A month on from a blast that shocked the world, what next for Beirut? In a world exclusive, legendary Lebanese actress, director and activist Nadine Labaki reveals her heartbreak for her shattered nation.
We watched the shocking footage of the August 4th Beirut blast. An explosion in the city’s port destroying over half of Beirut. It’s a tragedy resulting in at least 190 dead, 6,500 injured and leaving Beirut on its knees. Spurred on by this seismic event, anti-government protesters gather daily on its devastated streets and in its famous Martyr’s Square.
The blast, believed to be caused by 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate which had been unsafely stored, has so far seen only twenty officials arrested. Allegations of mismanagement, regarding the substance’s storage, were an ongoing issue, more recently being voiced in October 2019 during sustained unrest over government corruption and economic hardship.
Nadine Labaki, one of Lebanon’s biggest stars and political activist talks to her friend and journalist Andrew Threlfall about the fallout. Labaki’s work covers a range of political issues such as war, poverty, and feminism. Her latest film, Capernaum won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and for her the accolade of first female Arab director to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Nadine, where were you when the Beirut blast happened?
‘Our house is in one of Beirut’s oldest districts called Achrafieh. My family was there for four months observing lockdown but we recently relocated some miles away. In horror I saw everything live on TV. I can’t imagine what would have happened if we had been home. All of our windows and doors in Achrafieh were blown out. It will be sometime before it’s habitable.
‘I feel so fortunate my two children didn’t witness the explosion firsthand. There isn’t one family in Beirut who doesn’t have a story of total devastation. The father of my son’s teacher died and I know many many people who are badly injured.’
How on earth did you react after witnessing such a shocking event?
‘I called many friends and every single one said, ‘It’s destroyed everything’. Only then did the magnitude of the explosion hit me. Up to half of the city is destroyed. Sitting in stunned silence, at first I thought it was a nuclear bomb. The devastation in my beautiful city is exactly like a nuclear bomb explosion. In fact, it’s happened 75 years to the week since the atomic bombings on Japan.’
With so much devastation everywhere, what images will you never forget?
‘Everywhere there were people covered in blood and dust. Emerging from buildings with blank eyes in total silence. There were very few cries, almost complete silence. It was very, very disturbing. People walking, just walking, walking nowhere. Numb. I felt like I was watching the walking dead.’
The Lebanese are famous for their resilience, but this feels like the final hammer blow. Do you feel the same?
‘We’re all traumatised one way or another. Many of us lived through wars and now this. I hate to say it but it almost feels like this was our destiny. The Lebanese are really tired. We want to live a normal life. It feels like a crime against humanity. If the world stays silent about what happened, it is collaborating with this crime. A crime committed by those who allowed the storage of dangerous materials. The world needs to keep being reminded of one fact. This is a man-made disaster. It is not a natural disaster. Direct negligence, corruption, stupidity and inefficiency made this happen. It’s a month after the Beirut blast and there’s still a sense we’ll wake up from this. That we dreamt it. For us in Beirut it feels surreal.’
How do you think this will affect the younger generation, the ones protesting against the corrupt political elite?
‘My heart breaks for the young. Especially when I see them in the street cleaning up the rubble day after day with no help from the government. They should be enjoying life, making plans and travelling. Instead they’re exposed to this total destruction. They’re picking up the remnants of broken houses and broken lives. Yet this injustice has also created an incredible feeling. There’s an urge to change the world and transform Lebanon’s reality. Also after all the supplies lost in the explosion, I truly believe sustainable home farming is one of the solutions.’
What lessons can we all learn from this terrible tragedy?
‘Everyone needs a mission in life. Mine drives me to make films to help change the system for the better. Society isn’t working anymore, none of it is working anymore. Our systems are failing, not just in the Lebanon but across the world. The concept of representation, the concept of borders, everything is so absurd. People who are not within the system are excluded and marginalised.’
Your film Capernaum highlights the plight of 1.5m Syrian refugees in Lebanon. You must take great joy from what happened to Zain Alrafeea, the refugee boy you plucked off the streets to be its star?
‘I knew Zain was smart and charismatic the first time I met him. I thought this child’s future cannot be growing up on the streets. He was special and I’m happy he is living in Norway speaking fluent Norwegian and English. When I first knew Zain he couldn’t write Arabic, now he’s texting me in Arabic. Zain has a great future.’
And how can we help rebuild Beirut’s future?
‘The only guarantee is to give money to the people on the ground working in the reconstruction. To the people who are feeding and sheltering the 300,000 new homeless.’