all. He was actually one of the first people I told when I lost my virginity. He said “congratulations papouti” then he was serious “Don’t tell anyone, this country will judge you”. I had already told my 8 best girlfriends (oops), but I nodded and promised I wouldn’t. Then he added “Always make him wear a condom. And don’t get pregnant. Or have orgies. But if you do, make them wear a condom. Not the same one”. He knew how to make me laugh, but only about the small things, the sweet things.
I thought of my brothers, my friends, my enemies, everyone I loved and hated back home, and suddenly crying didn’t feel like a relief anymore. It just felt… sad.
You understand I’m sure that the movie wasn’t what I was crying over, my reality was. My memories. My streets. My Beirut. Destroyed.
On August 4th at 6:08pm, after hearing the first boom, my mother saved herself by running out of her windowed office and into the corridor. The reflexes she built in during the civil war saved her life. When the second, near nuclear explosion went off and blew her office to pieces, she was left untouched behind the concrete.
I called her at 6:15pm after I saw a video of the blast on one of my group chats. Panicked, she yelled: “What do you want Nataly!?!”
I never thought I’d be so happy to hear her yelling.
As I called my dad and my brothers, I realized the blast wasn’t just near my mom’s office. It was near everyone’s office. Everyone’s home. Everywhere. “Who should I check on?” I thought to myself. “Who’s in Beirut right now Nataly? Think”.
I tried to remember everyone, but I couldn’t, and those I could, weren’t picking up.
Eventually, I find out that my people are OK. Some injured, some hurt, some with their houses ruined. But alive.
I think of my home.
I think of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael, my favorite streets, with their traditional Lebanese red roofs that are (or at least were before the blast) some of the last few left in Beirut.
I think of my favorite bar there: Vyvyan’s. I think of Santana, their bartender. I’d go there for his Moscow Mule every weekend from 2013 to 2015. Whenever I’m in Beirut I go see Santana and I’m like “I’m back!” and he’s like “Who are you?”
He doesn’t remember me.
After Santana, we would often go to my brother’s favorite bar: Cyrano. I was just there in December. I scroll through Instagram and see that Rawan, their bartender, was working and lost her life there that day. She was younger than me.
I think of Grand Factory, my favorite club down the street from Mar Mikhael — and J, the guy I “accidentally” ran into there every Thursday when I was 19, and who every Thursday, told me he’d leave his girlfriend for me. They’re married now.
I think of my first driving lesson. My dad put me behind the wheel in one of Beirut’s busiest and most dangerous highways, because “that’s how you learn in life”. I cried the whole way through that highway, that was right across the Beirut Port.
Tears blur my eyes and I’m glad of them, because it’s the only logical response a person can have when they recall all of these places (amongst others), that in a split of a second on August 4th, got completely ravaged.
I’m giving you a part of my story, because I want you to understand that no, we’re not used to it. We were never used to it. What happened that day is not normal. Bombs, shattered glass and ravaged cities are not our everyday.
Our everyday is like yours- at least it was.
Tragedy and pain, loss and fear, that is not normal and it must never be normal. Not anywhere. I wept through the end of the movie I was watching. It was ‘Hannah Montana’. It’s terrible and I highly recommend it, particularly if you need a good cry.
And click here to help Lebanon.