How do we respond to catastrophe? By Gheed El Bizri

How do we respond to catastrophe? By Gheed El Bizri

This is a question I’ve long struggled with. Growing up in Lebanon, I always found myself uncertain about how to respond to the never-ending number of crises and endless cycles of abuse and ruthless power. How do I respond to the electricity being available for only an hour a day? How do I console my family when half of their life savings is frozen in their bank accounts? How do I walk on the same streets that have been demolished by the Aug. 4, 2020 Beirut explosion? Where do I go when every place in my country is scarred by the bloody hands of my government? Why does it feel like I am playing hide and seek and I’m constantly losing because I can’t find my missing pieces?

Maybe it is because they left me everytime my country lost something — electricity, water, money, buildings, streets, lives, independence, the feeling of home. Yet, I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t shout. I had to be calm. Soon enough, my silence felt like betrayal, a betrayal to my country and to my people. But it was the only response the corrupt government had allowed. It was wrong to remain silent but it was dangerous not to. The only times I felt powerful were in my own room, between four walls, writing pieces no one would ever write on their own and reading pieces no one would ever dare to read out loud. 

“You build your life around something that cannot be healed, something for which there are no words.” – Dori Laub

We, Lebanese people, are survivors who have to find a stance between vengeance and forgiveness and answers to self-haunting questions: to what extent is healing an insult to those whose devastation is inconsolable? To what extent is it insensitive for someone to be in the process of moving on?

It is apparent that memory plays a powerful role in healing after mass violence. Detractors may argue that “too much memory is a disease.” The first problem with that statement is that memory itself is used as a political tool because violence continues to be politically motivated. Lebanese politicians are known for using past victories to prove their leadership and resilience in the face of adversity. They pride themselves on the few moments where they succeeded and disregard their failures that drove Lebanon to the verge of collapse. In that sense, politicians mobilize memory as an instrument of politics in the present and distort history to fit their narrative of being saviors.

The second problem with this is that it insinuates that the solution to having “too much memory” is to forget. However, silence about violence locks perpetrators and victims in the cruel pact of denial. There is no such thing as “too much memory” in the case of coping with trauma as a consequence of political corruption. On the contrary, we don’t remember enough. 

The third problem with this is that if we want to pursue the narrative that forgetting is important, we have to remember first in order to forget. But, what do we remember? The sound, the blood, the destruction on Aug. 4? We don’t remember what happened because we don’t know what really happened. We know the names of the victims and not the perpetrators. We know that there are people in the government who disregarded the fact that there were 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in the port, but not their names nor how many did. We don’t have a clear understanding of the event that changed our lives forever. Our right to know the truth has been denied. Therefore, we don’t remember enough in order to forget. Yet, one could draw the line between individual and collective forgetting. While the former is usually involuntary, the latter is generally purposeful and deliberate .

In order to memorialize the country’s pathological history of protracted civil strife, monuments have been created. The basic dilemma the Lebanese face today is to know how to remember all the ugly atrocities of the war without lessening their horrors. The problem is to figure out the right way to recall the war without sanitizing it by making it more tolerable to remember. Another problem with commemoration is to create memorials to recall mournful events without falling into the trap of making it a celebration of glories of past heroic events. Maybe these lines can be drawn by distinguishing memorials and monuments. The former opens up spaces to mourn and the latter has an element of triumphalism. Is it really fair to say we have triumphed after investigations for the Beirut blast have been suspended multiple times, after murderers are roaming freely in the streets, after we have hit rock bottom over and over again?

Remembering is essential not only to honor victims and to fulfill obligations, but to reinforce the collective Lebanese identity. It is easy to say that we are Lebanese without understanding what it really means. By Lebanese, I am referring to every person who has the nationality, who was born here, who left and never came back, who stayed and never left, who feels like an outcast in their communities and who feels at home every time they visit.

The reason why I mention this is because people can be homeless in at least three existential senses. They suffer the angst of being dislodged from their most enduring attachments they suffer from being outcast from their own environments or they feel obligated to reassemble a damaged identity and broken history. Is it possible to be victims and survivors at the same time? Can we be both homeless and Lebanese?

I not only struggle with answering these questions but with knowing if there even is an answer. I spent my first quarter of my freshman year at Stanford terribly homesick. I would write poetry and compare the food to what was once served on a large table in my hometown. Yet, I reminded myself that I was missing a place that no longer exists; a place that left me before I even considered leaving it. Coming back to Lebanon during winter break of my first year reaffirmed my doubts. I am still holding on by a thread, promising Beirut that I would come back even when Beirut itself wasn’t there to hear my supplications. But being Lebanese for me means remembering what once was and keep fighting for it. So I did, in my own way, thousands of miles away.

In Lebanon, politics represent a struggle for inclusion, self-actualization and social justice. Politics represent a real barrier to opportunities of nurturing civil virtues that reinforce prospects for greater measures of autonomy and empowerment. But the problem of claiming one’s identity in Lebanon isn’t confined to its political systems. It also manifests itself in people’s mindsets because religious or sectarian bias lies at the core of contemporary Lebanon’s lack of identity. The truth is that religious and sectarian extremism, in short confessionalism, divided the country to the extent that it became hard to claim our identity as Lebanese.

In the long journey of finding the truth, of finding a stance between vengeance and forgiveness, in defending the right to justice and creating a climate conducive to human rights, there is also hope. We, Lebanese people, can face who we were before and shape who we could become and who we want to become after. Unity and hope should be the overarching themes and driving forces behind a nationwide revolution.

Being Lebanese is not only a feeling, but a deeply-embedded belief that exists that is acknowledged and is recognized. Claiming our identity — personal or collective — is claiming what is ours. This impulse for seeking refuge in darkened places is sustained by two opposed forms of preservation: to remember and to forget. One might lead to assume nostalgic predispositions to return to a past anchored in questionable authenticity and the other is to reinvent communicable solidarities and threatened heritage. To investigate questions of identity it is imperative to revisit the past, examine memory and criticize the political structure throughout the years. Throughout my writings and interrogations and that of others, I hope to find a stance where the Lebanese identity encompasses being a survivor, a victim, a fighter, a lover and an opposer all at once.

Article first published Jan. 30, 2023, 12:30 a.m. in the Standford Daily. Reproduced with the authorization of the author.

Gheed El Bizri ‘25 serves as the Grind Desk Editor for Vol. 262. From Lebanon, she seeks to major in Psychology and minor in Human Rights and has a strong interest in creative writing and journalism. She hopes to use storytelling as a way of putting into words the most complex human emotions, staying connected to people all around the world and banding them together. She is also interested in representing her country, Lebanon, and amplifying the voice of her people through her work. Contact Gheed at thegrind ‘at’