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Yasmina El Samina, Latiza Bombé, Sultana, Beirut 2019
Yasmina El Samina, Latiza Bombé, Sultana, Beirut 2019courtesy of the artist, Mohamad Abdouni

Speaking to creatives and LGBTQ+ activists helping rebuild Beirut

Following a devastating explosion in the Lebanese capital last month, artists and members of the LGBTQ+ scene have campaigned for accountability and raised funds for those most in need

On August 4, a huge explosion tore through Lebanon’s capital city of Beirut. Videos shared to social media in the direct aftermath showed a plume of red smoke billowing in the sky above the city’s docks, before the blast sent a shockwave rippling through the surrounding buildings, killing almost 200 people, injuring thousands more, and leaving hundreds of thousands without homes.

Despite the obvious dangers, the city’s residents quickly moved to provide aid for the injured and help them to safety, to sweep up the streets, and to set up campaigns to feed and house those made homeless by the blast. Now, the focus is on rebuilding and holding those responsible to account, and a large part of the effort has seen artists and creatives stepping in where the government has failed.

“Beirut has always been a hub for creatives to platform their talent, often used as a tool to subvert the harsh reality of the Lebanese political system, sectarian society, an inexistent social infrastructure and a crumbling economy,” Daniel Nasr, the organiser of an art auction raising funds for Beirut and its most impacted communities, Rebuilding Beirut With Pride, tells Dazed. “Now is no different, creativity is still a coping and survival mechanism, now manifested in pop-up shelters and soup kitchens, pro-bono architectural services, offers of home renovation, and so much more.”

Many of the communities most affected by the explosion were already under immense pressure in Beirut. The LGBTQ+ community, as Nasr points out, have to navigate “cultural taboos, stigma, unequal access to services, and in many cases, no system of familial or state support” on top of the crisis. “Trans women,” he adds, “are especially vulnerable, with no reliable and safe access to healthcare outside of NGO support and an inability to be employed if their gender identity doesn’t match their state ID.”

Mohamad Abdouni – the photographer and filmmaker behind the magazine Cold Cuts, who relocated from Beirut to Istanbul last year – adds that Lebanon’s mass revolt against government corruption and wealth inequality in 2019, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, has made things particularly difficult for the city’s LGBTQ+ scene. 

“The uprising of October 2019 and its subsequent effects on the economy, followed by months of COVID and quarantine meant most members of the community, especially those who work in nightlife, the performers, the bartenders, have not been able to generate income for almost a year now,” Abdouni says. “The explosion only made a terrible situation that much worse.”

Like Nasr, Abdouni points to the efforts of Beirut’s “magical” arts and LGBTQ+ communities – which have been documented in Cold Cuts since 2017 – in the absence of sufficient aid from authorities, saying: “The authorities have done absolutely nothing. Every single aid, help and action has come from the people of Lebanon.” 

Going a step further, Nasr claims that the current regime is responsible for the August explosion, and describes how the Lebanese have taken to the streets in ongoing protests, to mourn and demand accountability in its wake. “They knew, and did nothing. The explosion happened, and they did nothing,” says Nasr, of the Lebanese government. “This is what really gets me – the fact we were partying on a bomb for all these years brings me a wave of anxiety, sadness, and anger.”

Investigations following the blast revealed almost 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate had been left unsecured at the explosion site – a warehouse in the city’s port area – for six years, alongside a cocktail of other combustible chemicals and fireworks. The chemicals didn’t go unreported, but a recent New York Times explainer details how Lebanese officials ignored repeated warnings about the danger.

The response to fundraising drives and community projects, on the other hand, has been “incredible”. Rebuilding Beirut with Pride raised over $30,000 in its first month, and it doesn’t stop there; the platform will continue to exist as: “a permanent space to share, celebrate and purchase queer and Arab art, where artists can regularly donate pieces and the public can regularly buy them and donate to vulnerable Lebanese in need.”

“We want to help rebuild, resource and reimagine our Beirut by celebrating and showcasing Arab and queer talent,” Nasr says. “We want to be heard and we want to be a platform for all of our community to be heard.”

Abdouni adds that the amount of online fundraisers that have popped up since August 4 is “awe-inspiring”, from more established organisations such as Impact Lebanon and the Lebanese Red Cross, to smaller drives aimed at saving studios that “are an integral part of Beirut's new creative wave”. Abdouni himself has taken part in efforts to raise funds and put on events alongside the Lebanese drag performer Anya Kneez, while Cold Cuts has shared a list of organisations you can still donate to as Beirut rebuilds.