The Aug. 4, 2020, Beirut blast was really “the apocalypse and the death of the Lebanon that we once knew,” in the words of Lebanese journalist Dalal Mawad. For many people, there will always be a before and after Aug. 4.
Three years have passed and justice continues to elude us, with promised answers falling into the void.
Amid the lingering shadows, a ray of hope emerges. Beirut, renowned for its Art de Vivre, Art de Recevoir ("Art of living, art of entertaining") is slowly starting to regain its colors, with tourists and expats flocking to the city in droves. This revival is nurtured by the efforts of individuals, organizations and NGOs that have come together to support the city.
This year, at L’Orient Today, we have chosen to shed light on the journeys of those who stayed and fought back, each in their own way. In a series of six profiles, we share with you their stories, struggles and aspirations.
On Aug. 4, 2020, Omar Itani, co-founder and general manager of social enterprise FabricAID, went to Second Base, his newly-opened shop in Gemmayze, to meet store manager Sally Khadra.
As the first blast hit, Itani and Khadra were frightened but unharmed. They saw a huge mushroom cloud of black smoke rising from the port and assumed it was an airstrike. Yet, “everything was still intact,” says Itani. Their relief was cut short by the second, much larger explosion.
Itani was knocked unconscious, lying on the glass-covered floor with a collapsed ceiling on him. When he came to, he remembered “hearing the distant sound of [his] name, like Sally screaming ‘Omar, Omar.’ She couldn’t see [him] because the ceiling fell.”
Though injured, Itani worked to free himself from the debris and rushed to Khadra’s aid. “I remember hearing a lot of crushed glass, but, in a weird way, in me,” Itani recalled. “I don’t know how, but it felt like this glass was somewhere inside.”
He didn’t have any apparent injuries as he was wearing a red t-shirt. He told himself: “I'm capable of standing, hearing, seeing, talking, thinking. You’re good and you can walk.”
“Sally had a huge cut on her face, which looked really frightening, and her finger was partly detached, like 90 percent. So she needed to hold her finger for it not to fall. She was wearing a white dress which was now predominantly red,” Itani explained. Everything in the shop was destroyed.
A quick trip to Springfield with the Simpsons
As Khadra and Itani ventured outside the Gemmayzeh shop, they witnessed chaos.
Outside, “Sally ran. A lot of people were running around and I told myself, why would they want to run? Everybody who lived, lived by sheer coincidence. So who says if you run this way, you’ll live?” Itani said. “I was walking extra slow. Maybe because of the dark idea that I had in my mind. Maybe because I felt that we need to take whatever comes our way.”
An old lady called him from her balcony, asking for his and Khadra’s help. ‘Come up and help us! Come up and help us!’
She kindly asked them to help her 96-year-old husband who the explosion had thrown off the couch. “I kid you not, this is exactly what happened. The man didn’t have one scratch on his body” Itani said.
After he carried him back on the couch, the old man’s first reflex was to grab the newspaper. Itani was astonished.
“There is no house. Everything around him is destroyed. The window that was supposedly behind him flew against the glass display cabinet. I wanted to ask him, ‘What incident are you reading about in the newspaper that is more important that the incident that you are currently living through?’ ... I felt I was in an 3asfouriyeh [mental health institute].
“His wife looked at me and asked, ‘Do you want coffee?’ You don’t have a kitchen! Let’s say I want coffee, how do you want to prepare coffee? ‘No, thank you,’ I answered. ‘I don’t drink coffee.’ What was I supposed to tell her? An explosion happened. The young lady lost her finger? Glass ripped through her face? I am covered in blood, and I don’t know where I am bleeding from?
“I think I need to go to the hospital? Was I supposed to give her the logical explanation that justifies why I prefer not to drink coffee? Or, I am sorry but you don’t have gas? I simply chose to tell her I don’t drink coffee. And if I recall correctly, I think she asked: ‘Do you want tea instead?’
“We left the house, not understanding what was going on, laughing at what had just happened inside.”
Laughing against reality
Starting to comprehend the need to attend to their wounds, Khadra and Itani decided to go to the hospital.
Geitawi and St. George hospitals were saturated with wounded, so they made their way to Hazmieh’s Sacré Coeur Hospital, where their families met them. Itani was surprised by his brother and father’s reactions. “My dad is 140 kilograms, a super tall buff guy. My brother is 115 kilograms, 5 percent body fat. Super muscular. Apart from that day, I can't recall ever seeing my dad crying, or shedding a tear. He dropped on the floor and looked at me like a child.”
