Sara Fregonese, War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon (Bloomsbury, 2019).

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

Sara Fregonese (SF): This book is the result of my doctoral research (2004-2008), to which I then added a layer of historical detail about the administrative changes in 1840s Mount Lebanon and their impact on today’s sectarian politics. I also integrated a chapter on more recent sustained urban clashes in 2008 that partly encompasses my postdoctoral research around sovereignty and non-state armed groups (2009-2012) and their relation with the idea and practice of the State.

What made me write the book was, firstly, a disciplinary frustration with the lack of attention (in western scholarship at least) given to the representations and narrations of non-state actors and sub-national spaces of the civil war in Lebanon. We see a lot of grand scale geopolitical analysis around the 1975-1990 events, but less enquiry linking the kind of geopolitical reasoning from international relations and political science, with spatial accounts of what was actually happening at the urban level during the conflict.

Secondly, I was pushed by the apparent discrepancy in the archives between the contextual richness and fine-grained detail of diplomatic and intelligence accounts from the ground, and what instead was distilled into a rather simplistic official diplomatic discourse of non-intervention in the early phases of the civil war in Lebanon. The declassified UK diplomatic archives, for example, offer detailed and almost daily urban accounts of what was happening in Beirut: how the city was slowly but surely being partitioned; and where, by whom, and through what local spatial and demographic maneuvers and political dynamics. Instead, what we see at the level of official statecraft in several of the Western states at the time, is a different scale of priorities. Here, you have first and foremost a concern to keep the Middle East away from a wide-scale regional war between states. There is very little or no genuine engagement with what was occurring at the sub-national and let alone urban level. This lack of international engagement—also triggered by (orientalist) perceptions of Beirut as a chaotic “quagmire” in the wake of the US Vietnam experience—contributed strongly, I argue in the book, in allowing Beirut to be partitioned. The partition of Beirut and its long-term effects are as much a result of local militias as of the discursive constructions of official international diplomacy at the time.

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

SF: War and the City offers an overview of urban geopolitics and the gaps that this scholarship still has. This has revealed itself as a crucial approach to understand the value of urban accounts of civil war, but it also allowed me to trace connections with the wider scale at which geopolitics operate. It also addresses the notion of urbicide (literally the killing of the city) as a way of understanding the conflict by paying attention not only to its political actors, but also to the role of urban space, and to how Lebanese architecture and specific portions of Beirut’s urban built fabric were violently targeted.

In this book, the topic of the colonial mandate and its relation with political sectarianism is very important to me. The book has started extending Ussama Makdisi’s work about the representational regimes and taxonomies that legitimated and institutionalized sectarianism in the Ottoman levant, into the less studied realm of spatial representation and cartography. In doing so, the book aims at understanding political sectarianism as a territorial project that was never disconnected from the sociopolitical one.

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

SF: War and the City does not include—but is connected—to my further work on Beirut’s historical hotel district before the war and the notion of discrepant cosmopolitanism, or more recent short reflections on the protests. It also starts to engage with Lebanon’s colonial legacy in a spatial and cartographic way. The book’s conclusions make a case for adopting more forensic and elemental approaches (which focus on physical elements, substances, and materials) to analyze the impact of sectarianism on society and especially the extraction, accumulation, and (mis)management of resources as one of its prominent features. Painfully and unfathomably, the ammonium nitrate explosion in the Port of Beirut on 4 August and the evidence on its causes so far, point once more to the deadly entanglements between the sectarian system and its mis-accumulation of resources (in this case, an explosive element) that make the Lebanese population extremely vulnerable.

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

SF: In terms of academic audiences, this book is primarily for students and teaching staff in geography, political geography, or geopolitics, but it will hopefully also be of interest to the disciplines of urban studies, history, and area studies.

This book is for the general public in Lebanon, but it is admittedly an expensive object. The paperback is thankfully being released in spring 2021 for a third of the price, so I hope it will soon be more accessible. This is essentially a book about the civil war—a part of the country’s past that has resulted in amnesty rather than transitional justice and is still off-limits in many educational curricula. The ideal impact would be contributing to a debate about the country’s recent past and all its contested aspects.

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

SF: Excitingly, a new project has very recently come to fruition (more soon!), bringing different research and professional collaborations. It has to do with the everyday, experiential and atmospheric aspects of counter terrorism in European cities. This involves a tangential topic and different locations from my main body of work, but learns from some of the theories and contexts I have engaged with previously.

However, I am retaining a research link with Lebanon. Currently, I am organizing and analyzing several archive records I collected in London, Beirut, Baakleen, and Istanbul for a research on British cartography and boundary-making in late Ottoman Mount Lebanon.

J: How is it to write about Lebanon as a non-Lebanese? 

SF: This is a constant question I get, the ultimate anthropological interrogation, which for me is gradually turning into an existential conundrum: am I in a position to speak and write about Lebanon? I have been studying in and about Lebanon since 2000, formed much of my base geographical knowledge of Beirut in 2002 by walking and driving around pretty much every neighborhood with Lebanese architects (without whom I simply could not have formed such knowledge), and in 2005 and 2010, Beirut was my only home. But my homes—and of course alternatives—were and are always Italy and the UK. So, what is—ethically and intellectually—my role within the present conjuncture for the country, which is reeling from immense trauma, and amidst ongoing public challenge to its political system, unprecedented economic crisis, and a global pandemic? Is this my story to tell? Is my expertise actually needed at this particular moment?

