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“We survive traumatic triggers, hours spent in the dark, long queues for basic needs, forests on fire, collapsing currency value, and explosions shattering our homes and hopes” (Dina, 2021).
his essay is part of the research project ‘Imagining Futures through Un/Archived Pasts’ led by the University of Exeter, UK and focused on ungrounding multiple forms of violence and their imbrications in the urban space of Beirut in Lebanon. Specifically, examining the aftermath of the port’s explosion in 2020 and the ongoing political and socio-economic crises, we chased individual narratives and spatial trajectories of everyday life struggles. We aimed to foreground an alternative representation of living archives, where an assemblage of stories, memories, perceptions, everyday practices, and their relations continuously shape the urban space.
For decades, scholars have studied the interconnections of urban space and violence in Lebanon during the civil war, post-war reconstruction era and the recent 17th November 2019 revolution. The civil war (1975-1990) produced conflicting narratives which are crucial to understand the intricacy of the current situation; conflict remains inherent to Lebanon’s recent socio-political and economic crisis (Bou Akar, 2018; Ghandour and Fawaz, 2010; Khalaf, 2002; Nasr and Verdeil, 2008; Salam, 1998; Sharp, 2020). Moreover, the post-war rebuilding process fell short of establishing solid foundations of true governance, participation, and economic, cultural, social and infrastructural growth to lead a holistic urban recovery as coined by Al-Harithy (2021). It rather consolidated the war’s geographies while perpetuating multiple forms of urban violence (Bou Akar, 2018; Ghandour and Fawaz, 2010; Sharp, 2020). Warlords remained in power and strengthened sectarian-clientelist networks. Fragmented and profit-led, it is argued that the reconstruction efforts failed to re-create everyday places where communities’ needs are met (Al-Harithy, 2010; Nasr and Verdeil, 2008; Salam, 1998; Schmid, 2006).
Over the past three years, multiple simultaneous and interconnected crises were unfolded in the form of what we have called ‘polycrisis’. It manifests in the country’s entrenched socio-political dysfunctionality and more evidently in the everyday life of the Lebanese. Alienating and troubling, living in Lebanon, and particularly in the capital Beirut, has become a daily struggle where trauma and violence intertwine; a battle for life itself.
In this context, certain aesthetic representations of trauma take form, where the insuperable past resurfaces in the present and repressed experiences are relived in creative ways (Werner, 2020). Equally, violence as embedded in spatial patterns, develops in temporal dimensions where the future “can be imagined only as a time of further violent conflict,” blurs the distinction between destruction and construction and leads to peculiar arrangements of the territory (Bou Akar, 2018:7; Eickelkamp and Sur, 2022; Davie, 1993). By continuously repeating itself, violence in Lebanon becomes the foundation for renewed conditions of destruction in the city. Across time, it is adopted as a new reality through which narratives of everyday life shape our urban space and its future in an ambushed order. Our enquiry thus seeks to consolidate past, present, and forthcoming narratives of violence and trauma in new registers of living archives.
Ten people who survived traumatic events become our storytellers of living compounded crises in Lebanon. Stories unfolded against the diverse socio-economic backgrounds, age, range and gender: Ziad (unable to access medication), Hiba (survivor from Tarik el-Jdideh explosion), Leen (survivor from the Shouf forests fires), Joyce (community engagement and social media activist), Mahmud (injured during the Revolution protests), Carina (survivor from the port explosion), Lamia (affected by the Ain Qana explosion), Sami (unable to access bank savings), Ahmad (facing housing insecurity and displacement) and Mona (lost her job in Beirut because of the economic crisis and moved to her village of origin). Along their stories, we gathered personal records which document selective moments of struggle and contestation (pictures, messages, emails, social media posts, etc.).
People’s stories thus become a critical resource of an archival practice to draw our narratives: a present-oriented process that links between a shared past, present reality and imagined future to expand the meanings of everyday life in urban space (Hall, 2001; Naeff, 2017; Sachs Olsen, 2017; Sandercock, 2005). We learned that when the storytellers stop narrating, their stories never come to an end (Pandolfo, 2006). They are retold, represented and relived in a myriad of ways to become an allegory that is continuously renewed (Naeff, 2017; Sandercock, 2005). From this perspective, storytelling grounded our understanding of violence and trauma and shaped our understanding of their impacts on both the human and the urban conditions.
