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Reconstructing Beirut

Reconstructing Beirut
Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City

Reconstructing Beirut contributes to a new approach to Middle East studies that applies recent theories of memory and space/place, bringing a fresh framework for analyzing contemporary Arab cultures and post-conflict cities.

Series: Jamal and Rania Daniel Endowment in Contemporary History, Politics, Culture, and Religion Of The Levant

May 2010
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190 pages | 6 x 9 | 15 b&w photos |

Once the cosmopolitan center of the Middle East, Beirut was devastated by the civil war that ran from 1975 to 1991, which dislocated many residents, disrupted normal municipal functions, and destroyed the vibrant downtown district. The aftermath of the war was an unstable situation Sawalha considers "a postwar state of emergency," even as the state strove to restore normalcy. This ethnography centers on various groups' responses to Beirut's large, privatized urban-renewal project that unfolded during this turbulent moment.

At the core of the study is the theme of remembering space. The official process of rebuilding the city as a node in the global economy collided with local day-to-day concerns, and all arguments invariably inspired narratives of what happened before and during the war. Sawalha explains how Beirutis invoked their past experiences of specific sites to vie for the power to shape those sites in the future. Rather than focus on a single site, the ethnography crosses multiple urban sites and social groups, to survey varied groups with interests in particular spaces. The book contextualizes these spatial conflicts within the discourses of the city's historical accounts and the much-debated concept of heritage, voiced in academic writing, politics, and journalism. In the afterword, Sawalha links these conflicts to the social and political crises of early twenty-first-century Beirut.

  • A Note on Language
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One. Beirut: A City in Transition
  • Chapter Two. Downtown in "the Ancient City of the Future"
  • Chapter Three. `Ayn el-Mreisse: The Global Market and the Apartment Unit
  • Chapter Four. "Beirut Is Ours, Not Theirs": Neighborhood Sites and Struggles in `Ayn el-Mreisse
  • Chapter Five. Cafés, Funerals, and the Future of Coffee Spaces
  • Chapter Six. Placing the War-Displaced
  • Afterword: Reclaiming Downtown Again
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Aseel Sawalha is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Pace University in New York City.


This book is an ethnographic study of time, place, and memory in the aftermath of the devastating civil war that ravaged Beirut, Lebanon, from 1975 to 1991. It focuses on the rebuilding efforts of the city and describes how the residents of Beirut used individual and collective memories of their celebrated architectural past to compete and negotiate for the reinstatement of municipal services and the reconstruction of their urban environment. It explores how ordinary citizens insisted that specific urban spaces be restored as they were recollected from before, during, and after the war. As it traces Beirutis' strategic attempts to exert influence over the rebuilding of their beloved city, this study investigates the struggles surrounding contradictory visions of public space, individual perceptions of time, and conflicting memories of the city's past. The theme of the memories of the city's past, a temporality of urban space, runs through all the chapters.


This study places Beirut's reconstruction project within the broader frame of emerging theories of globalization and political economy. It documents the city's transformation within the arc of its own history as well as that of the entire Middle East. The ethnographic data and theoretical analysis fall within the existing anthropological literature on place and space and memory and remembrance, which I review in the first chapter, giving the overview for the rest of the chapters, which are based on fieldwork case studies. Chapters Two to Six dwell on the postwar phase, while the afterword jumps forward to recent events.


In the first chapter, "Beirut: A City in Transition," I introduce Beirut's postwar physical, social, and political structures. My description includes my own challenges of gathering data in the midst of an unpredictable transitional postwar urban context. To sketch the context for this recent scenario, the chapter recounts how the sixteen-year Lebanese civil war (1975-1991), much of which was fought within Beirut's boundaries, drastically transformed the physical landscape of the city and destroyed much of its downtown area. From its former elegance, Beirut's center was reduced to a "ghost town."


