Architecture is at the center of politics. We can see the truth of this statement amdist the controversy about post-war reconstruction of Beirut and the establishment of Solidere—the company created to redevelop the city. Reconstruction in Beirut does not mean simply the physical re-making and structuring of certain “sites of memory” scattered throughout the city. Rather, reconstruction is a political process parallel to the constant making and re-making of internal contestations of power and identity inside Lebanon since at least 1860.
The most important and widely studied case of reconstruction in Beirut is the famous Centre Ville or Beirut Central District undertaken by Solidere (discussed at length in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?”. Höckel points as well to the case of the southern suburbs and the Elyssar project and the role played by Hezbollah in different states of reconstruction, namely, 1983, 1996 and 2006. In this post, I look at the Elyssar project to develop Beirut's eastern coast and southern suburbs. The project has been mired in delays for decades and exemplifies the blurry line between political projects, architecture, and private interests in postwar Lebanon.
The designation “southern suburb” has a negative connotation in Beirut, and is often used interchangeably with Shi’a Muslims, anarchy, squatters, illegality and poverty. The “suburbs”—formed by a permanent flow of rural migrants and later by both urban and rural refugees from the war—are homogenous and impoverished quarters of Beirut, consisting mostly of members of the Shi’a community and comprises one third of the population of the greater Beirut area. At first the project was to be undertaken by Solidere but after political contestation on the part of the residents and the Amal/Hezbollah party, it was implemented by a public agency created after much negotiation as per Decree No 9043 of August 1996.
The project was criticized on the basis of being based solely on economic considerations and too ambitious (the area is five times bigger than the central district) even though similar plans had already been tested and failed in the Arab world. Yet, it remained largely unmodified. Other issues arose, such as difficulties in land expropriation due to the illegality of building and dwelling in the area, and speculation over land value, in which all parties – Solidere, the Prime Minister’s Office and the local Amal/Hezbollah – withheld and manipulated information, which led to a political stalemate that permanently halted the project.
The project area extends over 586 hectares from the Summerland Resort and Sports City to the boundary of Beirut International Airport in the South. From East to West it extends from the Airport road to the Mediterranean Sea and includes a large portion of coastline – another contentious point for development and speculation.
Elyssar’s plan included the execution of all primary and secondary roads, necessary infrastructure and public services; the construction of over 10,000 units of affordable housing over a 14-year period, manufacturing parks, warehouses and workshop centers. At the heart of plan was also the same scenario of urban violence and displacement in which residents from illegal settlements were to be transferred elsewhere.
The question of illegality and ownership in the area (and everywhere else in Lebanon to a certain degree) is complex and nowhere near resolution. In a 2007 case study by Nadine Khayat, she writes:
The Lebanese state has mostly continued to adopt a non-interventionist strategy toward these areas in Beirut; in fact, many describe the southern suburbs of Beirut as a state within the state, having its own conservative jurisdictions that may arguably be excluding factions and other communal groups present in Lebanon.
The state faced the question of illegal settlements in an area almost entirely controlled politically by Amal/Hezbollah, with the exception of a Maronite minority at the fringes. The hostilities between the state and the militias go back to tensions between 1983 and 1984, when President Gemayel ordered the demolition of illegal neighborhoods in the suburb.
Facing resistance from the residents, with the support of Amal, and what is considered a reminder of the state’s bad will toward the area, it turn led to yet another extension of the war.
The suburbs fall under the definition of ‘slums’ and ‘illegal settlements’. They have been a recurrent nightmare in Beirut’s reconstruction plans because of the absence of planning bodies, uncontrolled migration and growth, and lastly, the lack of appropriate mapping of the slums in purview of the political control of para-state bodies in the area.
Mona Fawaz and Isabelle Peillen’s 2003, “The Case of Beirut, Lebanon”, part of “Understanding Slums: Case Studies for the Global Report on Human Settlements”, lays out the problem: “Given its complex history, the limited legalities in property rights, and the widespread violation in building and construction codes, it is difficult to adopt legality as a criterion for slum identification in Beirut.”
