Beirut blast - GulfToday

Beirut blast

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


A massive explosion ripped through Beirut on Aug.4, killing and injuring people while also blowing out windows in buildings across the city.

When I saw images of Beirut’s streets once again strewn with debris and glass shards from the Aug.4 blast in the port, I wondered if my friend Ali and his family avoided death or injury and damage to their home. I rang round most of my friends to check on what had happened to them but I have neither phone nor mobile number for Ali.

I met Ali while I was a graduate student at the American University of Beirut (AUB). Although he must have been 9 or 10, he was not in school. He was posted on Bliss Street across from AUB’s main gate with a small box of chiclets which he “sold” to students and staff. I put “sold” in quotes because many of us dropped 10 or 25 piastres into his box but did not take a the two-chiclet parcel on offer. These were the good old days when the 100 piastre Lebanese Lira was three to the US dollar not the post-civil war devalued 1,500 Liras to the dollar or the current 6000-9000 Liras to the dollar.

A handsome boy with a round head, light brown hair and sparkling Mediterranean blue eyes, Ali was always neat, tidy and polite. By contrast, his “sister” Wahida’s dark hair was matted, face streaked with dirt, and manner aggressive, wheedling and off-putting. She was not in fact his sister but his partner on the AUB Main Gate pitch. Claiming to be Palestinian refugees, they earned pittances for their poor south Lebanese families living in dire conditions near the international airport on the edge of Beirut.

Several student friends took Ali and Wahida to the YWCA where chiclets kids could get food, clothing, and a few hours of education. The ladies there even managed to untangle and wash Wahida’s horrid hair. Within a day or two both were back at their post, Wahida in her usual grimy condition. Like Beirut’s hundreds of chiclets children, Ali and Wahida could not escape their roles as breadwinners.

For some reason I never understood, Ali decided I was his chum. Without claiming a fee, he declared, in the only English word seemed to know, that he was my “eescort.” He would take my arm to accompany me when I would cross Bliss Street from Faisal’s restaurant to the squat stone arch of the main gate. During the year I walked from my flat to the university, Ali frequently assumed the role of “eescort.”

After I bought my green MG, dubbed “Hajji,” I saw him less since I entered the campus from the Medical Gate further down the street. Although I was employed at the university after graduation, I lost sight of Ali and Wahida. I assumed they had grown too old to earn as chiclets kids and had been assigned other jobs or, even, allowed to attend school.

In mid-October 1990, my journalist husband Godfrey and I had flown to Beirut from exile in Cyprus to cover the end of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. As we left  the Cavalier hotel off Hamra Street and squeezed between cars jammed on the sidewalk and street, a man called out to me, “Hello, good morning.” We paused as he drew near.  “Do you remember me?” he asked. “I am Ali.” I instantly recognised him when he announced his name. Although decades had passed and he had grown into a handsome man, his eyes were  still brilliant blue, his hair was soft brown with a tinge of grey, and his smile was as wide as ever. I could not believe my eyes. “How are you Ali?”

He said was fine. He had a family. They had endured Lebanon’s devastating 15-year civil conflict that had compelled us to take refuge in Cyprus in 1976. He survived Israel’s 1982 invasion. “What is your job?” I asked. “I have a shop for glass and replace windows,” he replied with pride. Although Ali had risen from poverty and prospered in spite of and because of war, I was glad for him. “How is Wadhida,” I asked. “She lives in the Dahiya [south Beirut] and has three children,” he replied. We shook hands and parted. I should have taken down his phone number, but I didn’t. Mobiles were not omnipresent then.

If he has weathered Lebanon’s subsequent turmoil, Ali must have retired by now. Perhaps, after the horrendous blast at Beirut’s port, he will leave retirement and contribute his mite to rebuilding beloved Beirut. But all the glaziers and all the glass in Lebanon and the region cannot replace the vast volume of windows and doors blasted by the ammonium nitrate explosion that roared across the city, the worst in Lebanon’s tormented history. Glass panes will have to come from abroad. The port, which handles 85-90 per cent of imports, is gutted and out of action. Lebanon’s northern port at Tripoli cannot handle large cargo containers that used to come through Beirut port.

Glass is one of the primary materials for rebuilding Beirut’s smashed homes, shops, offices, hospitals, schools, and banks. Glass provides security. Glass gives illumination during the day when the electricity supply is cut. Glass protects from heat and humidity, insects and dust. Plastic sheeting can serve temporarily but cannot replace glass.  

Generous workmen have offered to repair free of charge windows and doors and paint damaged walls. But, the need for window glass is too great for local manufactures to cope and existing stocks cannot meet current massive demand. Neighbouring Syria should be a nearby source but cannot muster the volume needed.

Due to Western — particularly escalating US — sanctions covering reconstruction material for that war-ravaged country, the region’s largest pane glass factory in the industrial estate near Aleppo has not been able to import spare parts and raw materials essential for mass production. This factory could have supplied Beirut by overland lorry routes. Instead, Lebanon will have to import glass by sea through Tripoli. Its suppliers will be distant and more expensive than the Aleppo firm at a time the country is broken and bankrupt and Lebanese are more desperate than ever.


Related articles