This background section also recognizes that Beirut's physical destruction was accompanied by a massive demographic upheaval, as fully half of its population was uprooted and relocated to temporary quarters in abandoned apartments, hotels, and office buildings. Downtown Beirut, the former cosmopolitan showcase of the Arab world and the focus of this study, was all but destroyed. In addition to the physical destruction, the chapter also describes the societal upheaval as the institutions and services of the Lebanese state disappeared during the war, leaving political factions and militias to seize control and establish ad hoc, nonlegal systems of negotiating space and resources.


After this background, I shift my attention to the events that shaped the postwar rebuilding efforts. When the fighting officially ended in the early 1990s, the state sought to reinstate its legitimacy; restore a sense of normalcy; and begin the daunting task of rebuilding its capital, its institutions, and its infrastructure. The priority then became the reconstruction of Beirut's war-ravaged downtown area, commonly called "the heart of the city," to its former grandeur. In the proposed restoration plan, Beirut's center was envisioned as a "melting pot," where diverse sects and ideologies could interact peacefully and where Lebanon's eighteen ethnoreligious groups could intermingle freely.


Chapter Two, "Downtown in 'the Ancient City of the Future,'" focuses on the monumental transformation of the heart of Beirut, the controversial development project designed to rebuild the decimated downtown district. Much of it centers on role played by "Solidere," the private real estate company that Prime Minister Hariri entrusted to oversee the reconstruction. According to Solidere, the rebuilding of Beirut's Central District was the world's largest urban renewal effort of its time. However, its approach to the project provoked controversy and resistance across all sectarian divides. In Chapter Two, I consider the events from the perspective of the economically powerful and the political elite. I juxtapose Solidere's plans with the competing discourses of intellectuals, historians, urban planners, and social scientists surrounding the project, the voices in closest dialogue with it. These debates, while based on competing visions of concrete spaces, are also informed by perceptions of large concepts: the past, heritage, and identity. The conflicting interests of the various factions, and the vicissitudes of their efforts to exert influence on the renewal project, make up the core of this entire study. The ethnographic material throughout the book examines the multiple repercussions of Solidere's project on other, less powerful groups.


Since the reconstruction project was launched, official and popular discourse had insisted that the city's wartime divisions no longer existed. State policy after "the end of emergency" decreed a prompt return to "normality" and a desire to "put aside the mentality of the war." But, as I argue in this book, for the citizens of Beirut, the war was not yet over. I frame this limbo as an ongoing "state of emergency" and as perpetual uncertainty. The top-down imposition of reconstruction generated uncertainty that crossed all aspects of daily life for most residents of the city. After Chapter Two, each of the following chapters illustrates a postwar case of uncertainty. In particular, I present the efforts of Beirutis to counter the unpredictability in various ways. In the course of my research, I repeatedly heard Beirutis echo the phrase "let's wait and see"—which became the title of the book. Leaving the elites and the macro view of the commercial district, I recount the effects of reconstruction on apartment buildings in an adjacent neighborhood, `Ayn el-Mreisse. I describe the drastic and palpable transformations engendered by postwar reconstruction: old buildings being demolished, new buildings under construction, the eviction of long-standing tenants, and the disruption of long-established social networks. My case studies present longtime, legal apartment dwellers who responded to the uncertainty of their futures as tenants, and who plied various tactics to secure their homes—including using their past memories. Along with this medley of individual voices, I trace the alliances and conflicts among the major actors in this single neighborhood, especially landlords and their long-standing tenants whom they sought to evict. Not just local disputes, these apartment conflicts touched all the major postwar power actors: political parties, government institutions, and financial forces. The chapters' cases articulate their respective roles and their active strategies in shaping the future of the neighborhood.