There are then the usual obstacles: I majored in Arabic in my university degree, but the language barrier is still big after all these years; not being in Lebanon but continuously following developments in a detailed ways is also challenging; and, of course, you have the pitfalls of applying European taxonomies and assumptions to what might be untranslatable contexts. However, the insider/outsider debate has long been present in social research, and especially when it comes to doing fieldwork. I always find cultural studies and James Clifford’s words useful: “there is no politically innocent methodology for intercultural interpretation. Some strategy of localization is inevitable if significantly different ways of life are to be represented. But “local” in whose terms? […] Who determines where (and when) a community draws its lines, names its insiders and outsiders?” (“Travelling Cultures” in Cultural Studies, edited by L Grossberg, C Nelson, and P A Treichler (Routledge, 1992), p. 97). I find that this resonates especially in the case of Lebanon, where diasporic, multi-lingual, and transnational identities have shaped the country historically and still so strongly do, in the best of ways.

So, perhaps more than one’s nationality, it is where one speaks from that matters. And it is the job of the researcher to constantly reflect on the politics of their position, while also acknowledging that the boundary of what is local and what is not is also fluid and diffuse.


Excerpt from the book (from the introduction)*

In his book Beirut the late historian Samir Kassir (2010) poignantly noted how Beirut is not an ‘original city’ (440), a passive victim of conflict coming from nowhere. He argues that much of the political and (para) military mobilization towards the civil war was obtained by ‘transposing the convulsive upheavals of regional geopolitics to the urban level’ (Kassir 2010, 440). This book focuses on that transposing of regional issues onto the urban ground. It traces the connections that link large-scale geopolitical discourses about Lebanon with the micro-geographies of violence in and against urban sites during a defining urban moment of the conflict: the war of 1975–1976, known widely as the Two Years’ War (al-harb as-sanatayn). The following chapters offer an in-depth account of the relations between geopolitics, armed conflict and Beirut’s urban space, and of how Lebanon’s sovereignty has been implicated in and reshaped by these relations. The book also traces the deeper historical and territorial connections between the urban impact of the Two Years’ War and Lebanon’s violent colonial past, questioning the very nature of its current sovereignty in light of contested histories of violence. The questions around which the book revolves are: firstly, how do large scale, formal geopolitics and the microgeographies of conflict interact and intersect in the representation and the practice of war in Lebanon? Secondly, how was the urban built environment of Beirut involved in the processes of production and mobilization of those representations and practices? Thirdly, what are the legacies of the histories and territories of Lebanon’s Ottoman and colonial past on its urban geopolitics of conflict? Fourthly, what does an urban perspective on conflict tell us about the nature of sovereignty in Lebanon?

Scope of the book

[…] Lebanon scholars have also produced several sophisticated understandings of the Lebanese conflict, and especially of the nonstate armed actors that enacted de facto sovereignty in the Lebanese capital during the war. They have investigated their birth and the development of their mechanisms of violence (Corm 2005; F. El-Khazen 2004; Hanf 2015), their role as providers of social services replacing the state (Harik 1994),and as political actors crossing sectarian divisions in order to realize wider political projects (Rowayheb 2006). Other authors have focused on the relation between militia territoriality and visual mechanisms of propaganda (Chakhtoura 2005; Maasri 2008), and the power structure and organization of specific militias and the production of specific spaces (Kemp 1983). The value of these studies resides in their breadth, as some consider the whole duration of the war; or in their focus on the features of one single militia or on one specific aspect of the militia activity (such as public services). However, this previous work often does not, or only partially, consider the built environment as part and parcel of the production of discourses of war, sovereignty and identity. The scope to this book is less wide, but explores more deeply the relationship between war and urban built environment during the crucial early phases  of the civil war. As I started my PhD, I intended to examine how regional geopolitics intersected with and manifested themselves in the urban politics of a post-conflict urban environment like that of Beirut. Instead, as the research moved on and as a lively debate emerged in urban geopolitics in 2004 and 2005, I chose to focus my attention on the initial phase of the conflict between 13 April 1975 and 21 October 1976. I apply instead interpretive depth to understand how geopolitical meaning is renegotiated during conflict, and especially during close-quartet urban warfare with light or relatively light weapons, where urban streets and buildings compose both the fabric that shapes the rationalities of war, and the materiality through which meanings about sovereignty, territory and nation state were renegotiated and re-inscribed. The Two Years’ War became my field of enquiry into the urban geopolitics of wartime Lebanon.

[…] One of the reasons for choosing to concentrate on the Two Years’ War concerns the different ways in which space was produced through violence in the pre- and post-1978 phases of the war. Various scholars (Corm 2005; Kassir 2003) agree about a change in the strategic politics, geographical span, and geopolitical weight of the Lebanese conflict after March 1978, when the Israeli army launched Operation Litani. They propose that ‘beginning in mid-1978, the nature and scope of the war changed’ (Farid El-Khazen 2000, 5): the entry of the Israeli armies on Lebanese soil (and, in 1976 of the Arab Deterrence Force led by Syria); the use of heavier weapons, air power and siege (in 1982); the creation of the international peacekeeping force; and finally the rise of suicide terrorism in the 1980s have very often been considered as dynamics that shifted the Lebanese conflict onto a different scale. This shift included the internationalization of the conflict, the solidification of the militias’ structure and organization (El-Khazen 2000) and of their affiliations to foreign powers (Corm 2005), as well as the increasing use of heavy artillery and the use of air power.

[…] Aerial power impacted materially onto Beirut’s urban fabric differently from the material imprint of the previous phase, mainly because of the vast destruction of extended air attacks and heavy artillery, which substituted or were superimposed on the irregular and partial ruination of close-quarter and relatively lightly armed guerrilla fighting (Moystad 1998) of the previous phase. Most importantly, the rounds (Jawlat) of fighting that punctuated the Two Years’ War were crucial in establishing the frontlines and, ultimately, the partition of the city into two sectors (East and West) until the end of the conflict.


*Footnotes removed