For the War Yet To Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers

For the War Yet To Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers

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

Hiba Bou Akar (HBA): Through this book, I chose to write about violence in a place I call home, making this a quest that has been shaped by my personal history of war and displacement as much as it is a scholarly inquiry into the geographies of conflict and its aftermath. The project started as an investigation into the blocks and blocks of affordable-looking housing that were emerging on the southern peripheries of Beirut in the decade after the end of the civil war (1975-1990). For many years, these apartment buildings seemed to stand vacant. Curious about how these massive developments came into being, and why they seemed to remain empty in a tight housing market, I started doing fieldwork in a south-eastern periphery of Beirut close to where my family and I lived. What had been an agricultural and industrial area for a long time was now becoming the site of massive housing reconstruction. As I worked, stories emerged from the field about life in displacement, eviction, post-war Lebanese governments’ neoliberal policies, limited access to low cost housing, the role of religious political organizations, contestations over master plans and zoning ordinances, and the making of a sectarian geography through land and housing markets. Over fifteen years of research and engagement with the field, the process of writing this book became a process both of interrogating notions of war and peace, home and displacement, segregation and inclusion in “post conflict” geographies; and excavating a personal history shaped by war and the post-war promises of better futures that are yet to come.

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

HBA: Beirut’s fast-urbanizing peripheries suddenly emerged in 2008 as frontiers of renewed sectarian conflict when dozens were killed in an episode of violence that was a reminder of the civil war. The book argues that this transformation of peripheries into frontiers can be understood through the spatial and temporal logic of the war yet to comeFor the War Yet to Come does not treat war and peace as distinct categories. It does not approach war as a temporal aberration in a linear time of progress, with a beginning and an end. Rather, it focuses on how war, violence, and their anticipation have shaped Beirut’s segregated geographies. The outcomes are “planned spaces” that are low income; have overlapping industrial and residential zones; are sites where highways are never finished, and playgrounds are never built. While the book takes Beirut’s peripheries as its case study, the book argues that such conditions are neither exceptional nor restricted to the paradigm of “cities in conflict.” Today, we are at a global moment in which the imagined future in most places in the world—in both the Global North and South—is one of conflict and contestation characterized by ecological crises, anticipated terror attacks, and unprecedented influxes of refugees and migrants—a horizon of what this book calls the war yet to come.

For the War Yet to Come contributes to studies on the “dark side” of urban planning, by rethinking the temporalities of planning interventions and notions of modernization and progress. Instead of assuming what urban planning does, it calls for studying how urban planning is practiced on the ground and urges us to theorize from these practices in order to inform planning theory and practices that aim towards more inclusive futures, especially in contested cities. The book engages with the emerging studies on sectarianism that show how sectarianism is not primordial or predetermined, but rather produced. Through ethnographic and archival investigation, the book exposes how the sectarian political order is constantly being negotiated, reconfigured, and reproduced, redefining what sectarianism may mean at each successive historical moment. The study also rethinks the geographic categories of centers, peripheries and frontiers, by rethinking the way cities in the Global South are normally perceived according to a dichotomy between a formal, prosperous center and marginalized, informal peripheries. It shows how Beirut’s peripheries may themselves be considered centers within today’s transnational landscapes of finance, conflict, and religious and political ideology.

The book centers the geographic production of hybrid private-public actors at the center of its investigation of post-war geographies. In Lebanon, former civil war militias now function as religious-political organizations. They are key to shaping the transformation of Beirut’s peripheries into frontiers. Such actors challenge our understanding of geographic production because they operate simultaneously inside and outside the government. This book sheds light on the spatial practices of such hybrid public-private actors. It argues that, while they are increasingly playing critical roles in shaping post-conflict and post-colonial spaces, they have been mostly absent from our understanding of geographic production. The book also contributes to discussions about the interrelation of space and violence beyond space as a resource or target of violence. It illustrates the doubleness of everyday and military geographies in shaping Beirut’s peripheries as frontiers of exponential urban growth and sectarian violence. It shows how, in such a context, construction is as much a feature of war as destruction, and the distinction between living spaces and militarized spaces collapses. This has broader implications for understanding conflict cities and militarized urbanism.

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

HBA: This book is a culmination of the work I have been doing for the past fifteen years, so in many ways it brings together the different research strands I have worked on, including my studies on low-cost housing, informal settlements, the dark side of urban planning, post-war reconstruction policies, and field research in conflict areas, in order to think about Beirut’s post-war geographies and beyond.