They further add: “To date, Lebanese public policies have never concretely addressed slums and their dwellers, despite a reasonable number of studies dedicated to the issue. Laissez-faire has been the rule, although punctuated by violent incidents of eviction.” The sole exception to this had been, of course, the Elyssar project (Public Agency for the Planning and Development of the South Western suburbs of Beirut). However, that failed time and again not only because of inappropriate funding but also because of the status quo of postwar reconstruction in which confessional fractions battle each other for power.
All the information relevant to the negotiations and contestations in the early phase of the Elyssar project are found in detail in Mona Harb’s “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut: Resources, Negotiations and Contestations in the Elyssar Project.”
Here it is important to highlight the role that Hezbollah/Amal have played in the contestations and negotiations between the Lebanese state and the suburbs. While they have significantly added to the political stalemate of the project, they have transformed the public space of the suburbs through an intricate network of surveillance, social services, political participation and cultural activities in a way that the Lebanese state has been incapable of offering, particularly in this disadvantaged area.
The characterization of Hezbollah in the Lebanese context is very difficult and while it is not the topic of this essay, the work of Mona Harb and Reinoud Leenders, (Know thy enemy: Hezbollah, terrorism and the politics of perception) provides a framework to understand the role of the group inside the urban configuration of the suburbs as a distinct territory of identity. It is important to note that understanding the group as merely a terrorist group or as a part of the Lebanese institutions are both flawed perspectives, which blur the heterogeneous nature of para-state actors in Lebanon.
The animosity between investors and government institutions on the one hand, and Hezbollah on the other hand, confirms Harb’s observation:
While urban politics present themselves as a means for development they are actually strategies for territorial domination” (see Harb’s “La Dahiye de Beyrouth: Parcours d’une stigmatisation urbaine, consolidation d’un territoire politique”.)
The conquest of the public space and eventual colonization and closure of its history, and of what it is supposed to be found and remembered in it, is in Lebanon, the equivalent of political hegemony.
Architectural interventions and urban planning play a pivotal role in the configuration of the public space as the stage where politics appears, and here comes to mind Daniel Libeskin’s observation that “the public and political realm… is synonymous with architecture.”
The general lines for a discussion of the role of politics in architecture and architecture in politics have not been drawn with the exception of economic considerations and the problem of technology – as a counterpart of history – in weakening effective participation in democracy through excessive technification and functionalism of labor. Nevertheless, the necessity for an architectural configuration of the public space in which the world emerges between people, calls for a review of what Hannah Arendt conceived as the “space of appearances”, in terms radically architectural.
Ronald Beiner writes in “Our Relationship to Architecture as a Mode of Shared Citizenship: Some Arendtian Thoughts”:
The fundamental categories of Arendt’s political philosophy, such as worldliness and public space or “space of appearances”, are architectural ones (one can see this in how certain architectural theorists and even practitioners respond to her work). Hence, precisely where one encounters limits in trying to apply her political philosophy to politics, one can perhaps redeem her political philosophy by applying it to architecture.
For Hannah Arendt, the world – the space of politics – is the only place where we can appear to others in order to act, and it is this action that constitutes the basic units of power – which is always political – and that redeems the world from both the biological – and mortal – cycle of life.
Beiner makes an interesting argument in this regard: the now popular notion of public reason from Rawls and Habermas operates on considerations of constitutional structure and political order which are relevant only to political elites. Whereas, public space is relevant to all citizens; accordingly, public reason is less important than public space.
Arendt was increasingly concerned with the durability of the world as a stable artifice, where human action gains some sort of immortality. As Beiner noted, “That this sort of immortalizing function is implicit in architecture as the creation of a lasting habitat and a more durable context for human activities is not a surprise.”
World-oriented experiences were at the core of Arendt’s thinking about the nature and possibilities of the political. Here we encounter an obvious tension between hegemony and worldliness, in that spatiality or space is not the determining factor in the existence of a public world, but the guarantee that it can appear. Beiner shifts the emphasis from the public space as a setting for episodic freedom, to a public good, in which civic experience can take place. This, based upon one notion of citizenship being that "public things matter."
The notion of cynicism that is so widely discussed in politics can also be found in architecture. Beirut is a first-hand example of what Andrew Benjamin calls, “architecture as annihilation” in the context of museumfication rather than reconstruction for the sake of reconciliation.
