‘Nothing but a pot of mlukhiye’: Trauma, mental health in Lebanon

It was a hot September day when Jinane set out to find an international money transfer office near her home in east Beirut’s Ain el Remmaneh neighbourhood.

Jinane, 32, had already visited at least four offices, but none was in service because of chronic power outages that have plagued Lebanon for months.

The weekend was approaching, and the young translator had run out of cash. With only a few lira left in her purse, she was getting agitated about being unable to receive a transfer for an editing job she had recently completed.

Since the collapse of Lebanon’s banking sector in 2019, many people depend on international currency transfer offices, such as Western Union, to receive money from abroad.

By doing so, they avoid banks’ exorbitant transfer fees and circumvent a confusing maze of exchange rates for the local currency as the gap between the official and black-market rates to the dollar continues to fluctuate.

The Lebanese pound lost more than 90 percent of its value against the US dollar on the black market in two years, reaching more than 20,000 Lebanese pounds to the dollar over the summer. Yet, the central bank, Banque du Liban, maintains a rate introduced in 1997, which pegs the pound to the dollar at 1,500.

As Jinane directed her cab driver to an office near Jnah in south Beirut, a dark-haired man sitting behind the wheel of a nearby car was honking incessantly.

All the roads were blocked as cars queued for half a kilometre (0.3 miles) at a petrol station up ahead. Because of severe fuel shortages in Lebanon, people have been forced to wait for hours at gas stations to fill their tanks.

As the driver honked, Jinane became visibly distressed by the noise. She turned in her seat to gesture through the taxi window. “Why are you beeping? Can’t you see the roads are blocked,” she shouted.

But the dark-haired man carried on tooting and then he started getting aggressive, spewing curses at Jinane.

Within moments, she had disembarked the taxi and was standing in the middle of the road screaming back.

What began as a quarrel quickly escalated into a serious confrontation.

When the man eventually sped off in his expensive car, Jinane was left fuming as she edged closer to having a panic attack.

Loud noises

Hours later, Jinane calmed down. She sat down to recount the incident.

“Since the blast, I can’t stand to hear loud noises,” she said referring to the devastating events of August 4, 2020 – the day one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history hit the city.

The detonation of nearly 3,000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate at Beirut’s port killed more than 200 people, injured 6,000 others, and ravaged entire neighbourhoods.

When the explosion hit at 6:08pm (03:08 GMT) local time, Jinane was in her kitchen making “mlukhiye” – a garlicky Middle Eastern dish made of jute leaf and chicken – for dinner.

“Before I knew it, I was on the floor, my windows and doors shattered,” said Jinane. “Then everyone ran out onto the streets. People were bleeding, screaming, and hysterical.

“But most of all, I remember the sound of the sirens from car alarms and the beeping,” she said slowly, as she lifted her hands to her ears and dropped her head between them.

“So much beeping,” she repeated slowly. She scrunched her eyes shut as if she were in pain.

Then, as if a light bulb had switched on in her head, she realised why she had reacted so strongly earlier that day. The beeping was a trigger, taking her back to the traumatic experience of the blast.

On that ominous day, Jinane found a ride to the northern city of Tripoli, where her family resides. Before getting in the car, she returned to her flat, giving it a final glance.

“Had we gone into war with Israel? Did the world end?” she asked. “I had no idea what was happening or if I’d ever come back.”

But she did not take anything. “Not family photos, not money,” said Jinane. “Nothing.”

“Just that pot of mlukhiye,” she said, recalling how she carried it in her lap as the car drove 80km (35 miles) north of the capital.

A local investigation into the blast has so far failed to identify the culprits behind the devastating explosion or yield significant arrests. Survivors and victims’ relatives have repeatedly demanded an independent probe to hold those responsible accountable.

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