This article originally appeared on VICE Netherlands.
On the 4th of August, a warehouse exploded in the port of Beirut. Four tons of ammonium nitrate, stored there unsafely for over six years, were set off by a fire of unknown origin, triggering one of the largest non-nuclear blasts in history. Over 220 people died, 6,500 were injured and 330,000 lost their homes. The city’s inhabitants felt their houses shake; their windows shattered. The bustling area surrounding the port, full of restaurants and bars, was reduced to rubble.
The blast launched a crisis within a crisis. Lebanon had already struggled for months with a plummeting currency and soaring unemployment. The price of common goods imported from abroad had become totally unaffordable for the average person. The explosion also renewed calls for a political revolution against the corrupt elite, who oversaw the collapse of the city and its economy.
Back in 2010, Dutch photographer Eveline Gerritsen was living in Beirut as an exchange student. When she heard the devastating news, she got in touch with her old study group asking how she could help. Together with her friend Rawad Kansoun, now professor of film studies at the Lebanese International University, she launched the photo project Nightingales of Beirut, focussing on the city’s music scene after the explosion. VICE reached out to some of the young musicians photographed to ask how music is helping them through the aftermath of the blast.
“As a singer, I was unleashing my music on these streets and now they're gone," said Farah, 26. The pandemic hit Lebanon hard – many businesses had to close their doors and people lost their jobs. For entertainers, the explosion made everything worse, since it destroyed one of the city’s main nightlife areas, leaving many without a spot to perform. “It was like a second home to me,” she said. She’s now working a lot on broadcasting her music on social media, since most in-person gatherings are banned, and hopes to release a music video soon.
Farah was home at the time of the explosion. Her family made it out unharmed, but she lost a close friend. “I was depressed for weeks,” she said, “but I joined many groups to help clean the streets of Beirut and offer food and provide shelter for the homeless.” She said she and her friends are struggling to be creative at a time of deep crisis and grief. “Nearly everyone I know who does music was affected the same way, they couldn't translate their feelings into song.”
She was already looking for opportunities outside Lebanon before the pandemic, since supporting yourself as an artist is nearly impossible in the country without a side job. Now that the Lebanese lira is so weak against the US dollar, Farah can’t even afford basic equipment. Despite the challenges, she thinks young Beirutis will eventually find inspiration in these tragic events and make art out of it. “Everybody needs a trauma to become who they are,” she said.
Jack, 29, is Farah’s brother and producer. He’s had to hustle and save to pursue music, but is now a composer for short movies, teaches at university and is a drummer in a band. On the day of the explosion, Jack was returning from his studio after producing a song about women’s empowerment. “My car was flipped to the other side of the road with me in it,” he said. He made it out with just a few scratches, but his studio was destroyed. “Everything – my first drum set, my PC, my books. All of my music. There’s nothing, we could save nothing.”
He’s now trying to replace his belongings and applying for jobs abroad. Even if his friends, family and memories are in Beirut, the city is now unrecognisable – he can’t see any opportunities for himself. “I can’t call this Beirut anymore,” he said. “I will never go back, or maybe when I’m 60 or 70, just to die here.” His family say they’ll join him, too.
Born in 1991, one year after the end of the 15-year-long Lebanese civil war, Jack has already been through two more wars in 2000 and 2006, plus yearly economic crises. “I didn’t live my life like other normal people in the world,” he said. For him and many other young Lebanese, the explosion was the final straw. Now he wants to join the up to 14 million Lebanese living outside of the country, mostly in Brazil, Argentina, the US and a few European and Gulf countries. By contrast, only 6.8 million live in Lebanon itself.
“I just want something really basic: peace of mind, electricity,” said Hussein, 25, a pianist and Jack’s bandmate. The Lebanese government can’t guarantee 24/7 electricity, so there are daily scheduled power outages lasting three hours in the capital and six in other areas. “I’m only 25. I don’t want to continue like this,” he said. Hussein is computer engineering graduate but has had to work retail to support himself. He’s been engaged for six years, but can’t even get money together to buy furniture for a future home.
With most young people struggling to imagine their future, Hussein said everyone just wants to throw caution to the wind and party to forget their problems. Of course, most concerts have been cancelled to prevent a surge in COVID cases that would collapse Lebanon’s already fragile healthcare system.
“It’s wrong, but people don’t care about anything anymore,” Hussein said. “They want to live their life, with no money, no future, devastating exchange rates and their salaries being halved.” Instead, musicians can only reach listeners through social media, which is hard for Hussein, who says it’s a different kind of connection than being on stage.
A few events have been allowed after the blast, but artists say they can pick up on the audience’s troubled state of mind. Cosette, 29, is a singer and actress at Metro Al Madina theatre in the Hamra district of Beirut. She also works as a freelance video editor on the side. Performing after the explosion was hard, she said, because she can see the grief on her audience’s faces. “We lost faith, we lost our serenity, our passion to do things.”
Despite the city’s history, people in Beirut felt blindsided by the explosion, which wiped out much more of the capital in one go than the years of conflict did. “We can predict war, we can hide, but we could not afford the emotional weight of this thing,” she said.
“When a problem hit us, we used to go to parties, we used to sing to people to forget,” Cosette said. “But how can I sing in front of people and ask them to come and enjoy my music?”
It’s a dilemma faced by many artists in Beirut. They want to honour the victims of this catastrophe and demand justice for them, but also help the families be happy and resilient again. “I was talking to my friend about how we can help people and help ourselves get through this,” she said, “and I think that the best way is to sing about it.”