For as long as the public space in Lebanon will continue being the battleground of hegemony in jeopardy of power, urban architecture and planning will reflect that. Beiner explains, “If the effect of an ensemble of architectural creation is not the constitution of some kind of polis, at least ideally, then the idea of architecture as a source of citizenship is a hollow one.”
Cynicism is here embodied in the notion that in reconstruction it is only economic growth and prosperity what will bring peace to a country devastated by war. However, Hannah Arendt warns, “Economic growth may one day turn out to be a curse rather than a good, and under no conditions it can either lead into freedom or constitute a proof of its existence.”
At the heart of the task of political foundations and the complex task of reconstruction in postwar scenarios is the question whether such new foundations are possible. Look only at Libya, where this week bandits briefly took control of the Tripoli airport, and we see the difficulty of founding new polities on the ruins of failed dictatorships. The repeated failure to build civil society in many countries only heightens the question: is postwar political foundation in the Middle East possible?
For want of a better example one can always turn to Lebanon: A surprising textbook case of both success and failure in reconstruction, while at the same time the political foundations remain unchanged and the political terms of negotiations have remained more or less unchanged throughout almost an entire century of regional and civil wars. The reconstruction of Beirut has been plagued by fierce criticism as much as by a relatively positive reception in light of the relative order wrought among the hostile parties involved.
While the reconstruction of Beirut is almost a fait accompli and there’s little room for anything but an academic debate, this refers only to the re-making of the historical downtown area around the iconic Martyrs’ Square area in compliance with 1991 National Master Plan by Dar al-Handasah and IAURIF for Solidere.
Here it is crucial to place Solidere’s plans for Beirut in the context of the colonial visions of French planners spanning from 1932 through 1991 and from then to present day.
The Danger Plan (1932) was prepared under the French mandate by a French consulting firm and was the first systematic attempt to lay out an urban plan for the Lebanese capital; followed then by the Ecochard Master Plan (1943, right after independence) that was never mindful of Lebanon’s multi-confessional landscape and failed to account for the possible growth of the city which remained largely unregulated. The General Master Plan (1952) followed and is still considered the only planning strategy established on a legal basis.
Also based upon a French model, the master plan dealt mostly with broadening transportation networks and could hardly envision the expansion of the prosperous years 1958-1967 of the Shihab era during which Beirut experienced agitated expansion. The Plan Directoire Beyrouth et Ses Banlieux (1964) was also orchestrated by Ecochard and tried to limit the city’s expansion – predicting the risk of non-regulation and environmental hazard – but it was never applied. Two later master plans were introduced in 1977 and 1992 but the 1991 directive prevailed.
In this context two particular sites of memory are important in any attempt to re-shape the public spaces of the city in a postwar context; the first being the historical downtown (Martyrs’ Square) that divides the city between East and West and the second no less iconic Beirut Pine Forest (known in Arabic as Horch al-Sanawbar) that divides the city between North and South. The importance of these sites resides in that spite of the failed policy attempts to regulate and integrate them into systematic plans; they were both contested by the population of Beirut as public spaces in the broadest sense: Arenas of inter-confessional interaction.
Previously, I discussed the background of Martyrs’ Square in “Beirut: Reinventing or Destroying the Public Space?” in the context of Hannah Arendt’s ideas on the meaning of the public realm and the world as articulated in The Human Condition, and grounded the problem in the ambiguous legacy of the civil war in Lebanese political historiography and memory. Hereby I shall offer a brief discussion on Beirut Pine Forest and turn the discussion from the persistence of a public world to the question of enacting public spaces.
The Pine Forest originally comprised about 1.25 million square meters (now reduced to 330.000) in the 17th century and its viability as a public space precedes that of Martyrs’ Square (public garden was launched in 1879) as it is known that since the 1840’s the Ottoman rulers kept watch over the forest as a public entity and the Lebanese claimed administrative authority over it, turning it into municipal property around 1878.
