NEWTON: Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon

NEWTON: Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon

Mohamad Hafeda, Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon: Bordering Practices in a Divided Beirut (London, New York: I.B. Tauris, 2019)

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Mohamad Hafeda (MH): I was interested in investigating and documenting changes that were happening in the public spaces of Beirut following the political-sectarian conflict that resurfaced in Lebanon after the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri in February 2005. This new wave of conflict imposed a variety of physical borders within the urban space—in the form of security checkpoints, demarcation lines, and violent clashes that cut across neighbourhoods and communities. Yet I became more interested in how these divisions extended beyond material occurrences into the immateriality of residents’ everyday spatial practices, in the form of bordering practices—practices that divide and differentiate, or that could be tactical and/or critical. Hence, when I began my research, my aim was to investigate the impact of this political situation on residents’ spatial practices and everyday life, and to examine the interplay between material and immaterial borders. I asked what bordering practices of the political-sectarian conflict exist in urban space? And how do the bordering practices of art and research operate in urban space in their attempt to negotiate, document, transform, and narrate the conflict mechanisms and borders?

Residents directed me to invisible borders that even I, a resident of Beirut for thirty years, had never noticed in local neighborhoods. When W.A., for example, looked at the pine tree outside her living space, she recalled the rocket-propelled grenade fired from the adjacent neighborhood that had passed through the tree and her line of sight. A.A. told me she had removed her husband’s surname, and hence any clue about his sectarian background and political affiliation, from the intercom at the building entrance to prevent any possible harassment. I.A. looked at the television monitor in her shop and talked to me about the censorship imposed by the satellite provider who had removed a particular television channel due to the provider’s opposition to its political affiliations. In the course of my research, S.H. stopped visiting her sister in the adjacent neighborhood, fearing that her daughter might be harassed by the militia members who patrol the streets.

I devised a research method that would respond to the conditions of borders and the challenges of conducting research in areas of conflict, particularly within the political constraints in urban sites on residents’ and researchers’ practices. My chosen research method allowed me to retreat from the political outdoors and re-enter the neighborhoods through partnering with residents at their interior spaces and in their houses, balconies, shops, and cars. This approach was not merely practical; it also took into account the different ways in which people build knowledge about space, since their different social, political, professional, and geographical standings shape how they relate to conflict. As such, this book and its associated practice-led and site-specific research project were my way of dealing and engaging with the conflict in an active manner—instead of being marginalised, and through employing art practices as urban research tools to work with residents and transform with them the conflict’s mechanisms and borders; and to produce spatial and temporal alternatives to borders, through acts of negotiating and narrating.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MH: At the heart of this book is the idea that bordering practices are specific kinds of spatial practice. These practices are played out through processes of negotiation and narration, and they amount to political strategies and tactics that relate to everyday life and to research and writing on everyday life and on critical spatial practice. My focus is on the immateriality, spatiality, and temporality of these bordering practices in the everyday spaces of the contested city of Beirut.

The research methods and media used to conduct the project, and the representations produced out of the research, relate to the political conditions of the border under investigation. Consequently, the book proposes a method of negotiating, one that considers how artistic research can itself be considered as a form of critical spatial practice and, in particular, a bordering practice; what I term, critical bordering practice. This enables the rethinking of border positions, including those between disciplines—such as between practice and theory, art and social science—and between spatial conditions—such as between private and public, interior and exterior. Ultimately, as I argue, this rethinking leads to the transformation of certain border positions, such as the divisive positions of dominant narratives.

Thus, Negotiating Conflict in Lebanon aims to extend the definition of bordering practice from the sociological use of the term, to include the bordering practices of research and art. It focuses on the capacity of artistic research processes to propose spatial alternatives to borders and to critically reflect upon their own bordering activities.

The book is structured into four projects, and these constitute the borders of its four chapters: Administration, Surveillance, Sound, and Displacement. Each chapter identifies strategic divisions and their associated border conditions as practised by political parties; then it investigates residents’ spatial practices and how they exist as responses and negotiations to the strategic divisions; and, finally, it considers how these practices transform borders into multiple shifting practices and representations that divide and connect through acts of negotiation and narration. In particular, I look at the following practices of bordering: in The Chosen Two, hiding behind the border of administration between an elected district’s representative and his fictional television character; in At Her Balcony, crossing the border of surveillance between two women at their balconies; in This is How Stories of Conflict Circulate and Resonate, translating the border of sound between riding in a taxi and walking journeys; and in The Twin Sisters are ‘About to’ Swap Houses, matching the border of displacement between twin sisters and their husbands.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MH: I developed this method of working in contested spaces, and with people, through my work at Febrik. Febrik is a collaborative platform I co-founded with Reem Charif. It primarily works in Palestinian refugee camps in the Middle East and in marginal contexts in the United Kingdom; it employs participatory art and architecture research processes to propose site-specific interventions of different forms, media, and scales, and that aim for social change in the direct environment of the participants. We address the constraints of living in situations of refuge, particularly for children and young people, and explore the potential of play and the playground as mechanisms to activate the role of individuals and their representation in urban space.

