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"Lebanon Is Like A Laboratory For The World"

"Lebanon Is Like A Laboratory For The World"

Interview: How Danièle Chikhani, a Beirut-based architect and photographer, experienced the explosion of her city and what it takes for a wounded nation to heal.

Marian Brehmer

On 4th of August, a giant explosion of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate rocked Lebanon's capital, Beirut. 180 people died and thousands were injured. The intense footage of the blast and accounts by friends in Beirut shocked me, prompting me to dig deeper. I reached out to my Lebanese friend Danièle Chikhani whom I first met at Rumi's shrine in Konya years ago. What had happened? What are the deeper dynamics behind the explosion? What helps Danièle stay centered in the midst of multiple crises?

Danièle Chikhani was born in Beirut, Lebanon. An architect by training, she worked in this field in Lebanon and in Paris, where she lived from 1985 to 2006. She returned from France to her native Lebanon in 2006, and now lives in Beirut.

Daniele has been working as a photographer since the late 1970s, in parallel with her studies and work, to show how streets, stones, stairs are infused with the energy of those who live among them. Her work progressed naturally from there to capturing images of people and their many environments. Her travel photography from around the globe can be found here.

Danièle, can you describe what happened on the 4th of August?

First of all, you need to understand the background against which this explosion took place. The Lebanese people have been demonstrating every day for almost a year against their government. We have been in the streets, all over the country, since October 2019, desperately trying to claim our rights as citizens. In November, the government resigned and a new government was formed, with promises, but fundamentally no different than the last one. Then the pandemic came to our doors, but we already had so many other worries.

For 30 years we have been ruled by warlords who pretend to desire peace, but in fact only seek their own gain. In fact, they are still waging a war, but without shooting. It's a fight for power. For years our government has been a failure. Every aspect of the administration is corrupt. The most basic things that are expected of a government – provision of water, electricity, rule of law, to name just a few – have not been met by any government in Lebanon since the end of the civil war.

For years, the Lebanese currency has been pegged to the dollar. The central bank also loaned the State the money its citizens had saved, supposedly to invest in infrastructure and health projects. But nothing was accomplished, and now, after 15 years of inaction, the money is gone, and the financial house of cards has come tumbling down. The government has defaulted on its loans and is essentially bankrupt. Citizens cannot even access their own accounts except in a limited way.

The dollar has quadrupled in value but no one can withdraw their money, because it’s unclear what is even left in terms of reserves. Suddenly people’s salaries are a quarter of what they were and meanwhile, because Lebanon imports everything, the prices have quadrupled in some cases. Half of the population is starving and the middle class has now fallen into poverty and the poor are destitute.

This explosion... (pauses for a moment) this criminal blast has now come on top of all of that. Today over 300,000 are homeless, from one day to the next. The streets were full of broken glass, houses are in danger of falling down. Countless numbers have no windows or doors, yet the stock of glass and other equipment was all destroyed in the port. How will people be able to rebuild their destroyed homes and lives before the winter?

The politicians acknowledged the presence of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, stored in the heart of the capital, Beirut! But not a single one wants to take any responsibility. All the officials just say, 'I did what I had to do, I sent a letter to my superior or to the person responsible or to the president about this matter.' Everyone is pointing the finger at someone else. How can you trust a government like that? And now the investigation that is supposed to take place is being run by someone appointed by the government. How can we trust the outcome?

How did you personally experience the explosion?

My apartment is less than 2 kilometers from the port. I was at home when it happened. At first, I thought it was a car bomb attack, like the many we have experienced in this city over the years. The noise made me think it had happened right in front of my building. In fact, everyone in town had the same thought, it was so loud. Then on my terrace, the trees which are in very big pots, literally flew into the air and then came crashing down. I think that the fact I had so many trees, and that my windows were open, probably kept the glass from breaking as the trees broke the force of the shock wave. Others on my street were not so lucky.

A few minutes after the explosion I called my sister, who was fine. Then I called an old friend, who lives alone around 300 meters from my house. She told me that a window had fallen on her and she felt her ribs were broken. I immediately rushed out the house to go to her. The street felt like Ground Zero. It was completely foggy with a reddish kind of smoke, and made the day so dark that cars had put on their headlights. The street was covered with broken glass and I had to be careful where to put my feet. When I got to my friend’s, she had not been cut by the glass, but her ribs were indeed broken.

Then someone I knew called me to say that the entrance door to my mother’s flat, which is close to my own and is empty at the moment (my mother passed away several years ago), had been blown open and damaged. After I tended to my friend, I hurried back again to somehow close the door temporarily, which I did with nylon and scotch tape.

Alhamdulillah, although the blast rocked my flat, it didn't break anything. Most of the buildings on my street are severely damaged. Some people, including some I know well, were injured by broken glass flying into their eyes. They will need surgery and may lose their sight.

