Three weeks after the explosion that killed more than 180 people and wounded 6,000 others in Beirut, the Franco-Lebanese novelist Diane Mazloum is obsessed by the fraction of a second which preceded the blast, the vacuum created by the explosion, as if the city sucked in its breath.
That sound has come to encapsulate Mazloum’s sense of foreboding when she returned to Beirut in early August, after a long absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It was an accumulation of things,” Mazloum says. “Every day we seemed to fall farther, without ever touching bottom. People were demanding basic things: water, electricity, education, rubbish collection. Bank accounts were frozen. We had to queue to withdraw $100. Then only devalued Lebanese lire. Schools and universities fired 30 per cent of their staff. Businesses folded, one by one. We kept saying it cannot get worse, and every time it got worse.”
Mazloum, aged 30, lives mostly in Paris with her French husband, a publisher, and infant son. She was in the bathroom of her parents’ apartment in Ashrafieh, near the port, when more than 2,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored there exploded. The blast propelled her on to the hall floor.
Broken glass is her other most salient memory of the catastrophe. The sound of glass being swept into huge mounds in the streets below. She and her mother picking tiny shards from their arms and legs with tweezers.
“For six years, we were on a powder keg. We slept, woke, ate, sent children to school, not knowing,” Mazloum says, her voice turning angry. “It was worse than negligence or disrespect. The government considered our lives to be worthless.”
Lebanese politicians are mostly former militia leaders who simply “swapped their Kalashnikovs for suits”, Mazloum continues. “The state, the economy, the banks and the justice system are in their clutches. If one of them falls, they all fall. So they protect each other.”
Last October 17th was "magnificent", Mazloum says. She felt she woke up in a new Beirut. "Everyone was in the street, carrying flags, singing the national anthem. We tore down posters of politicians. We were in love with Lebanon. For the first time, we felt like a Lebanese nation. It was probably a mirage. It was destroyed by the collapse of the banking system, by winter and the pandemic."
Mazloum’s three novels, Beirut at Night, The Golden Age and A Swimming Pool in the Desert, are all set in Lebanon.
The Golden Age, about the marriage of Lebanon's Miss Universe, Georgina Rizk, to Palestinian leader Ali Hassan Salameh, won two literary prizes.
Rizk and Salameh met at the beginning of the 1975-1990 civil war and fell madly in love.
"She was the young beauty queen who personified the effervescence of Lebanon's golden age," says Mazloum. "He was the right arm of Yasir Arafat, considered by Israel to be a dangerous terrorist. He embodied violence, the cause, blood, war. He was Muslim. She is Christian. Their marriage symbolised Lebanon's uniqueness, between east and west. Lebanon's modernity and diversity hurt them, and the country."
Israeli agents assassinated Salameh in Beirut in 1979.
Mazloum’s father is Greek Catholic, her mother Greek Orthodox. She was born in Paris, raised in Rome and studied at the American University of Beirut.
Most summers, the family returned to their native village, Rachaya el Wadi, in the foothills of Mount Hermon, where Lebanon's borders touch those of Israel and Syria.
Mazloum’s French husband tells her she should be more European than Lebanese. “But I feel more Lebanese than anything else,” she says.
Mazloum traces that sense of belonging to her childhood. “Being Lebanese meant living in a cocoon, despite the war,” she says. “A very warm, protective cocoon with the whole family, parents, grandparents, cousins, uncles. The door was left open so neighbours could come and go. The adults drank whiskey while they watched the news. When the power went out, they lit candles and stayed up talking, talking, talking. I fell asleep with the reassuring sound of adult conversation.”
Mazloum has tired of western cliches about resilience and Lebanon rising like a phoenix from the ashes. “Since this explosion, we are very, very tired, beyond resilience,” she says.
Lebanese law allows a father, but not a mother, to transmit citizenship to their children. “Despite everything, I am Lebanese and part of me is proud of being Lebanese,” Mazloum says. “I don’t know where this fidelity comes from. It is stronger than me. I would do anything for my son to be Lebanese.”