When the Healing Place Exploded



These are the messages my brother-in-law, Rami, sent on the family Whatsapp group between 6:08 p.m. and 6:09 p.m. Beirut time, right after a massive explosion shook the city on August 4. The typed messages were followed by a voice note from him, “There’s an infijar, or Israel bombed, I don’t know, but I’m good.”

In his voice, the trembling of shock but also the attempt to stay composed and immediately reassure loved ones, because this is what we’ve learned.

Rami is a second-year family medicine resident at Saint George Hospital University Medical Center, known as Roum hospital. He’s the only one among his siblings who still lives in Lebanon; the rest, two sisters and a brother, have left to Qatar, the US, and Dubai (where we live). His apartment is right across from the hospital, in an area heavily affected by the explosion because of its proximity to the port. The closer you were to the sea that day, the worse the damage.

Rami was on the balcony when he heard the first boom, and he took out his phone to start filming the thick smoke rising from the port. He thought it was either an assassination or a bombing, he tells me, almost casually, because this is what we’ve learned, too. His first reaction was anger: the country couldn’t handle more catastrophes, this was not the time.

In Arabic, we have an expression that goes ما ناقصنا, which would literally translate as “we don’t lack this,” as in “we have enough going on right now.” And we did. Those who had life savings in the bank haven’t been able to access them for months; the Lebanese lira was devalued by eighty percent; a full-on economic crisis had been utterly devastating for many; protesters were showered with teargas, injured or killed; those of us outside the country were glued to the news and worried about our parents who joked about no longer being able to afford meat or chocolate, and all this in the middle of a global pandemic and some speculation that Israel might attack this summer, as it had in 2006. So no, we weren’t disaster-lacking. ما ناقصنا .

Upon hearing a sound overhead, Rami started rushing inside, assuming it was indeed an Israeli bombing. He tells me that amid the fear, right before the blast, his mind was ordering him to close the balcony glass so the apartment wouldn’t get dusty, and at the same time to stay away from the glass so he wouldn’t get hurt. “It was like I had my mother and my aunt’s voices inside my head. One was worried about the dust, and the other warning me about the glass.” This, too, is what we’ve learned: to pass on traumas disguised as little peculiarities from one generation to the other.

First extremely loud thunder, then the air sucked out of the room, “as if vacuumed,” then the impossibility of breath, then the blast. He felt as if he were inside a hurricane, with glass falling around him. He looked at his hands and feet: bloodied, but there. This, too, is what we’ve learned: to instantly be “grateful” for what’s left, even after a literal explosion. He looked at the opposite building: no windows. Clothes, plants, and broken aluminum doors on balconies—all was inside out. He listened: people screaming to God and Mary, ! لأ لأ لأ ! يا عدرا ! يا اللّه. Then it dawned on him: he must get to the hospital to help out. When I ask him when it occurred to him to take photos of his house to send to us right away, he says, “Did I send photos of the house? I don’t remember that.”

He remembers, though, picking up his jeans, a t-shirt, and his lab coat from under the rubble. He remembers thinking, I’m going to the hospital in a t-shirt, not a button-down shirt. He doesn’t remember having a body, doesn’t remember any kind of physical sensation. Going down four flights of stairs, he noticed they were full of bright red blood. At the building’s entrance, the elevator had sprung out of its place and the ceiling was on the floor.

“When I first stepped outside, this is when I realized something huge had happened.” People were screaming from their cars and on the street. Blood everywhere. A young man was supporting an older man, both of them covered in blood. Glass everywhere. Rami started sprinting to the hospital. He didn’t stop to help those on the way; he thought they were walking, they were heading there, they were better off in the nearby ER.

Little did he know there was no ER, in fact no hospital. As he ran toward the Roum building, he realized people were being evacuated from it: patients with their robes open, half-naked patients, elderly patients in diapers trying to rush their slow walk. “The shock on their faces, it was as if they’d seen Azrael.” Outside the ER, he noticed nurse Mireille being resuscitated, before she’d undergo a tracheostomy. She wouldn’t make it. Four nurses, twelve patients, and one visitor would die from their injuries.

