This roundtable brings together historians, anthropologists, and scholars in urban studies to consider the present stakes and possibilities of studying Lebanon. Scholarship on the lands we now call Lebanon is, in many ways, more vibrant than ever. There are dedicated research centers (the Centre for Lebanese Studies, based in Cambridge and Beirut), scholarly associations (the Lebanon Studies Association), and dissertation institutes (the Lebanon Dissertation Institute), and a growing number of scholars at various stages of their careers are working on the country and its inhabitants.
At the same time, Lebanon remains mired in multiple and overlapping crises—political, economic, and social—whose origins lie far further back than the country’s recent catastrophic financial collapse. These crises have had a devastating effect on the country’s inhabitants, pushing many into poverty and pulling further at the fragile threads of existence.
What are the stakes, then, of studying Lebanon in this moment of polycrisis? How can we, as scholars, negotiate the complex, fraught affective politics of our work, the sheer weight that comes with seeing one’s colleagues, interlocutors, friends, and perhaps, relatives caught up in the web of hyperinflation, precarity, and infrastructural disintegration? What ethical commitments must we hold towards our interlocutors? What models of exchange, reciprocity, and mutuality might we imagine that could allow us to engage on more equal terms with interviewees, ethnographic subjects, but also librarians, archivists, collectors, and booksellers? How can we acknowledge and repay their trust, their time and labor? And how can we better understand and engage with the country's fractured archival and ethnographic landscape, as well is its rich and generative traditions of intellectual production? In other words, what are the citational politics of working with, rather than “on” or “in” Lebanon, moving beyond extractive modes of engagement with the Global South to build new, intellectually productive and equitable relationships?
In their interventions, the scholars assembled here will attempt to consider these questions, to reflect upon their own scholarly practice, and to invite participants to a broad dialogue through which we hope to generate new models of academic reflection and engagement.
In my comments, I want to offer some tentative reflections on two traits that have long characterised historical scholarship on the lands we now call Lebanon: exceptionalism and presentism. From the 1950s onwards, if not earlier, Lebanon has been defined by its exceptional nature. This is clearly apparent in works like those of Kamal Salibi and Philip Hitti that found much to praise in its apparent pluralism and communitarian concord, features that undergirded by this account Lebanon’s unique set of political and civic freedoms. But it is also true of the critical scholarship of historians, theorists, and political scientists as varied in methodological outlook and ideological disposition as Michael Hudson, Arnold Hottinger, Ilya Harik, William Polk and Mahdi ‘Amil, and Fawwaz Trabulsi. Where Hudson, Harik, or Polk, guided by the tenets of modernisation theory, attended to the exceptional nature of Lebanese political society and its fragile, incomplete transition from tradition, ‘Amil and Trabulsi sought to theorise the particular, seeing in Lebanon a distinctive iteration of class relations and peripheral capitalism.
Recent scholarship by the likes of Ussama Makdisi, Ziad Aburish, and others has sought to move us away from this exceptionalism, framing the lands we now call Lebanon within the broader Middle East. Nevertheless, much scholarship retains, implicitly or explicitly, a presentist stance. Where the shadows of the 1975-90 civil war overhang Makdisi’s pathbreaking work on cultures of sectarianism or Trabulsi’s account of the Lebanese Sonderweg, with its dismal combination of political violence, religious identity politics, and monopoly capitalism, more recent scholarship continues to grapple with Lebanon’s apparently exceptional conjunction of ongoing financial and infrastructural crises, communitarianism, and liberal political economy.
How can we account for these particularities without lapsing into exceptionalism, treating Lebanon in suffocating isolation? What frames of analysis and comparison are useful, both within the region and beyond? For instance, could scholarship on post-1945 European social movements and political culture offer instructive comparisons? And how can we negotiate the political freight that comes with such comparative work? And how can we speak to the urgent priorities of the present, writing critical histories that might inform political and civic work, without allowing the present to overshadow and overdetermine our historical accounts, distorting our understanding of causation and conjuncture? I want here to reflect on these questions and ask others how they approach them.
