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n 2010, I was in Beirut conducting research for my postdoc research into the impact of the armed clashes of May 2008 on the political geography of municipal Beirut–and more generally their implications for traditional (and western) notions of sovereignty (Fregonese 2017). During the course of the fieldwork, which took place more than two years after the events, numerous interviewees recalled the rapid propagation of violence and the (re)emerging of religious-political demarcations of urban territory. My interviewees also mentioned various rumours: some talked about flats, being used to store weapons in the sector of Al-Zarif, not far from the reconstructed Beirut central district; others spoke of hotel bookings made by Shiite Muslim customers increasing in the days before the clashes, suggesting a deployment of militants in the city. Others even mentioned how certain sects were systematically renting apartments and buying land in specific neighbourhoods to alter their demographics.
What was actually interesting, rather than if these stories were true or not, was that even two years after the clashes, these rumours were still shaping mistrust towards specific groups of the population and specific neighbourhoods of Beirut, as well as specific spaces like buildings, businesses and apartments. As Hiba Bou Akar explains in For The War Yet To Come, rumours “organise space and reproduce violence. It is irrelevant whether these stories are real or not; they produce a geography of fear that shapes pace and draws sectarian demarcation lines” (135). In the book, rumour reverberates between the street and municipal offices; it sets the tone of conversations with planning officials; it propagates and affirms atmospheres of mistrust and fear with tangible social consequences on the ground, as shown by neighbourly relations in Bou Akar’s home district of Doha Aramoun south of Beirut.
In this beautifully written book, Bou Akar shows just how these micro dynamics–often at the scale of single streets, buildings, or even floors and individual apartments–bear complex yet profound connections to wider geopolitical processes. Ultimately, these spaces and the way they are organised are the materialisation of the city’s relationship with its politics of planning, its peripheries and, most importantly, with its own past and future. In an almost forensically meticulous manner, Bou Akar shows us the tangible connections between territoriality, geopolitics and everyday urban life.
The research in the book concentrates on the peripheral areas outside the border of municipal Beirut: the southern suburbs (al-Dahiya) and Greater Beirut, containing the international airport. This is a terrain (especially in the Doha Aramoun case) that Bou Akar knows deeply (her own family lives there, she spends prolonged periods of time researching here). And yet, it has its own politics that influence Bou Akar’s fieldwork practice: episodes of localised violence and regional wars create everyday tensions in the neighbourhoods studied, making it risky to take photographs, increasing suspicion from residents. Bou Akar mentions how “the segmented political terrain in 2009 also meant that my access to information had always to be negotiated” (14) and mentions being part of a constant trust-building process.
Doubleness, lacework, and ballooning are three spatial practices in the three case studies, where what are seemingly market-driven planning decisions are in fact attempts at changing the spatial politics of the urban periphery, transforming it into a contested frontier. In Hayy Madi/Mar Michail (Chapter 2) in the southern suburbs, the doubleness of the ruin is illustrated, via a variety of strong examples, as a condition whereby a ruin is more than a remnant of the past, but a spatial arrangement for religious political organisations to “hold ground” against each other in the eventuality of future conflict. Through a complex dynamic of land sales and purchases, the present ruin thus shapes the future geography of conflict, a geography which sees the Maronite church trying to keep a presence in a neighbourhood facing major socio-demographic changes and the influx of Shiite populations.
