Heartbreak, Still Time, and Pressing Forward: On Lebanon and the Future

Sami Hermez, Northwestern University in Qatar

“Let us just die in silence. Everyone just shut up,” a friend in Lebanon tells me in frustration and anger as he sees people try to, unsuccessfully, mobilize for political change. This may not capture the sentiment of those who, in anger, hung up nooses after the Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, and called for the hanging of politicians. In fact, it may not be a sentiment shared by many activists of the October 17 uprising. Regardless, it represents a marked difference from the hope and possibility I found people expressing during the despair embedded in other moments of political violence, such as during the 2006 war or 2008 battles in Beirut and others like them that I touch on in my book, War is Coming, where there continues to be a pressing forward with purpose. The sentiments above, and others that I heard in the wake of the Beirut blast, like “we are dead inside,” speak to a time stilled, on pause, stuck. They speak to a breakdown of anticipation, a surprise. A city randomly exploding, unlike a coming war, was beyond how people imagined the future; had the cause been an Israeli bombing it may have fit better into how people made sense of the future and, thus, offered some certainty within an overall time of uncertainty.[1] Even those who press forward confronted by a brick wall, do so with a sense of weakened purpose. In what follows, I want to frame the Beirut blast within a continual war and to elaborate on this stilled time and what it does for our thinking of the future as an analytic category. My hope is this will give some purpose to an incommensurable moment.

On August 4, 2020, the port of Beirut exploded in what is one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history. With it, Beirut seemed to explode too, or implode. In every neighborhood, glass shattered into the streets, aluminum frames buckled, and in the closest neighborhoods to the port, brick and cement turned to rubble. Over 200 people lost their lives and over 6500 were injured. The blast was the latest catastrophe to be layered on top of a society reeling from economic collapse, a global pandemic, and a people’s uprising that began on October 17, 2019. The target of the protests was a century-long system of political sectarianism which many in the protest movement viewed as the core problem as it reproduces the de jure and de facto powers of the ruling class, who use the economy, government institutions, and threat of violence to share power amongst themselves and maintain a system of patronage.

All indication points to the Beirut port explosion being a kind of industrial accident caused by government negligence in which 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate was stored improperly. But while this may not have been an act of war or sabotage by one political group against another, it is important to recognize so-called “government negligence” in itself as a deeply political act that is embedded in a continual war that Lebanese have been embroiled in for decades. After the signing of the Taef Accords in 1990, and contrary to what the historical narrative would have us believe when it bookends Lebanon’s war between 1975-1990, what emerged was not peace but a continuation of war through “peace” or politics. What emerged was a reframing of the social, political, and economic relations embedded in war as normal peaceful life. The Taef Agreement bracketed the war as past, as something without ongoing structural effects. We find, however, that it was anything but – because the war continued, literally physically (through occupation, bombings, and the like) but also structurally.

Continual war, but not a frozen conflict; the war continues to flow in time, undergoing transformations and mutations. Some of its actors change, others remain the same. The new actors buy into systems set by the old — for example, Hizballah is successful because it has played the game well and understood how to maneuver the patronage system. It is continual because the roots are the same — although they too grow and adapt — but, for example, Israeli occupation of Palestine and aggression on Lebanon, and the related affects, is one significant node; political sectarian power-sharing set up in the time of the French mandate is another; a patronage system that is subsidized through economic corruption is a third. It is in these continual roots that the feeling of being stuck emerges, that we feel “we are just breathing, not alive and not dead,” that “We feel stuck in the civil war, it never ended. They are still here, the same people, the same faces.”[2]

It is this continual war that the October 17 revolution in Lebanon was trying to end by cutting off at least two of its three roots (political sectarianism and the patronage system with its “same faces”). In this way, the uprising itself must be seen as part of this war. And while “continual war” may conjure up a primordial violence, this is not the point. This framing is not special to Lebanon, and, for example, there is no better way to frame US history than as a continual war in the drive to build an empire. The framing, however, is instructive to help us understand where the political problems lie (in the founding of the modern state in 1943, or 1920 under French mandate, if you prefer, rather than an intercommunal conflict in 1840) and to identify new issues versus old.

