Beirut Blasts

Mayrig, a Story between Ruins and Hope...

Aline Kamakian refuses to surrender. Nearly 85 families depend financially on her restaurant. If the interior is, for the time being, doomed, she has vowed to reopen the terrace and the kitch-en as soon as possible.

Mayrig, a Story between Ruins and Hope...

Aline Kamakian, on the steps of her restaurant in Gemmayzeh, devastated by the double explosion on August 4. Photo João Sousa

At 282 Pasteur Street, the elegant Ottoman-era mansion that houses the Mayrig Restaurant, the symbol of Armenian gastronomy in Beirut, is nothing more than a field of ruins that sadly face what is left of Wild Discovery travel agency. Next to it, Le Cyrano has died, and portraits of Rawan Misto, one of the café's employees, are displayed on what remains of the storefront. This young Syrian Kurd is one of more than 170 people killed in the double explosion on August 4 in the Port of Beirut. "Open since July 2003, Mayrig offers traditional cuisine in the refined setting of an old Lebanese house. (...) A beautiful journey towards a cuisine full of riches," wrote Le Petit Futé in its 2020 edition. While Lebanon travel guides published this year already seemed outdated, they are now archival documents. "The beautiful journey" turned into a trip to hell when, on Tuesday August 4, time stopped while accelerating at the same time in the deafening roar of collapsing buildings, crumbling ceilings, shattering windows, falling bodies and screaming sirens.

Mayrig's wreckage is just like Beirut. Many of the employees as well as the owner, Aline Kamakian, lived nearby or in Bourj Hammoud. Most of them are now among the 300,000 homeless people in the country. The night of August 4 took with it the remnants of the few re-maining Lebanese success stories which were, as much as they could, still resisting the econom-ic crisis. Aline powerfully embodies a Lebanese narrative built around private initiative, com-bativeness and resourcefulness. In Lebanon, perhaps even more than elsewhere, "setting up one's own business" has long been a widespread vocation. In 2018 alone, the Global Entrepre-neurship Monitor (GEM) report ranked Lebanon fourth in the world out of 48 countries sur-veyed in terms of entrepreneurship. With Aline, this dynamism has so far been illustrated by her ability to lead several activities simultaneously and brilliantly, both as director of the bro-kerage company Insurance Investment Consultant and as a restaurateur, with the two success stories of Mayrig and its little sister, Batchig Restaurant, which opened its doors a few years later.

Blown glass, overturned tables...The damage is heavy in the Mayrig Restaurant, located in Pasteur Street. Photo DR

First Restaurant

Her history is also that of a certain Lebanese cosmopolitanism, whose capital has long been the standard-bearer, a land of refuge for Armenians who fled the genocide and a land of recon-struction. A city which has been able to represent in the Arab world a certain form of "moderni-ty" and offer some freedom to the region's intellectuals, artists and business people. Beirut "se-duces with a thousand open beginnings and new alphabets," says a verse by Mahmoud Darwish. The city featured a certain idea of the possible, even when everything seemed insurmountable.

The Mayrig Restaurant is the result of Aline Kamakian's dream to honor a passion for cooking she shared with her father, who died when she was 17. "He always told me that one day he would like to open a restaurant to introduce people to our gastronomy. His dream became mine, and when he was gone, I promised myself that I would make it come true," she said, be-fore adding: "Mayrig is the first Armenian restaurant that completely stands as such, and it's been successful." How many of these success stories were still permeating the streets of Beirut on the eve of the explosion? How many were blown to pieces on the evening of August 4?

From the city center to Dora, through the neighborhoods of Gemmayzeh, Achrafieh, Mar Mi-khael and Bourj Hammoud, many of those who still had a job now have no place to work. Those who were wondering how to pay the rent this month are now desperately looking for a home. The explosion struck parts of Beirut where most of its architectural memory was located. Sev-eral buildings dating back to the 19th century had until then resisted the civil war and then real estate speculation. In the end, it was the ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at the port that dealt them the final blow.

"Incredible Strength"

Aline Kamakian was on the terrace of her office located in the building adjacent to the restau-rant at the time of the explosion."I crouched down and was smacked by some very hot air. I felt that something had happened and that it was very serious," she said. "When I reopened my eyes, I didn't know if I was in the same place or not, and I couldn't hear with my right ear. I don't know how I then found Julien, my financial controller, as well as my operations manager and accountant. Julien was bathed in his blood. A vein was coming out of his arm, an eye out of his head. I pushed the eye back in its socket so it wouldn't fall out."

In the general uproar, those who were only half injured tried to rescue those who could no longer cope. Ramy Nehmé, Aline's assistant at the restaurant, felt a strong pain in his hand and leg, but since he still had the other two intact, he rushed to help her evacuate Julien from the office to the ground floor. "The worst part was the stairs. The false ceiling had collapsed and we didn't know where the steps were, whether there was a hand, a leg or a head lying there, where to put our feet. And Julien was bleeding and screaming. It was horrible," he said.

With their cars crushed, they had to find another way to get the injured man to the Saint George Hospital. In the street, everyone was calling for help, while bodies littered the ground. Blood and glass were everywhere. An acquaintance of Aline agreed to drive her and Julien in a Jeep. But in spite of the pleas, the hospital, overcrowded and seriously damaged, could not take him in. That evening, the injured were dragged from one place to another, often without their loved ones knowing where they were. Families were running around looking for a child, an un-cle, a mother, a friend.

