Shortly before 3pm last Friday afternoon the sun was getting in Eli Abujawdeh’s eyes. After ignoring it for a few minutes, he surrendered to irritation and stood up to close the blinds, a decision that could well have saved his life. Returning to his desk, he shuffled some papers and carried on working before an almighty blast threw him onto the floor.
“The whole glass of the window shattered and I was only a few feet away. Because the blind was closed I was ok, but if it had been a few minutes earlier I could have been really badly injured,” he said.
Takreem Initiatives, the company for which Abujawdeh is the marketing executive, is based in the Asco Center, an 11-storey building only 100 meters from the epicenter of the car bomb that ripped through Ashrafieh, killing Lebanese intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan. Casualty reports initially stated eight civilians had also been killed (though this number has since been revised down), while more than 100 were wounded.
The primary tragedy is of course for those who have lost loved ones: houses ruined, lives destroyed. But while the area is predominantly residential, it is also home to several small to medium-sized businesses that have spent the days since the blast reassessing their futures.
Business blow away
Takreem, which runs annual awards celebrating excellence in Arab businesses, has 16 staff in its offices, all of whom luckily escaped with only minor injuries. But the damage done to the company financially is huge. “Simply in terms of assets, there were not less than 20 computers, at least 9 laptops, 3 photocopiers, scanners, LCD screens etc. Our main server that operates everything has also been damaged,” Abujawdeh said, estimating the loses at a minimum of $50,000.
“But the damage that has been caused is not only material, it is psychological. I don’t know how much employees are willing to go back to those offices — it is not easy for you to go back to a place where you nearly died,” he added.
Further away from the bombsite, the damage is less severe but still threatens to undermine viability. Hicham Sbat, who owns a small hairdressers one street away from the bomb, said he would struggle to pay the repair bills without support.
“There were three customers in the shop and then there was a very loud crash and the air conditioning unit fell from the ceiling. The customers just ran out and left – one still had shampoo in her hair,” he said. “The air conditioning is broken, the door is as well. The whole thing will cost about $1,000,” he added.
Lebanese politicians of all colors have rushed to their soapboxes to offer cast-iron guarantees that those who have lost their homes and businesses will be given compensation to cover their loses. Indeed Telecommunications Minister Nicolas Sehnaoui has even promised the relief commission will start paying out this week. But the Lebanese know that promises of government support do not necessarily translate into action.
Antoine Eid, chairman of the Ashrafieh Merchants Association, estimates that the total cost of rebuilding the area to be more than $5 million, but he is not confident the money will be paid.
“If you go back in time to the first three or four (car bomb assassinations) that happened back in 2005 and 2006, the major part of those hit by these explosions were compensated. Maybe not all of them, and maybe not everything they claimed, but it was widely covered. But the last experience we had — when the building collapsed in Geitawi (in January 2012) — until now people have still not been compensated,” he said.
“What I am fearing now is that the political problems that were aroused by the explosion are much bigger than the voices of the people who want to be compensated. You have a bigger problem, there are clashes, so I am not sure we are the top priority of the government right now.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, all the businesses open in the area that Executive spoke to described the days since the explosion as eerily quiet. The proprietor of No Name, a local clothes store whose windows were blown out, said that she had seen no customers in two days. In total, Eid estimates the explosion directly affected more than 100 businesses, with a handful such as Takreem being completely destroyed.
But there are also potential ramifications for the rest of Ashrafieh’s 1,800 businesses. Barber Sbat said he had already been struggling to make ends meet before the explosion, as there has been a general trend less money flowing around the area.
Eid highlights the 2008 crisis in the Gulf, the Arab Spring and the Syrian civil war as key factors that have helped undermine local businesses, particularly retail, and accuses the government of exacerbating this situation with populist policies such as the wage hike in the private sector.
“Even if you go to Downtown Beirut you can see many shops closing, and in Ashrafieh the situation is as bad,” he says. “The cost of doing business in Lebanon compared to activity is way too high for any business to sustain. This is why people are closing to limit their losses.”
The fear is that in an economy that has already suffered from a drop in tourism, the bomb could push local businesses closer to the edge. But, while Eid admits the possibility, he is hopeful that the resoluteness of the Lebanese may well pull people through.
“We have a quality in Lebanon, which is also a curse, we forget quickly. I think in 10 days life will come back again but it is not necessarily such a good thing as we won’t have learnt the lessons,” he adds.