Dalal Mawad: The Port of Beirut Explosion Through Women's Eyes

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Jon Alterman: Dalal Mawad is an independent, award-winning Lebanese journalist based in Paris. She is the author of All She Lost: The Explosion in Lebanon, the Collapse of a Nation, and the Women Who Survive. Dalal, welcome to Babel.

Dalal Mawad: Thank you for having me, Jon.

Jon Alterman: So, tell us about the August 4th, 2020, Beirut port explosion that is at the center of your book.

Dalal Mawad: Well, this is a day that changed every Lebanese life forever. It changed my life. It's a gruesome and dreadful day that to this day, three years on, I hate to remember.

That day was just a normal August day in Lebanon, in the sense that we had already been reeling under an unprecedented economic crisis, there was COVID, just like anywhere else around the world.

I was working from home because I was a reporter for the Associated Press. And I always say that because of the pandemic and working from home, my life was saved because basically, our offices are in downtown Beirut. The next morning when I went there, there was no roof anymore above my desk.

I don't live in Beirut. As I describe in the book, I live on the outskirts. I did hear that explosion. So, to take you back, at about 6:05 PM, I remembered hearing this sound that was familiar; it sounded like Israeli jets. There were a lot of Israeli jets flying over Lebanon and Beirut that summer. It was like a "whoosh" sound. That's very, very familiar.

And then, all of a sudden, the loudest explosion I'd ever heard in my life. I'm 38 and I was born during the civil war. I have been through Israeli wars on Lebanon, bouts of violence, and political assassinations. I was in Beirut when Hariri was killed. So, it was like nothing I had heard before.

I thought there was an airstrike next to my house. That's what everyone thought. It was only many hours later that I realized that it was at the port of Beirut and, not until the next day when I drove very early to Beirut and by the port, that I realized the magnitude of the destruction and the devastation.

Jon Alterman: There had been a huge deposit of ammonium nitrate, which somehow caught on fire. People thought it was fireworks. Then suddenly, there was this massive explosion that killed almost 200 people and leveled large parts of downtown Beirut, and shattered windows throughout a large part of the city.

And yet, you write that this book is about women and for women. It doesn't really sound like a woman-oriented topic. What do you mean it's about women and for women?

Dalal Mawad: So, this is the story of the Beirut blasts and Lebanon's financial and economic collapse, and I would also say political collapse, but told through women's stories. When you read the book, it's all short women's stories. What brings them together is that they're all survivors of the August 4th explosion.

But really, their stories transcend that day. These stories come together to tell you what's happened in Lebanon in the past four years and also, the past few decades, because a lot of the women also took me back to the civil war.

I wanted, you know, this history to be told by women because women in Lebanon and the Arab world, and in most of the world, don't get to tell history from their perspective. They don't get to write history. History is not written from the perspective of women.

When I was reporting in Lebanon in my past decade or so reporting on the Middle East, women were the most powerful storytellers. No matter where I was, whether it's Iraq, or Syria, or Lebanon, and it's because they rarely have the platform to speak and to tell their stories. They rarely have that safe space, and this is what I wanted to give them. I wanted to give them a safe space where they would talk about their stories.

These are very, very personal stories with a lot of personal details. They encompass, as you have probably witnessed reading this, a lot of women-related themes. None of it was on purpose. It all came out naturally. When I was discussing the Beirut explosion and Lebanon's collapse with these women, they started talking about domestic violence, about unfair laws that discriminated against them, the burden of the economic crisis on them, custody issues, et cetera. So, this book also tells you about the condition of women in Lebanon's modern history.

Jon Alterman: I was really struck by more than one passage but read this one. You said, "I had a privileged life growing up there. On the other hand, I was also in an abusive relationship with my country that was hard to break away from." I've never heard of somebody talking about being in an abusive relationship with one's homeland, and I'm wondering how you came to think of it that way.

Dalal Mawad: It really is that because when you think of it, you love your homeland, you love your country so much and you fight for it because you love it so much. But you feel like you give Lebanon so much throughout your life, whether on a personal basis or through a career, having to fight so many fights on a daily basis. And it doesn't give you much in return.

Not only that, it takes away so much from you. It takes away your freedom, it takes away your sense of security, it takes away your rights as a citizen, as women. It takes away people you love, it takes away your sense of stability, your ability to plan anything. It's not easy living in Lebanon. And yes, it is abusive because you know that this is not a normal life when you're there. You know that you can get so much more living abroad, in terms of rights, and quality of life, and stability, and security. And you don't have that.

And yet, you're attached. You love your country, and it's not easy to detach. And to this day, although I've left Lebanon and I'm living abroad, I would say that this relationship is kind of still there. I didn't break free completely. I still go back, and it's very disturbing because you go back, and a lot of Lebanese say you don't identify anymore with the country and how it is.