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

HBA: For the War Yet to Come will interest a multi-disciplinary group of academics working in the fields of geography, urban anthropology, urban studies and planning, metropolitan studies, and Middle Eastern studies. The book will also be of interest to professional planners and those working in non-governmental organizations. It will also appeal to a general audience of people who are interested in militarization, violence, and sectarianism. In addition, this book could be used in graduate and advanced undergraduate classes on related topics.

In terms of impact, the book contributes to discussions about decentering urban and planning theory and practice through thinking and writing from the cities of the Global South. By being transparent about the openings and closures of conducting research in cities in conflict, I hope the book provides insights for scholars and practitioners doing on-the-ground research and ethnographic studies to understand violence and its geographies. The book also aims to have an impact on the collective scholarly work being done to debunk the assumptions about sectarianism as a fixed established category through which to understand the Middle East—which is dangerous, given how such discourses shape local and global policies. It aims to show the “making of sectarianism,” or how sectarianism is produced through social, economic, political and spatial practices and policies on a daily basis, which provides a more accurate and hopeful lens to think of, understand, and act upon the future of cities in the region.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

HBA: At the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (Columbia GSAPP), I am leading the newly-formed Post-Conflict Cities Lab, which is a research initiative focused on developing equitable, inclusive, and socially-cohesive post-conflict cities. Our inaugural project is funded by a grant from the Ford Foundation that we received to study “Urban Research and Practice in Post Conflict Settings in the Middle East and North Africa Region,” particularly around questions of access to housing for low-income Lebanese and Syrian refugees. The project will bring together planning research and practice expertise from Beirut and the MENA region to address urban research and practice in post-conflict settings. The project also aims to engage local residents and urban practitioners as active participants in advocating for and shaping inclusive post-war reconstruction planning practices and policies.

J: What do you see as your contribution to the field of studies of urban issues in the Middle East region and beyond?

HBA: The book theorizes from Beirut to think through the contested geographies of the Middle East region and beyond. The book’s focus on the spatial practices of religious political organizations, the production of post-conflict geographies, the temporalities of urban planning and policy interventions in contested cities, as well as methodological approaches to research in zones of conflict, are relevant to many cities in the region.

The book also aims to contribute to the decentering of knowledge production in the fields of urban planning and geography by theorizing from the Global South. The Middle East region, in particular, has not only been the receiver of “northern/western” theories, but also the region—with its multiple wars and religious-based violence, among other issues—is often seen as an exception, from which it is impossible to theorize in useful ways in relation to other geographies in the world. However, as cities around the world shape people’s everyday lives in the name of expected terror attacks “yet to come,” or build prisons and border walls perpetuated by fear of immigrants and refugees that are “yet to come”—and at a moment in which we are told that we only have fifteen years to do something about climate change before we are all doomed, For the War Yet to Come proposes that Beirut’s futures and their geographies may indeed help us think about contested geographies beyond Beirut.


Excerpt from the Book

Prologue: War in Times of Peace

The Logic of Future War

The transformation of Beirut’s peripheries into sectarian frontiers has been made possible through an overarching logic that I call the war yet to come. At its most basic, this logic does not treat war and peace as distinct categories. Aside from philosophical theorizations of war, the act of war is not considered the usual state of affairs; rather the war’s absence, peace, is. However, as Hannah Arendt pointed out, “the Second World War was not followed by peace but by a cold war.” Similarly, in Lebanon, the end of civil war has not brought peace, only mutations in the logic of war. The war yet to come thus approaches armed conflict not as a temporal aberration in the flow of events, with a beginning and an end, but as a state of affairs destined to reoccur. The anticipation of future war has thus become a governing modality within Beirut’s peripheries, with its imagined impetus drawn from a variety of possible sources, including local sectarian disputes, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the transnational geography of Islamic militarization, and the global “War on Terror.”

The politics of the war yet to come has both a temporal and a spatial dimension. Temporally, it involves a present moment from which the future can be imagined only as a time of further violent conflict. Spatially, it invokes a regulating logic according to which Beirut’s peripheries are envisioned not only as spaces of urban growth and real estate profit but also as frontiers of future war. These spaces are thus today continuously reconfigured through recursive cycles of violence, producing patchworks of destruction and construction, lavishness and poverty, otherness and marginality.

Spatially, the arrangement of urban territories based on military logic is not new, nor is it unique to cities in conflict or geographies of the Global South. It was equally constitutive of the project of modernization in the Global North. For example, David Harvey, among others, has argued that Haussmann’s nineteenth-century Parisian boulevards represented not only a modernization project but also a military strategy to counter frequent popular uprisings in the city. However, the temporal logic of the spatial interventions of war yet to come in Beirut sets the logic of planning in this city apart from the Eurocentric approaches to urban development that characterized Haussmann’s interventions and the post-World War II reconstruction of European cities. While these planning projects folded defense mechanisms into ideas of progress and modernization, planning for the war yet to come is shaped by expectations of future violence, terror, and economic ruin­­­­—devoid of the promise of a better future.

