Now in rubble, Lebanese arts spaces face Beirut blast aftermath

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Walking through the streets of Lebanon’s Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael districts, it’s hard to recall where a favorite restaurant once served lunch or a summer night was spent with friends and a round of drinks.

In the aftermath of the Beirut blast, which claimed the lives of at least 171 and injured 6,000 people on August 4, the once lively hub of nightlife and culture has been reduced to a uniform haze of rubble, glass shards and shattered lives. The lingering dust is just one reason the air feels heavy.

Believed to have been caused by 2,750 metric tons of ammonium nitrate – which had been stored under questionable conditions at the Beirut port since 2013 – the blast has devastated many of the city’s cultural spaces, many of which had made their homes in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael.

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The same year that Russian cargo ship MV Rhosus made an unscheduled stop in Beirut, resulting in the highly explosive substance being confiscated, Lebanese actor and director Joe Kodieh founded Theatre Gemmayze, only a few blocks away from the port.

Today, the 126 year old building housing Kodieh’s renovated theater now resembles a post-apocalyptic film set.

“It was such a beautiful space, located in the heart of Beirut with so much history. The theater is completely devastated; the glass was everywhere, as if a nuke went off,” Kodieh told Al Arabiya English. “The ceiling and the old wooden doors are now splinters. It’s a wasteland, the walls are gone, the only thing still attached is the chairs, but the rest is gone. It’s not a theater anymore.

Theatre Gemmayze is show the day after the blast at the Port of Beirut. (Supplied.)
Theatre Gemmayze is show the day after the blast at the Port of Beirut. (Supplied.)

“How could they put such a huge quantity of explosive material amongst people? We worked all our lives to build something and [the government] destroyed the theater; they destroyed the people and the city.”

Heritage disappeared

Home to many heritage buildings that have been repurposed as cafes, art galleries and bars, the Ottoman and French mandate era structures of north Beirut stood little chance against the blast. Contemporary art space 392rmeil393 is now a hollow shell of broken, gray-tinged walls. Galerie Tanit, once known for bringing in prestigious international artists, is now a concrete skeleton than a space catering to art enthusiasts.

Also badly damaged is the much beloved Sursock Museum, the stunning stained glass windows of which were blown across the courtyard.

A blood spattered catalogue from Art on 56th. (Noha Moharram)
A blood spattered catalogue from Art on 56th. (Noha Moharram)

“I went up to the roof today for the first time. I had never realized how close the port is. We were in the offices and the museum had closed 10 minutes earlier,” Sursock Museum director Zeina Arida told Al Arabiya English. “We heard a weird noise, which I though was a plane, and then a small explosion, which must have been first one, and then we were pushed down the staircase in the second blast. I thought ‘Why are they bombing Sursock’ and that it was the first of more airstrikes.”

The museum’s iconic 20th century white stone structure with its glass and stunning doors have all but been obliterated.

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Some 25 artworks have been scratched and sliced by flying debris, with three completely lost. The Nicolas Sursock study on the first floor has sustained considerable damaged to the antique furniture, walnut-hued wooden paneling and the famous Kees van Dongen portrait of Nicolas Sursock himself. For now, the artworks have been stored in the basement, which remains mostly intact and with a working air conditioner for climate control.

It’s uncertain whether insurance companies will cover any repair costs or restoration to the artworks, which Arida estimates will cost millions.

Cost of reparation

Many Lebanese insurers have said there will be no payouts if the cause of the blast is down to dangerous materials and negligence, as many policies exclude damage done by bombs, explosives or acts of terrorism and war.

International support, however, has flooded in to the museum, which has received offers of monetary and technical help from UNESCO, the Centre Pompidou and the British Library. Meanwhile, local private institutions and individuals have also stepped forward to offer what they can, but help from the state has been nonexistent.

The Sursock Museum was damaged in the Beirut port explosion. Here it is shown with its windows blown out following the blast. (Rowina Bou Harb)
The Sursock Museum was damaged in the Beirut port explosion. Here it is shown with its windows blown out following the blast. (Rowina Bou Harb)

“We didn’t receive one phone call from the Ministry of Culture. We’ve been in touch with the Directorate General of Antiquities, who want to assess classified buildings and the NGO Biladi offered a team of volunteers to help clean up the glass,” Arida said. “I was amazed by the young volunteers and lovers of Sursock who wanted to support us, come in and help clean up. It’s really heartwarming.”