The process of drawing narratives was creative, subjective and reflexive where boundaries of the researcher and researched, self and other, future and past, life and death entangle (Dean, 2017; Kanafani and Sawaf, 2017). In a severely polarized context, the full picture might not be portrayed: we acknowledge that other stories simultaneously co-exist, intertwine, or clash. We examine unusual city-making processes that are born from within “the material, affective and structural breaking points” of people’s struggle with violence and trauma (Thieme, 2021: 1097; see also Al-Harithy, 2010; Fawaz, 2008).
Four narratives were foregrounded in two parallel, yet contradictory constructs of everyday life emerging from geographies and distinguished solidarities. The first dwells on the meaning of a life lost in trauma, survival and dispossession of basic rights. It then expands to discern particular spatial patterns and trajectories across Beirut and beyond. The second elaborates on coping strategies and emerging solidarities through which people navigate their spaces and lives. It delves into specific patterns of invented detachment and/or intimacy. Without aiming to be comprehensive, the essay concludes by examining how the urban in Lebanon can be “an exhausted territory, predated by the absence of the public, brutalized by the fragility of the common and vandalized by the preclusion of a thinkable and imaginable future”, but still archiving hope and future imaginations (Boano, 2021: 41).
The spaces of trauma and the lost meaning of life
“This was a city that I was trying to defend; this was a city that I was doing my best to improve, for myself and for the new generations to come; to give us a proper future” (Mahmud, 2021).
Across the shared stories, a strong sense of loss is portrayed, at times accepted. For Lamia, Sami and Mona, the meaning of life is lost, when its reality is tainted with danger (“We are always living with the idea of danger” [Lamia]), apathy (“no one gives a damn about it” [Sami]), multiple forms of injustice (“we live in a society with no justice at all” [Lamia]), and strong feelings of distrust (“we don’t trust the government anymore; we don’t trust our leaders and politicians” [Mona]). People paradoxically coupled the strong sense of a meaningless life to unreasonable efforts to circumvent danger, apathy and injustice. Through imaginations and spatial trajectories, they have collectively normalized a sub-real construct where the basic rights of safety, security, dignity and justice are stripped away. The ambivalence of some narratives between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, testimony and exaggeration, is embedded in the difficulty of representing and conveying their traumatic reality (Sandercock, 2005; Werner, 2020). New stories, self-reliance tactics for survival and collective lifelines are instead continuously created and sustained.
Daily violence is making space: Is it a cold civil war?
Cyclic and repetitive, recurrent memories of the civil war intensify throughout people’s narratives and along their spatial trajectories. During the war, people crossed east/west Beirut, queued and moved in and out of their localities for survival. Today, queues and trajectories are only longer and more frequent: people are moving in/out of Beirut, in/out of their neighborhoods, to/from their “own” branches of banks, pharmacies, bakeries, gas stations and other essential stores. They are constantly yet frantically moving in search of the most basic supplies but also in quest of a better life. The war’s violent spatial practices resurface today in what can frame a sort of perpetuated cold civil war.
The stories of Hiba, Mahmud, Ziad, and Sami trace certain trajectories of deception and acceptance which are key to rethink the urban space, redefine its geographies and understand the process of space through an alternative lens (Fawaz, 2009; Gharbieh, 2021). They form acts that normalize multiple forms of dispossession and violence to embody a certain acceptance of dwelling and imagining safer futures in Lebanon beyond the lived breaking points (Thieme, 2021).
Hiba’s journey during the economic collapse unfolded into daily trips across two localities: her town of origin, Shheem and the city of Beirut. After losing a newly secured job, Hiba’s sole refuge for social and economic support was her native village. In her perceptions, Beirut transformed from a “mixture of everything” into a “city of ghosts” where striking feelings of insecurity, sadness, and destruction govern.
Similarly, Ahmad moved houses and changed jobs in the suburbs of Beirut. Between his parents’ residence and his in-law’s, he searched for a much-needed sense of privacy, independence, and control over day-to-day choices. Finally settling in a small, rented apartment was a turning point in Ahmad’s life where, for the first time, he experienced “stability, happiness and freedom” with his nuclear family. However, this took an arduous journey of financial and social hardships at the core of which are Lebanon’s structural socio-economic inequalities (Fawaz, 2008).
