August 4th ran perfectly until around 6 p.m. local time in Beirut when the couples – both posing for photos in the same downtown area – felt the ground shake.
“One thing crossed my mind, ‘Israa: Now you are going to die,'” said Seblani, 29, a doctor in Troy, Michigan, in a post-explosion interview. “My dreams and the things we wanted to do together flew when the broken glass flew.”
“I asked God for one thing,” she said. “When I have a moment or a second to hold my parents’ hands and say goodbye to them.”
The explosion that struck Beirut last week disrupted almost every aspect of normal life in the Lebanese capital, including the two wedding photos. Videographers hired to capture the occasion instead documented the most terrifying moments in the couples’ lives as they ran for cover from crumbling buildings and gusts of broken glass.
The couples didn’t know each other but had spotted each other on the other side of the busy square just before the explosion when 28-year-old Shamly called 34-year-old Sbeih and joked that they were no longer bachelors. The next time they met, they were online when two eerily similar videos – showing the interruption of their wedding photos – went viral. The shared experience bound the couple forever and became a symbol of the city’s devastation.
More than 170 people were killed and thousands injured in the explosion. The explosion has since been linked to a warehouse where 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate were improperly stored for years.
The video, recorded on August 4th, shows the moments before a bride’s wedding pictures were interrupted by the explosions in Beirut. (Mahmoud Nakib via Storyful)
As the shock wave swept through town, Seblani and Sbeih ran to a nearby restaurant, where Seblani’s instinct as a doctor set in and she began tending to the wounded.
“I wasn’t thinking about myself or my parents or how we could leave this place or anything,” said Seblani. “The lab coat is white. My dress is white It’s just … the style is different. “
Her mind wandered back to the other woman in a white dress she had seen just minutes before.
“One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind when I went to the restaurant and started helping people was, ‘What happened to the other couple?'” She said.
Shamly – his hair and back speckled with shards of glass – carried his shocked fiancée part of the way away from the scene. Her dress was dirty and torn now, full of dust and debris. “Everything was destroyed, the injured were on the ground,” said the 27-year-old Fanous. “It was a terrible situation.”
Neither the bride nor the groom were seriously injured. But for both couples, the powerful explosion was just the latest obstacle on their long journeys to marriage.
Fanous and Shamly met in 2011 at work at a Beirut hotel, right where they were due to celebrate their wedding reception almost a decade later. It took Fanous a while to warm up for Shamly, but in his little kindness – defending her in a labor dispute, taking her to the hospital after an accident – she saw a potential partner and soon fell in love with him. They supported each other through university and career changes, and in 2015 Fanous began planning their wedding.
“I had all these elaborate plans and I wanted to look beautiful, like a princess, and have all eyes on me,” she said.
Seblani and Sbeih met in November 2016 in a Starbucks in Beirut, where Seblani, then a medical student, invited each other to study – sometimes for many hours at a time. Sbeih came in with a friend and caught a glimpse of her letter in the corner. He was immediately overwhelmed by the need to introduce himself.
“I felt like I fell in love,” he said. “Something told me in my mind, go talk to her. … She is the one you are looking for. “
Seblani was initially surprised by his openness – and even gave him a dirty look. But she eventually agreed to share her phone number.
“Then our story began,” she said.
Seblani moved to the United States in 2017, but visa issues prevented Sbeih, who owns two clothing stores in Beirut, from joining her. Their love prevailed, but street protests in Lebanon and the travel restrictions and bans imposed due to the pandemic kept delaying their wedding plans.
When Seblani finally landed in Beirut in July, the economic crisis in Lebanon deepened and the pandemic picked up speed worldwide. “It was like challenging the whole world,” said Seblani.
But the couple had agreed early on: “No matter what happens, we will get married,” she said. “We will make it.”
The pandemic and economic downturn also kept pushing back Fanous and Shamly’s wedding date before settling on August 4th.
So it was a coincidence that the two couples – both excited about their wedding ceremonies and the parties that awaited them in hotels – ended up in the same place that evening.
“Certainly, just as I’ve dreamed of this day all my life, she also dreamed of this day,” Fanous said of Seblani. “She wanted to celebrate, and she also wanted her family to be happy for her because this night only happens once in your life.”
“We now have this common history – a connection that will always be there,” said Seblani.
Both hotels were damaged and both parties were canceled. There was no cake and no dancing. But both couples – thankful that their families survived the chaos – decided on their ceremonies anyway. They were fed up with waiting.
Mohammad reported from Arlington, Tex.