Government absence

When asked if the government was providing any help in cleaning up or putting their lives back together, Kodieh laughed. By nightfall on August 4, Beirut had filled with hundreds of volunteers helping those affected clean up, securing what remained of their homes and businesses, and transporting the injured to the hospitals, several of which were severely damaged.

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The days that followed have seen ever increasing numbers take to the streets with brooms and shovels. Those unable to do the heavy lifting set up stands providing free water and food to keep the efforts going. Online groups have also been set up to help find and share information for missing relatives or pets that ran away.

Volunteers clean debris from the street following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Reuters)
Volunteers clean debris from the street following Tuesday's blast in Beirut's port area. (Reuters)

As police and army officers loiter on street corners smoking cigarettes, remaining conspicuously apart from the volunteers’ efforts, the people have united with immense solidarity in the face of an apathetic government. Piles of glass, stone and rubbish litter the streets as the municipality-contracted trash removal companies have been unseen since the blast.

Protests begin

By August 8, the volunteers marched their way down Gemmayze to Martyr Square, carrying nooses and a fully constructed gallows, calling for the removal of the political class. On August 10, Prime Minister Hassan Diab announced the resignation of his entire cabinet.

“We were struggling to preserve what is left, which is this beautiful energy. I saw teenagers holding brooms, sweeping glass, going into buildings and picking up the rubble with their hands and people doing whatever they can to help their fellow citizens,” Kodieh said. “This city belongs to them, not to the old rascals controlling this country who are thieves and killers. We deserve better.”

The theater, and many other art spaces, held steadfast this past year against Lebanon’s financial crisis and the pandemic lockdown, which further stripped away their savings and resources. The blast has been seen as the final punch to an already struggling populace. The mention of resilience, an often used mantra against Lebanon’s recent woes, is now met with scorn.

“I don’t want to hear the word ‘resilience’ anymore, it’s ridiculous. We’re not numb, I’m very angry,” Arida said. “This is the last kick. I’m not sure if everyone is still going to have the strength to continue, how many times can you rebuild? Individuals are very tired and it’s going to come down to strength of will.”

A view of the entrance to the building housing Art on 56th. Debris covers the walkway. (Maghie Ghali)
A view of the entrance to the building housing Art on 56th. Debris covers the walkway. (Maghie Ghali)

Noha Moharram, the director of Art on 56th, has been unable to return to the gallery since the blast injured several teammates and left her with leg wounds requiring surgery. After a long night in hospital witnessing the full effect of the blast, the gallery seems like an afterthought.

“I didn’t have the strength to go back. Someone else went down to clean the mess and seal the doors to protect the artworks,” Moharram said. “I’m going to take care of myself now. My nine-year-old begs me not to go back to the gallery and can’t sleep unless I’m next to him now. It’s going to take time.”

Not recovering

It is feared that smaller independent galleries won’t recover from the catastrophe. Letitia Gallery in Hamra has shut its doors after its director Gaya Fodoulian died in the blast. ARTLAB, a space dedicated to emerging artists, has also decided to shut down for the foreseeable future, seeing no point in repairing the wrecked gallery under the current circumstances.

“We might go online. I might not even stay in Lebanon. We cannot make plans longer than five days and you can’t sustain a business like this,” ARTLAB founder Antoine Haddad told Al Arabiya English. “People can’t afford to buy art anymore. The side of me that is rooted in Lebanon says, ‘inject more money,’ but the sensible side of me says, ‘pull the plug.’”

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Despite the horrific events of last week, some spaces refuse to vanish. Kodieh says Theatre Gemmayze will rebuild no matter what, even if it’s “without walls, chairs or a stage,” and Art on 56th will recover in time. As people begin to pick up their fractured lives and mourn those lost, their anger at what has happed has crystalized into fierce determination.

“The other day I was crying, terrified and in trauma,” Moharram said. “But now I’m also really angry, and it feels like I can’t just leave everything, that I should start again, work and put in the effort to rebuild.”

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