This time last year, almost to the day, I was heading to Beirut on holiday to stay in an apartment in an old Ottoman-era house in the city's Gemmayze district. From there I could go to Papercup, the book and magazine shop run by Rania Naufal that had hosted the launch of Monocle's guide to the city, visit the stunning store of another old Monocle friend, fashion designer and couturier Rabih Kayrouz, and share the generous company of Kamal Mouzawak (pictured) at his restaurant Tawlet in the Armenian neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael, just a short walk from the apartment.
And a year later? The explosion that ripped through the city on Tuesday evening has destroyed friends' homes and businesses and left several badly injured. The roads that a year ago were filled with honking taxis, men fixing cars in ancient courtyards, rattling printing presses, photography galleries filled with temptations, the sounds of builders working on another dubious apartment block, the smokers, the fruit sellers, the nightclub owners, the dating couples, the begging children – destroyed.
How can a country so rich with amazing people, such an extraordinary landscape and an abundance of culture let its people down so many times? I wrote earlier this week about Monocle's deep connections with Beirut and Lebanon, a country that seduces people who go there with its contradictions and live-for-now attitude. But let's return to the streets of Beirut again.
Readers who have had a link with Monocle for some time, or perhaps came to our conferences in Lisbon or Schloss Elmau in Germany, will know Kamal. He's a man who uses food to bring people together across sectarian divides; he's provided the chance for village women to share their produce at Souk El Tayeb, the farmers' market he founded, and in the restaurants he has established across the country. He's done his utmost to defend the nation's glorious architecture too, with old houses restored with tenderness and remade as inns. He's a campaigner; a fixer. To do all this requires resolve. But when speaking on Monocle 24's The Briefing this week, his voice was cracking. There are limits of endurance.
Yet when we spoke by phone yesterday there was more: there was anger too – and it's anger that is widely felt in the city as people confront a failed political class. But, in the meantime, he is back up and running: his kitchen is making sandwiches for the volunteers and he's cooking meals for the old and vulnerable. There is no option – the state is absent; it's a nation where you have to organise and fix everything – even in the aftermath of an explosion on this scale. "Can you imagine, not one person from the state has been here to help," says Kamal. "It's just kids with brooms clearing the streets." I see a post from another friend from their circle in Beirut, Tala Hajjar, who works in fashion: "If your windows are shattered and you cannot replace the glass, we are donating our fabric as an interim." Beirutis, all. Fixing, volunteering, tackling the void.
Why do some places, so far removed from your ordinary life, your background, become such a fixation – and why does Lebanon play this trick so often on so many people? Today I can't pick up a broom but I'd like to do one small thing and that's share a crowdfunding page for Kamal Mouzawak's community relief effort. He's one of many amazing people doing what he can to help Beirut get through the coming days – and he's doing it with the simple offer of food. Perhaps this morning you might find time to help. And then? Those brooms need to sweep away more than the debris on the streets. They should be a symbol of a greater clear-out that's needed of weak leaders, the greedy and the corrupt.