The third and fourth chapters form a unit based on the same neighborhood. However, "Beirut Is Ours Not Theirs: Neighborhood Sites and Struggles in `Ayn el-Mreisse" shifts from individual actors to organized groups, and from living spaces to more public sites, which provoked different strategies and negotiations. Specifically, I investigate how local residents challenged their exclusion from the reconstruction process and how they formed groups to negotiate for urban rights. Although the spaces in dispute were not homes, these groups, like the residential tenants, used their recollections of prewar and wartime experiences to justify their claim to particular city sites. The chapter explores four distinct cases. First, I recount the efforts of fishermen to protect the city's last fishing port, unique in this book as the only work space, and one associated with nature rather than cities. The quotation of the title, "Beirut Is Ours Not Theirs," in their case refers to a luxury condominium building planned for the port site, but the same oppositional mode colored the other cases as well. Next, I move to a battle between a house of worship and a nightclub, as the neighborhood mosque's committee strove to obstruct the opening of a Hard Rock Cafe franchise. After discussing those two long-existing sites, I move on to a new site established in reaction to the same threats, to the case of a single man who installed an improvised, eclectic museum to protect the local heritage. My final case looks at a more formal cultural venue, one with a changing identity. Rather than a new one like the museum, or a continual one like the port and the mosque, this case describes a theater that had been suspended during the war and that a committee was now working to convert into a different cultural locale, a cultural center.


In Chapter Five, "Cafés, Funerals, and the Future of Coffee Spaces," I leave the neighborhood examined in the last two chapters and shift to a new kind of site, the place where people drink coffee together. More drastically than the homes or the threatened places in the `Ayn el-Mreisse, these coffee venues took different forms before, during, and after the war. In the main case study, I analyze the nostalgic narratives of middle-class women who before the war gathered to drink coffee in French-style cafés, then met in funeral homes during the war. However, in the aftermath of the war, the tourist and business orientation of development left them with no place to gather. Unlike in the previous chapter, where those who felt uncertain and threatened made efforts to protect or renovate existing spaces, these social coffee drinkers resorted only to memories of spaces now destroyed. The memories of middle-class women and working-class men help challenge the traditional binary analysis of public/private space that fills many writings on gender in the Middle East.


In the last chapter of the immediate postwar years, "Placing the War-Displaced," I turn to the most marginal, least powerful, but most discussed group: the population displaced by the war, most of whom had fled their homes and lived by squatting and informal labor in the capital, Beirut. I compare the self-perception of the displaced, contrast it to the discourse of landlords whose properties they had occupied, as well as the press, political parties, government agencies, and organizations that work with the displaced. Despite wide disagreement over how to define "displaced," all but the displaced themselves shared the view that they were a problem—unwanted reminders of the war who should return to their prewar homes. Three individual case studies illustrate the diversity and complexity within the displaced population, and their relationship to the past in negotiating homes in the current or future city.


I conclude with an afterword, "Reclaiming Downtown Again," which turns to the chain of disruptions that struck Beirut in 2005, when protesters took over the downtown district. Occupying the space in ways that contradicted the upscale design of reconstruction, they too invoked the past, although in a history updated to include the recent catastrophes, while simultaneously using a new kind of public space, the Internet.


The reconstruction project engendered a permeating sense of uncertainty and limbo that crossed most social groups and endured for at least a decade. I do not suggest that the "let's wait and see" attitude rendered Beirutis passive; on the contrary, I found them fully engaged in negotiating for their survival. Tenants, whether legal or "illegal," sought resources and strategies to hold on to or acquire living space; neighborhood residents resisted the imposition of top-down planning by various tactics, including improbable alliances. However, I also found that they regarded their present circumstance as a temporary phase to be endured until their lives resumed "normality." Property owners waited for the war refugees to vacate their homes and businesses and for the municipal government to restore the city's infrastructure. Displaced families negotiated for monetary compensation and legal leases while they referred often to their numbered position on the many "waiting lists." And everyone eagerly awaited the promised rebirth of Beirut's center and its restoration to its prewar reputation as the "Paris of the Middle East." The book ultimately examines the social meaning of space in the context of the city's remembered past and in relation to particular people's identities. Through ethnographic data, each section explores the ways urban space is negotiated, recalled, and contested.



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