Over the next days, I went to the port a few times to see the site of the blast. I felt as if I was walking into a huge wound. Many others were like me, and went there to see the damage in order to believe that it had happened to our lovely city (sobs…).

Apartment damaged by the explosion. (Credit: Danièle Chikhani)

What do your days look like after this shock?

We all try to be available to where there is a need and to help as we can, depending on our particular abilities. I began by cleaning up the broken glass in my mother’s flat and repairing the damage.

In many districts there are traumatized and helpless adults and children. People who don’t have food, clothes, or house, anymore, who have lost everything. Many local NGOs are helping, cleaning, repairing, feeding and they all need help. Five hospitals are severely damaged and need money to repair as soon as possible in order to care for the wounded as well as those who are ill, including with the coronavirus. We have started trying to raise funds using local and international social media to help as much as we can.

I am part of a group of architects that has gotten together to try to save the historic buildings in the damaged neighborhoods, and more importantly, to try to rebuild them as they once were. We have a bad history with such rebuilding, in particular in the downtown area of Beirut, which was a charming place that was destroyed during the war. It was rebuilt in a way that enriched certain builders and their backers, but left the downtown with bright new buildings and completely without soul. As architects, we are fighting to prevent this experience from being repeated in what are the last old districts of Beirut. So we have to move quick and efficiently. We are assembling archives and a database of the damaged buildings, planning for studies to be undertaken, organizing donations, with a view to restore, repair, rebuild.

To give, to help, is also to heal. For the time being everyone is giving whatever he or she can. All is needed and all is welcome.

To give, to help, is also to heal.

How do you perceive the atmosphere in Beirut right now?

Right now, I think we are all still in shock and the only way we can respond is to try to give the best of ourselves.

But at the same time, there is profound depression, sadness and weeping. Our hearts are crying. If you think about what I said in the beginning, you will understand that we've been living in survival mode for years. We are in a permanent state of post traumatic stress, which this manmade catastrophe has compounded. Many families who passionately love this country now want to leave it. They have finally had enough of the corruption, of the wars, the violence, of Lebanon having to pay the price for anything that happens in the Middle East. Not feeling safe, not trusting is a heavy burden.

We are tired, like every Lebanese person in the world. We don’t see a light coming from the government, no help. The situation is really complicated. The darkness feels very profound. You can't walk in such darkness. It's like an ant trying to find its way through curly hair. There are so many obstacles that are impossible to see, let alone solve, by yourself.

And yet, there are always angels in our path.

I think you mean all the young Lebanese who are lending a hand and cleaning up the streets of their city?

The whole night after the blast, people, not the government, were ferrying wounded people they didn’t even know to hospitals, in their cars or on motorbikes. Five hospitals were completely destroyed or rendered nonfunctional. Most of the other hospitals were full. It was like a war zone. Pharmacies were sewing people's wounds because the hospitals couldn't take any more patients.

Everybody helped those they didn't know, because we are all wounded already. We know what it feels to be injured. Wars, blasts, aggression, we know them, we all know instinctively how to respond in crisis. Even the younger generation that did not personally experience the civil war, experienced it through the traces in their parents’ lives. In our country, many generations have had their lives broken. We are tired of fighting.

When the civil war broke out in 1975, I was 19 years old. All the values I was educated in ceased to exist. Suddenly I was confronted with hatred, anger, fear and death. Since then, we have not been without wars, or tensions, whether direct or indirect.

When you wake up in the morning and find yourself alive, it means there is no war. But you know that every day there is a risk it could start again. As a Lebanese I grew up with this idea.

Collecting the broken pieces. (Credit: Danièle Chikhani)

With such a troubled history Lebanon must be incredibly resilient.

We have been known for our resilience, yes, but maybe not this time. This time they have gone too far. There are too many victims, too much destruction, too many in poverty, too many disasters. Too many…

For decades our government has been unable to respond to the problems in the region. Lebanon has been officially independent since 1943, but within it is an enormous mix of competing interests. Its civil society is made up of so many different groups and parties. What could be its strength – people from many different backgrounds working together – has become its weakness, which is exacerbated by the outside nations that support the communities that best fit their interests, promising protection to their followers.

Unfortunately, there are brainwashed people among all the communities. And those who are in power are able to stay in power because people are kept under control. So they will do everything to keep it.

It is like the ego. The ego doesn't want to die, so it's always fighting against who you desire to be and what you want to accomplish. It will fight you because it is afraid of dying. It is exactly the same scenario for Lebanon.

It is like the ego. The ego doesn't want to die, so it's always fighting against who you desire to be and what you want to accomplish. It will fight you because it is afraid of dying. It is exactly the same scenario for Lebanon.

Now, however, we have had enough of patronage and clientelism. What the movement that started last October is saying is that we are all Lebanese first, and this is what we are fighting for. During the protests we demanded an end to communalism. We love Lebanon and we are all Lebanese first.

