Follow by Email

May 8, 2011

At Home on the Battlefield

Although display of military might in urban settings is a visual no longer witnessed in most post modern cities, the Lebanese army in Beirut remains a recurrent daily image. At Beirut in Between, we hate tours that focus on function…rather, we prefer to understand the social symbolism behind the given. In line with this spirit, I am bringing up the subject of the army's heavy urban presence not to explain the function of this presence, but to elaborate on some of its implications on daily life in the city.

If on one fine Beirut day you come across excessive and permanent army presence in a quiet residential neighborhood, do not be alarmed as you are merely in the vicinity of a Lebanese politician's house. The more robust the army presence, the more important the politician is. The more important the politician is, the larger the parameters of his guarded area are. 

The guarding task can range from a tank or two stationed below the building itself, and can go as far as area-level surveillance, blockage of roads leading to the sacred residence,  physical screening, and background checks of families and individuals resident within the surrounding area. This is just standard procedure… as a newcomer you may be confused but as time passes this tends to blend in with city life.

A second "urban military function" you may come across on one random ride to work is the simulation of a live audio-visual experience of war. Yes, your ear drums will be pierced by heavy gun fire, you will find military boats rummaging the shoreline, and evenly dispersed tanks will overtake your vision. Now you will know that this live scenario of battle is a simulation because you will see a crowd of onlookers huddled together on one side walk, observing curiously with camera phones and loud side-talks that serve as live commentary on the action that is unraveling by sea, air, and land. At some point, your service taxi driver will dismiss your seemingly unwarranted apprehension by saying "oh its nothing..just another munawara".

The "Munawara", Arabic word meaning a military drill conducted for emergency preparedness in times of war, is a standard practical exercise. It is pretty clear why an army conducts simulation trainings, but the question is… in the middle of a city? On a normal working day?

Now as much as we would like to believe that we live in a modernized city (post-modern or medieval.. depending on how much money you have) it remains true that the signs of capital-rich neo-liberal Beirut continue to be counteracted with symbols of urban militarism. The process of urban development and modernization has been linked by scholars to a decline and gradual disappearance of visible nationalistic and military emblems.  But one strongly felt contradiction here in Beirut is that push and pull between war, ideology, struggle and resistance, and cosmopolitan, post-modern and individualistic pragmatism.

Although we can welcome the presence of the army amongst us in a light-hearted way, the truth is that the excessive presence of the army in the city confirms Beirut as a potential battlefield.

The concept of  'city as battlefield' has grown as a category of its own in military doctrine. The idea is that war between two organized state armies is declining, and that more and more, the city is becoming both the target and host of modern warfare. From internal armed conflicts, to terrorism and guerilla-warfare, our city has countless times before imploded in battle. Beirut is arguably one of the first historical examples of urban warfare, the civil war has been described as a time when "the city turned on itself".  Alleys and neighborhoods served as the frontlines while public buildings, schools and hospitals have served as displacement camps.

So going back to the questions that my first experience of a Munuwara sparked:
Why does the army guard the streets of our cities rather than the police and the various security apparatus of the Ministry of Interior? Are we in a state of war?  From the sites of the summer of 2010, Beirut was certainly the number one vacation spot in the Middle East. Then again who could have predicted the summer of 2006, especially with the pre-planned flurry of hotel reservations, restaurant and club openings, car rentals and expected numbers of incoming tourists. If we were to say that we are in a cold (at times hot) war with Israel, why are our army tanks stationed just below our balconies? Mainly in neighbourhoods where residents are of mixed religious sects? And conveniently in locations previously known as the demarcation lines in the civil war? Who is the army guarding the politicians from?

1 comment:

  1. Another stellar post.

    It's almost creepy so see the overlap of themes, as I've been thinking about the same issue this weekend (it's one thread running through the walk described here

    One idea I've had is to map out all the locations that they occupy now for no apparent reason, to link them back to their wartime past as well as to their current 'securing function' of 'hot spots', some of which may be invisible, while others no longer 'real'.