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The life and longing of the Lebanese diaspora: a photo essay by Dayna Ash and Lilian Mauthofer

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Beirut

The borders of our minds do not find the same lines as those marked by the hands of man. The same hands—regardless of the many men that had held them—detonated the blast that tore into our being and reverberated beyond 6:08 p.m.; finding its way into our endless day. Regardless of our position on this planet, where we reside, our hearts sting and palpate with each drop of blood our soil sheds.

Dayna Ash is a cultural and social activist, playwright, performance poet, and the Founder and Executive Director of the non-profit arts organization Haven for Artists, based in Beirut, Lebanon.
“What I do stems very deeply from who I am, therefore I cannot see myself doing anything else. I am a woman and a writer. I am an Arab and I am queer. I was raised in the West and the East. I am not simply an activist, I am whatever my city, my community, my gender, my fellow sisters and brothers require.”

The Beirut Blast on 4 August 2020 exists now and here, it exists in Berlin, in Geneva, in New York, in the hearts, minds, and collective trauma of all those whose lives were magnificently or barely touched by the city that embodies both our woes and ambitions. We cannot gauge the impact as our trauma lays bare the corruption of decades that led so many to flee the country they have yet to disconnect from. How can it be an easy feat, forgetting the home you loved only so that you may have a home that offers you shelter from the storm.

We trade love for safety, we trade family for stability, we trade friends for electricity, we trade sadness for signs of possibility, we trade and trade, when nothing is offered but everything is taken.

The grief comes in shades of red, white, green, and indifference.

While some of us wept, many others chose silence, many more had no choice, all of which breathing only to avoid the inevitable, to avoid the dread, the repetition and eventuality of leaving and returning, always heavyhearted and emptyhanded.

We are not comfortable here nor there, we are neither here nor there. We are tethering above the reality of our everyday and the real-time of another place. We sleep, not all at once. We sing only when alone. We are those that have no allegiance to one place but have placed many hands upon our heart.

Lilian Mauthofer currently lives and works in Berlin. Besides her work as a political scientist, the world of photography as a representation of the current zeitgeist has always been important to her. Through her images, she reflects on questions of self and other, social justice and empowerment.

I was in Beirut on that day, on most days in which a crisis had happened, I was in Beirut. It marks the last 15 years of my life.

Beirut.

You didn’t always have to be here to be beaten, hurt, stung and scorched.

It found its way to you. Regardless of how hard you hid, or how much of yourself you gave or how much of it they took.

Waking up and realizing the streets you once loitered had been undone, you had left them safe somehow, you had left them for safety. But there were no more streets, there were only memories, and only you could access them. Only you could pull them one by one by the thinning thread. Only you could remember what they had strived to forget, to erase, to expunge.

The guilt then overwhelms the senses and drowns out the days to come, encapsulating it in the days that had passed.

You still have a deadline.

The world moves on.

But not on those streets,

Those streets have come undone.

Words: Dayna Ash – Photos: Lilian Mauthofer
If you are interested in using the images or texts, please contact the two artists with a description of the purpose at: berbei@posteo.de.

Cynthia

Living abroad entails an endless array of questions. How is it there? Who was I there? How can my city survive? I am constantly telling strangers that there are no massacres, that it ended with the civil war in 1990. Sadly, there is nothing in Lebanon, nothing ever happens in Lebanon, it’s a cold war, a silent and deafening war. So, we wait to reconnect to the soil that we had left with nothing happening. Maybe when something happens, something will change. The bomb altered that discourse for me, something happened and nothing changed afterwards. No accountability, no relief, just more reason to disconnect, to feel betrayed. To move on as we wait, once more, for something to happen so that something can change.

Amal

Amal

We saw the fire in real time, but being a journalist is a double-edged sword.

Sirens sounding in Berlin teleported me to the streets of Beirut; driving to work, I broke down thinking that the sirens were meant to clear the road for those that survived the port blast.

