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May 3, 2011

The Shadows Beneath

"Come in under the shadow of this red rock and I will show you something different from
Either your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you"
                                                                                   T.S. Eliot "The Wasteland"

The only experience that I have had of post-war and pre-reconstruction Beirut was sometime in the mid-90s when I visited Martyr's Square. My father took a photograph of my sister, cousin and I standing on a Solidere imprinted marble block, with the Square in rubble behind us, and bullet-pierced buildings to our right and left. This image, along with the various texts and auto-biographies written about the era, will be the closest thing I get to the Beirut that lies beneath the magnificently painted, polished, and brightly lit stone found today.

When T.S. Eliot described a wasteland where "the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, and the dry stone no sound of water", he was alluding to a context of destruction, in which forgetting is a lot more comforting than remembering.  (

His poem "The Burial of the Dead" reminds me of Beirut, and the yet-to-be resolved conflict between its past and present. Unfortunately, the visual manifestation of this conflict in today's central Beirut points to the victory of a future that is owned by neither the present nor the past. But if we were to take T.S. Eliot's advice, the future cannot be forged before the present and the past reconcile. If we ever want branches to grow out from stony rubbish, the future needs to be built on the rationalization of our past.

In order to explain why I believe Beirut today is not the same city that my parents grew up in, I must first explain the conditions which gave birth to the state of denial we are in today.  The politics of forgetfulness (which I will explain below) has underpinned the re-emergence of central Beirut as an elitist, financially-driven urban center. Borrowing from Lefebvre's theory of representational space (, post-war transitional policies (or lack there of) form the ideology that drapes the physical urban spaces we see today.    

In Lebanon, post-war policies chose to focus solely on impersonal processes of healing such as reconstruction of buildings, institutions and infrastructure, while failing to reconstruct shattered lives and identities. Alas, what is arguably a core feature in nation-building, the rationalization of the past, was never accomplished.

The Civil War. What makes such an era of our past, wherein the risk of vanishing echoes in every corner and checkpoint of dangerous and hostile Lebanese streets, so remote is the mistake that the Lebanese have fallen into in their transition from war to peace: the officially-sanctioned amnesia in which the Lebanese were encouraged to forget in order to move on. A rationale unique to Lebanese conflict resolution is the idea of 'no victor and no vanquished'; a conciliatory method that in fact translates in containment of the conflict rather than its effective resolution. The Ta'if Accord known by the Lebanese as the National Reconciliation Document contained within it a progressive spirit of change yet because it granted general amnesty, it inhibited the possibility of redeeming the war's casualties and victims through  the avenue of prosecution- thereby condemning 15 years of Lebanese history into a parenthesis of silence and non-accountability.

Till this day Beirut has no physical memorials of the civil war (  Just down the street from where I live is the location of an infamous Hamra checkpoint, where at countless citizens were checked, humiliated, and kidnapped during the battles of West Beirut. Beirut's locals would know it today as the checkpoint beneath City Café, where security forces stand to protect Hariri's Qoreitem fiefdom. A few kilometers away near Zokak El Blat, a billboard belonging to the "Ayoub" gas station hides behind it a wall plaque dating back to the civil war, where the names of martyrs affiliated with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party are listed in memory of the military operation that occurred in that spot. A similar juxtaposition of present and past tensely dots every corner and street of Beirut.

"…until this moment you had never considered what is meant by existence. I will put it more precisely. Does the past exist concretely, in space? Is there somewhere or other a place, a world of solid objects, where the past is still happening?"  

This scene from George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty Four" depicts memory as a possession that cannot be hampered with despite all efforts by a system geared towards forgetfulness. We possess the past because of our memory of that past. Collective memory of the war in Lebanon may have officially halted in 1991 with the disbanding of the militias, but beneath the surface, it stirs.

Luckily, despite the fact that there continues to be no memorial days relating to the civil war, April 13th continues to be defiantly commemorated by civil society groups, the media, public art exhibitions, and other forms of public remembrance, insisting on preserving the mental image of the war-stricken Beirut that was, and hopefully will never be again.  

1 comment:

  1. Lovely post :) I'm really happy to see more people thinking and writing about these issues (I found this link on the Save Beirut Heritage fb group, for example).

    I've linked to the post on which I hope will become a collective blog for people interested in urban and psychogeographic matters (right now, there's an emphasis on memory on the blog too).