Blog

On Resilience, Trauma, and Healing in the Aftermath of Beirut-Port Blast

A conversation with Zena Takieddine, a Beirut-based wellbeing expert and facilitator

On August 4, 2020, a massive explosion blew out half of Beirut, rendering its most vivid neighborhoods inhabitable. Two hundred precious human lives were lost, thousands wounded, and many more displaced.

The following morning, people from all over the country made their way to the broken capital city, carrying with them their brooms, gloves, and helmets in a spontaneous effort to help, clean up, and take action. Young ones, university students, adults of all ages, nationalities, and sects were gathering to sweep up the endless miles of shattered glass hanging off building frames and showering the streets. In the face of appalling government failure, people instinctively took matters into their own hands to help each other.

Resilience is a praised human quality. Our capacity to bounce back after being affected by terrible events is considered a sign of strength and determination. The Lebanese enjoy a long-held reputation of springing back quickly after tragic events, grasping life by the horns, rising from the ashes. But for many, even this treasured resilience has become a kind of curse. Enough already! It seems this human capacity to bounce back only gives license for evil and corruption to continue unabashed.

The State and its institutions were utterly absent in responding to the blast, except to quell public protests, and violently so. Citizens had to pick their fellow citizens up, each in their capacity.

It has been a year since the blast. A big part of healing from trauma requires accountability, care, and the re-establishment of safety. Sadly, these are not tangible on any official scale. Again, it is the spontaneous, collective support system that seems to be helping people survive.

In this conversation, the discussion revolves around trauma, healing, and collective resilience in a society that is struggling financially and politically. I will be speaking with Zena Takieddine, a Beirut-based Somatic Experiencing Practitioner and trauma-informed yoga teacher. We will also shed light on the series of free online experiential webinars she recently curated with Bloom — an organization that supports entrepreneurs in the MENA region growing their business ventures. 

 

Zena, how was it for you to experience the blast from your neighborhood in Hamra? How did you deal with your trauma, and did you find your way to healing?

I was actually having an ice cream with a friend when it happened. I remember the deep underground thud, and my heart sinking, ‘is this an earthquake coming?’ We were mid-conversation about the flavors and, within a few seconds, the blast erupted and we ducked for cover as the world rumbled. At that point, I thought it must be a car bomb, and it felt like it happened just up the street. I had no idea of the magnitude until I saw the eerie pink cloud rising in the sky, and the next thought, ‘chemical warfare’? Can you imagine, this is the world we are living in.

Looking back, I guess my go-to defensive mechanism was a kind of disassociation and disbelief. I needed to stay home, even though home was damaged. I needed to be cocooned and not engage with anything at all. Maybe it is a kind of denial, but this desire to just quiet down took over me.

We all respond to trauma differently. Some people were immediately in the street needing to DO something; others needed to get as far away as possible. The closer to the epicenter of the blast, the bigger the shock, the bigger the damage.

What spurred me into action was, a few days later, Sunday morning, when I usually teach my weekly yoga class. I had been teaching this class for nearly a decade, a gentle morning flow. Since the pandemic, I had started live-streaming the classes on the Houna Holistic Center Facebook page. That first Sunday after the blast, which took place on a Tuesday, was when I finally started to feel my body again. That’s when I found the courage to speak and dare to face the reality of what happened.

 

The blast happened on top of a long accumulation of State abuse. The banks have ceased people's savings. The State collects tax and provides no services in return; the inflation rate is the highest in the world at 131.9% and rising. Yet, despite it all, people keep resurrecting their businesses. Restaurants, bars, and pubs are open. Culture and Art institutions are renovating and running on foreign funds. Fresh money is circulating again, feeding and enabling the same culpable corrupt system. We call this attitude resilience. Do you think resilience is a healthy response to systematic abuse? And what could be the alternative?

These are big questions, and I don’t have answers. I just know that it is human nature to have the capacity to adapt and survive. I also know that people tend to band together and support each other when they face disaster, and that is a good thing. A community naturally emerges. People need to talk about what happened and connect with each other to feel sane again.

I don’t have high hopes on the government or political class coming up with any solutions. As frustrating as it is to live in a country that lacks basic amenities like electricity and garbage collection and fuel, let alone the banking crisis and the evaporation of one’s savings, I do find that neighborhoods have become rougher and sadder, but there is also the feeling of people being more patient and keeping an eye out for each other in this shared misery. The local grocer, the local baker, the car-pooling with neighbors and finding medicine for each other, that kind of smaller community is where we can find hope of human decency. That and nature. Probably nature is the biggest resource and healer there is. Just its magnificence. Nature is rejuvenation, cycles of death and life, deep-rooted continuity. It can heal and nourish.

I’ve seen a lot of people up and leave the city, claiming autonomy by returning to nature and farming, and I think that is wise. Lebanon does have fertile agriculture and people do have good connections with their villages; so while the capital city is in disarray, it is pretty smart to return to nature and grassroots initiatives.

 

You are trained in a trauma-healing practice, Somatic Experiencing. You must have been one of the first people down there, helping. What did you do?

You know, trauma healing as a practice is different from emergency response. The two are related, definitely, but they are not the same. Immediate emergency response and life-saving medical care is one thing, regaining internal balance after the shock is something else.

As a Somatic Experiencing Practitioner, we are trained to help relieve the effects of trauma over time. We do this by perceiving the body and helping the autonomic nervous system move towards regulation. This requires a reconnecting to safety, even if it is just ‘relative’ safety and ‘temporary’ safety. It is in the windows of safety that we can help the trauma to be released and the impact of it to change.

