The lights

“Three weeks on, I am still filled with rage. But when it roils near the surface, its bubbles pop pathetically, hissing: ‘Nothing will change.’

Instead, my friends and my family will leave. My colleagues, neighbors, interview subjects, exes, favorite shopkeepers, my rivals and my inspirations will either be forced to emigrate or be so exhausted by trying to exist that their light will simply perish.

It is this that pushes me, every day, to tears.”

I wrote these words in late August 2020 as part of an ode to Beirut. Like so many others, I was moved to write after the explosion at the port. I didn’t know what to write, or for whom, or why. But write I did, the words boiling out of a crevice I had never explored before – senseless, wretched, and for the first time in any of my personal or professional writing, hopeless.

I never posted it. 

Since then, I’ve promised myself over and over that I’d come back to the piece, and I’d get it into shape for the first anniversary of the blast. Every day for the last month I thought about digging it out but I’d inevitably find something else to do, too scared even to re-read it. I was afraid of what I’d find – a courage I no longer feel; a voice I no longer have; a strength I can no longer muster; a memory of a home that no longer exists. 

This is my ultimate fear – that the changes of the last two years are irreversible, and that we are slipping into a darkness that will swallow us, even the best of us, whole. I have wanted nothing more than to be home – but I don’t recognize much of this city anymore. I used to love late-night strolls, passing bartenders picking on each other as they haul out bags of trash and lovers stealing a final embrace under the amber street lights, ending my night with a mind still buzzing from banter with strangers or legs sore from dancing. 

Everything’s gone dark now. Yes, the streets are quite literally so (no government money to keep the lamps on), and I no longer feel safe walking them alone, but everything else is, too. Maintaining a conversation is an Olympic feat – even smalltalk quickly turns to who’s planning to emigrate; how many hours of electricity you’ve had today; who in your family has died of either COVID or the blast or a simple medical incident for which hospitals are now unequipped. 

The hardest thing, the thought that makes my hands ache as I type these words, is how the lights in people’s eyes have dimmed, too – just as I thought they would. Even the fiercest ones, who were always ready with a quick joke about the electricity or water shortages to signal their resistance, who promised they’d never let go of Lebanon or stop fighting or stop believing, the ones who prided themselves on being the pillar of fortitude their own friends and family leaned on – they are heaving beneath the unimaginable weight of loss, and of helplessness. They come in all shapes and sizes; all ages, genders, socioeconomic status, geographic backgrounds. Some seek help; most don’t know they’re collapsing even after they’ve been reduced to a mound of rubble. 

This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you, “but wait, there’s hope!” There have been days I’d hold your hand tight and tell you that emphatically, and days I’d spit in your face for suggesting something so stupid. In fact, it’s not so much hope as it is a flame flickering in a strong wind. It whips back and forth and sometimes looks like it’s completely gone out, but a glow briefly re-appears. Your heart might give out before the flame does. 

Those flickering moments come to me every day. I pass the owner of a cornerstore I like; instead of avoiding what is sure to be a grim conversation, I pop my head in and try to make her smile. I smile, too. A friend cooks a meal with his mom and packs a tupperware for me to have as dinner. On a late-night taxi ride home, I hear the dispatcher tell the exhausted driver he has another pick-up to do; I fish out a chocolate bar and soda can from my fridge to gift him. Another friend invites me to a cellist’s home concert, where for the first time in months, I watch someone perform a craft with deep, indelible love. In the darkness, I pass a frangipani tree that has laced our streets with its graceful petals, emblazoned with yellow at the center. I pack a few into my pocket. And moments after writing these words, my mother sends me a photo from halfway around the world of a frangipani tree that she saw today, too. 

The flame burns a little brighter. 

I don’t know if these are omens. But as we head into a difficult week, they’re what I hold onto the most. In the gut-wrenching absence of the changes we hoped for, perhaps we can only seek out and give out the small things, with the hope that they will slowly, painstakingly rebuild the strength, agency, and love that once made this city light up. 

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