But then abroad, you also don't feel like you identify. I feel like my sense of home is lost. I don't know where home is anymore. And my identity is made of these different places and these different experiences. It's not one place; it's not one home, and it's just not easy. It's not easy having to leave. I know it was a personal choice to leave, and a lot of Lebanese decided to leave in the past few years. We're talking about the fifth mass wave of migration out of Lebanon.

But we feel like we've been forced, as if we had no choice because of that daily abuse. You don't have any dignity living there. You have no rights. You don't know when you will die. I was privileged, you know, economically and even socially. But still, I was lacking a lot of rights as a woman and as a citizen. And that's abuse to me.

Jon Alterman: Let me ask what may be a hard question. You moved to Paris shortly after the Beirut port explosion. Do you consider yourself to be in exile?

Dalal Mawad: I have been attacked for using that word and saying, "Oh, are you going to say next you're a refugee?" I'm far from that, of course, but as I said, I feel like I was forced to leave because I had no choice.

I have a daughter who was four, and I thought, “Oh, my God. I managed to give her the trauma that I’ve inherited from my parents and my grandparents living in Lebanon and the Middle East. I’ve managed to have her be part of these cycles of violence, endless cycles of violence, so I need to break that and to get out.”

If I had stayed there, I couldn’t protect my daughter. There are stories in this book of mothers who tried to protect their children during the civil war and then they ended up dying on August 4th. You feel like you can't protect your children.

If something happens to them—I know that something might happen here, but then there is justice. There is accountability. In Lebanon, you just die and literally no one cares. Look at the families of the victims of the Beirut explosion. Three years on, the local investigation's going nowhere. No one has been held accountable.

So, I feel like I was forced to flee because I couldn't bear the responsibility of something happening one day to my child. I didn't want to, as I said earlier, to go through these cycles of violence again and again. I had to break that cycle. And the only way to break it is to leave and to get out of Lebanon and the Middle East.

Jon Alterman: Yet, your husband remains in Lebanon? You bring your daughter to Lebanon for summers to acculturate. She also, it sounds like, is feeling torn between.

Dalal Mawad: Yes, unfortunately. Although she's very young, it's because our family had to be torn apart. My husband had to stay behind because he has a company there. We couldn't afford both of us moving here, starting from scratch.

It goes back to this conflicted relationship that I have with Lebanon, that I want her to have a Lebanese identity. I want her to go back and to know her origins and her roots and to spend summers there and to see my parents who are still there. Lebanon is part of her identity and will always be, and I don't want to deny that.

But I also had to bring her here to protect her. I was just thinking today, I'm glad she's here. She's going to school. She doesn't have to worry about maybe war happening tomorrow. Now with what's going on in Israel, with the shelling in the south of Lebanon, we don't know if we'll be dragged into another war.

I don't want my kid to have to worry about that. I had to go through this, and most Lebanese of my generation had to go through this, and I don't want to anymore.

Jon Alterman: You quote a woman in the book saying, “It's too late for me. I have no time left to wait. I cannot give anymore. I need to take. I gave everything I had. Now, I am tired, and I need people to look after me and help me. If Lebanon were to speak, I thought to myself, it would utter similar words." Do you see that as a particularly feminine sentiment?

Dalal Mawad: It is feminine and it is not. I think this is how the Lebanese feel. This is a quote from a woman who is 86-years-old at the end of the book and who has lived through the glorious days of Lebanon, all the way to its demise.

And she was telling me how, as an 86-year-old with no pension fund, with no support, having lost her savings in the banks just like all Lebanese, she was really struggling. When I heard her say that, I felt like this could totally be something that every Lebanese would say, but also that Lebanon would be saying as a country.

It's a country that's drained. It's unable to stand on its feet today, and no one is helping Lebanon. Its politicians are not doing anything. The international community has turned a blind eye, for various reasons. One of them is the political class, but then, you don't understand because they still deal with them and want them to be there.

This is very much the state of Lebanon today and the time that we're wasting since 2019, since the financial crisis started. And the ongoing political vacuum that's ongoing is just making things worse and making Lebanon more vulnerable every day. To me, it's a failed state; some people say it's not there yet. To me, Lebanon is a failed state today, and I don't know if it's reached the bottom of the abyss. It seems to me that abyss is bottomless.

A lot of people who witnessed and survived the civil war, and a lot of these women in the book, they talk about it, have never seen Lebanon the way it is today. Things are very bad and, including the explosion, it's like nothing they had seen during the civil war.

Jon Alterman: You talk about how the explosion and this aftermath was an inflection point for you and for your relationship with Lebanon. Looking back, do you think the country had an inflection point? Was it the civil war, was it before the civil war? I mean, you recount a whole series of missteps the country has fallen into.

