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Whose Jewish Saida?: On Absence, Memory, and the Legacy of the Jewish Community in Southern Lebanon
This paper addresses the quotidian transformation of Lebanon’s formerly Jewish neighborhoods, and the ways in which these sites are entangled with varying nationalisms, crises, dislocations, and local political contestations. I draw from ethnographic research conducted in the city of Saida (Haret al-yahud in Saida’s medieval city; the recently partially-restored Jewish cemetery; and land that, though still owned by Jewish families, is now the site of a Palestinian refugee camp) in order to consider if, and how, “Jewishness” is made legible to, and by, the city’s’ current residents, political actors, and local historians. I place special focus on the work of local “cultural brokers”—those who, through voluntary involvement or the happenstance of interacting with/living in formerly Jewish spaces—are charged with the role of interpreting and preserving the histories of these sites. I pay particular attention to the ways in which these brokers’ attempts to engage in the preservation of Jewish sites often meet resistance from local officials, who fear, for myriad reasons, that such a project might detract from the political control they exert. Given the overlapping displacements in many of these sites—particularly in Saida, where many of the formerly Jewish spaces are now occupied by multiple generations of (sometimes twice-) displaced Palestinian and Syrian refugees—I turn to literature on hauntology and space to consider how ruins and remnants of these spaces’ former uses acts as a lens through which actors come to understand their own ongoing trials. Utilizing Michael Rothberg’s conception of multidirectional memory, I consider how these sites spur conversations regarding overlapping displacements and cross-societal initiatives concerning rights to housing, heritage, and memorialization.
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