Through long decades of war and turmoil in Lebanon, the citizens of Beirut were trained to recognize the difference between the sound of an airstrike versus an artillery shell or a car bombing. But this week’s catastrophic explosion at the Port of Beirut, which claimed the lives of more than 150 people, injured thousands, and wiped out large parts of the city, sounded like nothing that they had heard before.
“My first thought was that it’s an attack, but it didn’t sound like any normal bomb,” said Joumana Asseily, director of Beirut’s Marfa’ Projects, in a phone conversation with Hyperallergic. “The ground was shaking. No one understood what’s happening.”
Asseily founded Marfa’ (which means “port” in Arabic) five years ago in a former warehouse at Beirut’s Port District. The contemporary art gallery is located about one-third of a mile from where the explosion occurred.
Fortunately, the gallery was closed on the day of the explosion, August 4, and Asseily and her colleague were in safer parts of the city.
However, Asseily tells Hyperallergic, “We could have had an opening that night or worked till late, as we usually do. I still can’t believe that we were working, exhibiting, and living so close to 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate and maybe ammunition.”
The blast gutted the gallery, shattering its windows and reducing its interiors to rubble. A collection of paintings by Beirut-based artist Tamara Al-Samerraei that was on view was completely destroyed.
Marfa’ is one of many art spaces that were affected by the blast. Other Beirut galleries like Galerie Tanit, Sfeir Semler Gallery, and the Saleh Barakat Gallery were also seriously damaged. Major art organizations like the Sursock Museum, Ashkal Alwan, the Arab Image Foundation, the Beirut Art Center, and the Aïshti Foundation, suffered various degrees of destruction.
“My heart is torn out,” Asseily said about the decimation of the city’s art venues. “Our story is the story of many other galleries. Every one of us has tried to excel in our field and contribute to the vibrancy of Beirut. My gallery only suffered from physical damages, but I can’t stop thinking about the people who didn’t make it.”
The blast caught Marfa’ just as it was emerging from months of financial losses due to the COVID-19 lockdown and the nationwide protests that preceded it. When the disaster hit, Asseily was in the process of organizing a new group show for September. The show was supposed to finally bring the gallery back to full activity.
“We are now in survival mode,” she said. “A week ago I was concerned about safety issues because of the pandemic but now my biggest worry is checking if everyone is safe and has a shelter.”
When asked if she thinks that the government would provide assistance in recovering businesses like hers, Asseily’s tone changed from mournful to flustered.
“The government in Lebanon is nonexistent,” she said. “The situation is completely hopeless.”
Asseily’s words reflect the overall sentiment in Beirut, where citizens are demanding accountability from the country’s leaders for what appears as a case of criminal negligence. These charges come on the heels of wide protests against corruption and cronyism at the top levels of government.
“We need fundamental change,” Asseily added. “The old guard and their cronies must go.”
Asseily is now planning to continue the gallery’s through a virtual reality (VR) app that her husband, who is a tech entrepreneur, is helping develop. But she said she will not give up on restoring her gallery space.
“I’m so attached to that place,” she said. “I don’t know how long it will take, and what it will take, but we will eventually be back.”