While waiting for their families to arrive, Itani and Khadra took a selfie.
“We played hide and seek. We drew on windows with blood. We played peek-a-boo, waving at passing cars. It only felt weird when I saw people’s reactions. I thought it would be funny and she thought it would be too. People looked at us and they were not laughing. People were shocked. They saw too many irregular things and this was an additional irregular thing: watching two young adults covered in blood fooling around.”
Sacré Coeur could provide no assistance, so they moved on to a hospital in Baabda. “I remember a nurse was asking: ‘A+ blood? A+ blood?’ I was like, ‘I am A+’,” Itani recalled.
The nurse took him in and was preparing him to donate blood. Then she looked at him, stupefied: “Are you messing around? You want to donate blood? You need blood yourself!”
Itani laughed. “I need blood? I don’t need blood.”
Khadra’s family brought both patients to their place. They needed to shower to find where the glass fragments were lodged. They hooked them up with a pharmacist that could remove the shards.
“It took her two hours to remove the glass from Sally’s body, and three hours from mine,” said Itani. Both were then taken to Mount Lebanon Hospital to suture the wounds. By that point, it was 1 a.m. “I had 140 stitches which I hadn’t felt. The suture operation took 2.5 hours,” recalled Itani, who reached home at 4 a.m.
When Itani woke up the next day, he felt a vivid urge to head to Gemmayze. His body was so heavily bandaged that he couldn’t wear a shirt. “Everyone, my mother, my family, my friends thought I was crazy.”
His colleague picked him up and drove him to Gemmayze. Itani believed “This was the smartest decision then.”
“If I hadn’t seen what I saw that day, I might have been depressed again. I went to Gemmayze and saw floods, a river of people. Those who were cleaning, those who were removing broken glass, those who were duct-taping windows. Thousands of people, even bigger than the crowd that fled Gemmayze. It felt so positive.”
Watching the collective efforts on the ground made Itani realize that the city is not its rock.
“The city is the people of the city who are still willing to fight and still willing to do something for the city. If those thousands of people, predominantly people my age and younger, decided not to give up on the city, why give up on the city? It’s still something worth fighting for.”
Witnessing the reality on the ground also made him realize that he was needed there and that, for him, “there's no better feeling than feeling that you’re needed.”
From that spark came FabricAID's humanitarian efforts, known as FabricRELIEF.
“The second day after the explosion, I was in the mountains with colleagues and we were making plans. The third day, there was a camp with a hundred people working in Gemmayze, a FabricAID camp. We stopped the company’s work for, I think, a month. We took off everybody. No stores were open. We set up a camp in partnership with UNICEF and another NGO, “Leb Relief.” We were distributing food, organizing hundreds of volunteers. We gathered tens of thousands of dollars from the company, from friends, from family. We started fixing houses.”
Post-explosion, Itani’s company received funds from Al-Fanar, a venture philanthropy fund that later became an investor in the company, to rebuild the Second Base shop in Gemmayzeh.
“They paid around $6,000 to renovate the new store,” Itani said.
Reopening Second Base “wasn’t a business decision, but a statement. ‘We are staying here.’ What are you going to do? Not only did we want to open in Gemmayze, but we sought to open on the same street.”
A ‘ridiculously resilient’ country
In the aftermath of the explosion, Itani, like many others, thought the event would bring down some politicians, as nothing worse could happen.
“We thought: After such an event, who would have the audacity to publicly claim that he follows this or that politician? It would be so absurd for someone to continue to follow any political party,” Itani said. “But practically, we were the absurd ones.”
He denounced the government’s incompetence and prolonged corruption. “They didn’t create the country, no matter how much nostalgia you have for them during the war. They are incompetent bastards. If a company is continuously failing, if the company accidentally blows up, do you think I will continue to be the CEO of the company? No. It was a no-brainer for us. We thought [the people] would remove them. I guess we were running on an adrenaline rush.”
“Given that situation, and having a country that has experienced the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever recorded, COVID-19, the extreme devaluation of the Lebanese currency, incredible social unrest, and still being able to host tourists, this is because it’s a resilient society and that’s reality.
“Do I think we are too resilient for our own good? I do.”
“I can see how we overplay our resilience. But there is no doubt at all that this country, this people, is ridiculous and resilient, maybe ridiculously resilient.”