I feel lucky that my colleagues from the Somatic Experiencing community reached out to me to help me reconnect with a sense of safety, and I was able to sleep better after that. With myself more centered and grounded, I could go back to working more effectively.

 

You are a Wellbeing Fellow with Bloom and you have put together the Wellbeing in the Workplace Webinars series. For the first edition, you chose to invite Beirut-based professionals as speakers "to open the heart of healing from Beirut to the world," as you say. Could tell us more about the webinars you are currently running?

The co-founders of Bloom, Munir Nabte and Bilal Ghaleb, reached out to me particularly with this awareness of wellbeing as a fundamental right. They said, “Everyone has post-traumatic stress; let’s do something about it!”

The wellbeing series is spread out, every other week, over three months. It looks at three themes: the Self, Society, and Nature. It aims to widen our sense of connectedness and our sources of support, based on these three pillars of life.

Participants are mostly in their late 20s and 30s young professionals, but also in their 40s, mid-career professionals, as well as college students. They are asking important questions about how to break old patterns and how to face real challenges.

The speakers onboard are a very generous and genuinely skilled group. We opened up the series in September 2021 as a response to the one-year memorial of the blast in August and we will be concluding it by end of November.

My talk was a simple and friendly introduction to the physiognomy of trauma. By normalizing what happens, it is less scary and there is a deeper understanding of how to make better choices for recovery. My colleague, Lena Bahou, was the second speaker under the ‘Self’ theme and she offered a personal story on her own career shift and on the Emotional Freedom Technique, a very effective practice for identifying negative patterns of thinking, thereby overcoming obstacles to success.

The October sessions shifted the focus from self-development to group work and collaboration. Non-violent communication expert Tanya Awad Ghorra revealed some keys to better listening and communicating skills from a more heart-centered place. Founder of Clown Me In Sabine Choucair transformed the online call into an arena of playfulness, movement and emotional expression, showing how transformation happens by working in groups.

In November, the talks are geared towards deepening our connection to nature, making us more grounded and more deeply present. As we open up awareness of the natural world’s aliveness, we also open up towards creativity and perseverance.  I’ve been greatly inspired by the work of Halla Makarem, founder of n-Site for creative leadership, and Rana Haddad, biodynamic craniosacral therapist as our speakers for this last part of the series.

All these sessions are for free, and they are recorded to remain accessible. They can be watched here. Each of the speakers is also preparing educational modules that will become part of Bloom’s open-source digital library.

 

Speaking of the online world, when the pandemic lockdowns first started you launched an online course: Yoga for Relieving Stress & Anxiety. Could you tell us a bit more about your experience with online platforms during these challenging times?

Frankly, both, myself and my colleague, Minna Jarvenpaa, the founder of Tools 4 Inner Peace, are rather camera shy and more interested in the work than the public image, so neither of us have much social media presence. That said, when the lockdown brought everything to a standstill, we realized that there might well be some value in turning to technology in order to be able to stay engaged and share our output. After searching through various options, we chose Udemy as the platform since it seemed to offer a more educational and self-developmental angle. We have had over 2,500 students attend our course! This kind of outreach would never have been imaginable in our on-the-ground workshops & trainings, so definitely great added value there, especially as the videos remain accessible long after any triggering event. 

 

In terms of trauma recovery, could you offer a tip for the reader?

There are several phases of responding to trauma. The first is social connection. We look at each other and read each other’s faces and assess, ‘is everything ok? Are we good?’ This is what Dr. Stephen Porges has developed in his Polyvagal Theory.

With the pandemic lockdown, there’s been a limit to how much people can actually feel that connection physically. At the same time, the online world has gotten much busier with workshops and training and zoom meetings, and these have created new sources of support.  In my own experience, I have found my belonging to the Somatic Experiencing community and the Neuro Affective Touch community to be most nourishing while being in the middle of Beirut.

Beyond social connection as a primary response to threat, we have the three ‘f’s, fight, flight, and freeze. ‘Fight’ energy needs to DO something, to move and to express, especially the arms and the voice. The flux of people cleaning up the streets and shoveling glass and rebuilding after the blast, for example, is a great way of putting the rage of ‘fight’ into meaningful work and expending that energy.

‘Flight’ needs to find safety right away, and to that effect, many people went to the villages and towns beyond the capital to recover and regain their footing far from the danger. This is hugely important and therapeutic, to physically feel safe again, and nature is one of the best places to do that.

The ‘Freeze’ response is the most delicate to work with as it implies total or partial overwhelm and system shutdown. The world might seem like a very alien place when we are in freeze, or we might feel aliens to our own selves. Dr. Peter Levine speaks a lot about the importance of this survival mechanism and how to work with it.

All these responses are autonomic, i.e., involuntary. We have no choice in the matter. Therefore, there is no need to judge them. Better to understand them and accept their wisdom as protective mechanisms and seek professional support, especially body-based support, to help release them.

Most of all, we need to slow down and notice what is good. It is a kind of counterbalance for all the pains. It does not mean giving up on justice. Gratitude is a position of power.

 

By: Jana Al Obeidyine, a dancer, writer and independent publisher based in Beirut- Lebanon.

 

Comments

Christina Heinl (not verified)

Tue, 11/23/2021 - 12:09 PM

Excellent and so clear and well and not least warm explanations! Well done Zena x

Add new comment