A Letter from Beirut
by Lina Mounzer.
The man who sets up the bomb is long gone before it goes off.
It is a standard, 50kg TNT explosive, fitting neatly into the trunk of a car. If the car is heavy enough – a 1982 Mercedes, blue-green, say, like this one – the slight heaviness of the back will not be visible to the naked eye. The components are easily available to one who knows the right people, and he would have known all the right people. Some things bought off the black market, some things from a mechanic he knows somewhere or, better yet, from an electrical store, where he doesn’t have to talk to the owner as he assembles all the necessary wiring.
He has his own trajectory of what brought him there. He is just a part of the larger machine, like the fuse, or the timer. The living part of the bomb, but just a part nevertheless. If it were not him that night, wearing his father’s old sweater and a baseball cap he stole from a dead American Marine, it would have been someone else. Any number of slouched, nameless boys driving that Mercedes and leaving it parked on a residential street on the last day of winter.
I am more interested in what happens afterwards.
The bomb goes off at 6:03pm on a Monday night in March 1984, on a street in Haret Hreik, in West Beirut.
There are exactly 192 casualties, of which 63 die. Fifty four instantly, the other nine of complications on the way to or at the hospital. I think often about those two words: casualties and complications. The first is so flippant – it can’t help but bring to mind a whole host of other associations: casual dress, casual shoes, casual atmosphere. Two letters away from instructions to keep it simple, uncomplicated. The other, which starts off far less serious (for after all, in a situation like this, wounded means hope, means a chance of survival), soon finds itself up against obstacles that bar its way forward. Obstacles like a blood clot, say, or irreversible brain damage, or a microscopic tear in the tight cellular structure of an internal organ that bleeds its way into the body and eventually stops the heart.
The heart. The biggest complication of all.
There are other wounded who die years later, like the man who survives the initial blast, but whose legs are left behind in the rubble. But he doesn’t count. Initially, he qualifies as a survivor. A survivor: someone whose very effortless, instinctive act of breathing and functioning is elevated to a status, a badge of abiding sustenance. You are no longer merely living. You have lived through something, and that notion of being a survivor will always remind you that your life is now clustered in some quantum way around one single moment in time, one particular episode in history, that defines everything fundamental about you from that time onwards. Whatever it does to your life afterwards, you don’t count as a casualty unless you die as a direct result of shrapnel or falling rubble.
But what counts as shrapnel, for someone such as me, tracing the trajectory of this bomb throughout the years? How do you measure the resonance of a bomb?
With a detonation of 50kg of TNT, glass can shatter up to three blocks away from the initial site. Or, to put it in more technical terms: the major damage is incurred in the nucleus of the blast site, with damage growing exponentially less pronounced with every concentric ripple of the radius, limited to pounds per square inch times weight squared by mass over distance times Pi. But the resonance of bombs has a tricky way of escaping math equations and reverberating into people’s lives in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Two blocks away from the bomb site, a mother is putting her ten-month old son to bed when the bomb explodes. Neither of them is hurt, but the shock of the sound causes the child to shit his diaper and he screams wildly into the evening, inconsolable. Forever afterwards, he will flinch whenever he hears any loud noise – a door slamming, glass breaking, thunder, fireworks. In fact, he has a terrible anxiety about fireworks, and on New Years Eve in 2000, when the city ushers in a new millennium with twelve tons of colourful explosives, he will unexpectedly shit his pants again, earning him the ridicule of all his friends and turning away from him the girl he has been waiting all year to kiss.
Three blocks away from the bomb site, a teenage girl is masturbating for the first time when it goes off. In fact, it goes off the very second she gets off. From then on, nothing will make her come quite like the combination of electric fright and lust she feels at that moment. This will drive her to trying to recreate a scenario in which she can experience true mortal terror at the moment of orgasm, which will eventually lead to her accidental death at a hotel in London in 2007, under circumstances mostly inexplicable to the cops who arrive on the scene.
You could call all of these casualties of the war. What happens after the bomb goes off: this is what I am interested in. What happens to the uncounted, the ones who don’t end up in the newspaper as names reduced to statistics.
This is the story of one explosion. It could have been any one of them. I’ve tried to write about the war a lot, to reconstruct it for myself. The only place to start is with one explosion. To trace its shrapnel through the years. Anything bigger is too much. Anything bigger threatens to overwhelm.
What we all had in common was one explosion. It could have been one of many but I like to think it was this one: the same one. There’s a nice narrative cohesion in that, and it appeals to me. Because, really, there is no way to make sense of the war, of what happened. But there are physics and mechanics to an explosion. An arc of destruction. And then the inevitable reconstruction.
What is left behind in the rubble of the past? That is the most unknowable thing. So know this, then: two minutes before the bomb goes off, a boy falls off a wall on the other end of West Beirut. Two hours after it goes off, a father slams his glass down and makes a final decision. And in the instant it goes off, one man’s career is made, but his life is destroyed in the process. These are the stories I am interested in, from this one bomb.
The first cannot possibly imagine that the bomb will eventually kill him. The second thinks he is doing his best because he has no other choice. And the third, well, the third is the most difficult of all. Maybe because he will be the one who brings them all back together in the end.
One bomb out of 3,641 detonated over fifteen years of civil war. I am counting here only the car bombs – no bullets, no RPGs, no landmines, no experimental explosives dropped from fighter jets. After all, there must be some method to scientific research.
Three lives then, and how they spark forward in time from that singular moment. Resonance. That’s what you actually hear, if you survive an explosion. Not the blast itself. Now listen. It’s about to go off in the distance of the past.
Lina Mounzer is a writer and cultural critic based in Beirut. She is a regular contributor to Bidoun, and her work has also appeared in the Goldfish Anthology.