Nineteen days ago, videos from Beirut, the capital city of Lebanon east of the Mediterranean Sea, flooded the internet. A blast of cataclysmic proportions had shaken the region, and alarm bells were ringing through the world. Though the headlines have passed, this explosion has had far-reaching consequences - because it is not a singular event, but a direct result of a negligent government in an unstable region. The fifth edition of the Akademi Mag’s Love, Pavemented Newsletter explores the history preceding this shocking tragedy, and the Lebanese people’s demands.
What happened on the 4th of August?
Lebanese authorities had been storing 2750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at the Port of Beirut for six years without proper safety measures. Unknown explosives in the building caught fire and detonated it, causing one of the most powerful explosions in history - initially recorded as a 4.5 local magnitude earthquake. Its impact was felt in Turkey, Syria, Israel, and Europe, and over half of the city of Beirut was destroyed. Protests and violent clashes erupted, demanding the corrupt and negligent government’s ousting. Less than a week later, the entire government of Lebanon resigned.
What had been happening in Lebanon before the blast?
Lebanon had been protesting an economic crisis for months prior to the blast. Though the Prime Minister, Hariri, resigned last October, citizens continued to hold demonstrations against the new Hezbollah-allied government, high taxation, more than 46% unemployment, national debt of more than $80 billion, a lack of access to 24-hour electricity since 1975, lack of water or sewage infrastructure, and rampant corruption. The Lebanese use the word thawra, which means revolution, to describe the protests of 2019 and 2020.
A civil war
From 1975 to 1990, Lebanon found itself in the middle of a civil war, with militias from different religious sects fighting for dominance. In 1989, the Taif Agreement was signed to form a sectarian political system - offices were proportionally reserved for representatives from certain religious communities, and militias became political parties.
This system is functional today, with 18 officially recognized religions. The Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker of Parliament a Shia Muslim, and the President a Maronite Christian, with Parliament seats being divided equally between Muslims and Christians.
We had discussed how Saudi and Iran engage in a ‘proxy war’ by funding opposite sides of conflicts in other countries in a previous edition. In Lebanon too, there have been two major parties: ex-PM Hariri backed by Saudi Arabia and the US, and Michel Aoun and Shia political group Hezbollah backed by Syria and Iran. Because of competing interests, the political system fails to uphold sectarianism. As is the case with most regions in the world, the greed for power outweighs the interests of citizens and makes way for the corruption and money-hoarding that has devastated the lives of the Lebanese.
A homage to Rene Magritte shot during Lebanon's October Revolution by Omar Sfeir.
Sfeir is a filmmaker and photographer whose work examines societal behaviours on a grand scale through the lens of political movements, uprisings and revolutions. The open-edition print is available to ship worldwide as part of For The Love of Beirut Print Sale with all proceeds going to the Lebanese Red Cross.
Courtesy of the Artist.
What does this mean?
The Beirut blasts have wrecked houses, hospitals, grain silos, and the city at large, many have died, and 300,000 people have been displaced. While the government’s negligence in terms of the storage of ammonium nitrate has angered citizens, their protests are an extension of many months of exasperation at its structural violence and legislated lack of accountability, only understood against the backdrop of Lebanon’s civil war, religious and political tensions, and history of oppression.
Citizens have been protesting for over a year, and continue to do so despite the pandemic, a national emergency, and suppression through state-sanctioned violence - for the sake of survival, and for a better future for the youth of Lebanon.
Young Beirutis and rescue workers have been picking rubble and remnants of debris off the streets this month - relying solely on international aid and community solidarity to clean up the messes their governments have made.
Want to know more?
Read about the August 2020 Beirut protests here.
Watch Al Jazeera’s video explaining the situation in Lebanon in 8 minutes here.
Watch TRT’s video: ‘Understanding Lebanon in 3 minutes’ here.
See this info-graphic on how the Beirut blast looks like compared to other accidental explosions and conventional weapons here.
Read this photo essay about the blast with photos by Myriam Boulos.
What's Happening in the World?
A lot has been happening in the world. Here’s some stuff worth knowing:
A military coup is underway in Mali — the President has been ousted from his ranks. Euronews
Belarus is witnessing mass protests against its President’s re-election, and this is being called the ‘Anti-Cockroach Revolution’. BBC
The Parliamentary Committee on IT has summoned Facebook India for a hearing on September 2 and will discuss the misuse of social media in the country. MediaNama
North Korea has been extending propaganda to the world through Youtube, via inauthentic presentations of citizens’ daily lives. Korea Times
The head of the WHO has said that the COVID-19 pandemic may be over in less than two years and that people will need re-vaccination at regular intervals. BBC
Did You Know?
