Beirut's businesses ruined in the blast say recovery is personal on anniversary

Beirutis honouring the victims of the August 4 blast express a mixture of anger and resignation

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Exactly one year after the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port, areas close by bear scars from the August 4 disaster.

A glass installation in a prominent part of the central district Gemmayze lies shattered on the ground.

Lebanon’s President Michel Aoun declared the anniversary a day of national mourning, so most shops and restaurants are closed, their metal storefronts still warped in some places from the impact of the blast.

But one small shop that sells everything from toilet paper to water – known locally as a “dekkeneh” – is busy. Shoppers come and go, buying large packs of water in anticipation of large protests in the afternoon.

One man asks for a cake. But he pushes aside what the shop owner, Siham Tekian, 64, has to offer, and complains about its price. Lebanon’s financial crisis, which started a year before the blast, has caused rapid inflation and impoverished its population.

“You think that if you find a croissant, it will be cheap?” Ms Tekian replies.

I am here by choice
Aline Kamakian, owner of Mayrig restaurant

Ms Tekian is working today because she is expecting media interviews. Her shop, open late, is a fixture of Armenia Street, which is lined with bars and restaurants. Several cats can often be found sitting near the entrance, waiting for a morsel from one of its patrons.

On August 4, the store was obliterated. Ms Tekian, who had gone home to her flat on the third floor of the building, suffered cuts on the right side of her body from smashed windows.

Doctors gave up on picking out all the shards. The nerves in her arm were severed, and she can no longer feel three fingers in her right hand. “When I sponge my back, I still feel small pieces of glass,” she said.

Ms Tekian’s friends raised funds to help her and her husband, John, 74, to rebuild their shop. She says she cannot remember the exact amount.

“When I told them ‘Thanks. I don’t need anything more’, they said ‘What else do you want? A TV, a refrigerator, anything?’” she said.

Their support helped her to get back on her feet in a country where the state has been largely absent in supporting victims financially.

“If my husband and I were younger, we would have closed the shop and left Lebanon,” she said.

Giving up is also not an option for Aline Kamakian, 52, the owner of Armenian restaurant Mayrig. On Wednesday, her restaurant, a few metres down the road in Gemmayze, was closed and dark. Electricity was always in short supply in Lebanon but has become more scarce since the financial crisis.

Ms Kamakian waited for her 55 employees and their families to arrive for an afternoon ceremony to commemorate the blast. Five of them became disabled. They plan to walk together, white roses in hand, towards the port to protest with families of other victims.

“I am here by choice,” she told The National.

“My employees gave everything to this business and this country. You cannot close.”

Ms Kamakian said she declined an offer of becoming tourism minister in the latest government formed in January 2020, and that she wholeheartedly supports the anti-government protest movement born in late 2019.

She has refused to allow prominent politicians to enter her restaurant, despite intimidation. For the past year, protesters have regularly shamed Lebanese leaders, who are widely perceived as corrupt and responsible for the country’s crisis, when they are seen in public. “It’s a hell of a victory,” Ms Kamakian said.

Mayrig raised $72,000 in crowdfunding following the blast, which Ms Kamakian has used to rebuild the business and to pay for medical treatment for her employees. “Somewhere, somehow, we stand up again,” she says.

Once again, the government has been absent. “The only thing they did was ask me during reconstruction whether I had a proper licence to put a ‘Mayrig’ sign outside my door,” she said. “We just want them to leave us alone.”

As she speaks, a young man opens the door. He has seen her on television, and thanks her for staying in Lebanon after the blast. Ms Kamakian says that as a US passport holder, she had the option to leave.

They both tear up. “You are the future of this country,” she tells him. “It’s for people like that that I stay,” she says, and walks back inside.

Lebanon’s youth is angry, says Antonella Hitti. The young woman lost three relatives in the blast, all firefighters: her cousin Charbel Hitti, 24; her brother Najib Hitti, 26; and her brother-in-law Charbel Karam, 38.

At Beirut’s port, families gathered on Wednesday morning to commemorate the team of 10 firefighters who tried to put out the blaze at a warehouse in the port, not knowing it contained lethal chemicals. They all died.

“We have no more feelings,” she says. “We only have the anger.”

Updated: August 4th 2021, 3:50 PM