Can the spirit of unity from the protests turn into a positive energy that will help transform the country?

If the whole country demonstrated for the same reasons, then yes, maybe we will start to have a real Lebanon. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Most of the young (and older) people who rushed to help after the blast are not the majority of Lebanese. Yes, they are the majority of two or three communities but not all of them.

These people do represent hope for the country. But all they have are their hearts, their naked hands, and their dream of a beautiful country. But that is not enough nowadays in this complicated situation.

Today’s wars are mainly “sponsored” by strong states that don’t want to dirty their hands directly. So they let others do it for them. And our rulers are not willing to step down. They have their own plans. For them we are only “collateral damage.” So I would say that the strength of this positive energy is not enough by itself. It needs help.

Lebanon is only 10,450 square kilometers. That's less than half the size of Sicily! Nevertheless, Lebanon has continued to feed everyone who has arrived on its shores. We have been hosting displaced Palestinians for decades. They were followed by Iraqis. Now we have 1.5 million Syrian refugees, nearly a third of our population! Lebanon has been the “oxygen” of Syrian during the war there, sending medicine, food and oil across the border, but sometimes to its own detriment.

I feel that Lebanon is like a laboratory for the world. The explosion is a metaphor for what could happen to the capitalist system we have built. Lebanon is a microcosm. The country is small and it has all the problems of the world. So everything is highly concentrated. Those problems do exist elsewhere, but elsewhere they are more diffuse or have other sources.

The explosion is a metaphor for what could happen to the capitalist system we have built.
Volunteers cleaning up the streets of Beirut while the state is absent. (Credit: Danièle Chikhani)

Are there any spiritual teachings that help you stay calm during these troubled times?

When you are confronted with an experience like this explosion, only your instinct remains. You can't think of anything else but how to survive day by day. People cannot yet think or get back to work. They are unable to concentrate. Your mind feels like it is floating in a state of unknowing.

So if you're talking about the spirit, I believe that we have to work on ourselves, to clean the heart, to deconstruct what we know and rebuild ourselves with what we think is right. The only thing you can do is to connect to the very depth of your heart and get back to simple and small things and help.

For example, yesterday I was talking to a young couple. I tried to suggest ways to get back to what is really one’s true self: 'Get back to the simplest thing that helps you stay centered and connected to who you really are. Get back to the love in every single thing you do. If you wash the dishes, if you water the olive tree, if you sweep away the glass on the floor or if you make your bed; get back to the love in the thing you are doing. That can help you stay centered.' – They asked me: 'What is going to happen in the future?' – I responded: 'Don't think about the future. Heal the here and now. Don't overthink about what’s next. Just put love into what you do today.'

They asked me: 'What is going to happen in the future?' – I responded: 'Don't think about the future. Heal the here and now. Don't overthink about what's next. Just put love into what you do today.'

I've been living with this practice for years. I also get stuck and need to work on things. Of course, anger and depression come. Right now, many people start crying all of a sudden. The impact of all of this is so strong, it is nearly impossible to explain in words... unless you experience it for yourself.

Do you feel people are receptive to hear practical life counsel?

When you plant a seed you never know if it is going to grow or not. Your duty is just to plant it. When you feel that someone is thirsty to listen, you speak. If they ask for more, you give more. If not, you keep silent. Some people are not ready to listen or it's not the right moment to share. Others are in total suffering and are not able to feel anything else but their wound.

Silence is deep. When two people talk to each other there is a void in the space in between. Actually that void consists of energy. What do I choose to put into that void? Am I putting in love, calm, knowledge, gentleness and kindness, or am I putting in aggressivity? What's in the middle between you and me is more important than you and me. Even the way you look at someone else matters. It might be just a simple, sincere smile.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Rumi, "Wherever you are, be the soul of that place." Let's talk a bit about your journey with Sufism. How did you first come across that path?

In 1985, I went to France to work as an architect. After my studies and ten years of experiencing war in Lebanon I needed to know and challenge myself and see who I was as a human being and as an architect. So I moved to Paris. It was there, many years later, that I attended a performance of whirling dervishes. I felt love. When I asked the dervishes 'Why did I feel that love? Where does it come from?,' they invited me to their workshop the next day. I went, and felt totally at home.

I started reading Rumi's Fihi Ma Fihi and remained in contact with that whirling group. I became their personal photographer and went on tour with them. After I had moved back to Beirut in 2006, I felt a strong desire to visit Konya. I've been visiting the city sometimes twice a year for the past 13 years. Konya is my home. Sometimes people from Lebanon ask me to take them there to meet Rumi and Shams and encounter sufism. Some live it with their mind, and some live it with their hearts. Each one has a story.

There are also some Sufi groups in Lebanon, but they are more dispersed and it is not as alive and accessible as in Turkey.

