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At the Edges of Lebanon: Communities and the Spatial Politics of Infrastructural Development

Panel III-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel investigates the social and political dimensions of development in post-independence Lebanon and examines their dialectic refraction in space located at Lebanon’s peripheries. Taking space, time and scale as key analytical categories, the different case studies consider state infrastructural projects, such as dams and highways, as well as neighborhood and community transformations. Taken together, the research papers on this panel recount a more complete story of spatial developments in Lebanon, one rooted in multiple layers of dispossession and marginalization. Bridging across different disciplines including history, anthropology, and geography, the selected papers are methodologically diverse and adopt approaches ranging from ethnographies to archival research and microhistories. Each paper questions sites and processes that have been historically and analytically peripheral to mainstream Lebanese questions, and thus challenges established trends in the scholarship on Lebanon. As such, the case studies presented are situated at what is typically considered the edges of the Lebanese nation state. The first paper considers the bottom-up transformations of Jewish neighborhoods in Saida through quotidian transformation. A layered study of these spaces, between past and present, reveals the continuity over generations of displacement, memory, and culture. The second paper adopts a similar anthropological approach to understand the social life of infrastructure, focusing specifically on the West Bekaa. Taking the Qaraoun dam as its case study, it investigates the relations of nature and public provision of services at their intersection with local politics. The third paper develops further the themes of water and infrastructure in the Bekaa through a historical approach. Set during the Shehab era, the project highlights the intrinsic connection between urban and rural development, in their immediate spatial and material consequences. Finally, the fourth paper, also set in the Shehab era, focuses on its Beirut chapter. The project further historicizes the urban infrastructural developments within the legacies of the French colonial mandate era and highlights the long-lasting consequences of the Lebanese capital’s urban development on marginalized populations. As a whole, the panel aims to move away from dominant questions in the literature that often center Beirut and Mount Lebanon, or urban domination of rural spheres, or the legal and sectarian machinations of the central government. The papers bring the peripheries into dialogue with these centers of power thus complicating our understanding of social, political, and cultural structures in Lebanon.
Architecture & Urban Planning
  • Dr. Jens-Peter Hanssen -- Discussant, Chair
  • Molly Oringer -- Presenter
  • Cynthia Kreichati -- Presenter
  • Dr. Diala Lteif -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Zeead Yaghi -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Diala Lteif
    Karantina —also known as Al Khodr or Maslakh part of the district of Medawar—is the neighborhood situated in north-eastern Beirut, bordered by the Charles Helou highway to the south, the Beirut River to the east, and the Beirut port from the west and north. Enclosed by these infrastructure, the neighborhood has effectively become an island within the city. However, Karantina has not always been severed from its urban milieu. Up until the mid-1960s, it enjoyed access to the beach and the river, and perhaps most importantly, was at a walking distance from adjacent Mar Mikhael, Hadjin and Geitawi neighborhoods. This paper focuses specifically on the Charles Helou highway. Part of a larger infrastructural project, imagined during the mandate era but only executed after the Lebanese independence, this segment of the highway reified the marginalization of Karantina within Beirut. Once a part of the urban fabric of Medawar, the highway came to materialize and reinforce the general perceptions of Karantina as the capital’s unwanted district. In the pre-Civil War era, the neighborhood was a bustling working class district with a diverse population of migrant laborers (Southerners, Syrian), refugees (Armenian, Kurdish, Palestinian), and local communities. Karantina was also part of the “poverty belt” that wrapped around Beirut at the time. But unlike the other neighborhoods of the belt, Karantina was situated within the city limits. In this paper, I argue that the Charles Helou highway was part of a larger urban policy to rid the city of unwanted populations in the name of modernization. I draw connections between the Lebanese state’s approach to the production of space and that of the French mandate era, where urban infrastructure becomes the immutable vessel for a French colonial legacy. The highway, as an irrevocable urban development, was indeed designed to definitively suffocate any future development in Karantina, and atrophy its relation to the city. The paper is based on 18 months of fieldwork, and mobilizes oral histories, archival research, and participant observation to understand the long-term implication of these state-led development of the neighborhood and its people.
  • Molly Oringer
    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.
  • Zeead Yaghi
    In 1968 the Lebanese government wanted to expropriate thousands of hectares of private land in rural northern Bekaa in order to divert the waters of the Orontes river towards agricultural development projects in the region. The Orontes, a 355 mile long river originating from the eastern part of the Beqaa ran between the rural villages of El Qa’ and Hermel. State officials planned to purchase lands from farmers on both sides of the river to divert its water towards projects managed underneath its comprehensive agricultural development initiative Le Plan Vert. Le Plan Vert was the Shehabist state’s large-scale comprehensive plan to revitalize and develop the agricultural sector. It aimed to provide socioeconomic guarantees and welfare services for Lebanese citizens at the nation’s peripheries. Through it, state planners and experts hoped to bridge socioeconomic disparities between urban areas and the poorer rural interior. However, despite the lofty ambitions of state planners and the claiming that development was the sole path towards nation unity and social justice, I argue that the purpose of these projects was to fundamentally prevent rural flight, halt people from flocking to Beirut, and exert coercive control over the country’s peripheries, regions the state saw as sites where political unrest originated from. By using recently uncovered Lebanese documents from agencies like the ministries of General Planning, Industry, and Agriculture, complemented by looking at newspaper archives, my paper addresses the following questions: what sort of legal machinery did the state set up to facilitate land grabs in rural Lebanon and what were the immediate spatial and material consequences of such interventions? Ultimately my findings suggest that by the end of the sixties government schemes in rural Lebanon eventually led to the opposite of what state planners desired, as land grabs, agricultural development, and infrastructure projects pushed thousands farther away from their villages towards Beirut and its expanding suburbs.
  • Cynthia Kreichati
    In 1955, the Litani River Administration (LRA) — a public institution tasked with the development of mashrouʿal-Litani, the Litani project, —became Lebanon’s first recipient of a World Bank loan financing the construction of the Qaraoun dam to produce hydroelectricity. More recently, as the rest of the country plunged further into darkness because of nationwide power shortages, the hydroelectric stations of the Litani project continued to provide more than 20 hours of hydraulically-generated electricity per day to 109 villages in the areas of West Bekaa, Chouf, and the South governorate of Lebanon that are connected to local power grids. Though they’ve not been deprived of electric power, these towns and villages have nevertheless been affected by this nationwide crisis. If electricity is a typical infrastructure, it is also an eminently social and cultural thing; and energy sources and social relations are intimately connected. What are the social, political, ecological, and cultural forces that shape and regulate the public provision and distribution of electricity in these regions? What are the “regimes of value” (Appadurai 1994) under which electricity, an “unlikely commodity” (Özden-Schilling 2021), circulates in both space and time? Based on one year of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 5 villages in West Bekaa where the Qaraoun dam is located, this research paper traces the many social lives of electricity and explores their politics. While residents of those villages cannot explain, with neither certainty nor consensus, how and why select villages can derive electric power from the Litani, they offer their own explanations as to which villages should in fact be connected to the Litani grid. The paper attends to the manifold way the gaps and tensions between these two entwined scales become invested with local political and ethical claims to show how, for these residents, electricity becomes a gift of the Litani.