‘Facades of Lebanon’

English master Mr Peter Rudge reports on Theodore Ell (OS 2002) winning the prestigious
Calibre Essay Prize for for his thought-provoking essay on the 2020 Beirut explosion.


On Tuesday 4 August 2020 a catastrophic explosion razed Beirut’s port and sent devastating shock waves – both literal and metaphorical - through the immediate neighbourhoods. Theodore Ell (OS 2002) was living in Beirut at the time, his wife having accepted a posting as Australia’s Deputy Ambassador. Reflecting on his time in the city and the events of that apocalyptic day, Theodore’s essay ‘Facades of Lebanon’ has won the prestigious Calibre Essay Prize. Established by the Australian Book Review in 2007, the prize recognises the finest in new non-fiction essay writing.

The judges described Theodore’s work as “a gripping piece of reportage and a powerful meditation on the bonds of community in a time of turmoil and upheaval.”

Theodore writes of Lebanon as a place of paradox. On the one hand, it is a country of natural beauty, cultural richness and exceptional kindness and hospitality – he recalls being greeted every day with the phrase ‘Ahlan wa sahlan’ (‘You are our kin, be at ease’). On the other, it is a country defined by political corruption, economic collapse, struggling infrastructure and religious division - ‘Everyone is leaving’ says Mira, a staff member at a local bar and now heading for France; the owner of a guesthouse can only apologise with shame for the state of her beloved country.

As structured, the essay presents the catastrophic blast as almost an inevitability – cries of ‘It is the end’ are heard in Arabic from the streets. Whilst, in one sense, ‘freakish and random, another milestone in Lebanon’s tragic history’, Theodore also represents it as, in his words, ‘a natural consequence of the degradation and corruption of the state.’ Its immediate effect is captured in vivid prose – Theodore’s apartment is gutted by the blast (pictured opposite and below) and fragments of glass slice through his foot and ankle. He labels it ‘a rehearsal for what the end is like.’ He aids his wife day and night ensuring the safety of embassy staff. It hastens their return to Australia and the very process of writing the essay served as a form of catharsis.

Theodore Ell - Beirut apartment photo 3.jpg

Theodore is now working on a book about Lebanon, using the essay as its first chapter. Writing is a ‘personal passion’ for him, balancing his work at the Department of Defence and a stint teaching modern Italian literature at the ANU. His time overseas also gave him the opportunity to pursue his love of poetry and, later this year, his first volume of poetry - Beginning in Sight - is to be published.