Despite the shock, there was an obligation upon the miraculous. "In a moment like this," said Aline, "you're able to draw incredible strength from yourself. When I went down to the restau-rant, I saw an employee crying. I said, 'Now is not the time for that; you have nothing; go help others.'" Ramy, on the other hand, evokes a real nightmare: "At the restaurant, everyone was bleeding. We tried to see who needed help, who needed rescue, and we tried to put everyone in cars or on motorcycles to take them to the hospital." The 31-year-old lost hearing in his left ear after that Tuesday tragedy. But like many people in Beirut, he considers himself better off than others. Twenty-five Mayrig employees were hospitalized, three of them in serious condi-tion.

In the heat of the moment, there was no time to think. One had to wait until the next day to re-alize all the violence that was unleashed the day before against the capital in just a few sec-onds. "When I returned to the scene, I began to cry. In the office building, a woman had lost all her children," said Ramy in a broken voice. In the aftermath of the explosion, I saw my team taking meals from Caritas," Aline said sadly. "It was the first time I let myself cry since that Tuesday. It was very difficult to accept. "Batchig's kitchen now prepares almost 1,500 meals a day to help the victims of the disaster." We'll live with it. We're going to fight. But khalass, that's enough. It's irresponsible to store 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate at the gates of a city of two million inhabitants. How could they have slept all these years knowing that?" Aline asked.

"Resilience," Again...

In the face of the tragedy, a word well known to the Lebanese people soon surfaced. Invoking "resilience" wrongly and thoroughly, however, no longer works, or even provokes rage and an-ger.

"I have learned never to give up, but I've had enough. I'm tired of being a strong woman. Each time, they deal us a new and harder blow," said Aline. Born in 1969, she miraculously survived a shootout by a militia when she was only seven years old and living in the western sector of the capital. She also saw her father's business, which he was running on his own as a dressmaker, go up in smoke at the start of the civil war. Her cry from the heart is shared by those who wanted to leave but stayed, who lived elsewhere but returned to contribute in their own way to the Lebanon of tomorrow.

"My wife and I started our company three years ago because we wanted to live in this country, we had hope that we could contribute to its growth and that Alexandra could live and grow up here," the father of 4-year-old Alexandra Najjar told LBCI TV on Sunday, August 12. Alexandra succumbed to her injuries after the explosion.

"Resilience is a double-edged sword," Aline said. "On the one hand, it allowed us to hold on and survive. On the other hand, it has hurt us. If we hadn't been able to endure the 15 years of war, the war might not have lasted so long."

Mayrig's employees react to the heavy damage caused by the explosion at the restaurant on Pasteur Street. Photo DR

"Give up Like That?"

But in a country where public services are not provided, one can only count on solidarity, one to the other. Little time is left for residents to mourn. More than ever, mutual aid is the key word. There are these young people who arm themselves with their brooms, shovels and buckets to clean and clear the city's streets. There are these businesspeople and shopkeepers who offer to repair windows and doors for free. There is this diaspora which is mobilizing massively to raise funds and collect basic necessities. There are these men and women who offer to shelter those who have lost their homes or to help them find a roof over their heads. Aline decided to turn her other restaurant – Batchig – into a refuge. Located in Antelias, it is primarily intended for employees who have children. "Mattresses were brought in and Batchig's sofas were arranged so that the restaurant could accommodate 10 families. In all, there are 47 or 48 people," she said. While the city has been transformed into a cemetery, Aline refuses surrender.

Nearly 85 families depend financially on the restaurant. While Mayrig's interior is doomed for now, she has vowed to reopen the terrace and the kitchen as soon as possible. "Friends in the United States have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help us support the families," Aline explained. "Who can afford to replace windows today with fresh money?" In a Lebanon that has been plunged into a serious economic and financial crisis for the past year, the Lebanese pound has depreciated terribly, and the cost of reconstruction, which involves paying for imported ma-terials, promises to be colossal. In this context, many people are thinking of moving abroad. Even before the explosion, many citizens had only one word on their lips: leaving.

It does not matter where to go, as long as you can leave as quickly as possible so as not to get trapped in a disintegrating country, a dream-crusher for an entire generation of young people who thought they could heal their parents' wounds and move forward but instead saw their lives wither away. Death still seemed metaphorical before August 4. It became literal after-wards. "I thought about leaving the country when I started to lose hope, especially with the spread of coronavirus. In my head, I was thinking of a place where I could open a restaurant like Mayrig," Ramy said. "Now I want to stay and help others. But then I'll have to pack up and leave. I don't want to stay in my country. It's over." Aline does not think about leaving. "Give up like that? There are 85 families who depend on Mayrig for their daily bread," she said. "I don't have the luxury or the right to give up."

(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 12th of August)

At 282 Pasteur Street, the elegant Ottoman-era mansion that houses the Mayrig Restaurant, the symbol of Armenian gastronomy in Beirut, is nothing more than a field of ruins that sadly face what is left of Wild Discovery travel agency. Next to it, Le Cyrano has died, and portraits of Rawan Misto, one of the café's employees, are displayed on what remains of the storefront. This young Syrian Kurd...