The black swan of the Beirut port blast is so profound that it can be hard to see it as a continuation, and our urge is to feel rupture as the surprise creates “the eventness of the event.”[3] When comparing the port explosion to war, the violence of the latter is gradual, the destruction seeps into mind and body over time. One building is bombed, gunshots occur over an evening and a day, material damage is gradual, the death is experienced in time and within smaller communities. Importantly, war also has meaning for those caught up in it. With the Beirut port blast, the extreme destruction to life and structures of all kinds is wrought on everyone in an entire city, hundreds of thousands of people, all in an instant, all at once, as if displaced from time, with no time to process. The immensity of it is suffocating. Couple this with the idea that the blast was due to incompetence and we are left facing an incommensurable event — even accountability feels meaningless before the monstrosity of it all.  The before and after is also so stark that there is no equilibrium. The future is made impossible to imagine and people are left with only their present to collect. In war time, on the other hand, there can be equilibrium and hope and futurity. It is for this reason, if we are to overcome incommensurability, it is necessary to understand and frame the blast as an episode within a continual war.

The sense of emptiness and defeat comes as people try to make sense of multiple crises. While wars certainly contain multiple levels of crises, there is a way in which the war framing usually takes over to produce some sense. Crucially, in war there is an identifiable enemy and a motivation, a cause, on which lives can be framed. In the present moment, between a pandemic, an uprising that has not achieved its goals or produced new leadership, and the destruction of a large part of the city attributed to negligence, people feel they are fighting on multiple conceptual fronts. It is for this reason, again, that it is useful to understand the multiple layers of crises as part of one continual war, manifesting from the same political roots.

What forms of life do continual wars produce, especially wars fought in one’s city and villages? What possibilities do they foreclose? If politics is, at least in part, about envisioning and managing the future, what does a continual war do to our imaginations of the future? For this, I want to take up a confusing time that is in motion but best captured by the word “still,” and get us to think about the future as a type of memory.


People are reeling, still.

Still, they wake up with lumps in their throats and knots in their guts. Still, they have nightmares. Maybe this will end, but for now, still. Still, their days have lost their flavor, as one friend tells me. Still, they learn of friends who lost friends, and friends who lost homes and livelihoods. Still, they live in denial, they cry, they are unable to comprehend. Still, they go on, carrying themselves, cleaning up, rebuilding, and reopening their businesses.

Still, they feel the blast in their bodies. Still, I do too.

Still and still, is a time we embody, a relationship with the past where we “still stand” and “stand still,” where we move along but don’t move. “Still” is a present structure of feeling that consumes our imagination of the future with materialities of the past. “We are still…” collapses the past into the future. But it is, also, rhetorical. For while time may feel still, frozen as ice, it is more akin to still water – still moving; as time flows in stillness, so the war flows in time, undergoing transformations and mutations, forming what Abboud calls “crisis ecologies” in which people are enmeshed.

In this way, the idea that “we are still” consumed by or paralyzed by events of the past, is deeply interconnected with the kinds of anticipation I have discussed elsewhere, whereby people continue to sense “what [is] physically unsensed” and it serves to situate us in space and time.

The time of “still” undergirds our forms of anticipation in Lebanon. Realizing we are still reeling, still in war, jolts us into the sense that we are “living-in-crisis” where crisis is chronic yet “remains imagined, desired, and often articulated as an exception.”[4] In the days after, how I heard and still hear that we have not hit rock bottom, simultaneously in-crisis and waiting for it to come or to intensify. When we imagine and utter the “war is coming,” for example, there is an implication that we are “still in the same mess,” and this “mess” presses up against us to make us feel what we cannot see and what we can only metaphorically taste and physically feel as a “غصة” (ghassa) — a heartbreak, a lump in the throat, the knot in one’s gut, or the trifecta of these feelings.

In this ghassa, we can understand the work of time and the place of the future. The ghassa’s orientation is entangled; an entanglement that is a result of wanting to press forward while also wanting to return to a past, to a moment before the crisis. The ghassa is anticipation embodied; a brushing with the future that is deeply informed by the past and present.

For all the ghassa may be, this trifecta of embodied emotion can be seen as an affect we feel in time and space. It is our body trying to make sense of deep uncertainty, insecurity, and precarity, and trying to untangle the past from what is yet to come. The body does this so we may continue to live our days and find meaning and reason in our lives. The ghassa brings us to the future.

