The neighborhood of Karantina (deformation of Quarantena) lies at the East of Beirut’s port, and was built in the 1830s as Beirut’s lazaretto to quarantine travelers and goods. Over the past two centuries, it has transformed into a site of nodal immigration history with waves of Palestinian, Kurd, and more recently Syrian refugees and Lebanese Shia composing the ranks of its residents. Now mostly known for its olfactive signature due to the mismanagement of waste materials and poor urban planning, Karantina has turned into a permanent antechamber to social and national integration. This study focuses on the production of Karantina as an “in-between” through the analysis of legal, textual, and sensorial archives. The paper first traces the legal and urban history of the neighborhood before delving into a sensorial study of Karantina’s identity.
The methodology I employ in this exploration curates a combination of historical anthropology and legal history. The racial and xenophobic statal logics that underpin Karantina’s raison d’être and the invisibilization of its residents today are exposed in the paper through a demographic study of the space conducted in parallel with an examination of immigration laws that prohibit the acquisition of Lebanese citizenship and complicate the procurement of work permits for immigrants. Concurrently, I bolster the legal history of Karantina with translation theory and Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology to ask how Karantina cannot escape the determinism of its terminology.
Following the legal exposé, I tackle the question of Karantina as a site of perpetual transit for its residents and state failure through the sensorial and ethnographic lens drawing on interviews and olfactory observations. From an illustration of statal efficiency and hygiene in the 1830s, Karantina has morphed into a mono-sensory metaphor of the failed state. Building on scholarship that has analyzed olfactive silence in relation to state-building in European urban history, and moving beyond an approach to Karantina as marked by traumatic events (namely the gruesome massacre of 1976 and the 2020 Beirut port explosion), this paper offers avenues to study the idea of citizenship in transit in a failed, even absent (spectral), state via the use of sensorial and legal history.