The never-ending reports from Lebanon on its social and economic crises are perplexing. Despite the gravity of the situation, officials sitting at the top refuse to relinquish or even reform the system. Recent news reports reveal a collapsing banking sector, a threatened educational system, and an impoverished and broken health system, all while the country watches a judiciary circus played daily on TV and social media, demolishing whatever legitimacy the courts still hold. Most recently, the agricultural sector was affected by a scandal when trafficking illegal drugs to Saudi Arabia was exposed. The illegal exports of around 500 million Captagon (amphetamine) pills stuffed inside pomegranates to Saudi Arabia throughout the past five years has triggered a major economic crisis between the two countries, while Saudi Arabia has 300,000 expatriate Lebanese workers, whose remittances are needed in Lebanon more than ever. These crises are just the tip of the iceberg for a country still reeling from last August’s national disaster, the Beirut Port explosion.
As the one-year anniversary of the devastating Beirut Port explosion approaches, the world continues to set its eyes on the city, still recovering amidst a worsening economic crisis exacerbated by the destruction wreaked by the explosion of around 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate unsafely stored in a Beirut warehouse in August 2020. The blast killed 200 people and injured over 6,000, destroying thousands of buildings and displacing 300,000 people. Recently, Vanity Fair featured the city in a February issue, which risks losing more of its architectural heritage to demolition.
The Lebanese state offers little incentive for owners to preserve and restore their historic buildings. In the words of photographer Dia Mrad, some owners “would rather let their building collapse on its own—that’s the only way they are able to demolish it and sell the land to developers. It’s a big incentive [not to] renovate right now.”
Mrad, a photographer for a real estate company at the time of the blast, has dedicated his efforts to preserving what remains of the damaged architecture before they are lost forever. Before the explosion, he photographed the historic villas of the Ashrafieh district. On the evening of the blast, he was on his way to photograph an apartment in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood in the capital before the blast impact threw him off his Vespa. “The first thing I did after getting up from under the bike was shoot a video with my camera,” he told Vanity Fair. “I had this instinct to just continue shooting, in the same pattern as before, shooting the same buildings again. But they were all destroyed...the biggest part was to be able to really demonstrate the impact of this explosion on architecture.” Mrad has since left his job with the real estate company and instead focused his attention on the historical houses, partnering with the Beirut Heritage Initiative that aims to rehabilitate Ashrafieh’s architectural heritage.
Mrad is not the only photographer capturing the wreckage. For a week after the explosion, photographer Myriam Boulos documented the aftermath through telling shots: “Soldiers and police stood idle while ordinary people bent to the task of clearing debris... They carry guns...They don’t help with anything,” she told Time.
Lebanon is no stranger to a government unable to do its job. This was the case in October 2019, when citizens had to take matters into their own hands to fight fires that devastated the forests. In the wake of the port explosion, anti-government demonstrations emerged across the country protesting the economic situation and the government’s negligence for the storage of the ammonium nitrate and culpability of the explosion. Though a law was passed banning the sale of land in affected areas and mandating that rental contracts and prices cannot be changed for one year, it is not being properly enforced and evictions still happen, according to Vanity Fair. As expected, it comes down to people like Mrad and local NGOs to renovate and rehabilitate the city.