“It’s getting harder and harder. I am often thinking and am very concerned and scared to get to a point where I wouldn’t be able to provide for my kids, or that they get hungry” (Ahmad, 2021).
At the earliest signs of the economic crisis in 2019, Sami hurried to withdraw daily amounts of bank savings. Waiting in line, accepting humiliating amounts and controlling procedures imposed by the banks are only another violent facet of life in Beirut where suffocating injustice and helplessness rule.
“We don’t need their charity, it’s our own money… I have worked all my life and now I have my compensation salary, and I have my money, I can live with dignity” (Sami, 2021).
Coping through patterns of detachment
Beirut has an uncanny ability to bear and reproduce signs of violence and trauma within its spaces. The civil war, Israeli raids, sporadic armed clashes, and the series of explosions culminating with the port’s explosion still keep their traumatic evidence in the city (Khalaf, 2002; Sharp, 2020). In the same manner, people in Beirut bear multiple forms of physical and emotional trauma in their bodies and minds. At times, these traces of trauma arrive “unrecognizably and without warning” (Lahoud, 2010: 17). They are blurred into one narrative where violence and survival, spaces and bodies, life and its absence intertwine (Lahoud, 2010; Thieme, 2021; Werner, 2020). The story of Mahmud, a survivor of physical violence, is one good illustration. During the Revolution’s most violent weekend (17-18 January 2020), Mahmud and other protesters were beaten with inexplicable violence by the Lebanese internal security forces (ISF), detained at the police station for 12 hours and denied basic human rights.
“Five or six of the security forces started beating me severely. They pushed me on the floor, held me down and hit my face until my jaw broke” (Mahmud, 2021).
Mahmud’s trauma matched in intensity his skewed perceptions of material damage in the city. The blurred identification of his own body with the city was blown up to the point where the explosion of the port and the aftermath of the protest matched in intensity. Furthermore, for Mahmud, Beirut downtown’s heavy destructions caused by the port explosion, just a couple of kilometres away from his residence, were not “that huge” compared to the damage resulting from the Revolution’s violent events.
“…after the Port explosion and after the protests were terminated, it [downtown] was the same. …It became a touristic site, a place for people to come and observe what happened. The signs, the people, the road, and the drawings that were made on the roads. The effects of all the protests and now as well as the explosion are the same” (Mahmud, 2021).
The violence that Mahmud undergoes originates in his despair after the protests’ ‘failure’ and the physical destruction caused by the port explosion. It skewed his perceptions and nurtured a sense of detachment from his city: a meaningful place and a locus where the pursuit of change and the claim of rights were meant to happen.
“…there was no reason to go more to the downtown, I think, I went once with some friends or some family members who were outside and were coming to Lebanon for the first time after the protest. So, they wanted to see what happened and I just go with them. It is no longer an area for social gathering with friends and so on, it is just a touristic site area which I am not interested in” (Mahmud, 2021).
Through destruction, injury and pain, Carina undertook a long journey to save herself and her family after the port’s explosion. Her physical trauma was externalized to unfold at different scales of the house, the neighbourhood, the city, and the world around her as she sought medical care and protection.
“The explosion blew us and we did not feel what happened, we all flew across the room.[…] Once in the street we saw an unprecedented amount of destruction. Everything was demolished, broken, destruction of buildings, streets, people injured, holding their children, and aimlessly running. That’s where we understood that it’s not just our building, it’s the whole world around us” (Carina, 2021).
Her perception of the crisis has changed after the explosion of her house. Nothing made sense to her, and nothing seemed to be true anymore. Asking her about the electricity provision and how she is coping with the current crisis, her response showed another pattern of detachment whereby she saw herself particularly targeted, different from the ‘others’.
“Frankly I don’t get it that in some areas the electrical current does not go away at all, and in some others we have just few hours per day. I think there is no crisis, they are just lying to rob us more and more” (Carina, 2021).
The intensity of physical and emotional trauma in both stories constitute what Laketa (2016) frames as ‘affective landscapes of everyday life’ while generating a sense of numbness and blunt detachment from the city, the space of trauma (Lahoud, 2017; Laketa, 2016; Werner, 2020). For Carina, who lived through the civil war, the magnitude of violence and its induced feelings were familiar. The civil war’s memories were triggered by the explosion’s sights, voices, smells of horror and profoundly shattered Carina’s perceptions of her “safe, vibrant, and communal” neighbourhood. For young Mahmud, trauma transformed his city to a space of betrayal, pain, and injury rather than a space of trust, joy and healing. How could he ever live and dream of better opportunities in such conditions? How could he still trust his city that betrayed him and his parents before him?
