‘You Could Literally See Our Shit From Space’: The Broken Bowels of Beirut

Photo of Ramlet el-Baida beach in Beirut, Lebanon, taken in February 2018 by Sasaki Makoto / Getty Images

Lina Mounzer‘s recent essay in The Baffler on Beirut’s crumbling sewage system, and the corrupt politics and rotting infrastructure that have the city’s residents swimming in their own collective waste, is a beautifully written piece on shit:

Beneath every city, its underground twin. Its dark heart; its churning guts. This is no metaphor: I’m talking about the sewer system. A network of pipes connecting to every shower drain, every kitchen sink, every toilet, disappearing a household’s dirt and grease and vomit and urine and feces down the gullets of small pipes that flow down into the ground, that then feed into bigger pipes, and ever bigger pipes, all our shit merging: the organic, fibrous roughage of the rich, the nutrient-deficient poop of the poor, and all the middle-class crap in between, all democratically flowing together in a single system, ideally powered by gravity, ideally leading to the great bowel of a treatment plant meant to deal with all this waste, turn it clear again, so that it can be safely dumped into rivers and seas.

She recounts a time with friends when they picnicked and drank on Ramlet el-Baida, the city’s only public beach, and later swam in its waters:

One night we took supplies of wine and beer down with us, as so many others did. Drunk, we ran into the waves stripped down to our underwear beneath the moonshine sky. I remember splashing around giddily, then leaping away, screaming nervous laughter when I imagined something might be brushing against my legs.

Sometime later an architect friend showed me a satellite image that had been taken of Beirut, in such high resolution you could zoom in on the dense patchwork of tightly packed blocks and see the individual rooftops of buildings, see who could afford satellite dishes and who still kept pigeons. The image had been taken from space, and so from space you could see the two dark lines on either side of the Ramlet el-Baida beach extending out beneath the deep blue of the sea. Outfalls of raw sewage flowing straight into the water; you could literally see our shit from space. When I swam there, I had been afraid of sea monsters lurking beneath the waves. I did not know that the things I should have feared were much, much smaller, measured in parts per million: monsters of our own making.

But raw sewage spewing into the sea isn’t the only problem. It now rains less and less in Beirut, but harder, and so violently that the city and landscape — the soil, the pipes, the streets, everything — cannot handle the deluge:

When it rains that hard the sea becomes invisible in the distance; the horizon is a single gray wall of water from earth to sky. It is not hard to imagine that the sea itself is falling upward, roused out of its bed to roar vengeance down upon us: the poison of our shit, our garbage, our waste, the collective punishment of our carelessness both innocent and deliberate having mutated it into a monstrous thing.

And so Beirut drowns in, swims in, and eats its excrement in an endless cycle:

When the border between this world and its underground twin collapses, we have no choice but to live with the monsters of our worst nightmares. All that shit we tried to hide, forget, reroute, ignore, is out now, flooding the streets for all to see.

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