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Lebanese commemorate Beirut port explosion anniversary with statue, music

Activists and families of the victims of the deadly Beirut port blast have criticized a statue that was erected at the explosion site, saying they need to get to the truth behind the explosion before holding any memorial.
Demonstrators gather outside the port of Lebanon's capital, Beirut, on the first anniversary of the blast that ravaged the port and the city on Aug. 4, 2021.

BEIRUT — A giant iron sculpture was unveiled in the heart of the Beirut port on Aug. 2, just days before the first anniversary of the deadly explosion on Aug. 4, 2020.

The artwork, dubbed “The Gesture” with the slogan “A Genie of Ashes,” was made from the wreckage of the port blast that ripped through the city last year.

The statue is 25 meters high and weighs about 30 tons. Designed by Lebanese architect Nadim Karam, the sculpture took nine months to be completed in collaboration with volunteers, professionals, specialists and private companies.

“The artwork is a tribute to the victims of the explosion that took place in the Beirut port last year and changed the face of the city,” Karam told Al-Monitor.

The explosion killed more than 200 people and injured more than 6,000 others, some of whom suffered permanent disabilities. Hundreds of families lost their homes.

The blast came to further exacerbate Lebanon’s economic collapse. However, the truth of what happened on that day and what triggered the explosion of such a scale remains unknown. No official has been held accountable, as investigations and court orders are constantly obstructed.

“The idea of the statue came to me after the explosion that changed our lives. I wanted to express what happened to our city, Beirut, and to myself and the people, so I took the initiative to design this statue,” Karam added.

“I wanted to immortalize the memory of the victims and do something for Beirut. The sculpture embodies the pain and anger through the explosion’s remnants that still bear the traces of the blast. It also represents hope and the will of the Lebanese to live and carry on in order to reach truth and justice,” he said.

The sculpture sparked widespread controversy in Lebanon, drawing support from some who considered the idea a means of freedom of expression and art, but also drawing anger among other Lebanese who believe the explosion was not a casual event that should be celebrated in memorials and arts.

Many of the blast victims denounced the idea of a memorial before getting justice for an explosion that destroyed most of the capital and holding those responsible accountable.

“I am against the idea of erecting a sculpture, and I refused to go to the ceremony [of its inauguration]. Our cause is a national humanitarian issue that cannot be embodied in a statue, and our wounds have not yet healed,” a member of one of the families of the deceased victims told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.

Mariana Fadoulian, the sister of Gaia Fudlian, 29, who died in the explosion, told Al-Monitor, “The sculpture would have been a good idea if we had achieved justice. Now, it just sends the message that we are back on our feet and we got to the bottom of the truth, but we didn’t.”

“It is extremely difficult to embody the current situation. We are fighting to get to the truth and justice. The sculpture does not express our will that we still want accountability and justice. And why was it erected in the port in the first place, ground zero of the explosion, where the remnants of the victims continue to be scattered? We refuse any form of art while justice has not yet been served,” she added.

Many social activists who have called for the truth about what caused the Beirut port explosion believe the statue does not serve its goal.

George Azar, an activist with Punishment Now — a popular campaign aimed at putting pressure on the Lebanese judiciary to reveal the results of the ongoing probe into the blast — told Al-Monitor, “People usually express their grief and memories in art. But the Aug. 4 crime is not over yet. Some people are still injured and dying. Some people have permanent disabilities. Even medical treatment is not done properly as a result of the crisis rocking the country and a city that is still destroyed.”

“This is just an attempt to turn expression into mere folklore and silence so that the Aug. 4 crime becomes just a memory and an attempt to cope with what happened, as if the crime is over, but it’s not. The sculpture is a kind of embellishment of the tragedy,” he added.

Some have gone as far as to accuse Karam of being a tool in the hands of the ruling class to cover up the truth — a claim he denies.

“I was accused of getting in contact with the president and the caretaker prime minister. This is false. These statements are all lies,” Karam told Al-Monitor.

Despite the backlash, it seems there is no plan to dismantle and remove the statue.

Other works of art in the city have evoked mixed feelings but did not generate the same uproar as the giant sculpture. Beirut has seen several pieces of artwork on the first anniversary of the port explosion. The state also declared this to be a day of national mourning.

Fadi Andraos, a Palestinian singer born in Beirut, released on Aug. 2 a single titled “I Am Beirut” as a tribute to the victims and the city. The music video features all the names of the victims against a still photo from the port. Andraos then shows up singing from the port and accompanied by an orchestra.

The song received wide criticism from many Lebanese who saw it as dancing on the bodies of the victims, since the filming of the video clip took place inside the port.

Nisreen Fattouni, 24, told Al-Monitor, “The idea of a music video at the crime scene is just hideous, unacceptable and inhuman, especially since Fadi was singing in it as if he was on a stage.”

“Everyone is trying to use the port massacre artistically to promote themselves and be in the spotlight. I did not see a single work of art that had a noble and meaningful message on the first anniversary of the blast,” she added.

Meanwhile, Andraos told al-Ain News on Aug. 4, “Many thought the music video was filmed at the scene where the explosion took place, but it was actually done in the area of loading and unloading goods, which is a place where everyone is filming.”

Lebanese singer Amir Yazbeck sang the anthem of the Beirut Fire Brigade in a music video showing the moment firefighters received the phone call of a fire at the port on the day of the port blast, their arrival there and their death while putting out the blaze.

First Lt. Ali Najm, the head of the Beirut Fire Brigade’s Public Relations Division, told Al-Monitor, “The music video was my idea, and it was produced by the Beirut Fire Brigade. Yazbeck performed the song.”

“The video was filmed with the participation of the families of the firefighter victims. They spoke of their last memories with the children before the latter died in the explosion. A few of these events were acted out in the video in tribute and in memory of the firefighters. We wanted to shed light on what happened through this video so that people do not forget our martyrs (victims), Najm said.”

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