Dalal Mawad: I don't know if it's an inflection point, but the Beirut blast is definitely a turning point in Lebanon's history. For a lot of Lebanese, there's a before and after August 4th.

A lot of Lebanese lost a lot on that day. When I say "they lost a lot," I don't just mean physically. A lot of people lost loved ones, they lost their homes, and they were injured. There's a sense of safety and security. There is a sense of belonging that is completely gone. I think that that day changed the pace of Beirut, and as I said, changed our lives.

I would say the civil war has played a big role, of course. I mean, starting in '75, Lebanon looked very different from what it was in the so-called glorious days of the '50s and the '60s. Although, as I mentioned in the book, the '50s and the '60s were not as perfect as people thought they were.

I think Lebanon's history was affected like a lot of Arab countries by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. A lot of what happened later was related to that conflict and still is to this day. I think that's an inflection point in our history. But definitely, the civil war was also like a turning point and a change of the country. In my personal opinion, the civil war never ended and there was just like, a truce.

On the ground, the grievances are still there. The issues are still there. It's the politicians who gave themselves amnesty and reconciled, but people never really reconciled. The fact that we're not over the civil war is very clear in my book because when I went and met these women to talk about the Beirut blast, many of them just wanted to talk about the civil war, and they took me back to that. This is where you see that people have not healed, they have not made peace with those years and with the violence during the war.

Jon Alterman: Remarkably, you write that Lebanon's history books end in 1943, and haven't been updated. I mean, that must have a profound impact just on how people understand their role in the country.

Dalal Mawad: Yes, it has an impact on how you understand your history, how you understand your identity, your place in the country and in the region. You have many generations who were not educated or were educated on what happened during the civil war but by hearing stories from their parents or from movies or reading books that were not necessarily balanced. There was never any work done on collective memoir after the civil war.

This is why I wanted to write this book, because it's one way of documenting what happened on August 4th and the past four years because the financial crisis is also a crime, in my opinion. Documenting that from the perspective of ordinary citizens, in this case, women is important because not enough documentation was done during and after the civil war. It's still, to this day, told from the perspective of politicians and political parties, winners and men, you know, experts and historians who have their biases.

If you don't understand your history well, you can't have a future. It's as simple as that. And this is why we're still stumbling, and things have not moved forward because we never really understood what happened or reconciled with that.

Jon Alterman: In terms of the reporting and the historical record you're contributing to, there are a lot of very graphic scenes in your book that must have been very hard to report on and listen to. Did you have any kind of preparation for that kind of work?

Dalal Mawad: I have covered conflicts. I've covered survivors of violence and gender-based violence and sexual violence. I had some kind of training.

But the Beirut blast was something that I was never prepared for. I always say it's the hardest assignment I've ever done as a journalist because it felt so personal. I could not keep the distance with the story that I usually keep with other stories that I report on. That's how Lebanon felt the past four years. I also wanted to leave because I'd be working on a story that was too emotional and it felt too personal because the whole situation was affecting me. It was affecting my family, people that I loved, whether it's the financial crisis or the Beirut explosion.

So, it was hard. It was very hard to report on that. Sitting with these women for very long hours, many days, did get to me, of course. I was never prepared for that. I was never prepared for what I reported on during the explosion and the aftermath. You are never prepared for such things. You just learn how to cope.

Jon Alterman: So, as you say, some of what you're reporting on is universal, things you have seen in other parts of your world, perhaps other parts of the world. What parts of this story do you think are very unique to Lebanon?

Dalal Mawad: That's a tough question, because sectarianism reverberates in other countries. Women's rights are the same, I would say. I've seen that in other Arab countries. I had this conversation with my editor about whether this was very Lebanon–specific or something that you would see in other countries, including Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

A lot of it is common to the Arab world, unfortunately, where there is impunity and a lack of justice and accountability. This is our main problem. In Lebanon, no one really has ever been held accountable in terms of senior officials or politicians for crimes they've committed, and I don't know if that's the case in other Arab countries. I know there's prevalent impunity in many Arab countries.

But it seems to me like, in Lebanon really, there's no sense of justice at all. I can barely name a politician who's gone to jail. There was one after the civil war and it was for political reasons, but I can’t think of major trials or anyone apologizing or being held accountable. Yeah, I can't. That, to me, is what's most striking about Lebanon and our history, is this impunity and lack of justice, which means that history just repeats itself again and again.

Jon Alterman: Dalal Mawad is the author of All She Lost: The Explosion in Lebanon, the Collapse of a Nation, and the Women Who Survive. Dalal, thank you for joining us on Babel.

Dalal Mawad: Thank you, Jon.