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At the time of the blast that ravaged Beirut on August 4, Selim Mouzannar was in Greece. He shares his experience of the disaster on Face Time. His injured daughter, his damaged house, the consequences for him, his family and his brand and his effort to rebuild through activism and jewelry creations.

What was your first reaction when you heard about the disaster? and your first action?

It was late afternoon, the phone rang, it was Raya, my wife. I barely recognized her voice which was altered by the panic, she repeated: the house is destroyed … there was a bomb … the house is destroyed … These few seconds felt like an eternity. Then I came to my senses. I discovered the damage in our house, the doors and windows were blown … I asked her about the children and was relieved to see my son Namir on the screen, he was at home with his mother at the time of the explosion.

But my daughter Ranwa had just finished her work at the store and was walking home with Marie, the store manager. I tried to call her but her phone was out of service. So I asked Raya to go check on her, the shop being a 100m walk from our house. Raya walked down the street, and still on Face Time, I saw that everything was destroyed, the windows smashed, the debris all over the ground, the rubble of tiles and stones torn from the houses and the roofs. I kept on talking to Raya to reassure her, this moment felt like forever. She finally found Ranwa and Marie who were heading to the house, they were both injured, cut by shards of glass.

Accompanied by Patricia, a young colleague who was fortunately unharmed, Raya and my son took the car and drove them to a nearby hospital which was already overrun with casualties and couldn’t take them in, then a second. They were finally referred by a surgeon friend to another hospital in the suburbs of Beirut where they underwent surgery at 5 am. I spent the night talking to them on the phone to reassure them, it was exhausting, but in the morning they left the hospital and took refuge in the mountains with the family.

How bad was the damage at your house? In the shops? At the workshop?

Raya came back the next day to assess the damage, as I was taking the first plane to Beirut after having organized the urgent cleaning and repair work.

Our Lebanese house, which had been solidly renovated, was spared compared to the other old houses in the area which were completely destroyed. The main store resisted, but Macle our multibrand boutique and The Jeweler where we sell vintage pieces were greatly damaged. My workshop, which is underground, and the new workshop which is under construction are more or less unscathed. Today, when I see the state of the neighborhoods near Achrafieh, including Mar Mikhaël and Gemmayzé, I consider myself lucky.

We resumed work in the workshop. I organized a part-time shift rotation to respect Covid-19 physical distancing, but I did everything to keep the work going.

This is what everyone wanted. It’s necessary for our sanity, because if you spend your day watching a gutted Beirut, you cry… it’s worse than during the war. And then it’s also my way of supporting my teams.

Can you tell us how people react in Beirut? Your entourage?

People are united, incredibly united in this ordeal. We are all in shock, sickened by the negligence and corruption of our government that allowed this tragedy to happen, but we remain active. The young people, all our children, armed with brooms and buckets, took it upon themselves to clean the houses, the streets, the offices, the shops. Families are united, people who have lost their homes have been welcomed by their families and friends outside Beirut. The city has become a ghost town. Cleared like lightning, but devastated and empty. It’s a surreal spectacle.

According to you, what are the causes of this disaster?

All I can say is that the responsibility is at the top of the state.

The people went to the streets in October to demand the departure of this gang which has been in power since the end of the civil war. President Michel Aoun is only working to maintain the status quo. The web of corruption and neglect is such that it is impossible to clearly point the finger at the responsible of this disaster. This is the direct consequence of decades of political mismanagement added to the influence of Hezbollah, a very powerful group armed by Iran and based in Lebanon.

On August 13, I signed a document to call for the formation of an independent government with exceptional legislative powers, in order to permanently break with this nefarious legacy. We are about fifty independent personalities or from civil society movements who have come together to promote this change. We signed this letter which demands the permanent eradication of the old political practices of our country.

We are engaged, and we are fighting because we are convinced that it is essential to open an independent international investigation commission, which is credible in the eyes of the international community, charged with investigating the crime which led to the destruction of Beirut and to create the conditions conducive to the holding of democratic and transparent parliamentary elections within one year.

I remain optimistic because it is my nature. I love my country, I believe that if we succeed in becoming a democratic state, Lebanon will become an El Dorado again. The future of Lebanon cannot be read in shades of gray, it will be either white or black. As long as there is a chance to move the lines, I will fight.

You took part in the competition organized by the Auverture site in favor of the Lebanese Red Cross and the Lebanese Food Bank. Can you tell us how the people who want to help Lebanon can do it today?

We raised over € 50,000, Bibi Van Der Velden and her husband put all their networks and efforts into contributing, and I’m happy to have participated myself.

We need the means to provide food and first aid to the poorest people. Now we must continue to get help. For the Lebanese Red Cross, you have to go to the Red Cross Canada website, there is a page dedicated to Lebanon. There are many committed NGOs, contact those who inspire you. Each has its vocation.

As long as we can, we are present, we do not give up, work is the engine of our resilience.

What are your short term plans for the brand?

We are relying a lot on digital, we are in the process of optimizing our website and we are going to open B2B access for our retail clients, in order to present them the next SS21 collection.

Given the context linked to the Covid-19, buyers will not be traveling in October at Paris fashion week. We will therefore manage all the appointments live on Zoom and present our products with photos and videos. We have already produced some new alternatives of the Mina and Gemma rings in irresistible pink and green tourmaline variations!

And then I want to do an exceptional piece for Beirut, a piece that I will stake for a future competition for the benefit of the Lebanese Red Cross. Beauty, to fight against violence and chaos, is a bit my daily job, but now it has become essential.

I will meet all my clients from the 2nd to the 5th of October on Zoom. We will send out our invitation in early September. It will be less cozy than Hotel Daniel, but it is only a rearrangement, and this year, I promise them a unique collection, full of hope, the hope that keeps me alive, that of rebuilding my city, and my country.

Propos recueillis par Sylvie Arkoun.

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