After more than twenty years in France, why did you eventually choose to return to Beirut?

It's a long story. I moved to France after living through ten years of war; I lived with my family on the Green Line that separated Beirut in two. Then, after the years in Paris, at age 50, I needed to re-connect with my identity, as Lebanese. Essentially, while I spent much time in European culture, I am a Mediterranean and an Arab woman. I am from the Middle East and I love it.

Beirut coastline with the port at the horizon. (Credit: Piotr Chrobot on Unsplash)

What is it that you love about the Middle East?

The culture I grew up with is Lebanese. And this is a wonderful culture. Of course, I am not only Lebanese. As a Lebanese, I am also a citizen of the world. Like many in Lebanon, I speak three languages. This interculturalism makes us open people. It makes us bridges. It's the Middle Eastern culture of community which I love. People are not so self-centered. They are mostly tolerant, open and generous in their relations. They smile at each other. Although it can be tough, the Arab language is full of poetry and caring expressions.

During my time in France I once conducted an experiment. I was walking on the sidewalk and decided to look into people's eyes and smile. What would happen? One woman came to me and asked, 'Do you want something from me?'. Someone else turned around to see if I was saying hello to someone else. Another person quickly changed the side of the street. I lived twenty years in the same Parisian neighborhood without getting to know the people around. Here in Beirut I know everyone on my street. I also greet people I don't know but whom I see every morning. This is my culture. It's part of me.

So this is the kind of Middle East I wanted to get back to. But at the moment I got here, war came again. I arrived in Lebanon in June 2006, a few days before the war with Israel. My colleagues in France asked me 'What are you doing there? Come back! Get back to your job.' I just told them I was in the right place at the right time.

What made you feel that way?

I knew that this was where my light should be. This was where I wanted to put that little lantern that I am. What should I do with that lantern in Europe? I know I am in Lebanon because here is my place. This is where I can be in balance with who I am. I feel more connected to who I really am.

Young Beirutis distributing food to their neighbors in a deserted petrol station. (Credit: Mira Minkara)

I had a similar feeling when I first travelled to the Middle East. People naturally know how to live from the heart.

Yes. And like everywhere in the world there are also people in Lebanon who like to show off. But what is wonderful with the Middle Eastern culture is that wherever you are, you never forget this generosity, this love of your rich culture. In the Middle East you are never alone. You are always in communication, always connected. Together... This is love. This is what we need to shine our light on. Each one gives as much as he can, as she knows, experiencing everything deep inside.

However, in wartime there is fear. And fear makes you weak. When you are frightened, you close yourself off. Some are only able to be centered on their own anxieties, while others connect to the outside and act to help.

In the Middle East you are never alone. You are always in communication, always connected. Together... This is love. This is what we need to shine our light on.

However, in wartime all these positive qualities in us get broken, because there is fear. When you have fear, you close yourself. You are centered on your own anxiety, thinking about what might happen. You don't have feelings for others. But after a while, instinctively we get back to our way of living.

What is your vision for the future of Lebanon?

Now the priority is to live, and to continue the healing process for the whole country. Before thinking of the future, we have a present to take care of. The here and now requires from us to stay calm and centered. People have to regain their homes, their lives, confidence, dignity, love. And then think of building a real independent country.

The urgency of the moment is that we need love and help. Full stop. On a practical level, it's all about finding solutions; for repairing the destroyed houses before the rain comes, finding food for the mother whose baby is hungry. We don't know if we will be alive tomorrow. But we will definitely rise up! So it's about healing today first, then rising up tomorrow.

Today I saw some big billboards in the street with positive messages like "I say Lebanon is a beautiful country" or "I will survive." Deep inside, everybody knows that there is something wonderful in this country, in its soul and culture. What they are looking for inside, they can find it here. We don't know what tomorrow is made of. But if Lebanon turns into a total banana republic, then how can you convince people to stay? Only love can.

A billboard saying "Beirut will not die. O Beirut, Lady of the world." (Credit: Danièle Chikhani)

What is important is for each one to find the harmony within himself or herself, to try to make the love in you grow. In a war zone it is hard but maybe this is where you find the angels… We need to listen to each other and hear the voice of people's needs, and to re-build, to reconstruct, to continue trying our best. Again and again.

One day, Rumi encountered Allah. He fainted. Then he woke up and God told him: 'I am ordering you not to make any effort again. We made of you a center of contemplation.' This means that your feelings, whatever anger or joy you experience inside, are an experience of God through you. You are just a tool for this divine manifestation. The Sufis say that if you are thirsty, it is not you who is thirsty. It is thirst looking for someone to experience it.


If you want to donate for Beirut, please visit one of the following sites: Lebanon Of Tomorrow, Red Cross Lebanon, Emergency Architects

Credit for cover photo: Danièle Chikhani