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Hiba Bou Akar’s For the War Yet to Come offers a topological reading of Beirut’s embattled peripheries. It does so by examining not the conditions through which war and peace are sustained or broken down, so much as the practices that compose sectarian geographies as always already at war and at peace. War and peace in the book’s richly detailed chapters thus read less as distinct space–times, and more as potentialities for making and unmaking the city through the territorial competition of dominant religious-political organizations: Hezbollah, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party, the Sunni Future Movement, and the Maronite Church.
While Bou Akar doesn’t use the language of topology, the territories she describes are stretched, twisted (183), and folded, suggesting that the topographic fixity of conventional planning categories—zone, border, road, network—need to be bent, warped, or wholly disbanded for a more relationally malleable conceptual toolkit to emerge. In Doha Aramoun, one of the three neighborhoods the book explores in depth, a building isn’t limited by its structural frame or road setback but balloons into a new shell, which simultaneously inflates the religio-political presence of its Shiite occupants into an otherwise Druze neighborhood. Unlike narratives of sectarian change framed through singular events or temporal rupture—an occupation, a battle victory, or a state-sanctioned partition—neighborhoods here transmute rhizomatically by “filling in blanks,” what Bou Akar describes as “an interlaced, nested geography of a thousand frontiers, where wealth and poverty, hope and fear, neighborliness and estrangement… empty and built spaces, women in bikinis on mixed-gender beaches and bearded men in white coexist” (111). Landscapes of individual houses meld into sectarian affiliation, with buildings always already imagined as bunkers and windows as sniper stations.
For the War Yet to Come demonstrates the collapse of the binary between housing and militarized space and expands a topological sense of doubleness into a spatial metaphor used throughout the book, particularly in the chapter on Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, a traditionally Christian neighborhood nestled amidst the Hezbollah-stronghold and southern suburb of Al-Dahiya. There, the Maronite Church purchases bullet-ridden ruins from the civil war (1975–1990) not for redevelopment or memorialization but to leave them undeveloped as buffers against new Shiite construction. Ruins are signs of the past, but also signs directing traffic into the future. They figuratively state, “Shiites, keep out!” Building form and use thus become tools to inscribe religion onto land, part of what Bou Akar calls “zoning wars.” Zoning literally draws battle lines; real estate speculation operates on paramilitary as much as financial terms; and housing brokers are seen as double agents letting potential enemies in. Doubleness permeates the material and institutional landscape, with sectarian organizations both inside and outside the state, neighborhood disputes both deeply local and the stuff of transnational geopolitics, and sympathetic diasporic organizations pumping capital into the housing market both in search of profit and to support the race for sectarian consolidation. Territorial control is never just that, though, as the so-called “Islamicization of the city” also subsidizes low-income housing for those displaced by the Israeli war. When planning is divorced from development, development logics seep into paramilitary clientelism.
So, we have the outside as inside, peace as war, past as present, and the book’s historical chapter as, surprisingly, its conclusion! This last move shows Bou Akar’s commitment to breaking from chronological convention and foregrounding embedded temporalities and intersecting space–times. Walter Benjamin’s angel of progress doesn’t look backwards here, but reads the future as already ruined, forcing an introspective reckoning with what it means to occupy the damaged present.
Is this a book on topological urbanism? I say, yes, even though Bou Akar never uses this language. But it might just as easily be read infrastructurally, with the book’s planners operating as engineers tuning a techno-material machine, mutating land-uses, or extending or blocking water connections according to ever-deepening logics of urban splintering. The preservation of ruins in Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, on this reading, works as an infrastructural device to preserve Christian presence. The municipality’s refusal to extend water to new residences in Sahra Choueifat serves as a tactic for slowing permanent Shiite settlement, but also invites Hezbollah to become a public service provider extending these same infrastructures to its excluded constituents.
The point is that the book invites these different readings—topological, infrastructural, postcolonial, and many others. It’s rare as a reader to encounter a text that leaves the ultimate interpretive lens up to you. This is not to say that the book isn’t theoretical. Doubleness is joined with lacework and ballooning as organizing spatial metaphors for each of the book’s main chapters, but there is room within these for the reader to meander, to follow side alleys, to even disagree with the larger metaphors.