This was supposed to be a place where people came to be healed, to be taken care of; now the patients, those who hadn’t died, suffered injuries on top of their illnesses and had to be escorted or carried out into the street. And what about the approaching injured, those who were now flocking here? How to help them? Where else would the victims of an explosion go but to the hospital near them? Rami describes the ER: no lights, no ceiling, electric wires exposed. Patients, visitors, residents, med students, the security personnel—all were bleeding and walking away from the building.

Dust and blood, dust and blood. At the main entrance, nurses were crying on the floor, others carrying patients. He barely recognized a dear friend of his: her face gray, her lips black, as if smudged with grotesque lip liner. An anesthesia resident working in the OR, she’d climbed three floors to the ground level, in shock and unaware of what had happened. Her hand pressed on the neck of a woman, she called out to him. Rami removed his friend’s hand to discover the woman’s neck was slashed from the glass. “Slaughtered,” he says. And it’s true. It’s true. Beirut, we would soon learn, had just been slaughtered by a corrupt, incompetent state who’d left 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate in a warehouse at the port since 2014. This is what we’ve learned, too, what we’ve always known and somehow succumbed to: that we are governed by those who kill us.

As Rami headed back toward the ER, a young blond woman next to a man in his eighties yelled to him. Rami tried CPR, his hands now red from the man’s bleeding body, but no use, no pulse. “Sorry,” he told the woman. “He’s dead. You’re bleeding, let’s try to treat you.” Here, Rami pauses to tell me he felt he was failing his mission.

The hospital staff was trying to get as many medical supplies as possible out of the ER and ORs to help the injured on the street. They were jumping above rubble and using phone lights in dark staircases. Rami approached a Bangladeshi woman, trying to soothe her and tell her she would be fine. He was aware that, as a migrant worker, she “might be freaking out even more than us because she wasn’t in her own country.” The woman didn’t respond to English or Arabic, but he made out that her name was Shimoni. Shimoni’s hand was almost completely severed, hanging by a piece of flesh. A nurse came and inserted an IV line into her other arm. Rami spotted an orthopedic doctor and asked him to take her to the OR. “OR is gone,” the doctor replied, “put a brace on her hand.” Rami placed a brace on the quasi-amputated hand, and he asked a nurse for painkillers. “Paracetamol,” she said. That wasn’t nearly enough. An OR nurse heard him and said she was going to rush to the OR to get some morphine and sedatives. “You’re going to be fine,” Rami repeated to Shimoni.

Looking left and right, he realized the street was becoming fuller and fuller with the wounded coming toward the hospital, that the security was not only diverting ambulances to other hospitals, but also opening the ambulances’ doors to send additional patients with them. Around him, his colleagues were doing CPR, intubating those in respiratory arrest, wrapping cloth around wounds to stop the bleeding. Civil defense was also called to transport patients to other hospitals, once primary response was done. Meanwhile, the staff of each ward worked on evacuating patients (around three hundred fifty). Those who could walk, walked down; those who couldn’t were carried down dark stairs filled with debris from as high as the ninth floor, sometimes on mere bedsheets.

“How long does this go on for?”

“I don’t know. I had no concept of time.”

A medical student shouted out about a patient, a young man with a head injury, seemingly in his thirties. Head wrapped, he wasn’t even responding to pain. Intubation set. CPR. On a nearby stretcher, a young woman, “Please, I can’t feel my fingers.” A woman from the Philippines with a skull laceration—clean the wound, suture, bandage. What’s your name? What’s your name? Help. Help me. He informed the family medicine group on Whatsapp to come quick, all of them. He told them one of them needs to go to the nearby nursing home affiliated with the hospital.

Rami sprinted up to the ninth floor, among broken glass, collapsed false ceilings and doors, then gradually made his way down to check whether assistance was needed on various floors. Elderly patients are usually on the ninth floor, he tells me, because it’s the calmest and has a sea view. There, he clearly recalls room 907: using his phone light to see in the dark, he looked around. A man, probably in his nineties, strangely calm on the glass-filled bed—trauma? Dementia? A woman on a pile of metal on the ground, severe cut on her forehead. He cleaned the wound, wrapped it, and a nurse inserted an IV line. Then a phone began to ring, and locating the glowing screen in the darkness, he answered: it was the couple’s granddaughter, asking about them.