The most relevant information on the forest – both historical and in terms of social practices – can be found in Fadi S. Shayya’s paper “Enacting Public Space: History and Social Practices of Beirut Horch al-Sanawbar” (2006). He tells us about the relevance of the forest throughout modern history, mainly derived from the celebration of “Horch el-Eid” during “Eid al-Adha” when large numbers of people gathered in Horch to celebrate the occasion of Muslim pilgrims coming home from Mecca after fasting during Ramadan and after 1840, festivities and activities of recreation, sports and folklore of Beiruti Muslims moved to the park.
During the world wars and long Lebanese civil war the forest was off-limits to the public and it was bombed and burnt out by Israeli jet fighters during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. After the end of the civil war around 1995 and in the context of postwar reconstruction the forest was “re-designed” (again in a joint French-Lebanese urban planning venture) and opened to the public, but since then the Municipality of Beirut – rightful owner of the park – has kept the forest off limits to the public and accessible only with special permission.
Different political and bureaucratic issues have arisen around the issue of opening or not opening the forest to the public: At the time of Shayya’s paper (2006) most of the park remained closed and only accessible on certain dates and under certain rules. In 2005 Lebanese daily The Daily Star reported that the forest was withering away after the re-design in absence of a proper team to look after it together with lack of enough security to operate it and five years later, in an extensive report published by NOW Lebanon, it was said that through the forest represents 72% of Beirut’s green space, two thirds of it remain still closed to the public.
It should be noted here that according to official statistics, Beirut has fifty times less greenery than it is recommended by international environmental bodies and recently the American University in Beirut released a scientific study detailing the high levels of pollution in the city. As a part of the reconstruction plans orchestrated in the historical downtown, Solidere is scheduled to open a “Garden of Forgiveness” in the area, but this project comprises a mere 25.000 square meters and is meant to function more as a museum than as a public space that can be contested through interaction by the different communities of the city.
The approach to the reconstruction of Beirut – exemplified both by the historical downtown and the forest – is a critical example of the perverse relationship of Lebanon’s political establishment to both violence and power. In her book Architects Without Frontiers: War, Reconstruction and Responsibility, Esther Charlesworth mentions three major themes that can be learnt from the reconstruction of Beirut as policy failures: Lack of public consultation, apolitical architecture and the preference of process over product.
Aseel Sawalha on the other hand (author of “Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City”) argues forcefully that violence has been a major issue and guiding policy of postwar reconstruction. In his “Healing the Wounds of the War: Placing the War-displaced in Postwar Beirut” (published in the volume “Wounded Cities: Destruction and Reconstruction in a Globalized World”) he discusses at length the “postwar state of emergency” in which the rush of reconstruction created internal displacement out of those who had been already displaced by the war into urban Beirut.
War-displaced residents were offered very modest compensations to move out of their homes in order to make space for the sprawling skyscrapers and luxury apartments on demand, what included also the legendary Valley of the Jews, in which there is a newly renovated synagogue but no Jews. Sawalha says: “Reconstruction means cleaning and organizing disordered spaces, repressing illegality, imposing aesthetic standards on what has become unsightly. As we will see, a lively public discourse on the war-displaced reinforces this enthusiasm for the modern, and the power relations underlying it, in many ways.”
From that time on begins a discourse split between “muhajarin” (displaced victims) and “muhtalin” (opportunistic occupiers) claiming both compensation and usually ruling in favor of the latter. He speaks about the case of an interviewed displaced victim: “Now that there is a legitimate state, we do not have to seek sectarian connections and alliances, he told me. Soon, though, Ali encountered obstacles, leading him to suspect that he had not asked the right people for help. The war time militias and associated mafias, rather than being eclipsed by the state, now operated within it, he concluded.”
Sawalha concludes his paper saying: “According to this article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Lebanese state and its institutions (the Ministry of the Displaced, the Central Fund for the Displaced), as well as the private developers and the public-private company Solidere, all violated the rights of Beirut’s war-displaced to a decent home, privacy and reputation. In effect they created more displacement, as their projects for reconstruction generated a series of postwar emergencies”.
While this is true for the private citizen, the displacement from the public space – exemplified by both Centre Ville and the Pine Forest – does not exactly help the Lebanese communities of Beirut to engage in a power-sharing argument or discussion that might alleviate the burden of violence. What role does architecture play or can play above the level of policy-making and the question is also begot of whether there is something that architects – in both cases – could have done better to prevent exclusion of the Lebanese from participating in the public space?