In Sahra Choueifat (Chapter 3), what Bou Akar calls the lacework of zoning has resulted in the intricate overlapping and copresence of industrial and residential areas as well as unfinished infrastructures. These apparently incongruous spaces are actually the result, and the agents, of a battle over zoning waged by the Druze municipality to contrast the demographic changes in the neighbourhood. It is here that what is in fact a ‘war by other means’ produces the most impactful environmental damage: from dangerous industrial fumes, to inadequate sewerage, to chronic flooding. In Doha Aramoun, by Beirut airport (Chapter 4), the withdrawal of the Syrian Armed Forces in 2005 left a void filled by a political strategy of government-driven infrastructural development and a tactic of ‘filling the blanks’ of these plans by private religious-political organisations – the latter process named “ballooning.” This alternation of development/filling blanks determines a tense tempo of coexistence and everyday urban politics in Doha Aramoun, where “seemingly everyday confrontations – a parking dispute, neighbours bickering, a flag parade, personal relationship – may now erupt into violence” (125). Here, the notion of coexistence is stretched to its limit. What in the global north would be defined as a “superdiverse” area here takes the meaning of super-potential for conflict.
For The War Yet To Come is not only the story of three separate neighbourhoods, but also of its spatial genealogies. Chapter 5 is an important one, as it tells the story of Beirut and its peripheries in its journey through planning as a tool of development in the era of independence and nation-building in the 1950s and 1960s during the Cold War, through the violent decades of civil war and into the post-war period from 1990. Here, with “the roll back of state services in the Global North and a push for structural adjustment in the Global South” (168), notions of integrated social justice have been evacuated from planning, reducing it to “an arrangement of territories without larger social purpose” (174). In this, the responsibility of the planner is reduced to implementation and “innovation” (a term whose political weight is clear through the book) to fit the agendas of political-sectarian groups into the wider plan regulations. I would have loved to know more about the interactions (or absence thereof) between the three zones studied, and their characteristic spatial practices: how do doubleness, lacework and ballooning circulate, and expand, if at all? How do they reverberate or replicate out of the limits of these neighbourhoods and across other areas and even other cities? And if not, what does their singularity and untranslatability tell us?
Conflict lingers on. Beyond the political stipulations of peace agreements, everyday peace at street level is a slow and demanding process that takes much more, and daily, work (Koopman 2017; Pullan 2015). In Beirut, Bou Akar argues, the end of the civil war with the Ta’if Agreement in 1990 has not brought durable peace, but merely mutations in the logic of war. The war, far from being past, continues to manifest itself in the spatial reorganisation of the post-war city. In the logic of The War Yet To Come, war is not as a temporal exception, a tear or a deviation in the regular flow of events, a glitch in an otherwise peacefully coexistence society, but rather a state of affairs that is still shaping Beirut’s space and that is expected to reoccur. The past moulds the present, and both fold into the vision of future conflict: “The anticipation of future war has thus become a governing modality within Beirut's peripheries, with its imagined impetus drawn from a variety of possible sources, including local sectarian disputes, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the transnational geography of Islamic militarization, and the global ‘War on Terror’” (7).
By showing the temporal and spatial pervasiveness of the logic of the War Yet To Come (and its wider geopolitical derivations) in the urban environment of everyday life in these neighbourhoods – streets, parking lots, apartments, balconies, empty lots, building sites shops – Bou Akar helps to bridge one of the gaps in the scholarship of urban geopolitics. In this scholarship, the attention to militarised urban conflict and their technological expressions has often trumped the interest for ordinary and everyday topologies where geopolitics connects with ordinary urban life and experiences.
In so doing, For the War Yet to Come reinterprets what geopolitics is, what it does (to communities, to everyday urban life), where it manifests itself, and who (and what), in this logic, is a geopolitical actor: planners, municipality officers, religious organisation representatives, even contractors; but also, the vast range of nonhuman actors that populate this ethnography: from the lines on the maps of official master plans to single apartments, from the type of concrete and the quality of cladding, to the specific timing of a demolition. These are not casual, but part of an urban logic of present reorganisation for conflict anticipation that Bou Akar makes visible. This book reminds us of the cliché fallacy of Lebanon as a country of paradox. Rather, Lebanon is a country of collapsed binaries, and in the cracks of these collapses, ethnographic research reveals very intricate rationalities.
