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he most predominant narratives of post-war Beirut involve an analysis of Solidere, the glitzy and sterile neoliberal urban development in Beirut’s downtown, or the omnipresence of Hezbollah’s growing influence over al-Dahiya in Southern Beirut. While Hiba Bou Akar’s book For the War Yet to Come takes us to the peripheries of al-Dahiya, where land “has a religion” she forges an insightful disruption to the dominant discourses on post-war Beirut, religious political organizations, and sectarianism. Rather than privilege a particular frame, Bou Akar analyzes the continuities and discontinuities between neoliberal urbanism, religious ideologies, transnational militarization, and the concomitant rise of sectarianism, territoriality and violence.
Through a grounded discussion of the way sectarianism plays out in specific neighborhoods via real estate transactions and zoning laws, Bou Akar demonstrates how sectarianism is constructed, lived and practiced. She asks: what role do spatial practitioners, planners, engineers, real estate brokers and religious political organizations play in the arrangement of territories and the relationship between space and violence? She breaks apart numerous dichotomies throughout the book: everyday life and militarization, normalcy and exception, peace and war, planning and chaos, coexistence and segregation, destruction and construction, home and displacement, past and present.
Bou Akar employs three spatial and temporal lenses—doubleness, lacework and ballooning—in order to analyze the distinct forms of spatial practice that emerge in her three research sites and to excavate the frontiers of territorial conflict. She depicts processes of urbanization, new territories of poverty, and frontiers of sectarian violence, as constantly being negotiated on local, national and transnational scales, highlighting the tenuous, constantly changing everyday acts of spatial transgression. Here the “militarization of everyday life” occurs in such a manner that “each street, building, and window is evaluated as an asset in a possible future or renewed urban warfare” (180). Sarah Fregonese has described military urbanism in Beirut during the 1970s as urbicide, which leads me to wonder if the urban planning tools and techniques described in the book could be considered urbicide? Furthermore, I believe that an engagement with the geographical literature on urbicide could further elucidate the post-civil war contestation of sectarian territory Bou Akar aptly describes.
The book’s greatest contribution is the theoretically astute concept of “the war yet to come.” Here, Bou Akar masterfully weaves a spatial and temporal logic together to demonstrate how these territorial contestations are both a reconfiguration of past violence and a patchwork of destruction, construction, lavishness and poverty, otherness and marginality that involves the present moment from which the future is imagined as further violent conflict erupts. She poignantly illustrates how Beirut’s peripheries are envisioned as spaces of real estate speculation and frontiers of future wars. The war yet to come constantly defines how the future is perceived and how the present is arranged. And while geographers usually elucidate how relationships unfold across space and time, it is rare to theorize the complex relationship between the two with such nuance.
Another critical intervention the book makes is by offering an example of an “ethnography of spatial practices” through patching stories and maps. Geographers often lament the striking absence of ethnographic work on the Middle East within our discipline and particularly in relation to empire, transnationalism and war. While studying divisive topics such as war, militarization, violence and sectarianism is popular within the discipline, we miss a great deal when we study them exclusively from above, or from the gaze of empire rather than from the ground. Bou Akar’s work offers an example of how to navigate this difficult terrain, recognizing the importance of ethnography and the complexity of her own positionality. She situates herself as a resident, a researcher, a practitioner, a Druze, and a woman in the midst of a complex geography of diverse actors. The importance of her situatedness and lived experiences of the civil war as well as professional life as an architect make her analysis even sharper and highlight the unique and rich perspective she brings to bear in her work. A few years have passed since the fieldwork for the manuscript was completed, and the economic and political landscape of Lebanon has changed rather dramatically. It would be particularly interesting to hear Bou Akar explore how the dynamics at play in the book have changed as a result of the mass influx of mostly Sunni Syrian refugees into Lebanon. In particular, there seems to be some preliminary evidence that they are the new “Other” in Lebanon, and question remains about how the relationships between sectarian groups are reconfigured during these challenging times.
In a chapter that is sure to become a favorite for those of us who teach development geography, Bou Akar traces the history of the intersection between planning and development, arguing that we have gone from an era of development planning in the 1950s and early 60s, to planning as development from the 1960s through the first half the Lebanese civil war, and finally to planning without development by the end of the civil war, a shift that coincided with the transformation of Beirut’s peripheries into sectarian frontiers. This era of planning without development—also referred to as planning by touchstones— works through an allotment among religious-political organizations which in turn facilitates a shifting division of urban space along sectarian lines. It is a form of governing writ large, one that permits religious political organizations to reconfigure space in their own interests. As a result, Bou Akar argues that planning in Beirut has lost its “ethical basis” and is “devoid of the normative attributes of equity and social justice that are usually attributed to planning practice” (147). She wages an important critique of planning and poses an important challenge to practitioners. It left me with many questions about how urban planning tools can offer a different urban future not driven by the logics of capital accumulation nor of future war.
In the conclusion of the book, Bou Akar offers reflections on how these geographies are not exceptional to post-conflict zones, but inflect a sense of the crisis yet to come in cities around the globe—whether driven by concerns over war, terrorism, climate change, an influx of refugees, gang violence or flooding. She incisively zooms in on an anxiety and an imagined future that shapes all planning and discursive framings of the city yet to be. Cities are planning their futures with this fear in mind and it profoundly shapes the spatiality of our urban futures. Paying attention to these landscapes highlights the future geographies of both dystopia and hope and begs one to locate possibilities for hope in an otherwise dystopic geography of the war yet to come. Despite this gloomy forecast, the book upliftingly foretells our current moment by concluding that “hope remains however in the prospect that these logics of fear and exclusions will be widely contested, giving rise to movements that bring on new spatial and political imaginaries for more equitable cities and better futures, and remind us that the future is yet to be written” (186).
Mona Atia is Associate Professor of Geography and International Affairs at The George Washington University. She is director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and author of Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt, published by the University of Minnesota Press.