The question is purely theoretical. Charlesworth however brings up Foucault to say: “In his seminal essay, ‘Space, knowledge and power’, Michel Foucault engages in this broader debate on the social role of architects: Architecture in itself cannot solve social problems: I think that it can and does provide positive effects when the liberating intentions of the architect coincide with the real practice of people in the exercise of their freedom.”
Charlesworth lays out an interesting hierarchy of categories of roles that architects play in postwar reconstruction as such: Pathologists, Heroes, Historicists, Colonialists, Social Reformers and Educators. Her argument is that different architects, policies and companies exercised all of these roles at different times and in different ways. The facts of reconstruction remain albeit unchallenged; including the fact that the reconstruction of Beirut did bring hope to many people, even if it was a false and transitory hope.
The public space however – and here is where Hannah Arendt continues to be ultimately relevant – cannot be eliminated or weakened without inflicting a deadly blow on human plurality and as such it continues to be constantly contested in Lebanon. In February 2012 it was reported by Green Prophet that Lebanese activists democratically demand access to all of the Pine Forest because it is their inalienable right to public property – not to mention that people from many socially disadvantaged neighborhoods would have access to a public space of interaction with others – and in their demands, they realize the obvious: “Without a politically guaranteed public realm, freedom lacks the worldly space to make its appearance”.
-Arie Amaya- Akkermans
“The Garden of the Prophet”, Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran’s posthumous book, included the poem “Pity the Nation”, his most famous and that ends with the following stanza: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.”
“Pity the Nation” might well be an eight-stanza history of Lebanon: Fullness of beliefs and emptiness of religion, acclaiming the bully as hero, not raising its voice except in funerals, boasting not except among ruins, welcoming rulers with trumpeting only in order to farewell them with hooting and welcome another with more trumpeting; more than anything stands out the division into fragments, each one acting as a nation or in the name of the nation.
Already in 1860’s geopolitical conflicts in the region were translated into bitter sectarian conflicts that continued throughout independence, only to be further marred by the creation of the neighboring State of Israel. The weak political leadership of the different sects looked elsewhere than Lebanon to enter larger alliances that could further consolidate their power and quickly enough the central government began to lose control and the sectarian violence deteriorated into a civil war lasting nearly twenty years.
The history of the Lebanese civil war is rather well known, and though remarkable it was in terms of the actors involved, what is even more remarkable is the ways that the Lebanese found to negotiate their former conflicts and rehabilitate the public sphere in order to move on from a turbulent past into a future plagued by open wounds and uncertainties.
Nowhere is the legacy of the war more visible than in the city of Beirut, whose status as a cosmopolitan regional hub wasn’t born out of planning but rather the obvious accidental consequence of a very troubled past.
Craig Larkin outlined in his paper “Reconstructing and Deconstructing Beirut: Space, Memory and Lebanese Youth” some of the reasons behind Lebanon’s dynamism: A mountain refugee for religious minorities; a forged compromise of colonial powers and indigenous elites; a republic of tribes and villages; a cosmopolitan mercantile power-sharing enclave; a playground for the rich; a battle ground for religious and political ideologies; a fusion and combustion of the Arab East and the Christian West; an improbable, precarious, fragmented, shattered, torn nation.
All of these elements convened at once in Beirut in pre-war times: The city grew along the lines of quarters – usually of different religious communities – that developed an inclusive space for all after 1879 when a public garden was launched in the “bourj” (Martyrs’ Square) and the area evolved into a urban hub for all types of public activities.
During the civil war it was precisely this area what split the city in two and along the lines of which militia fighting was drawn, separating the city between East and West Beirut, and shifting the once mixed population. The end of the war, with its permanent calls for dialogue and reconciliation, surprisingly, did nothing to change the demographic status quo of the war.
The reconstruction of Beirut, and particularly of its historical downtown, was taken up in 1994 by private venture Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth), established by then prime minister Rafik Hariri – later assassinated – at a time when the Lebanese state was still too weak and could not appropriately pass strong judgments in order to punish war criminals and effect a true social reconciliation in Lebanese society.
