Beirut as a Militarized City

by May Ee Wong
University of California, Davis

Beirut is militarized space par excellence: the city has served as a backdrop for a multitude of wars and military attacks as the capitol of a country that has been definitively shaped by sectarian interests which have intersected with larger regional conflicts. Despite the relative peace currently experienced by its denizens, Beirut has long existed in a critical condition of being in a protracted state of war: peacetime is the intermittent period between the next military attack and the last, while discourses and processes of civilian reconstruction have been continuously fraught by sectarian contestation. With its constant attempts to configure itself as a global financial city amidst political and military conflict, it raises the question of what the notion ‘business as usual’ might mean — the city plugs itself into neoliberal trends, while engaging in a state of perpetual infrastructural emergency. In its extreme circumstances, it serves as a unique example of a city existing in a critical condition, but it also exemplifies the inherent homology between the mechanics of neoliberalism and militarization which function according to notions of risk and security.

In that respect, Beirut can be regarded as a limit case of urbanization that reveals the militarized character of urban processes, exemplifying Paul Virilio’s notion of the city as dromological theatre, a space of “habitable circulation” (5), where various types and registers of speed, change and movement contend with each other that constantly shift, displace and attempt to ground notions of territory, memory and social relations through the interaction between the development of physical infrastructure and political and socio-economic practices. During SECTVIII, we were introduced to three distinct urban sites which unfold similar militarized logics of contestation in the ways urban structures and spaces manifest: the new Downtown area planned and administered by the private company Solidere; Dahiyeh, the suburban area reconstructed by Waad, a Hezbollah-affiliated company, after the 2006 Israeli-Lebanese war; and the UNRWA camps of Shatila and Sabra. Although all three sites appear different from each other in character, they all reflect complexities of the contemporary urban condition. This is a condition where the city becomes the site of multiple contesting realities undergirded by technics that enable expansion and circulation, and also the disruption or suspension of either physical movement and/or economic and social flows.

What I find most evident after comparing these three sites is that the logics and processes of neoliberalism are compatible with the processes of military warfare, in the sense that both aim to assert claims upon land (and other conceivable areas such as the sea and airspace) through the technique of abstraction that brackets land (and other types of areas) as territory, more specifically, as property and military space respectively. The process of abstraction is brought into effect by the application of scientific notions of categorization which identifies and sets boundaries to space, such that space becomes a legible commodity to be exchanged, or a definable area where sovereignty and/or military action can be exercised. In the case of the Downtown area, the space is reshaped as a variation of the downtown area of any other global city replete with condominiums and shops directed at the ‘high net-worth individual,’ with an emphasis on Beirut’s history marketed as a defining difference. In Solidere’s game plan, history itself is made legible by the preservation and showcasing of archaeological ruins and building facades to reflect a constructed narrative of Beirut’s past. History is presented indexically in the Downtown area; it presents itself as a style rather than an expression of the peoples’ collective social memory of the place. In the case of the Dahiyeh, Hizbullah effectively transforms the suburb into an infrastructural prosopopeia to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli state (in the same character as the exhibits in Mleeta) by taking on the reconstruction of the area after its bombing in 2006. The suburb is deliberately rebuilt according to its pre-existing dimensions; even though Waad explains their strict adherence to the former master plan as their attempt to conserve social relationships and social memory in the suburb, the reconstruction also functions as a legible warning to Israel about Lebanese resilience and Hizbullah’s capacity to retaliate — a tool of preemptive psychological warfare. The camps of Shatila and Sabra are not exempt from urban property trends, as one of the main concerns of the residents is the increased partitioning and extension of existing living space. As there are no specific regulations with respect to property space in the camp, residents (who are not necessarily Palestinian) create claims to space by strategically building more walls which divide or extend existing spaces, bringing about other problems related to overcrowding that pose a challenge to the health of the Palestinian population.

The legibility of the space is often complicated by social subjective dimensions of time within space: time as experienced by those who reside or move within spaces in tangible and intangible ways. These subjective dimensions of space and time function as the basis of resistance and contestation by challenging the categorical boundaries of given space, or by slowing down or suspending change or movement. Despite Solidere’s claims about wanting to make the Downtown area inviting for the public, the area seemed remarkably empty when we visited it, as compared to the bustling crowd at another shopping neighbourhood in Beirut, Bourj Hammood. Waad’s strategy of rebuilding the Dahiyeh as it was before the bombing is an attempt to channel the trauma of residents and fix their memories towards a particular notion of collective resistance against the Israelis through the shaping of space. But Waad’s attempts at consolidating influence over the neighborhood are in turn affected by the movement of residents who sell or rent their housing units. Despite the burgeoning problems of the camp, Palestinian refugees continue to live in Shatila and Sabra — out of necessity, and also out of a subjective desire to inhabit their right of return. The makeshift yet permanent structures of the camp reflect the political subjectivity of the Palestinian as that of suspension, which becomes the mode of his/her resistance towards the Israeli occupation.

In the seminar, we discussed resilience as a form of resistance in a critical condition, exemplified by the video that Saree Makdisi had screened of Palestinian villagers picking up the pieces of their makeshift homes that had been bulldozed over by the Israeli soldiers and setting them back again. We also discussed resistance as a tactic which operates according to contingent factors that prevents the foreclosure of possibility — this boils down to simple notions such as ‘walking differently,’ or attending to the disclosing gap in the wall. While such resistance serves to enable one to survive, often on a day-to-day basis, how does one engage in a kind of resistance that might enable one to fundamentally change the systemic conditions of the critical/carceral condition itself? How do we (or can we) escape or reconfigure the logics and technics of militarization in everyday life instead of decelerating or suspending exploitative modes of circulation and control? Saree discussed how the notion of everyday resistance might be able to transform into an act of the sublime, and how one might be able to engage in local scales of resistance to achieve the collectively unimaginable. While I agree that it is necessary to engage in thinking of the unachievable or the impossible, the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still carries on after two intifadas is testament to the difficulties faced by the Palestinians which prevent them from mounting a more effective and lasting resistance that would not only voice opposition but would dismantle their current conditions of oppression.