In the ICU unit on the third floor, a colleague asked him if he could feel the pulse on an intubated patient. Yes, but the machine wasn’t working, so he wasn’t receiving oxygen. They called the civil defense to transport him, and they put him on an Ambu Bag, a manual resuscitator. On that floor, water on the ground. It felt as if he were on a sinking ship. He checked the rooms of four patients: all dead because their machines had stopped, ventilators exploded. “Not even a horror movie.” It was one floor up, on the fourth, that Pamela Zaynoun, a neonatal nurse, saved three pre-term babies, holding them all at the same time. Two floors up, on the fifth, a boy was born right after the explosion.

When darkness fell, the doctors kept working, using their phone lights. When we were university students driving from Beirut to our hometowns in North Lebanon twenty years ago, we considered ourselves lucky when the highway was lit, as if something extra had been thrown to us by a cruel god with benevolent whims. Now, friends and family in Lebanon had to adjust to even more power outages, with the generators failing to function for such long periods of time. Power cuts had left Beirut nights without electricity, as cars rolled like frantic pilgrims toward nothing, as traffic lights stood with their long useless necks bent above the streets. Patient evacuation onto the street lasted until around 10 p.m., and primary care treatment for the injured on the street went on until about 3 a.m. The parking lot in front of the Wound Clinic and Training Center was emptied, the space utilized to provide patients with emergency care before sending them to other hospitals. Staff members divided themselves into teams of one doctor and two nurses, attending to the people on the ground.

Right after the explosion, my mother-in-law had a screaming fit on the phone, saying she and her sister were going to drive from Koura, in North Lebanon, to Beirut to get Rami. After that, she kept calling him every half hour. He answered briefly every time, just to reassure her he was fine, then hung up. She kept reminding him to wear a mask and wash his hands.

Rami returned to his apartment around midnight to check on it and collect his passport and some documents. He sat on the bed among the glass shards and charged his phone. He noticed the unbearable smell and the heat. He grabbed his car keys and went down to the underground parking; the car’s front window was cracked, the back one shattered, the top bent, but he was able to start it. If he doesn’t make it home, he could stay at his friend’s in Hazmieh or his friend’s in Kaslik. Driving on the Beirut-Tripoli highway, he noticed other broken cars, too, rolling beside him.

Arriving home, his mother was waiting at the door, with an anxious smile on her face in an attempt to show him she was fine. “Welcome, أهلا وسهلا,” she repeated, kissing him. Once inside, he removed small glass shards from his arm and took a shower. The next day, he slept all day. One day later, as we spoke on Zoom, my mother-in-law kept kissing her son’s shoulder and saying, “My son was reborn. It’s a miracle. My son is two days old.” Rami rolled his eyes and joked, “This. This is my trauma,” referring to his mother’s behavior.

When he went back to Beirut to clean up the apartment with his mother and aunt, volunteers arrived to help them. They worked nonstop and from the heart. They attended to the tiniest of details, swept even the glass in the corners and under the bed. This, too, is what we’ve learned, or rather have been forced to learn, but how much sorrow can one endure? Rami’s first words to us, “Ana mnih,” weren’t truth: yes, he was physically unscathed, but was he well? Was anyone? What happens when generation after generation suffers repeated traumas? What happens when, every time you think you might be beginning to heal, the wound is slashed open again and again and again?

I’ve been trying to write about the sea without thinking of the dead, about the sky without thinking of missiles, about love without thinking of collective grief, but I simply don’t have the luxury; I would like to hate my cities, I would like for them to be well enough so I could start hating them. The healing places within us have been repeatedly exploding, though this time something feels different. I catch myself arguing against healing, to hell with it—all that’s left is rage and a desire to hurt, to destroy, mixed in with ceaseless mourning. Rami tells me he felt lighter when he saw the volunteers, that on that day, he didn’t endlessly replay the blast in his head.

“Did you cry yet?” I ask.

He answers clearly, looking straight into his phone camera, “No.”


Photograph provided courtesy of author.

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet living in Dubai. Her most recent collection, Louder than Hearts, won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Poetry, Ploughshares, World Literature Today, The Southeast Review, The Adroit Journal, Triquarterly, the Academy of American Poets, and elsewhere. More from this author →