Yet in this book I have been exploring further the capacity of practice-led research and forms of artistic representations, including gallery installations and writings, to open up critical discussions and contribute to wider theoretical and cultural debates in society that are not necessarily possible or urgent at the urban site of the research or do not give back directly to those people included in the research’s empirical process. I have considered this approach to be part of a bordering practice that borrows from one site (the urban) and delivers in another (the gallery); it is a practice that entails materially, spatially, and temporally transforming borders.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MH: The book has a visual and written narrative on residents’ tactical practices of resistance that I believe is relevant to a wide audience beyond academic circles in understanding the everyday experiences of people living within contested spaces. However, the book provides insights for students and academics in any discipline dealing with spatial practices, critical spatial practices. and bordering practices. It will interest a multi-disciplinary group of academics working across the fields of urban studies, border studies, architecture, anthropology, human geography, media studies, cultural studies, visual theory, Middle Eastern studies, and contemporary art. The chapters are appropriate to teaching courses on the border condition that each discusses respectively; administration, surveillance, sound, and displacement. In addition, the book is particularly useful for research institutions and cultural organizations such as NGOs, the United Nations, art galleries, and museums that are interested in research by design. In the wake of the varying conflicts unfolding across the world—racial segregation in the United States, the rise of exclusionary politics and discrimination against minority groups and “others” in Europe, religious sectarian tensions in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia—the book provides support for those who are working on socio-political projects and policy-making. It would also aid those who are in need of a better understanding and examples of contextual methodological approaches in areas of conflict in general.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MH: Currently, I am developing a new practice-led research that further explores the temporal dimension of the bordering practices of displacement. The book particularly reveals how time can be employed as an element of confrontation and occupation in the bordering practices associated with conflict; these are evident in the practices of recurring troubles across the Arab world, and the prolonged time living in conflict while still engaging in daily activities. The new research project capitalizes on these findings and explores the notions of “time” and “waiting” as mechanisms of controlling the space of displaced communities in varying transitional urban contexts in the Middle East and Europe. It works with displaced individuals in a reversal method—a back and forth movement in geography and history—to expose and undo the temporal borders imposed by displacements and produces a new form of time-based cartography. By doing so, it addresses the social inequalities in today’s cities and the spatial and temporal differentiations between citizens (locals) and non-citizens (refugees).

 

Excerpt from the Book 

Bordering Practices: Introduction

Bordering as a Critical and Spatial Practice

The subject of borders within the city of Beirut requires a close investigation into the current spatial practices of its dwellers, specifically defined as residents, politicians and political parties/militias. These are the border practitioners I study in this research. The list could be expanded to include the army and the private sector and I will refer to other groups as well when required. These border practitioners are involved in shaping everyday life at times of conflict with varying power positions, and they engage in bordering practices in different capacities and modes of participation in the city of Beirut. For these people, borders are tools for configuring urban spaces along political and religious lines and for segregating and differentiating different uses of space. But borders are also the site of counter practices – tactical and/or critical – through which residents resist and negotiate political strategies of conflict as part of everyday life.

In their work on various practices that relate to power, Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau consider spatial practices to be closely tied to the production of everyday life and lived experience. De Certeau describes a distinction between spatial practices in terms of strategy and tactics produced respectively by those in power and those who occupy positions of resistance, while Lefebvre contrasts the practices of those in power with the passivity of users’ practices – a passivity that can sometimes give way to dramatic subversion of the power relationship. Other types of practice, termed by Jane Rendell as critical spatial practices, offer critiques of a society’s mode of practice. Critical spatial practices explore the border as a potential space between theory and practice, between art and architecture, and between public and private. Such practices take the form of everyday tactics, as well as site-specific art and design projects that are both spatial and critical in their aim for social and political change. For Rendell, critical spatial practices aim to reflect on the spatial conditions, situations and experiences through which they are produced, and to offer alternatives to the existing political situations and modes of binary thinking.

The bordering practices that this project investigates and produces do not all belong to the same category. I define bordering practices as practices that construct material and immaterial borders as part of the socio-spatial interaction between individuals in time, as well as those practices that negotiate the splits created by existing borders by crossing and transforming them. This lends a more conceptual dimension to the notion of bordering practices; hence, while some bordering practices intend division and segregation, others seek to work across borders, to critique them, and to change them – or what I term critical bordering practice. Thus, critical bordering practice addresses the condition of borders, is critical of them, and aims to transform certain border positions. Specifically, I explore the possibilities that, in times of conflict, the critical bordering practices of research and art can operate as sites of resistance in everyday life by negotiating the bordering practices of political conflict. My project involved producing artwork as just such a critical bordering practice.

