It is our third night in this still strange apartment and I.L. is talking about the tragedies that befell him in his last days in Cairo after he had been given his expulsion notice: driving up a rain-slicked onramp on the back of an Uber Scooter, the bike sliding out from beneath him as the worn-down tires failed to maintain a grasp on the pavement. I.L. laughs as he talks about being sent rolling on the road, the cars, undeterred, swerving around him, how long it took for his clothes to be free from the oil stains, how one shirt was still soiled until even a few months ago, how he eluded death.
But Cairo is now confined to the space of memory, the place I.L. and I can never return to, forced to try to make a home in Beirut. There are four of us sitting on the balcony overlooking what I have come to think of as the suspended forest in the few days since we’ve moved in. Really, it is about 20–30 potted trees chained down to platforms jutting out from one of those luxury Beirut apartment complexes. I don’t know if anyone ever really lived in this one — the buildings clearly marked for the rich by their edges of glinting steel and glass are often empty — but I haven’t seen anyone come or go since we moved in, except the men standing on ladders to hang the vinyl coverings over the now empty window frames. The trees are still standing, seemingly unmarked by the blast, perhaps holding out, I think, for an idea of home deferred.
It is later in the night when Luna shows us the video of us walking through the aftermath of the blast. Her friend had seen the video on Facebook, she tells us, but he initially refused to forward it to her, even though he had recognized her in the short clip. I assume he was afraid of what her response would be, how he sensed, even if he couldn’t put it into words, that the video would close the gap that has been slowly widening for all of us, between the irreality of the thousands of blast videos we have all watched on repeat, where the uniform and sole subject is the port in the distance, the plumes of black smoke rising up into the air, and the tension we all feel as we wait for that red explosion to come, which it always does, exactly 31 seconds after the first blast in warehouse nine — between that and what it would mean to see yourself in that mediated frame, to become part of the event, which was so brief, stepping over the rubble, the glass, looking into the eyes of the blood drenched and seeing, not dazed confusion, but a yearning why, can you tell me why? In the dark of the balcony, A. and I stare down at Luna’s screen — we had all been together in the cafe when the ammonium nitrate in the port ignited and sent a wave of force equivalent to 1,100 tons of highly explosive TNT hurtling toward us — and we watch ourselves walk through the rubble and glass as we made our way unknowingly toward the port, until we pass out of the frame, and the person holding the camera focuses on the intended subject of the shaky handheld shot: a damaged car. We are just accidental actors.
The sound of the siren wailing in the video makes my body tense, and it is as if I can smell the dust and feel the odd humidity of the orange-tinted air even now, here, on the balcony. I pause the video and play it back, frame by frame, staring at the blood on A.’s face. I can see it still trickling down from the beneath the napkins.
Tamiki Hara was sitting in a windowless bathroom when the US dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, a fact that possibly saved his life. In the days after the blast, he wandered about the burning city, recording his experiences in his notebook, notes that would later coalesce into a book that I am reading now, after Beirut has been shattered.
I don’t recognize the place I see myself walking through on Luna’s screen anymore, that strange world, with the orange air and the death siren. It has been swept away by the well intentioned, robust youth who came out to make things “right” again, removing the shards of glass from places once defined by their insideness. I wanted nothing more, at that moment caught on screen, than to escape from the carnage and destruction all around me, to find shelter in a home that I did not yet know had been destroyed. But now, I yearn to go back to that place, to have those few days Hara had, those days he too probably wished he could have escaped, to understand what was happening to me in those brief moments, to all of us, to write down every small detail of it that is now forever beyond our grasp and yet still with us.