The uncertain future, one filled with political conflict, invests us with certain images, feelings and experiences that contribute to the making of an (in)secure future, regardless of whether the conflict — war — arrives or not. Elsewhere, I write about how “the future was haunting the present and folding back to impress on the present what had yet to be.”[5]  The August 4 bombing, as checkpoints, political speeches or graffiti warning about the coming war, all imagine a future for us and re-inscribe it in a particular way; the future, without our memory, is itself an empty signifier.

As we live the present, walk about our days, and endure in time, we are constantly and continually called upon to remember the future – to recall it, to imagine and reimagine it, and to think and rethink it in particular ways. The future does not lie before us, outside us, waiting for us to arrive at it, untouched and pure. The future lies in our memory: how we conjure it, construct it, frame it, and anticipate it, always already informed by our present condition and disposition, and by our many pasts – what we have already done and what has already come to pass. We have a future because we remember it as we hope, wish, and would like it to be. The future is, of course, in the subjunctive mood – what could be, what we wish and hope it to be, our aspirations, never what really will be. In my fieldwork, the past and future were meeting in the present, and, I argued, anticipation was a way to form some certainty in our everyday lives in what was a fundamentally uncertain time and space.

To think of the future as something that needs to be remembered forces us to consider future time not just as a function of past and present time, but fundamentally working from within the moment of conjuring it. For example, when people in Lebanon conjure a future that is war-filled, it is less important what this war looks like, who its protagonists are, or how and when it will be fought. As far as the present is concerned, and in the moment of conjuring, war is the future and the future is war. Of course, this is not all the future is.  In this sense, the future, like the past, lives in memory.

If the future is memory based, in part, on pasts and presents, then the immensity and intensity of the Beirut blast seems to foreclose everything but dead futures.  It is the intensity and immensity, as these touch on everything human — the people and their material world and ecology — that erases other pasts as people try to construct, imagine, and ultimately anticipate their futures. In this way, the moment of the Beirut blast is unlike war, even if it is part of a continual war. In its aftershocks, it produces still time, a sense of defeat and pressing forward with no purpose, perhaps best signified by what I felt was an increased use of the zombie emoticon in phone messages.

Bryant and Knight (2019) write that “the concept of the present as present” is derived “from the future” and “without a concept of futurity the present ceases to exist as such” (16). There is a way in which the blast creates a moment where, collectively, society cannot recall or remember a future because the atrocity of the present is so great that one can only live within the present. The present “suddenly seems to hover between past and future, taking on the burden of gathering the past and projecting it into the unknown future” (44). The present becomes uncanny. And the uncanny is exactly what they want – they, the ruling class – in order to break our spirits and demobilize our hope.

Losing a concept of futurity may be true for some, but it would be reductive to claim it of a society in total, and I would prefer to see the uncanny as a result of a jolt in how we think of the future, a recalibration of sorts (45). For amidst tears, frustration, defeat, and senselessness, we can witness people coming together, banding tight, struggling for alternative futures, continuing. Indeed, continuing – with full knowledge that they live a new iteration of the same war, with full awareness that the future is bleak, that they are still reeling, with full understanding that they carry the ghassa with them into the future, a ghassa, a heartbreak, which recedes in its embodiment and becomes, simply, their life.

The point here is not to end on a hopeful note or to find hope where there is none. Most are aware that more people may die and become impoverished and lose their security. The point is simply to describe the complexity of despair and the open futures this contains. The struggle for rootedness in the present, for continuation, then, is a struggle to maintain the future as a dynamic space and time precisely because it contains despair. And, certainly, there is always hope in that.


[1] Sami Hermez. 2017. War is Coming: Between Past and Future Violence in Lebanon. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press;

[2] Mayssoun Sukarieh. 2020. “Stuck.” Academia. Accessed 12 October 2020 at https://www.academia.edu/43872661/Stuck

[3] Jacques Derrida quoted in Rebecca Bryant and Daniel Knight, 2019. The Anthropology of the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) :51.

[4] El Dardiry, Giulia, and Sami Hermez. 2020. “Critical Security and Anthropology from the Middle East”. Cultural Anthropology 35 (2):197–203. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca35.2.01.

[5] Sami Hermez. 2016. Postscript to ‘The War is Going to Ignite’: On the Anticipation of Violence in Lebanon. PoLAR Virtual Edition. Accessed 12 October 2020. https://polarjournal.org/2016-virtual-edition-sami-hermez/