Narrating Beirut from its Borderlines

For Beirut, a city that has been ravaged by conflict for many years, constructed ideas of religious and sectarian differences have long shaped our everyday urban practices in the city --from the intimacy of our homes to the openness of our public spaces. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, we have become accustomed to narrating the city as a divided city dissected along the “Green Line” between its Christian East and its Muslim West.  Since 2005, as new forms of conflict unfolded, thousands of other “green lines” have emerged around the city, accompanied with novel categorizations of “us” and “them.” These emerging, malleable, and continuously-negotiated borderlines have shaped everyday life in the city in tandem with a series of ongoing political events that have rocked Beirut and its peripheries. 

Narrating Beirut from its Borderlines is a collection of four small research studies that examine a number of the physical and immaterial borderlines that have come to define the contemporary geography of Beirut and its peripheries since 2005. The differences examined here are those that have been constructed along sectarian and religious lines. While some borderlines physically solidified during violent events like that of May 7, 2008, others borderlines remain subtle, always in-flux, continuously negotiated through everyday transgressions and spatial practices. The collection approaches the concept of religion and sect as an urban practice. To that end, the project does not question or define religion and sectarianism. Rather, it takes on the perspective of the interviewed users, residents, and professionals as they engaged with reflecting on how their conceptions of religious and sectarian differences shape their spatial practices and experiences in the city. 

Using mixed research and media approaches –ethnographic, archival, as well as artistic and architectural design tools– the four participating studies address Beirut’s sectarian borderlines from a range of perspectives. Mohamad Hafeda’s essay employs ethnographic and design research tools to examine the politicization of the everyday sonic material and its utilization as an ephemeral borderline between two adjacent neighborhoods in the Al-Mazraa area, divided along the Sunni-Shiite sectarian lines. Dana Mazraani’s study examines ethnographically the multitude of borderlines that the Kurdish Sunni residents of Hay el-Krad in the predominantly Shiite Bourj el-Brajneh negotiate as they inscribe their ethnicity, religion, sect, citizenship, and regional politics in the everyday spaces of their neighborhood. Massa Ammouri’s project investigates through archival research the urban development of the site of Dar El Ta’ifa Al Durzia, the iconic Druze site in Ras Beirut. Situating herself as part of the city’s youth, Ammouri presents an architectural intervention guided by the aspirations of a post-war generation working to overcome Beirut’s constructed divide lines. Hiba Bou Akar’s essay investigates the geo-political transformation of the civil war’s ruins as they take on another life in the current sectarian conflict unfolding in Beirut’s peripheries. Based on an ethnographic study in the Hayy Madi- Mar Mikhail neighborhood, Bou Akar’s study illustrates how the area has become one of many contested frontiers on which religious-political groups, in this case the Christians and the Shiites, are struggling over land acquisition in the city.  

The four essays bring together the perspectives of two generations on the urban politics of sectarian differences in the city, with each of the authors reflecting on their own lived experiences, positions, anxieties, dreams, and plans. Bou Akar and Hafeda’s essays are based on portions of their dissertation research projects at the University of California at Berkeley and the University College London, respectively. Ammouri and Mazraani’s essays build on work they presented as architecture undergraduate students in the Department of Architecture and Design at the American University of Beirut. Bou Akar and Hafeda lived the childhood of civil war and the adolescence of the post-war in Beirut, whereas Ammouri and Mazraani have encountered the Lebanese conflict for the first time in 2005 as they embarked on starting their college life. We hope that these two generational perspectives, as they come in dialogue in this volume, elucidate different dimensions of Beirut’s complicated spatial politics, anxieties, and hopes.

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English and Arabic