A Tribute to Beirut

I wasn’t too keen on going. I was doubtful I could get good pictures in what I assumed to be a dark and claustrophobic place. The plan was to rest for a couple of hours before getting to the location sometime after midnight. I agreed, of course – it’s my job. It was a travel assignment after all, and this was to be one of the places prominently featured in the article.

We entered this futuristic cathedral – this industrial temple of sound – lit only by pulsating red fluorescent lights hung horizontally from metal columns, like myriad crosses surrounding the crowd. The pouncing beat of the music enveloped me right away and reverberated within my body, as if the vibration was taking over my breathing, my heartbeat.

I was perched at the very front, on the stage, mere inches from the DJ. Yet part of me felt like I was down there with the crowd, dancing away. The rhythm and the lighting brought to the surface all these emotions I had been feeling the past few days. My only release was to take pictures, and I didn’t care if they were any good. Being there was cathartic.

It was 1:30 am on a Saturday night, at a nightclub called AHM.

Today, the buildings that housed AHM and other nightclubs are in ruins. They stood across a small bay from Beirut’s port, where on August 4 a huge blast destroyed everything within a six-mile radius. The shock wave was felt over a hundred miles away.

Back in the relative safety of my home in Los Angeles, I watched the news in complete disbelief. I saw the many pictures and mobile videos of the blast, how a small explosion quickly sparked a larger blast, sending a huge orange and black fireball up to the sky. Over 190 people dead, 6,000 injured, and billions of dollars in damage. Entire neighborhoods had been razed. Those who survived no longer had homes to return to.

How could something this terrible happen? My first thought was that it had to be intentional. If you followed the news, you realized it was more disturbing than that.

Years ago, a dilapidated ship docked in Beirut’s port, carrying very dangerous cargo destined elsewhere. After payment disputes for services rendered, the local authorities prohibited the ship from leaving. Eventually, the ship and its contents were abandoned. Fearing that the old ship could sink in the port with the cargo in it, the government offloaded the cargo and stored it in a warehouse nearby.

But this wasn’t just any cargo. It was ammonium nitrate, stored in flimsy bags alongside jugs of oil and kerosene, plus 15 tons of fireworks – all the ingredients needed to make a bomb. Many documented warnings of this imminent danger were repeatedly ignored. Instead, the people in charge passed off responsibility while stuffing their pockets with money. For decades, the port has been a den of negligence and corruption. Everybody involved makes a buck from bribes and kickbacks from cargo coming in and out of the port.

What happened in Beirut is the result of gross mismanagement of the port, and the government in general – a delusional belief by the country’s unqualified and unscrupulous leaders that one can make problems disappear simply by looking away. Yet, we know all too well that this is not a problem unique to Lebanon. As I was write these words, our own president is arguing in the news that he disagrees with science; therefore, science must be wrong. The topic: climate change and our West Coast in flames. Our fates are in our leaders’ hands.

While I was in Beirut for that travel assignment, I stayed at a charming old house not even a mile away from the port. It was a hip and thriving neighborhood, a marriage of Middle Eastern and European influences evident in its architecture, culture, and food. I walked around and photographed its people; but one of my favorite pastimes was going for a jog to the Corniche, the five-kilometer promenade along the water.

Traveling to a foreign city can be intimidating. After you’ve flown halfway across the world, jetlag takes over the first couple of days. Running, for me, is the antidote, my saving grace – the most effective way for me to regain my confidence and get my bearings. And as a photographer, I also find it’s a way to “scout” what I may eventually shoot, and get a taste of my new surroundings.

Before heading back to the house to freshen up, I would stop at a bohemian café nearby and have a cappuccino. I would sit down at one of their tiny tables on the street and watch the city wake up. I could overhear French spoken, and then Arabic in the next breath. It reminded me of a smaller version of a Parisian café, except more chill and less snobby.

Beirut was once known as the Paris of the Middle East, but that was decades ago, before a civil war erupted in 1975. I had first heard of it from my aunt, who used to live there with her French diplomat husband. I had been so curious about Lebanon since, but visiting was obviously not advisable due to the long-lasting unrest that afflicted it. When I finally did go there last fall, I was captivated by the city. It reminded me of my home, Lima, realizing that both places have suffered similar struggles: religious conflict, insurrection and terrorism, systemic corruption. Yet, both countries also have rich and diverse cultures in common. How perverse is it that our heritage is usually the product of one nation subjugating another?

In its 5,000-year history, Beirut has changed hands from the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Muslims, and the Ottomans. It was once part of Syria; then France took over until Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Today, Beirut is mostly made up of Muslim and Christian communities living in relatively peaceful coexistence – yet there are a total of 18 recognized religious groups in the city.

It was fascinating to experience this firsthand: My fixer, Rachel, and I casually strolled down a dense residential street, and suddenly she instructed me to put my camera down. The neighborhood was controlled by Hezbollah, and its inhabitants were not too keen on getting their picture taken. Down the next block, we met a group of friendly Korean exchange students, and I took their picture without a worry. Hunger struck, so Rachel took me to a bustling “fast food” restaurant that served spicy sausages on a French roll, a mouthwatering sandwich of Middle Eastern and European influences.

I checked in on Rachel the day after the blast. Thankfully, she and her family were safe, although she couldn’t say the same of her friends: Most of their homes were destroyed; some were hurt, while others were in shock or suffering from P.T.S.D. Rachel had been living outside of Beirut at the time of the accident, but when I chatted with her, she was back in the city cleaning up the streets and helping “as many people as we can, since the government took no action whatsoever.”

Before August 4, Beirut was a noisy, thriving city. It felt so youthful and progressive to me, despite being old. I read somewhere that the city has been completely destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times in its history. Beirut will rise again. And I can’t wait for these depraved old bastards – our incompetent stewards of the world – to die off, because this brand new day belongs to the youth.

A Tribute to Beirut