Teenager Ariana Papazian had started working on her first book – a science fiction novel – when a huge explosion decimated Beirut Port and much of the Lebanese capital in August 2020.
In a matter of seconds, the 15-year-old’s world was turned upside down and her novel would soon become a memoir about losing her mother, Delia, on that tragic day.
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“I saw my mother’s body floating in the air towards the right side of the room, and from there everything went south,” Ariana recounts in harrowing detail in her book.
Her mother, Delia, was found under broken furniture and a collapsed aluminium column inside their luxurious high-rise apartment that overlooked the devastated port and the Mediterranean Sea.
When the huge stockpile of ammonium nitrate – which had been stored unsafely at the port for years – detonated, Ariana was in the apartment with her mother, a best friend, and younger brother.
Much of the building where she lived was destroyed. Doors were blown off their hinges, windows smashed and walls collapsed under the force of one of the largest non-nuclear explosions ever recorded, and the most destructive single incident in Lebanon’s troubled history.
“We had lots of plans, but they were all ruined within 10 seconds,” Ariana, now 17, tells Al Jazeera.
“I was just like any other teenager or kid,” she says.
“But then I had to grow up, be there for my family, and make big decisions.”
Writing was a way of processing everything that occurred, she says, sitting poised and calm at a Beirut café for the recent launch of her memoir, Delia: A Survivor’s Story.
“While writing the book, I started asking myself new questions while also finding answers. I think I found my voice through doing so,” she explains.
“I always used to write in my journal about my day-to-day experiences, and I thought that maybe I can turn my anger and sadness into something that could inspire people.”
The inspiration for her writing, she says, was The Diary of Anne Frank which chronicles the life of the German-Dutch Jewish teenager during two years hiding from the Nazi occupiers of the Netherlands.
‘This moment united us all’
The Beirut Port explosion on August 4, 2020, tore through the heart of the Lebanese capital, killing more than 200 people, wounding 6,500 more, and flattening several neighbourhoods.
Though the lead investigator into the explosion, Judge Tarek Bitar, has charged or pursued several high-ranking political and military officials, the investigation still hangs in the balance with top-ranking political figures filing legal complaints to stall the probe.
No officials have yet been held responsible and convicted.
Ariana says it was hard to accept the fact that she lost her mother, and the memoir chronicles her journey towards acceptance.
In the 12 months after the explosion while writing her book, Ariana reflected on life in Beirut without Delia; being without her for Christmas, Easter, her birthday, and the many other occasions that bring a family together.
“I was fighting against reality and holding myself in a cage of denial,” she writes.
Recounting the moment she lost her mother was, unsurprisingly, the most difficult part of the book, she explains, adding that she was helped by the support of her best friend, Aya, who was in the apartment on the day of the explosion.
“The trauma and shock froze my feelings. I felt normal, but it impacted me later,” Ariana says, adding that she was overwhelmed with anger, especially when she would pass by the Beirut Port on her way to school.
“The book was a way to partially heal from this experience.”
Nearly two years since losing her mother, Ariana is back at her school in Beirut’s Achrafieh district, which was heavily damaged by the explosion.
She says it is easier now to pass by the demolished Beirut port and her old apartment building.
Though she still misses her mother every day, she also believes that Delia lives on through the strong relationship they had and the influence her mother has had on her life. Ariana says she is now focused on college applications and looking after her younger brother, who is almost 10.
“My mother passed on a lot of her values to me. She taught me to be transparent with people,” she says with a smile.
“I truly believe in the power of speech. We live in a country where people don’t feel free or speak freely because they’re afraid of being threatened,” she says.
As writing helped to heal her sorrow, Ariana hopes that her book will now help to bring her country and people together as they struggle to cope with economic and political turmoil.
“We all had different experiences during the blast, but this moment united us all,” she says.