The wretchedness of their plight and their growing anger raises a question: are the Lebanese really as stoic as is always claimed?
Is there a point at which the famous resilience snaps?
Is this, the massive blast that shook Beirut, the moment their resilience snaps? Or has it already happened?
On August 3, the day before the Beirut blast, Lebanese writer and translator Lina Mounzer suggested that her people’s reputation for resilience was a “myth”.
Her op-ed in The New York Times detailed the “outsize list of challenges” faced by the Lebanese over the years. It includes, Ms Mounzer said, “a 15-year civil war, political tensions with Syria, wars with Israel and a collapsing public service infrastructure.”
Through everything, she noted, the Lebanese are said to “know how to dance while the bullets fly, how to repurpose even war bunkers into nightclubs, how to find a way around every shortage, because the Lebanese are resourceful and resilient”.
But in actual fact, she said, “there is nothing truly resilient about Lebanon except its politicians and ancient warlords, who refuse to step down, even after their profiteering has bankrupted the country and its people”.
Will the blast, which has drawn comparisons to a nuclear explosion because of its force, intensity, unnatural colours and mushroom cloud, prompt a further, more urgent re-examination of the Lebanese people’s fabled resilience?
Watch this video of a Beirut house, tweeted by a journalist who once lived there. It was sent, she said, by her former landlady. It’s hard not to be shocked and saddened by the damage to this middle-class home. Others are uninhabitable. The very poorest have nothing. One has to wonder how the people of Beirut will rebuild – both their shattered houses and their lives – when money and resources are scarce and there is little institutional help to be had.
Perhaps the Lebanese will start by insisting on accountability from here on in.
Perhaps they will demand the answers to key questions. For instance, why were 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate – more than 1,100 times what was used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – stored without proper precautions near a densely populated area in Beirut and next to the wheat silos that feed the city? Why was the combustible material stored there for six years?
The mass protests against corruption, which erupted in Lebanon in October, were a sign that people were tired of appearing resilient in the face of successive governments’ negligence and lack of transparency. The protests showed that people wanted accountability and an action plan for effective and caring governance.
The explosion will exacerbate Lebanon’s economic crises, the people’s misery and presumably, their anger against the system.
Rather than resilience, the Lebanese may now, quite reasonably, try cold rage to force change.