Other than reporting our truth and our reality on the streets of our city, I organized fundraising events, and did what I could to highlight the corruption of Lebanese officials to divert into the hands of grassroot initiatives. I was able to somehow separate my work from my emotions and use it as a method to cope with the reality of the situation. My people are suffering and I had to do what I could to help them be heard. I don’t only feel guilty for not having experienced the blast, since the guilt existed far before 4 August. I felt guilt for having electricity, I feel guilty for running water, I felt guilty for having a job, I feel guilty for affording to buy things that most cannot. We never left by choice, we are migrants all of us, none of us are expats. We’re all seeking safety, refugee, although it might seem otherwise.

Abir

I am completely removed. As if I am far from my heart while it beats in unison with the emotions I haven’t felt. I have to force myself to comprehend the emotions that I have not really felt but know for a fact, exist, somehow. Guilt is persistent, should we have been there? I am safe therefore, I must hold on longer to the pain, because I know, those I love, cannot yet feel relief. Distance and survivors’ guilt intertwine to engulf what little I could understand. I wished I was there, and that my things were disfigured like the memories I had carried with me to new continents. They took everything from us before, forcing us to leave so that we may live and now they’ve taken the familiar. They’ve taken away the solace we found regardless of distance, the solace we found in the spaces we left behind. But the spaces are gone now. Nothing happened to me, but it happened to everything and everyone that I know. Conflict and dichotomies embolden my thoughts, I am afraid to go back but I must go and contribute. I used to miss people and places, but there is now a void in the space, my longing used to reside.

Maria

Maria

I’ve always wanted to leave—like many of us in the art field—to explore and experience new worlds and perspectives, territories and culture. I wanted to taste other flavours, but Beirut always inspired me, especially in the last years. For years, I kept postponing my departure, growing with the wave yet fully being aware of the bubble filling and about to pop. I took this opportunity although I felt like a fugitive. We gave endless chances, like a gush of hope it washes over us until we couldn’t see for a few moments, but the space always cleared and we would see the reality. One step forward and a thousand steps back; it was exhausting. I finally took the plunge and left; anything would be better than losing another ten years as I waited for some form of change. But leaving Beirut was a violent removal, it was abrupt. I had no choice. I was held back at the airport, as if my Lebanese passport didn’t actually matter to Lebanese authorities. Had it not been for my Canadian passport, they wouldn’t have allowed me to leave and to this day, I do not know why. Even as I was leaving Lebanon, it caused me heartache, but I made it. It’s sad and frustrating but I will return, and I will leave again.

Beirut

Nancy

Insomnia creeps into my bed when I need it least. It is 7:40 a.m., I head to a shoot I was assisting on. I still find myself trenched in vivid nightmares, ones that haven’t left my resting eyes since my last time to Beirut, right after the explosion. I cannot seem to detach; I cannot seem to disconnect. I shower and vomit my anxieties, pulling myself together and head to the location. We were shooting below the calm sunny lake. The stillness of the water and the anxiety I felt contradicted one another throughout the day as I tried to convince myself that I am deserving of safety, a “privilege” to me and a right for others.

Beirut

Henri

I looked forward to 5 August for over a year and a half, having applied for a visa to move to Germany—it was always the plan—to travel and produce my art. Eighteen months of anxiety eating away at my mornings and nights but I waited, patiently.

4 August ripped into our hope, shredding it senselessly.

Life will happen, we have no control and no true exertion of power. There was nothing anyone could do but relinquish their grip, the sense of helplessness was the only method to finally feeling free. All those things that once mattered, disintegrated on 4 August 2020. We all almost died, many did, and many more were injured. I cleaned the streets and plucked pieces of glass out of our ambitions and homes, nonetheless.

Two weeks later, the visa finally came. In reality, I left, but I didn’t truly get to escape Beirut. Although it was always difficult for me to see it as my home after 4 August, it became harder to see it at all.