Two moments in recent Lebanese history are critical for understanding this framework: the end of the civil war in 1990 and the return of sectarian violence, peaking in the events of May 2008. During the Lebanese civil war, the three southeast peripheries that I discuss here were located in what was commonly known as Muslim west Beirut. However, this area was far from homogeneous, and changing global and regional geopolitics created powerful new schisms within it. When these came to a head in May 2008, armed militias took to the streets, producing the worst sectarian fighting the city had witnessed since the end of the civil war.

This time around, however, the fighting was primarily between Muslim factions, and it represented a division of the country into two political coalitions, known as the March 14 and March 8 camps. The camps were named for the dates of two famous marches in 2005, which brought together hundreds of thousands of their respective supporters in response to the assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, the head of the Sunni Future Movement and at the time the nation’s leading Sunni politician. Originally, the March 14 camp included the Druze PSP and the Sunni Future Movement (along with the majority Christian political parties), while the March 8 camp was led by the Shiite Hezbollah and Haraket Amal.However, as is typical of Lebanese politics, certain aspects of these alliances have changed over time, as the country’s various religious-political organizations have continued to reposition themselves.

The actual spark that ignited the May 2008 fighting was a decision by a March 14-only government to condemn an independent telecommunications network constructed by Hezbollah as illegal. Hezbollah responded by announcing that this was a “declaration of war” against it and its campaign of resistance against Israel’s geopolitical project in the region. Thus, at dawn on May 7, 2008, one hundred or more armed Hezbollah fighters and their allies took over west Beirut. During the days that followed, Beirut’s southern peripheries emerged as key battlegrounds—dozens were eventually killed and fighting spread outward from the region. At the time, Old Saida Road, which connects Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, Sahra Choueifat, and Doha Aramoun—reemerged as a principal sectarian divide. This demarcation reinvoked the geography of the civil war, when Old Saida Road was part of the Green Line. But the city and its south and southeast peripheries had since been dissected even further, which had effectively transformed many neighborhoods into sectarian frontiers. Roadblocks, flags, posters, fortified positions, and informal neighborhood watches also came to line the city’s streets, delineating zones, marking borders, and confining accessibility.

Armed conflict, however, is not the only framework by which to understand how these peripheries were transformed into frontiers in post-civil war Beirut. When I began my research in earnest in 2004, fourteen years from the end of the civil war, (re)construction work was everywhere present in the city. But there was nonetheless a feeling of uneasiness. Residents and officials alike spoke to me of ongoing fear of the sectarian other, and these fears had already caused friction and led to episodes of youth violence. In my research at these peripheral sites, I not only sensed the ghosts of past wars but also the shadows of anticipated new ones.

Nevertheless, in 2004, there was no indication of the political upheaval the country would witness with the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, or the extensive destruction that Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon would cause. But by 2008, that had all changed, as sectarian conflict, too, had come back. With a research perspective that spans times of “peace” and “war,” this book attempts to show how in the years since the civil war, religious-political organizations have sought to arrange Beirut’s mundane peripheries into frontier geographies to reflect their imagined role in local and regional wars to come.

The resulting war in times of peace is not fought with tanks, artillery, and rifles, but through a geopolitical territorial contest, where the fear of domination of one group by another is played out over such issues as land and apartment sales, the occupation of ruins, access to housing, zoning and planning regulations, and infrastructure projects. The transnational circulations involved in real estate finance, militarization, and religious ideologies also play a role. Moreover, even though the pursuit of war during peacetime has not sought to define any particular future of war in Beirut, it has fundamentally redefined how the future is perceived and consequently how the present is arranged. Its logic lies in an evolving reconfiguration of the “yet to.”

Even during the darkest days of the civil war in Lebanon, officials and spatial experts were still drawing and imagining a future of peace, order, and prosperity. However, gradually, in the years following the civil war, this expected future became less about peace and more about the inevitability of future conflict. This shift in perception has been informed by past experience, and by a sense that there can be no end to the many conflicts that now define the larger Middle East. Most critically, however, the war yet to come in Beirut forecloses the possibility of urban politics outside sectarian order. And my analysis of these conditions aims to trace the twists and turns of engagement and estrangement through which such political difference is constructed, produced, managed, and contested. It illustrates the ways time and space may be curved into new complex configurations that construct safe and unsafe spaces—an accepted other versus an other to fear.

Hiba Bou Akar, For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2018).

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