After the blast, Beirut’s residents head for the countryside
When the Beirut port exploded on August 4, 2020, Yehya Abbas knew it was time to leave Beirut.
His apartment, located in the neighbourhood of Zuquq al-Blat directly adjacent to the port, was rendered uninhabitable in the blast, the exterior walls all but shattering from the force of the shockwave.
Staying in the house and waiting for repairs was unthinkable, as Abbas and his wife already had months of rent accumulated before the blast. Finding another apartment in the city was also unlikely – Abbas lost his job as a chauffeur six months ago and rents had only risen since.
Luckily, a school time friend of his heard about their predicament and told them they could stay on his property in the town of Balouneh, about an hour’s drive out of the city, tucked up in the green of Mount Lebanon.
Beirut is a city defined by displacement. It has been a haven for refugees from all over the country and region since it fell out of Ottoman control in the early 20th century
They were put up in a narrow, two-room shack on the edge of their friend’s property. The walls are made of stacked, unpainted cinderblocks and the corrugated tin roof sits loosely on top, with gaps wide enough to fit a hand through. One of the two rooms has a gaping hole in the floor, where old tyres were stacked to form something of a surface.
“It’s hot in the summer, and freezing in the winter,” Yehya Abbas told The New Arab. “There’s barely anything in the fridge, not even a loaf of bread. I never thought I would live in a place like this... Still, it’s become the best option I have.”
“De-urbanisation” of the city
In some ways, Beirut is a city defined by displacement. It has been a haven for refugees from all over the country and region since it fell out of Ottoman control in the early 20th century.
The makeup of its population reflects these patterns of displacement, with the capital city populated by Lebanese hailing from the more urban, coastal areas and the southern rural periphery, in addition to Armenians, Syrians, and Circassians.
Its physical layout has also quite literally been shaped by the various crises which have buffeted the country and its neighbours, with entire neighbourhoods growing out of the informal settlements and camps used to house refugees.
Beirut’s southern suburbs, al-Dahiya, was populated by waves of Lebanese fleeing Israel’s offensives, and later occupation, of southern Lebanon in the 70s and 80s. Its densely-packed Armenian quarter, Burj Hammoud, started as a collection of shacks for those Armenians fleeing the Armenian genocide in 1917 – eventually, the quarter became formalised and gained its own municipal structure in the 1950s.
Beirut is also dotted with Palestinian refugee camps, some, like Burj Barajneh in southern Beirut, which was founded to shelter Palestinians fleeing the Nakba in 1948. Though initially meant to be temporary, the camps have hardened into densely populated sections of the city, where Palestinians live alongside other refugee populations and Lebanese down on their luck.
However, after the port explosion, Beirut has become a place to escape from, rather than escape to.
In the days and weeks after the Beirut blast, the towns of Mount Lebanon, which overlook Beirut from above, were inundated with people who had suddenly lost their homes. Schools were turned into shelters overnight, and facilities were set up to house the displaced.
In one of those towns, Aramoun, just 20 kilometres outside of Beirut, residents say that many who were displaced from the blast never left – and increasing numbers of residents from Beirut were coming in search of cheaper living conditions.
“I’ve lived in Aramoun for 50 years, and in those fifty years the town was full of empty villas and houses – but now, because of all those left after the port [explosion], you can’t find an empty house here,” Ahmad Barboor, the official (the mukhtar in Arabic) in Aramoun responsible for civil documentation and registration, told The New Arab.
“I left Beirut to move to a calm place, now with all the traffic and movement here, you would think we’re back in Beirut,” Barboor said.
"The isolation of living in a town unfamiliar to one's own and the stress of a lack of income has created tremendous psychological pressure"
Some residents, like Abbas, left Beirut in the immediate aftermath of the Beirut port explosion and are unable to find their way back, as their financial status dwindles alongside the country’s economic situation.
Others, like Wael Saab, a 50-year old Lebanese man who left Beirut for Aramoun in April 2021, were not pushed out of Beirut by the blast, but by the worsening economic conditions in the city.
“What’s the point of staying in the city and paying rent if there’s no work?” the electrical engineer said to The New Arab. “I had a company with three employees; now there’s no one but me. I haven’t had a project in six months.”
Saab relied on his family ties to leave Beirut, moving to an apartment his sister bought in Aramoun 15 years prior, where he does not need to pay rent. “The only thing getting me through this is the connection I have with my family,” Saab said.
He adds that he has no plans to return to Beirut and has advised his son not to return either. His wife has already left Lebanon for her native Russia, and his only son now lives and works in Cyprus.
To Saab, the departure from Beirut is just a stop along the way on what he to be a final exodus from the country. He is far from alone in his desire to emigrate.
“The number one thing people come into my office for these days is to get a passport, so they can leave,” Barboor, Aramoun’s mukhtar, said.
Where to next?
Though they are free from Beirut’s congested streets and its ever-rising rents, life outside the city is far from easy.
In Balouneh, Abbas has taken to begging to make ends meet. While he does not have to pay rent for the house he lives in, he does have to cover electricity and water, of which he owes around 200,000 lira (around $2.50) per month. The owners of the house have threatened to kick him out of the house if he cannot come up with the money by the end of the month.
Though he has searched for more suitable work, the opportunities available to him require him to travel far outside the village. The trip to and from the worksite would exceed whatever payment he got for a day’s work.
“There’s no work here, what can I do? Should I steal? Be homeless? Tell me, what can I do?” Abbas said.
"The only silver lining I have right now is the prospect of leaving Lebanon—I don’t see any future here"
The isolation of living in a town unfamiliar to his own and the stress of a lack of income has created tremendous psychological pressure on Abbas and his wife. With nothing to do but sit and ponder their dismal situation, neither is hopeful for a positive resolution of their predicament.
“What future is there for us?” Abbas said. “If I wasn’t fearful of God, I would go outside right now and throw myself in front of a car. We’re dying where we’re standing.”
Saab also feels isolated, uprooted from the way of life he was used to in his native Beirut and far from his friends and family. To cope, he tries to stay home as little as possible, going on walks, or visiting old school friends, or even lending his engineering expertise to a friend renovating his supermarket.
“The only silver lining I have right now is the prospect of leaving Lebanon – I don’t see any future here,” Saab said.
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean. William is also a researcher with the Orient Policy Center. Previously, he worked as a journalist with Syria Direct in Amman, Jordan.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou