Messianic Time in Lebanon

by Tom Abi Samra

I thought it was an earthquake, only for the shaking to be followed by a loud blast. Trained during the 2006 Lebanon-Israel War, I could tell it wasn’t a bomb, at least not of the type to which we’ve grown accustomed. I ran to turn on the TV: a blast razed the Port of Beirut, killing hundreds and injuring thousands. Shaky handheld footage of the blast and still images of the destruction—voyeuristic, almost pornographic—circulated online, not dissimilar to stills from the latest apocalyptic Hollywood blockbuster. I look(ed) at these photos in guilty schadenfreude: there is a paradoxical attraction toward and repulsion from these harrowing images.

Beirut was simultaneously recognizable and indiscernible. When I look at these images, in the tumultuous days in the wake of the explosion in Beirut, I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s conception of “messianic time”

Why would someone like Benjamin, a Marxist, insist on “enlist[ing] the services of theology” in reading—and writing—history? “This is how the angel of history must look,” he writes, evoking Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus. “His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at its feet.”

I cannot help but return to Benjamin’s reflections on history. For how else can we wrap our heads around so much destruction, humiliation, pain, pure ugliness—without attributing all of this to something “messianic,” supernatural, extra-worldly?

A Chain of Events

More than 178 have been confirmed dead, and 6000 injured. Over 300,000 Beirut residents are displaced as a result of the immense blast that struck the city. Even though many details are murky as of yet, we do know that 2750 tons of ammonium nitrate—a chemical used in the manufacturing of fertilizers, as well as explosives—ignited and detonated, creating an explosion shockwave large enough to shatter glass windows many miles away from the explosion in the port. It was even felt in Cyprus, 150 miles away from Lebanon. Seismographs recorded the explosion as a “3.3-magnitude earthquake.”

The source of the ammonium nitrate seems to be a shipment that was held up at the port in 2013, unloaded in 2014, and abandoned—a ticking time bomb—at the port, until it exploded on the afternoon of August 4, 2020. But experts point out that while ammonium nitrate catalyzes explosions, it is extremely unlikely that it explodes on its own. Therefore, there seems to be something that ignited the fire, as the videos show, before the larger destructive blast took place.

As the New York Times reports, the Russia-owned ship Rhosus was to travel from Georgia, through the Suez Canal, toward Mozambique. But according to the ship’s captain, the ship’s owner said that he couldn’t afford the charges to cross the Suez Canal, and so decided to make a detour through Beirut and further load other cargo. However, “Lebanese officials found the ship unseaworthy and impounded the vessel for failing to pay the port docking fees and other charges.” 

Eventually, most of the ship’s crew was allowed to disembark and leave Lebanon, except for the captain and three crew members. After they lost contact with the ship’s owner, the remaining crew ran out of food and were allowed to leave. Lebanese officials were left with the responsibility to unload the cargo—2750 tons of ammonium nitrate—due to its threat to the environment, according to legal documents. The ship, due to its crumbling state, ultimately drowned in 2015 or 2016.

Since unloaded, these 2750 tons of explosive material were left in Hangar 12 at the port, despite many requests from customs officials at the port to remove this hazardous material. The last request was issued on 22 July of this year; the president confirmed his receipt of the letter from security forces, which he forwarded to the prime minister, who in turn forwarded it to certain ministers, including the justice minister. It is worth noting that this latest request was more concerned with the ship’s pending fees, rather than the explosive material that was stored in the port.

A former port employee confirmed to the Guardian that other materials had also been  stored in Hanger 12 beside the ammonium nitrate, including fireworks that were confiscated by the government in 2009 or 2010—which, according to video footage, seem likely to have caught fire before igniting the ammonium nitrate.

A Catastrophe

This catastrophic blast comes after a turbulent few months in Lebanon. Last October, a revolution erupted against the political class—under the slogan “Killun ya‘nī killun” [“All of them means all of them”]—leading the then prime minister to resign. And in March, Lebanon defaulted on its foreign debt, precipitating a much-anticipated economic crisis. Inflation is soaring, and basic services—electricity, drinking water, internet—are intermittent at best and nonexistent at worst.

These protests can be tied back to the wave of radical anti-corruption movement politics that emerged in Lebanon in Summer 2015, after the government failed to pick up the trash from the streets. Called #YouStink (or, in Arabic, Ṭul‘it Rīḥitkun), the movement’s name is a pun on the trash on the streets and the trash in power. Culminating in a protest of more than 100,000 people at the end of August 2015, the movement subsequently dwindled, and remained somewhat dormant until October 17, 2019, when protesters hit the street again after the government suggested a $0.20 daily tax on WhatsApp calls—the straw that broke the camel’s back, so to speak. Called the thawra, or revolution, it eventually quieted down with the naming of a new cabinet in January 2020. While many of its members are so-called technocrats, many others represented political parties. In the last months, the cabinet failed to enact significant change.

Many people attribute the catastrophic blast on August 4 to the government’s ignorance and negligence. The devastation in Beirut has reignited the spirit of the thawra: a large number of protesters hit the streets starting August 8 (and counting), demanding that the cabinet, parliament, and president resign. The current government, backed by Hezbollah, the Shi‘i political group supported by Iran, does not want to resign, citing the lack of alternatives and shifting the blame away from themselves vis-à-vis the blast. For instance, when asked about resigning in a recent interview, the Lebanese president Michel Aoun says “it is out of the question” because it would “leave a power vacuum.” He also acknowledges that he knew about the chemicals at the port, but says that he has “no authority over the port.”

The political class (whether the minority or majority—all of them, no exception) in Lebanon is primarily composed of sectarian warlords, a legacy of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–90). In 1990, they changed their attire from military uniforms to business suits and took over the country, slowly sucking out the country’s resources, leading us to where we are today. They cannot be responsible for running a country justly, unbiasedly, and democratically; their sectarian mindsets cannot be undone, their negligence resulted in an explosion which some consider a crime against humanity.

Following massive protests and breaks-ins at five government ministry buildings, the prime minister resigned on Monday, August 10—after significant pressure from the speaker of the parliament.

This resignation was supposed to crank down people’s anger, but this trick is all too familiar: people are still in the streets, demanding additional resignations: the speaker of the parliament and the president. 

In parallel, there is a general anxiety in the country about what electoral law we would follow, for the current law is the product of a kind of gerrymandering, such that it practically guarantees that those in power remain. As such, there appears to be a push for appointing a cabinet with exceptional authority to develop and implement a new, fair electoral law. Nonetheless, a lot of this is to be still developing and to be determined by more than domestic forces; Lebanese politics is heavily imbricated in US/West–Iran/Russia tensions, and the current establishment awaits directives from France, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and Iran.

Less than ten members of parliament have resigned since August 4. The vast majority of the parliament members, however, even those who consider themselves the opposition, appear opposed to resignation, arguing that they do not want to leave the parliament for the majority—for Hezbollah and its allies. What they are not saying though is that they are all one establishment benefitting from the others in power, despite their political differences. They all cover up for each other’s crimes and nepotism.

The election of a new parliament according to a set of just, non-gerrymandered electoral laws seems essential.

The Continuum of History

Benjamin’s idea of messianic time has stuck with me in the weeks following the blast: how else can one make sense of a disaster, of the inevitable, violent unfolding (rather than progression or development) of history? And like the messiness of history, this essay cannot be but fragmented; how else can it account for the totality of history, for the forgotten scraps lost in the rapid gush of time?

Against the backdrop of corruption, economic collapse, the Coronavirus pandemic, and, now, the mass destruction of our country’s capital, it feels like we are cursed. Perhaps it is for this reason that Benjamin’s essay feels so powerful: it, at the very least, accounts for a certain extra-worldly power, so that one can make sense of so much tragedy. “Can all of this be accidental?” every Lebanese asks themselves today.

Benjamin begins his theses writing:

There was once, we know, an automaton constructed in such a way that it could respond to every move by a chess player with a countermove that would ensure the winning of the game…A system of mirrors created the illusion that this table was transparent on all sides…A master at chess sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings. One can imagine a philosophic counterpart to this apparatus. The puppet, called “historical materialism,” is to win all the time. It can easily be a match for anyone if it enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is small and ugly and has to keep out of sight.

He identifies in history an illusion of automation, of linear teleology, while in reality, there is someone controlling this automation such that it is an automation no longer. Thus, his reading of historical materialism, which he opposes to historicism, is messianic, theological—supernatural, non-atheistic, almost mystical. Although the struggle against hegemonic forces—fascism, capitalism, sectarianism, blinding nationalism—must be concrete, material, this material struggle serves a purpose much larger than the mundanity of the material. Instead, victory in such a struggle results in metaphysical, almost spiritual, gains: dignity, peace (with oneself and with others), respect.

One could say the same thing about Lebanon, Beirut, and the tragedy. On the one hand, it is a series of unfortunate events—one thing leading to another, concluding in a huge blast; in other words, a simple, teleological rendering of events. But reality is much messier, its totality inexpressible. And in the teleological retelling, we do not account for the reasons that resulted in this disaster—reasons which some want to hide. Jacob Taubes writes, “Precisely the nonconstructive manner of the chronicler does justice to the truth that nothing is lost for history.” It is this kind of history that we want to write, a “nonconstructive” one.

In Lebanese historical narrative, our puppetmaster inside the automaton is the succession of failed and corrupt governments and leaders, their neglect, and their selfishness. Benjamin reminds us not to accept coherence in the telling of history, for every narrative is an act of violence vis-à-vis reality, slashing it with a sword, distorting it, warping it.

What can we learn from Benjamin—who, as a Jewish man, wrote these theses as he fled the Nazis in 1940, shortly before he lost hope and committed suicide—today in Lebanon is that we must “make the continuum of history explode,” thus exposing the corrupt plots of the so-called governments (from 1990, the end of the civil war, to this day), their relentless negligence, and their irresponsibility. And in acknowledging this chess master as the governments of the past 30 years, I insist on their responsibility for robbing Beirut and its people of their lives. 

For it is our consciousness and knowledge of this hegemonic establishment’s inner workings which will empowers us, allowing us to disrupt its banal, baseless teleological renderings, which conveniently “blot out” their involvement in successive tragedies against the Lebanese people, the last of which is this blast. Corruption is nothing new—every Lebanese person, and politician, acknowledges it; but seeing corruption as the puppetmaster in Benjamin’s essay ultimately allows the people to realize that undoing the continuity of history is in their hands.

We, the people, must become gleaners of the forgotten fragments of history—the fragments of history that our politicians want to sweep under the rug. When we shed light on their criminal pasts, and their seemingly selfless but actually selfish mindsets, we will then be able to undo their neat histories that are too neat for us to tamper with, that make too much sense for us to challenge. These neat teleologies should raise suspicions; and rightly so because under the rubble are many fragments of history that they don’t want us to see.

Exploding the Continuum

Lebanese politicians are master crafters of metanarratives—it is not limited to just this catastrophe. Crisis after crisis, every political party, every faction, constructs a narrative of deceit, failure, and corruption that conveniently renders themselves innocent. They are never complicit. In a way, they are all “master[s] at chess,” chiseling at reality’s totality until any trace of their complicity is effaced. In their contradictory teleologies of crises, what becomes clear in the eyes of the people is that they’re all responsible, in one way or another, of where we are today, and that their contradictory views are simply a means of fracturing the power of the people. 

We come to realize that they benefit from each other’s contradictory stories: they are all one big group of warlords. A class who are seemingly divided—refracted through “a system of mirrors”—but in reality, despite their religious differences, all benefit from a corrupt system which they use to cover up each other’s crimes and nepotism. In other words, they employ a variety of the well-worn divide and conquer strategy.

Achieving this awareness in the people, however, requires more than critique, or the sort of debunking this, and many an article, does. While Benjamin here draws on the messianic to emancipate us from the selectivity of historicism, Lebanese politicians’ sectarian rhetoric is characterized by a certain messianism in its theological nature. When faced with tragedy, or deadlock, they resort to God—thanking him that it wasn’t worse, saying it was his will (and our fate), and asking him to help us get through said tragedy. 

A knot as to the identity of the chess master(s) inside the automaton arises: on the one hand, the blind followers of the sectarian politicians consider God to be behind the current state of affairs (and/or other factions—i.e., other sects in power—hindering reform), and on the other hand, the people who have lost faith in God believe the culprits to be their politicians (remember the thawra’s slogan: “killun ya‘nī killun”). 

Then there is a large group of people that has simultaneously lost faith in their politicians while still hanging on to their religious faith. And this results in inaction, for these people, which I think make up a considerable amount of the population, to varying degrees relegate accountability to God. Although a survey shows a decrease in self-reported religiosity from 67% in 2007 to 24% in 2019, Lebanese television’s coverage today is not lacking in terms of religious rhetoric, often claiming God to be the only savior and true support system.

According to Benjamin, “What characterizes revolutionary classes at their moment of action is the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode.” In the Lebanese context, this awareness is often characterized by abandoning politico-religious affiliations, thus shifting responsibility away from God and/or politicians and to the people. By doing so, they realize that their future is in their hands, and bring back everyday experiences of trauma, exile, and immigration—as well as government corruption and negligence—from the margins and into the totality of experience.

If this shift in perspective continues permeating Lebanese national consciousness, then perhaps we may reach what we may call “critical mass”: enough people believing in their revolutionary power—their ability to be an active force in history—so as to trigger a chain reaction that ultimately leads to systemic change. At the end of the day, isn’t this what Benjamin wants us to do—to employ the messianic to make sense of our past and present, all the while not losing our momentum for change?

Messianic Power

“According to traditional practice, the spoils [won by the victors] are carried along in the procession. They are called ‘cultural treasures,’ and a historical materialist views them with cautious detachment. For in every case these treasures have a lineage which he cannot contemplate without horror. […] There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” 

These are some of the most important lines of Benjamin’s essay. And in light of the rest the theses, they illuminate the violence that linear, coherent histories—i.e., historicism—imparts upon those who are left out of the narrative, those whose spoils have gone to the victors.

Benjamin’s words warn us from any kind of smooth historical narrative, even if it is a favorable one. For instance, a well-known Lebanese adage, describing the 1950s and ’60s era in the country as the “Switzerland of the [Middle] East,” is often resuscitated nowadays to elicit a sort of nostalgia for a bygone past. However, such a narrative doesn’t account for the fact that, for example, disparities were rampant during these years (although less so vis-à-vis the earlier days of independence); or that a bank in 1966 went bankrupt, leading to economic hardship. 

Any sort of narrative that refuses to account for the messiness of history will inevitably be oppressive. Lebanon’s history is filled with competing sectarian narratives—be it the various versions of the civil war that Lebanon’s so-called leaders narrate, or the flawed nostalgia for a lost cosmopolitan pre–Civil War era. But within them, lies possibility; if we choose to confront our mistakes, learn from them, and move forward.  

Somewhere in between religiosity and atheism, Benjamin forges a space for what he calls “weak messianic power,” a power that allows for the revolutionary explosion of the present. Going against both historicism and “traditional” historical materialism, Benjaminian historical materialism accounts for the fact that everyday marks, or could mark, Judgment Day. Similarly, the corrupt establishment, epitomized by this unexpected blast, reminds us that every day could be our last day on earth. This, in turn, generates an urgency that fuels mass mobilization—a fight or flight mode of existing—the sort of change that Lebanon needs today. 

Tom Abi Samra studies Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, and hails from Beirut, Lebanon. He is interested in Arabic literature, critical theory, and translation. Find him on Twitter at @tabisamra.