This is not, however, a mass-scale urban conspiracy theory geared towards future war. Of course, things are messier than that, and the components of this logic are complex, multiple, even contradictory at times. But what the filigree geography of For The War Yet To Come does, is to bring overdue justice to what often gets generically framed as unplanned and/or informal space, often depicted as purely ‘strongholds’ of certain political parties in the media, or when Beirut’s peripheries often get collapsed (and I am often guilty of that) into an uncontextualized “southern suburbs”.
Nor is the filigree geography of For The War Yet To Come aimed at casting Beirut’s peripheries in an exceptional frame of their own. Fear and anticipation of future crisis (from disease, to terrorism, to destabilising population movements), Bou Akar shows, are hardly a prerogative of ‘conflict cities’, and more the sign of a “terror yet to come” (186) logic that drives urban design globally, and that is changing the urban experience of many cities worldwide, across a presumed divide between conflict cities vs. ordinary cities. Actually, the more one reads For The War Yet To Come, the more connections with other places spring up. Especially because there is a familiar underlying force pervading all three case studies: that of neoliberalism and profit-driven urban management. As shown in chapter 5, it is neoliberalism, and its view of the city as a fragmented terrain, to set the trend for every post-war spatial policy and plan in Lebanon. Most of the situations described in the book originate from the (mis)management of war-driven internal displacement by a post-war government engaged in a neoliberal project of urban reconstruction and regeneration of the city centre by means of gentrification and aggressive privatisation. The neoliberal post-war enterprise then materialises in demographic change that has opened the way for what Bou Akar calls “channelled markets” (77) operated by private religious-political organisations, often with very apolitical-looking private market logics, but essentially nurturing the same sectarian system through which government operates.
That same neoliberalism, pervasive privatisation of space, profit-oriented policies and crippled state services, are the main grievances underpinning the current revolution (thawra) across several Lebanese cities and towns. This takes me to what I see as the critical question deriving from this enticing and ground-breaking book: is there any space for hope in the logic of The War Yet To Come? In the book, hope seems to be constantly supplanted by attempts to gain and maintain “spatial advantage” (19) for one’s sect. In Sahra Choueifat, where lacework zoning created numerous environmental hazards, in Hayy Madi where ruination is being ossified for religious-political purposes, or in Doha Aramoun, squeezed between state-driven projects and private tactics of filling available space and expanding on it, is there any space for implementing strategies and tactics that embody non-sectarian politics? Sectarianism is a socially constructed discourse (Makdisi 2000), but as Bou Akar reminds us, it is also much more than a discourse: sectarianism is also a materiality, “an unstable regime of difference that is constantly being made and unmade” (181). In this context, is it ever possible to bring down sectarianism in Lebanon, if the very facts on the ground (from masterplans to zoning, to privatised practices of militarisation of the built environment whose ramifications and investments expand transnationally) are so entrenched and geared towards a future sectarian clash? Even amidst the current protests, how possible is it to actually exit the system of sectarianism, given its entrenched material and built blueprint at the peripheries of the capital? This is, for me at least, a crucial future question that For The War Yet To Come can help to answer in the current conjuncture for Lebanon and elsewhere in the region.
Fregonese S, 2012, “Beyond the ‘weak state’: hybrid sovereignties in Beirut” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30(4) 655–674
Koopman S, 2017, “Peace”, in International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology Eds D Richardson, N Castree, M F Goodchild, A Kobayashi, W Liu, and R A Marston (John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, Oxford, UK), pp 1–4,
Makdisi U, 2000 The culture of sectarianism community, history, and violence in nineteenth-century Ottoman Lebanon (University of California Press, Berkeley, Calif.),
Pullan W, 2015, “Agon in urban conflict: Some possibilities.”, in Phenomenologies of the City: Studies in the History and Philosophy of Architecture. Eds H Steiner and M Sternberg (Ashgate, Farnham), pp 213–224
Sara Fregonese is Lecturer in political geography at the University of Birmingham and author of War and the city: Urban geopolitics in Lebanon (Bloomsbury 2019)