Both stories tell how one can give up on their city to take refuge in an internalized focus on healing. Rather than a place of life in the present and future, Beirut becomes a mere assemblage of memories, nostalgic images of distant familiar spaces and representations of profound betrayal, trauma, fear and loss.
Entrapment or intimacy?
Living in a reality of entrenched violence, feelings of entrapment intensify and the need to seek refuge becomes obsessive. When physical escape is not possible, skewed perceptions and imaginary constructs animate the comforting imagination of possible futures (Lahoud, 2010; Thieme, 2021). The sense of intimacy to place, before, during and after the crisis, is one form of such skewed perceptions which are dominated by the denial of real danger as well as percolating shadows of the civil war.
During the Shouf Forest wildfires in September 2019, fire spread across the mountains and reached the residential areas. Leen’s father refused to move. He’d rather suffocate to death than leave his house to vandalism, looting and squatting. Years later, the war’s traumatic memories still made the act of leaving the house a more significant danger than death itself.
“You feel you are trapped and in despair, where to go? What to do? […]. We stayed in the house till 5 in the morning, when it felt obvious there is no way we can stay in the house anymore” (Leen, 2021).
The feeling of surrender to destiny coupled with strong religious faith was Hiba’s unique protective shield. She did not feel the need to leave her neighborhood despite the deadly explosion of a fuel tank in the crowded residential area of Tarik al-Jdideh in October 2020:
“There is nothing that you can do. We are fatalists and believe in destiny, and that you cannot run away from what is predestined to you? Maybe if the day of the explosion I was still in my place, I would have not even been harmed, even if I was sitting in the salon” (Hiba, 2021).
Deceptive comfort could also take the form of temporary safety. It is mainly shaped by both the familiar community practices but also the collective actions taken in emergency situations when official channels fail to do so.
“The neighbors make sure the people living in the area are safe and that no one would harm them. I go out at night, and I know I am safe. It’s an area where you can live and work and raise your kids safely” (Leen, 2021).
The selected narratives of everyday life in Lebanon do not tell a singular story. They are illustrated by images, captured by memories and contested by hopeful aspirations for a better future. Lahoud (2010) claims that crisis is productive: indeed, through their multidimensionality and connections within and across each other, the stories of Lebanon’s crisis braid a web of collective actions, journeys and feelings that are continuously transforming urban space from past to present and future (see also Sandercock, 2005; Thieme, 2021). Read as a whole, they constitute a living archive, a sort of city diaries which gives a voice to alternative desires and ambitions revealed through moments of contestation, survival and resistance.
The narratives show how violence, in both its tangible and intangible dimensions, develops its embeddedness to the country’s self-destructive history. It is both a controlling and a dispossessing force which are continuously assaulting people, their everyday life in its simplest and most mundane details, their basic needs for survival and mostly the multiple meanings they assign to life through their hopes and dreams (Butler and Athanasiou, 2013).
Understanding the nexus of violence/city thus enriches the conversation on urban violence in the context of Lebanon. It becomes a living process which is continuously archiving urban life in/with/through violence. Living in violence pioneers an additional dimension to reflect on urban life, similar to the economic, social and cultural dimensions, among others – the ‘violent dimension’ of the Lebanese life. Living with violence brings the reflection to the personal and human aspects of life in Lebanon, always accompanied by past, present and projected trauma. While living through violence portrays the sense of acceptance through ingenious strategies of coping and adapting. At last, people’s stories might come to an end but in the end, they are becoming archives. Our invitation remains to read beyond the end, beyond the story and beyond the storyteller.
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Hanadi Samhan is an urban practitioner, Ph.D. candidate at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) UCL and a tutor at the Bartlett school of planning.
Dina Mneimneh is an urban practitioner and researcher with a focus on cultural heritage. She currently teaches architectural and urban design at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, UK.
Hoda Mekkaoui is an architect & urban practitioner, with an emphasis on green solutions and sustainability.
Camillo Boano is a Full Professor of Urban Design and Critical Theory at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit (DPU) and a Full Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at Politecnico di Torino, Italy.