On August 18, 2020, we published Seema Jilani’s personal account of the August 4 explosion in Lebanon, “Broken Glass, Blood, and Anguish: Beirut After the Blast.” She describes the horror of making her way home through rubble and past wounded neighbors to get to her husband and injured daughter, Iman, and rush her to the hospital. The terrible urgency of that day is set against the backdrop of a brief recent political history of Beirut, and the government’s corruption that led up to the avoidable and deadly blast.
Jilani, a pediatrician and humanitarian aid worker, has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq, Gaza, Egypt, Bosnia, Nepal, and other areas of conflict, while also contributing to The New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications. In Beirut, where Jilani has lived with her husband and daughter for about a year, she has recently been treating Syrian refugees and teaching medical residents.
Jilani’s first experience in media was with Pacifica Radio in 2003, while she was still in medical school. “It felt satisfying to be able to be able to amplify systemic problems,” she told me by email. “My humanitarian aid work is very gratifying, as is being a pediatrician, but in areas of conflict I quickly realized that the long-term solution is never going to be a medication or prescription. It will have to come from shifts in attitudes, changes to global policy and political power dynamics. That’s why my writing and my radio work felt like it was leaving more of a mark. It is the macro work that complements the work I do on the ground.”
A resident of Washington, D.C., before her move to Beirut, Jilani has been watching our own national crisis from afar. “It has been very painful to me as an American,” she told me. “Watching more than 150,000 fellow Americans die because of the criminal negligence of their government is a betrayal of the basic social contract between citizens and their democratically elected government.”
“Negligence is too feeble a word to describe the government’s failure,” Jilani writes of the fact that Lebanese officials knew about the stockpile of ammonium nitrate deteriorating in the Beirut port’s warehouse—it was “a time bomb.” She sees a stark parallel between the Lebanese government’s culpability for “the largest non-nuclear blast in history” and how the US has handled the coronavirus pandemic.
Originally from New Orleans and then Houston, Jilani considers herself “a Southerner through and through—my youth was built on memories of the Rodeo, sweet tea, crawfish boils, Jazz Fest, BBQ, and blues music at dive bars.” I asked her what it was like to grow up there as a person of Pakistani background, something she’s written about in relation to her white-presenting daughter.
“I used to think racism was specific to the South because of my experiences growing up there as a person of color,” she said, “but some of the most racist encounters I’ve had have been in other parts of the country, such as Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., or Chicago. I have since realized that racism knows no bounds, that it doesn’t recognize state lines, and that being wealthy and well-educated doesn’t inoculate anyone from ignorance.”
The grandchild and child of refugees and of migrants, Jilani has worked with the Proactiva Open Arms and other refugee rescue boats in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Libya. She says she feels an inherited connection to the plight of forced migration. And now, having lost her family’s home in the explosion, there is an additional sense of displacement. “My home was destroyed, as were many of my possessions, including things with great sentimental value,” she said. “My bridal portrait, photos with friends who have since died, and other such irreplaceable mementos. That said, I fully recognize we are blessed to be alive, and privileged to have many options. Yes, we are living in a hotel, but we are not homeless. Yes, my daughter is injured, but we have access to doctors and therapists, and she is alive, thank God.
“One memory that stands out from the blast is that when I was carrying Iman out of the house, I grabbed my phone, a charger, my backpack, and my wallet. That’s it. It occurred to me, This might be the last time I ever see my home or possessions again. Knowing this, I never thought to grab my passport, or my wedding ring, or any photos. It was a split second decision, where the only thing that mattered was getting my daughter to safety. So when people look at refugees and cynically ask, ‘Why don’t you have your passport or papers?’ I can relate to that moment when those choices are made.”
I wondered, and knew our readers would want to know: How is Iman doing now? “She is improving every day,” Jilani said. “However, her wounds do appear to be a bit deeper than we initially thought.”
She will need subspecialized care, as well as physical therapy, and mental health therapy to cope with the trauma, of course. She has daily wound changes, which are quite painful, and take about an hour and a half each time. Her limbs were injured the worst, but she also has wounds on her chest and abdomen. She cries through most of it. But she is strong, brave, and more resilient than I ever hope to be. She talks about the ‘hurricane,’ or the explosion endlessly, trying to process and understand what happened. As my husband and I were discussing our future, she interrupted, squinted her eyes, and cautiously asked, ‘Hey guys, how about we move somewhere where there aren’t explosions?’ which seems like a low bar, and a very reasonable request. Recently, her biggest concern was how she was going to help the other kids hurt by the explosion, and what we were going to do for them.