The final image in Karim Eid-Sabbagh’s 2017 documentary film We Made Every Living Thing From Water shows a turtle in an oily black river bed trying and failing to escape from a bleached-white tire. The turtle’s Sisyphean efforts evoke the inescapability of the grinding ecological collapse that saturates human and nonhuman life in Lebanon. But if the turtle could escape the tire, where else would she go next? In recent years, it has become terribly commonplace to hear laments that Lebanon has no future, and warnings that Lebanon represents the global future. But in this Lebanon is not alone—activists, artists, and scholars in Johannesburg, Lagos, and Mumbai, among other places, claim a cognate relationship to futurity. And in the overdeveloped where, in those places where imperialism and neoliberalism may not yet seem to have run their course to their logical end, those claiming to plan and guide the future, to reckon with the climate crisis in material terms, cannot summon anything approaching a plausible vision of even the very near future. Shaping these terminal visions of the future is the afterlife of the emergence of the postcolonial Global South in the mid-twentieth-century, when these cities and countries were building and coordinating sovereignty that made the future a space of meaningful political contention. What responsibilities do scholars have in a moment that seems to precipitate terminal collapse? How can historians writing in 2023 reconcile past futures with present ones? Does the repetition of moribund political rituals in Lebanon, across the Global South, and in the overdeveloped world necessarily represent a dead end, or a conjuncture of possibility? Are there practical lessons in Lebanon’s postcolonial past for the future?
What are the stakes when studying Lebanon is a deeply personal process? Particularly when working with marginalized populations whose life stories are often heartbreaking, or former elites who reminisce without regret on acts of violence they have committed in the past. I take this roundtable as an opportunity to reflect on my positionality as an individual who grew up in Lebanon and has a complex relationship with the different interlocutors I encountered during my 18-months fieldwork trip in Beirut. Negotiating a complex affective space while attempting to complete my work was a particular challenge I wasn’t prepared for, only complexified by the overlapping crises that unfolded in Lebanon. Different aspects of my identity, specifically my gender, sect, and marital status, became central to how I was forced to navigate different spaces. These considerations raised many ethical questions, often forcing me to relinquish my role as a researcher in the name of reciprocity.
My presentation raises questions about the heightened ethical stakes and commitments that researchers, in particular those with substantive funding in dollars or euro - must pay attention to when working in Lebanon. The financial collapse and the continued seemingly-bottomless plummeting of the Lebanese lira, the attendant strain on utilities and services, the unprecedented percentage of the population living at or below poverty levels -- all forge an undercurrent of desperation and despair -- there is no aspect of life in Lebanon that is untainted at the moment, in ways that have stunned even long term residents and seasoned researchers. And yet, many Lebanese researchers and interlocutors living in Lebanon have noted with growing concern and not a little disgust the ways in which foreign scholars - particularly doctoral students but also others - are conducting their archival and ethnographic fieldwork with what seems like degrees and layers of obliviousness to the shrinking opportunities for - and widening disparities with - their peers, colleagues, and interlocutors in country. How can visiting researchers understand responsibility to colleagues, interlocutors, as well as archivists and book sellers, as co-producers of knowledge - a responsibility more acutely needed in the current moment? How can we co-create a more reciprocal and generous research ethic? How do we make scholarship and sources more accessible to a public with changing financial and other priorities? What kind of awareness and mentorship should we demand from advisors before sending students to the field? How could we be more intentional about connecting different kinds of research/researchers (e.g. activists, artists, academics, lawyers)? This presenter wants to think with the roundtable attendees about these and other urgent questions around the current research landscape in Lebanon.
Researching Life as War in Lebanon
In Lebanon (and other locations in the Global South) war is more than an event – it is a way of life for those fighting to survive in catastrophic worlds. Drawing on my work on life in the war-seasoned borderland of South Lebanon for the past two decades, but also upon my experience as a lifelong inhabitant of Lebanon, I will examine the frame of war as a generative analytic to the way in which life is waged in Lebanon. The theoretical frame of war must at first be adjusted to encompass more than destructive events: war must be thought of as a socially generative structure and as an environment of living. As a scholar who works on war and as an erstwhile inhabitant of war (past and ongoing) in Lebanon, I will reflect on war and life in war and life as war in the multiply-devastated landscapes of Lebanon today. What does an understanding of life in war and of life as war illuminate about the extra/ordinary struggles shaping survival in such a world?
This presentation takes as its starting point the near simultaneous explosion of new archival materials in/on Lebanon and the implosion of its economy. How do we make sense of these apparently contradictory trends? More so, how should researchers engage the emerging archival terrain? I posit, like my interlocutors and fellow researchers, that newly emerging archival possibilities and access are co-constitutive of newly forming landscapes of funding, institutional collapse, and historiographic struggles. As such, we as scholars of Lebanon (not just historians) have much to consider in terms of the imperatives of our research, the content of our research agendas, the ways in which we conduct ourselves as readers, consumers, and intentional or unwitting actors within the political economy of Lebanon and the knowledge production struggle therein. In making this argument and engaging these questions, this presentation will take stock of specific newly available document collections and archive centers as well as the hierarchies of preservation and access they entail.