Radium Girls work in a factory of the United States Radium Corporation circa 1922. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Source
During the first world war, working-class women were contracted to the US Radium Corporation to paint watch dials with radium. The radioactive element makes all things it touches luminescent, so at the end of their shifts, factory workers would be flushed with a soft glow too.
The ill-effects of radium were known at the time and male employees of radium companies wore lead aprons around it. However, the same companies funded research claiming that small amounts were good for health - and so the women, who were never provided protection, would paint their faces, nails, and teeth with it, and were instructed to create fine tips for brushes by shaping them with their lips.
Soon, they started losing teeth and developing ulcers. Their limbs ached, spines collapsed, brains haemorrhaged, and bodies grew abscesses and cancerous tumours. One doctor touched a woman’s jaw, and the thing came apart in his hands. Two years after the women started dying and speculations about radium were raised, the USRC falsified more research denying any link. Finally, after a male worker died, one Dr. Harrison Martland independently confirmed that they had all succumbed to radium poisoning.
A decade later, Grace Fryer, a ‘Radium Girl’, started an arduous fight against the corporations who were still employing dial painters. After significant legal challenges, she and four colleagues who had been given four months left to live found a lawyer to represent them. The companies, meanwhile, ramped up their efforts to lie and deceive. One more decade after that, Catherine Wolfe, also a Radium girl, provided evidence from her deathbed against doctors’ recommendations. She won justice. The OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration) guidelines were set up, and the women’s fight for the truth changed the way the United States looks at workers’ rights forever, bringing in reforms that save the lives of thousands every year.
If you want to dive deeper into this unique tragedy, here’s a free PDF of Kate Moore’s 500-page book ‘The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women’.
Digital Culture — A Gem from the Internet
Do you ever trawl the Internet in the middle of the night, starting from serial killer facts and going down a rabbit hole of link-clicks until it’s 3 am and you’re reading about animal intelligence? Kiwix is an app that allows you to download and store Wikipedia - all of it, or packets of stuff that interests you - on your phone, so that you can access articles offline anytime, anywhere. Their ‘Best of Wikipedia’ archives are curations of the website’s most interesting content. Read about it here, and download it for free on the Google Play Store or App Store.
Message to the Reader
Hatem Imam is a Beirut-based visual artist and the Creative Director of Studio Safar, a design and art direction agency. Studio Safar was destroyed in the blast. We reached out to Imam to understand - what is it about the blasts that we, sitting in India, need to know most pressingly? He said:
“It has been 16 days since the gargantuan explosion that effectively eradicated any semblance of normalcy, and with it any remnant of decency. The obscenity of the negligence of a state that knowingly stores 2,750 tons of highly explosive materials in its capital’s port is only multiplied by this state’s sickening lack of recourse in the aftermath of the almost-nuclear blast.
The supposed ‘leaders’ of the country hurriedly washed their hands of any responsibility, and are violently crushing the rightful outcry of the people demanding justice in the wake of over 200 killed, thousands injured and over 300,000 who lost their homes. We have but one message to communicate: Down with the Lebanese murderous regime.”
You can find Studio Safar’s work here and help them rebuild their studio. Imam is also the Editor-in-Chief of Journal Safar, a magazine providing insights on culture, politics, and social justice in the Middle East. Hear him and co-founder Maya Moumne talk about Journal Safar here.
What's Keeping Me Occupied
I’ve been fascinated by protest music for a long time, and wanted to search for perspectives from Beirut. Most weren’t accessible - YouTube accounts had long been terminated, and videos had been pulled down by authorities. Last night, however, I found ‘Beirut - Revolution Edit’ - a song of love and pain by Lebanese-French artist Dahlia on the Run. The video is a collection of clips from the 2019 Lebanese revolution, and her soft, acoustic song is a poem of gratitude for the young protesters she films and calls ‘all the souls of this beautiful thawra’.
The video reminded me that amidst politics and war, the youth of Beirut is as human as ever - laughing, rioting, kissing, singing, and hoping in unwavering solidarity for a better future.
"Yellow clouds coming through,
Memories of dust and powder
Hear the thunder, hear the rain
Washing the pieces of shell away"
I think you’ll like the music too; hear it here.