Australia-based Lebanese photographer Chadi Sabsabi reflects on the pain he felt for Beirut upon hearing of the devastating blasts on August 4 — representing what millions of Lebanese diaspora felt watching the heart of their homeland crumble from the other side of the world.
“When I think back to how I found out about the incident, my mind returns to Wednesday, August 4, at 1:05am. It was like it happened all over again. I wasn’t in Lebanon, but I could feel it. I could feel every step the reporter took on the glass. My soul went to Beirut.
Before 1:05am, it was just a normal day. I was in my bedroom editing a shoot. I would usually listen to relaxing music while working, but ever since Lebanon fell into the economic crisis, the music has been replaced with news about my homeland. At 1:05am, I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw a friend sharing a live video of someone walking around Beirut. Smoke billowed in the distance. A person could be heard asking, ‘What’s happening? Where’s this smoke coming from?’ Someone eventually answered, ‘That’s just from some badly stored fireworks at the port’.
After calling to check on my parents, who still live in Lebanon, I turned on the TV and YouTube. I saw that MTV Lebanon was broadcasting live – it was a blast. I watched as a reporter drove through the destruction. The was shattered glass everywhere, houses were damaged, cars were upside down, and the city was shrouded in dust. A few miles away from the reporter, a victim was being lifted from a wreck. ‘Just to respect the audience, I can’t show you the dead bodies around me,’ said the reporter.
My mind went blank. It stopped processing what was going on after that scene. What did they do to you, my beloved Beirut? Why do they want to slowly kill you? What have you done to deserve all that pain?
For three hours I watched as the news continued to flash on my screen, revealing the deadly aftermath. From children to firefighters, innocent lives were lost. When I eventually fell asleep, my dream that night was black and fire.
The next day, I woke up praying to God it was all a nightmare. As I turned on my computer I was quickly made aware that it was not. I called my friends in Beirut to make sure they were alright. One of them had her uncle badly injured. One of them lost her office. Another lost his house and another said a family member lost everything. I wanted to pack my bags and fly to Beirut to help clean up the dust, the glass and wipe their tears and try to heal the scars. Travel restrictions, due to Covid-19, meant I couldn’t do this, so I offered up my home in Tripoli for stranded or lost family and friends.
This blast maybe not have affected me physically, but it did mentally. My family is originally from Tripoli. I used to have two businesses in Lebanon, but closed them down twice before moving to Australia. The first time was after the explosion that happened at the Salam and Taqwa mosques, and the second was due to the consistent conflict between two parties in Tripoli. The second time hit me hard emotionally because I really wanted to stay near my parents, but I felt like Lebanon was rejecting me.
Seeing what happened in Beirut made me subconsciously link the incident to how life was in the city when I used to live there. I only remember the parties. I remember Beirut’s joy and her generosity. Now, Beirut has become the wound of Lebanon, and its pain.
After the blast, I really struggled. For five days I didn’t feel like doing anything. I just watched the news, flicking between channels, seeing how people were standing together hand-in-hand to bring Beirut back to life. I wanted to join them. I kept thinking about how I could help provide a voice for Lebanese-Australians – and all Australians – to show that we are all with Beirut. That Beirut’s pain is our pain. When looked at footage of the destruction, I saw the clocks at houses affected by the blast stopped had at 6:07pm — the time of the incident — and I started having a vision of a shoot that delivers a message that not only did those clocks stop at that time, but time stopped for the Lebanese, their friends and family, all over the world.
I called my friend and business partner Alicia Parr, an Australian model and influencer who had been standing by my side during that time, and shared my idea. I then called Jessica Maas, a Lebanese Australian makeup artist who was also emotionally affected by the incident, and she too welcomed the idea that after August 4, we are all with Beirut — no matter what race or religion. We’re all supportive and all on hand for Beirut and its people.
Together we wanted to help people understand what happened in Beirut. As we couldn’t fly there, Alicia, Jessica and I agreed to do the shoot in an abandoned house in Australia that is destroyed from the inside-out, to symbolise all the houses that got damaged after the explosion. It was an emotional shoot. There were sad, tearful and silent moments throughout. The aim of the shoot was to help raise awareness of what was, and still is, happening in my homeland.
My message for the people rebuilding their lives? Please stay strong. The clocks that were inside your homes are hard to get off my mind. I feel so bad for you – victims of corruption and of a government that never cared about you.”