This open approach relates to Bou Akar’s admirably open methodology. Reading the book, you feel you are walking through Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail with Bou Akar on her daily rounds, meeting Huda, a fieldwork companion, stopping at a café to catch local gossip; joining her at an extended family dinner in Doha Aramoun; or feeling the nervous energy as a developer reveals his military connections. There were times, though, when I wished the book lingered more on the shock of some of these encounters or stayed with the surprisingly un-shocking way that people became resigned to violence and loss. Bou Akar calls her book an ethnography of spatial practices, yet its focus is largely on the more abstract nodes in Lefebvre’s spatial triad—representations of space and representational space. Maps, zoning regulations, and building codes form the spatial code for reading how institutions represent space. Flags, green lines, religious iconography, and building facades shape how space is perceived. When it comes to spatial practices, we most clearly see the work of political organizations, planners, and developers. The book wonderfully introduces how rumor related to these actors’ sectarian machinations circulates in gyms and cafes. But the war yet to come comes across largely as a spatial strategy of institutional actors that sit above these everyday sites. The home, park, church and mosque hence appear as receptors of spatial codes, less as agents of spatial transformation. The lived experience of making home, and the psychic contours of always anticipating violence, is harder to feel. If the public trust that Jane Jacobs considered so important to city-ness has been hollowed out, what micro-mechanics of coexistence might facilitate inter-group peace amidst civic strife? I’m reminded of Ring’s (2006) rich ethnography of multi-ethnic apartment buildings in Karachi, Pakistan, where peace is the product of relentless daily labor in the zenana, or women’s space. Here, women’s exchanges between households—visiting, borrowing, helping—and management of male anger are the creative labor that regulates ethnic difference. Is there a similar feminist politics of peace at work in Beirut, or is this task really to be left to the mostly male planners?
Thinking precarious peace in Beirut via Karachi also prompts a consideration of Beirut’s place in a world of cities. On the one hand, the book makes evident the restricted geographical imaginary of urban studies. The fact that what comes to mind when we think of “insurgent citizenship” is individual property claims in peri-urban Brazil, a la Holston (2008), or squatter’s movements in India, a la Partha Chatterjee (2004), rather than the insurgency of Hezbollah, is a clear sign of this. On the other hand, one wonders how Beirut’s sectarian geographies fit within the region, not as an essentialist feature of the Middle East-as-conflict-zone, but as part of a relational network of colonial governance, fractalized geopolitics, and transnational religious mobilization: in other words, spatial practices coded out of a longer imperial encounter. Nirenberg’s (1996) description of the “rhythmic time” of the region where “repertoires of contention” bleed across the spaces of conflict and peace has an eerie resemblance to the twisting of war and peace in Bou Akar’s Beirut. Khoury’s (2013) work on contemporary Iraq similarly details how war produced new schisms between and within urban neighborhoods, with those schisms subsequently ensuring an ever-present war and transforming how Iraqis could make citizenship claims. Bou Akar notes how sectarian affiliation was glossed in everyday conversation in Beirut with the word bi’a, a kind of natural cultural environment with striking resemblance to the system of local allegiance based on residential quarter that Khoury (2008) discusses as core to the Ottoman political order. I wondered if bi’a has roots in these longue durée forms of spatialized sectarian citizenship and not just in the post-colonial dynamics Bou Akar so brilliantly elucidates.
Bou Akar concludes the book by saying it’s not all doom and gloom in Beirut. Upstart planning collectives are trying to re-tune the techniques of planning to reintroduce concerns with livability and sustainability locally. But, perhaps the professionalization of planning leads us to turn to the formal field of planning too much as the source for recovering a developmental horizon. Perhaps it’s in homes, religious gatherings or wholly new social spaces that that horizon will be found, and professional planners will remain mere technicians following the lead. The October Revolution that began to challenge sectarian rule and endemic corruption in Lebanon this past year suggests this may well be the case. If a city is to emerge from the war yet to come, perhaps it has to be unplanned, or at least planned on terms beyond the narrower terms set by the professions. Taking a cue from what has been called a post-Arab Spring literary dystopianism, perhaps we can use a novel like Using Life by Ahmed Naji (2017) to recognize the limits of the planning imaginary itself. In the book, the protagonist uncovers a group called the Society of Urbanists—trained urban technocrats—conspiring to level the teeming city of Cairo so that it can be rebuilt from scratch. It’s interesting to note that new speculative fiction seeking to write the future of the Middle East recognizes that it must contend with not just the aftermath of war, but also the aftermath of planning.
Khoury D (2013) Iraq in Wartime: Soldiering, Martyrdom, and Remembrance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Khoury D (2008) Violence and the spatial politics between the local and imperial: Baghdad, 1778–1810. In: Gyan Prakash and Kevin Kruse (eds) The Spaces of the Modern City: Imaginaries, Politics, and Everyday Life. Princeton: Princeton University Press, pp. 181–213.
Naji A (2017) Using Life, translated by Benjamin Koerber. Center for Middle Eastern Studies, The University of Texas.
Nirenberg D (1996) Communities of Violence: Persecution of Minorities in the Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ring L (2006) Zenana: Everyday Peace in a Karachi Apartment Building. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press.
D. Asher Ghertner is Associate Professor of Geography at Rutgers University and the author of Rule Aesthetics: World Class City Making in Delhi published in 2015 by Oxford University Press.