The solution then – as aptly described by Sune Haugbolle in his book “War and Memory in Lebanon”- was a vision of national unity, imagined or imaginary, through which Hariri’s capitalism seized the day with a state-sponsored amnesia in which reconciliation was limited to the private sphere and a vision reigned in which the most important thing was to leave the past behind.
The price that Beirut had to pay for this nominally was the actual destruction of what had been formerly the sole equivalent of a physical public realm. The obvious lack of interest in social reconciliation eliminated the possibility of true interaction between the different communities and this was further consolidated by the total absence of shared public areas. The forces and powers of the state were incorporated into Hariri’s capital and became identical with it.
The reconstruction of Beirut wasn’t so much an exercise in reconstruction as it was the total remaking of a symbolic part of the city that closed off the vaults of the past to interpretation in order to replace the immediate past with two equally disturbing symptoms of amnesia: The absolute past and the absolute future. The motto “Beirut: Ancient City of the Future” was coined and before the reconstruction even began, a large part of the area was demolished; in fact, much more than had been destroyed during the entire war.
The futuristic landscape entirely absent of public spaces – consisting mostly of prohibitively expensive residential towers and an exclusive shopping district – was coupled with an interest to preserve Beirut’s ancient heritage – ruins from Roman and Phoenician times – in order to create a model of a city that was entirely disconnected, even physically, from the vast majority of Beirut and created yet new sources of segregation and division.
Solidere’s concept envisioned a “Beirut reborn” in which the past informs the future, doing precisely what prominent Lebanese architect Bernard Khoury expressed: “It completely bypasses the present. It evokes and links the past and the future, but shrugs off any notion of the present.”
But Beirut shows a different picture in which the present rises as it self-destructs: The ambitiously wealthy downtown is contrasted to a city with poverty looming close to 35% and where news of buildings collapsing because of inadequate infrastructure is not uncommon.
At the same time the ghost of sectarianism is a living reality: What had been checkpoints and militia roadblocks during the civil war have now been replaced by subtle division lines that can be experienced by anyone who travels through the city: Posters of different sect leaders, graffiti and other religious and political icons serve the exact same function and give the unavoidable impression of a city deeply divided that echoes Lebanon’s political landscape.
Acts of memory have become commonplace in response not only to Hariri’s capitalism but to the entire political establishment, however they remain at the level of demanding what no Lebanese movement or faction has ever done: To step up to the challenge of opening public spaces in which there can be social reconciliation; namely, the acceptance that a court of justice cannot punish an entire country in which all groups involved bear responsibility.
Artists on the other hand have remained trapped in two narratives that equally defy the gist of the present: Either the total view of Lebanon through the eyes of the war or the Oriental Romanticism of the pre-republican Lebanon that is identical with the Western fantasies about the Middle East. Khoury says elsewhere: “Beirut has a false relationship with its past, characterized by a superficially Arabocentric kind of nostalgia.” What is remarkable here is the absence of the present.
Recently, I elaborated in “War and Memory in Lebanon” about the challenges posed by Hannah Arendt’s ideas on forgiveness and reconciliation in postwar Lebanon in the context of Tajaddod’s interactive exhibit “Another Memory”, however I want to turn my attention now to Beirut’s relationship to the public space.
Arendt conceived of the public realm as a space produced by particular forms of citizen interaction, where citizens engage in the unpredictable self-disclosure typical of political action, properly conceived, and strengthen the bonds between them in order to sustain this selfsame space.
She writes in The Human Condition:
The term public signifies the world itself, in so far as it is common to all of us and distinguished from our privately owned place in it. This world, however, is not identical with the earth or with nature, and the limited space for the movement of men and the general condition of organic life. It is related, rather, to the human artifact, the fabrication of human hands, as well as to affairs which go on among those who inhabit the man-made world together. To live together in the world means essentially that a world of things is between those who have it in common, as a table is located between who sit around it; the world, like every in-between, relates and separates men at the same time.
Under the conditions of a common world, reality is not guaranteed primarily by the “common nature” of all men who constitute it, but rather by the fact that, differences of position and the resulting variety of perspectives notwithstanding, everybody is always concerned with the same object. The end of the common world has come when it is seen only under one aspect and is permitted to present itself in only one perspective.