Beirut

“Longing is the absent chatting with the absent. The distant turning toward the distant. Longing is the spring’s thirst for the jar-carrying women, and vice versa. Longing allows distance to recede as if looking forward, although it may be called hope, were an adventure and a poetic notion. The present tense is hesitant and perplexed, the past tense hangs from a cypress tree standing on its rooted leg behind a hill, enveloped in its dark green, listening intently to one sound only: the sound of the wind. Longing is the sound of the wind.”

 ― Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence

Bachar on Abir

Given the situation here in Lebanon, I am glad she is in Berlin. Although Abir’s absence is difficult, and we miss her as a family, especially being that she and I are very close, we are glad that she is safe and able to develop her career. 

She isn’t hindered by the political and economic crisis that has turned most of those that have stayed behind into hostages. Abir, the activist, is necessary abroad as she raises her voice to raise awareness, to raise funds, and to support us; whether she is utilizing her network in Europe as a whole or Germany in particular.

Being that the system we are fighting is similar to the Loch Ness Monster that controls everything on the inside. It’s easier for them to oppress the activists here, unlike the voices that are raised outside the borders of their reach. With continued pressure both from within and around, maybe Abir can realize her dream of a just and free Lebanon.

Carole on Henri

In reality, we live in the absence of two children, Henri and his sister, Chloe, both live abroad. What drove Chloe to leave is not the same as the reason that drove Henri. He couldn’t stand the endlessness of tedious anxiety, whether it be the driving, to people’s behaviour, to the lack of employment opportunities. What has aided me to overcome the absence might be the belief that the world is small. 

My missing them is equivalent to my happiness for them, since they are happier and far more comfortable there than they would be here. They were raised with autonomy, open dialogue, and communication, therefore it was always my urge for them to spread their wings and soar. 

I find such joy in seeing them happy. They might love Lebanon, but the reality refutes them the space they need to remain here.

Beirut

Joe on Cynthia

She doesn’t have a future here, so I would rather be without her so that she thrives rather than keep her with me where she would only survive. I watched the port from my balcony, the same way she and I had watched Israel bomb the electrical company in Bsalim. I told her what was about to happen then, as we watched the helicopters hover before they dropped the bomb.

On 4 August, I sent her a video of the port after the furniture flew off of the balcony. In Lebanon, we have proven that reincarnation exists, because we continuously repeat ourselves, many times within one life cycle. I have seen blasts, bombs, wars, and assassinations with the same names in newspapers over and over again. As I wish for Cynthia to thrive, I wish the same for Lebanon. 

Ziad on Nancy

There is something about the void and the colour black. The stranger coincidence is that I know Nancy always wears black, while the space of the theatre resembles the remains of the city after the explosion, draped in black. I’m speaking about the material, the physical, the sound, and the reminisce of the blast in Beirut. The theatre and space reflect the remnants of the three seconds after the explosion when those who survived stared into each other’s eyes, silently and in shock. I saw Nancy recently as she visited Beirut, where we both laminated on the feeling of embarrassment, somehow, being that the explosion felt like an invasion into our sanctified safe spaces, and homes. The explosion created trauma, and affected our state of being, and our state of non-being as it touched all aspects of our lives, minds, and bodies. 

I occasionally am thankful that I was here to experience the Blast, although the feeling seems awkward to have, it’s a reflection after seeing all those that weren’t here cope with the crippling sensation of guilt. Although I was injured and have two large scars on my back to remind me of it, I am grateful. The scars aptly resemble the clipped wings of an angel.

 

Beirut

Dayna

Dayna

I will lose you now as I did then, only to find you and let you go again. Goodbye Beirut.

About Us

Beirut, September 2020
Beirut, September 2020

“We met in Beirut, and much of ourselves remains there. Most of our conversations happened on the street that no longer exists, where the stores no longer resemble the memory and the heaviness now tarnishes recollections of happiness.”

Dayna Ash and Lilian Mauthofer