Throughout my research I have been gathering and documenting a ‘List of Bordering Practices’. These bordering practices vary in the ways in which they occupy spaces – their locations, durations, materials and uses, and in the specifics of their practitioners. Some are located in fixed urban nodes – for example, the positioning of posters, monuments and street-corner gatherings; some involve transportable objects – for example, wearable accessories and gadgets, and aural and mobile practices such as fireworks, songs and political speeches in cars; and some are located on temporary demarcation lines that separate areas – for example, barricades of street objects, tyres and sand hills.

De Certeau makes a distinction between spatial practice as a tactic and strategy, and their association with space and place, that can help explore further the spatiality of bordering practices mentioned above and their political dimension. Spatial practice as a tactic is the domain of users who do not have a ‘“proper” spatial or institutional localization’; spatial practice as a strategy is the domain of those of ‘will and power’ who own a ‘“proper” place or institution’ from which they operate. De Certeau argues that tactics ‘constantly manipulate events in order to turn them into “opportunities”’, and that these tactics of consumption ‘in which the weak make use of the strong, … lend a political dimension to everyday practices’. He also differentiates between space and place: ‘space is a practiced place’, is fluid, and is an ‘intersection of mobile elements’ set in time; whereas place ‘delimits a field’, is static like geometry, and is a fixed urban location as well as institutions and disciplines. De Certeau argues that tactics as practices transform ‘“places” into “spaces”’, commenting that ‘a tactic insinuates itself into the other’s place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance’. In relation to borders and the formation of the other, he proposes that space produces tactics and forms the ‘other’, yet without creating a fixed boundary or a border, and without domination of either of the actors involved. In this respect, the power of a tactic as a bordering practice is in occupying and manipulating a space without fixation and while transcending the limits of both places and spaces.

De Certeau’s theory allows us to highlight two categories of bordering practices: tactical bordering practices that are interested in ‘space’ occupation/manipulation and transportable (transient and ephemeral) borderings, and as such have a critical capacity for change; and strategic bordering practices that are interested in ‘place’ acquisition and fixed borders, and as such institutionalize the border into a fixed political logic that replaces the process of negotiation.

 

Bordering Practice as a Method

The four projects in this book were conducted through practice-led methods that are propositional in constructing new sites in ‘post-war’ Lebanon from 2005 onwards. The documentation practices of audio and video recording that I developed to record the details of sites and the spatial and border practices of their residents allowed me to pursue the immaterial borders conditioned by politics; these immaterial borders inspired the formulation of representational techniques and spaces that were constructed as gallery installations. The four new bordering practices I constructed – hiding (administration), crossing (surveillance), translating (sound), and matching (displacement) – aimed to work against divides and to intervene in the space between. Each practice explored the borders between oppositions, whether to suggest situations that resist and transform borders and/or to propose divisions as living conditions in everyday spaces. These works were critical bordering practices in that they created their own places between disciplines, spaces, representations and media, and they transformed the conditions of the borders as well as the materiality between the borders of two sites, such as the urban space under research and the gallery space under construction.

This is evident in the bordering practice of hiding behind the border of administration, through the mukhtar’s (an elected district’s representative) use of official documents as answers to my questions when I interviewed him. This proposition was to consider how the administrative practices seek to ‘hide’ borders, either intentionally for political reasons or unintentionally because of the inadequacy of the representational techniques followed in political representation and procedures. The juxtaposition of the actual mukthar and a fictional mukthar from a television series in one space, as part of an art gallery installation of video, audio and textual material, aimed to expose the discrepancy, and the imaginary, in the workings of representation in administrative procedures and narratives.

Another bordering practice was the crossing of surveillance borders with the two women at their balconies: this was a visual and a physical activity that used photography and video recording. This activity of crossing geographical, emotional and political distances allowed me to expand and comprehend the neighbourhood panorama scene in a video and a multimedia installation that had been restricted due to surveillance.

My bordering practice of translating the immateriality of sound borders involved recordings from the space of taxi drivers and a walking journey. This translation was a material process between sound and image, and a linguistic process between Arabic and English. The narratives of the film and the audio-visual piece produced out of the process examine how the content of current sonic material, such as political events and news broadcasts, is similar to that of the past civil war. The process of translating removed these sounds from their original spatial and temporal context and collapsed time–space distances between them.

Finally, the bordering practice of matching lines of displacement between twin sisters involved finding spatial moments of twinning while they narrated a journey drawn on a map and tracked it on the city skyline across a visual horizon using a video camera. The narrative of the video installation constructed out of the footage obtained from the sisters aims to match divided geographies and to mobilize and visualize the sisters’ invisible self-displacement in comparison with the visibility of forced displacements, such as those of refugees.

Hence, the critical bordering practice I conducted through my research method was concerned not only with the conditions of borders and the practices that produce them, but also with the practices that researchers and artists employ to study borders. I consider these research and artistic practices to be inseparable from the politics of the borders that are being investigated, and so I argue that the narratives produced are forms of bordering practice in their own right.

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