This common world which Arendt discusses is a man-made phenomenon that occurs in between men naturally rather than dictated by one man alone, and this variety of “crafted” worlds is typical not only of totalitarian regimes but of any situation – political or otherwise – in which the spontaneity of human action is taken away in order to be replaced with an ideal situation in which the unpredictability of action is traded for calculations.
One of those situations in which human action is calculated is the privatization of the public realm, as has been elaborated by Mark Willson in his paper “Enacting public space: Arendt, citizenship and the city” where he makes the case for the importance of citizenship practices within the shared space of the city and how the political implications of the privatization of the public space always result in the weakening of participatory democracy.
Willson brings up recent work of Margaret Kohn (2004) which is immediately relevant to the case of Beirut: “Even when members of different groups do not engage in formal political discussion, expose to others may help offset the mutual fear and suspicion fostered by segregation. It is difficult to feel solidarity with strangers if we never inhabit places that are shared with people who are different.”
The privatization of downtown Beirut and the area surrounding Martyrs’ Square isn’t simply a question of neo-liberal economy but an attempt to dovetail and manipulate the public space into an artificial arena of consumption.
On the other hand, alternative public spaces have existed in Beirut through the war years and not limited to downtown; Larkin for example brings up the case of Hamra, home to the prestigious American University in Beirut and where the lack of urban planning and official governance enabled the development of a creative environment, allowing greater room for contested post-war visions and plural identities.
Cross-sectarian platforms do exist in Lebanese society (among them, Tajaddod is but one example) and there has been something of a resurrection of a secular movement, however at the level of the state, representation remains largely sectarian as it was from the times of French edict of 1936, after which people had to declare membership in one of the religious communities to receive the right to citizenship. Many aspects of life are still largely determined by sect.
But the consequence of this is that the fragile balance remains in spite of the official narrative of reconciliation between past and future, and without present; proof of the above is that recent clashes in the north of the country quickly spread to Beirut and brought up the anxiety of the civil war years in an environment in which people are acutely aware that the balance may break at the slightest disturbance.
It is highly unlikely that the current political leadership will be able to resolve the sectarian conflict at the heart of Lebanon’s turbulent history since they rose – against all odds – out of the sectarian conflicts and are indebted to the status quo for their power and authority in representing large sections of the Lebanese population.
A public space reinvented on a policy of amnesia isn’t only a limited public realm but also the gentrification of an entire location of memory into an elitist museum, closing not only the past but also the future. A student interviewed by Larkin expressed it best: “The redevelopment involved a covering or hiding of the memory of the war, and in this sense it’s unreal. You can’t talk just of Romans and Phoenicians and our great heritage, without mentioning militias, kidnapping and bombs.”
Even though the historical downtown isn’t the only of Solidere’s ventures (that include also the failed Elyssar plan in southern Beirut) it would be of course an unfair assessment to say that Solidere alone is responsible for the gap in the Lebanese memory. Bernard Khoury comes to mind again when he says the obvious: “Could anything more be demanded of a private company when the country as a whole is incapable of writing its own history? It’s very sad now that in school books history stops in 1975.”
Lourdes Martinez-Garrido articulated it very well in her “Beirut Reconstruction: A Missed Opportunity for Conflict Resolution” (Al Nakhlah, Fall 2008): The Lebanese civil war resolved none of the conditions that generated the initial confrontation. Like any other type of violence, it generated fear, suffering and destruction. In the process of recovery, there was no political plan for social reconstruction.
Finally, the attempted reconstruction of Beirut – though an apparent success – has decidedly turned its own heritage and culture into a “product”, usually a product of entertainment for everyone but those who suffered the war, into a touristic souvenir. This is what Hannah Arendt warned about in “The Crisis in Culture”:
Mass culture comes into being when mass society seizes upon cultural objects, and its danger is that the life process of society (which like all biological processes insatiably draws everything available into the cycle of its metabolism) will literally consume cultural objects, eat them up, and destroy them.
The Lebanese heritage that has survived millennia of wars might yet not survive a couple of decades of amnesia and disappear altogether with the public realm. As these risks loom close, the proponents of doom will seek shelter in the past and the proponents of progress will seek shelter in the future, all while the present will continue, unfortunately, to pity the nation.