Warspace: Geographies of conflict in Beirut

The series of conflicts that besieged Beirut during the Lebanese civil war have radically reconfigured the social and spatial environment of the city we know today.

“War is not a transient condition that disappears when the fighting stops, it is society itself in one of the forms of its organisation.” Ahmad Beydoun, Lebanon: Pathways in a uncivil war, 1990.


Kerimcan Akduman

The series of conflicts that besieged Beirut during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) radically reconfigured the social and spatial environment of the city. The combined impact of physical destruction and brutal control exhibited by armed militias created a city of ‘warspace’: a self-perpetuating socio-spatial order that dominated the city for a decade and a half. Yet a spatial analysis of Beirut’s changing political landscape has, thus far largely been absent from historical analyses of the civil war in Beirut. 

The long term spatial impacts of the war in Beirut has persisted far beyond the war's end, producing a geography of conflict that continues to influence social and political interaction to this day.

The causes of the civil war

The causes of the civil war are entwined with Beirut’s development during the 19th and 20th centuries. The city’s fast economic growth during this period was largely driven by the emerging Maronite bourgeoisie as it rose to prominence both economically and politically. The concentration of political power into the hands of Maronite elites, under the French mandate came at the expense of the older Sunni Muslim and Greek Orthodox inhabitants of Beirut, breeding resentment and divisions between groups.

The sectarian power-sharing agreement that formed the basis of the newly-independent state, temporarily pacified some of those grievances, nevertheless a colonial legacy of Maronite and Sunni dominance, to a great extent institutionalised the exclusion of Beirut’s other social groups from the political process. This arrangement was based on the allocation of official government posts and parliament representatives by sect and denominational quota. Crucially, this institutional sectarianism sharpened sectarian divisions and marginalisation of those excluded.

Such sectarian and political divisions were reflected spatially. In addition to physical separation, the arrival of Palestinian refugees and the influx of rural migrants, mostly Shiites, to Beirut created the infamous ‘misery belt’ on the peripheries, where discontent grew due to disinvestment and dire living conditions. Despite calls for social and political reform, the Maronite elites remained indifferent, leading to the outbreak of civil war in 1975, following years of tension during which competing militia groups grew in power and stature.

The loss of the centre

The war rapidly engulfed Beirut’s city centre which witnessed some of the war’s fiercest confrontations and lead to its near-complete devastation. The city centre, Beirut’s historic core and its commercial, cultural and governmental centre, had been celebrated as a meeting ground for all Lebanese before the war. This is the first distinctive moment of warspace in Beirut: the loss of the centre. It is first and foremost the loss of the place where the city ‘comes together.’ In a city where almost every place has a sectarian association, the centre represented a space of remarkable freedom. 

As the war began to take over the city, it soon became apparent that the residents of Beirut no longer desired custody over their traditional meeting place, now the stage for continuous conflict, and began withdrawing to their own sections of the city; abandoning the centre from their urban consciousness.

The city divides

The physical fracture that the city experienced as a result of the destruction of the centre expanded southwards dividing the city in two parts, east and west Beirut.  This ‘fracture’ became known as the Green Line, the separating line between east and west Beirut across which regular military engagements, shelling and sniper fire would be exchanged. East Beirut consisted of the Christian, mostly residential, neighbourhoods, and West Beirut of the traditional Sunni neighbourhoods and the more cosmopolitan Ras Beirut and Hamra districts.

Sectarian and political displacement led to the creation of homogenous neighbourhoods that were often, particularly in West Beirut, governed by various militias and political outfits. Thus the new geography of Beirut was born. It was born out of a city that had lost its centre, the spatial representation of its unity.  No longer referred to simply as 'Beirut' but Shari'yeh and Gharbiyeh, the city had lost its whole becoming two distinct parts.

The war order and the dominance of the militias

In place of a unifying whole, the militias practiced localised forms of authority. Unlike the authority of the state which under normal circumstances would not be contested by internal rivals, militia authority necessitates less subtle forms of control and domination. The militias devised various mechanisms through which they could validate their authority and reinforce local sites of power that would have a necessary level of internal coherence. In a manner not dissimilar to that of totalitarian regimes, they sought to establish visual orders in their requisite areas through political posters and banners, and spatially through the militarization of previously public areas.

As the war continued, the militias’ localised practices undermined whatever ideological claims they had begun the war fighting for. Extortion became widespread and a lucrative source of revenue. Certain militias imposed ‘transit fees’ for passengers and cargo going through their territory. There are many examples of such ‘checkpoints’: Bater and Monteverde for the Progressive Socialist Party, the Awali Bridge for the Nasserites, Qasmieh Bridge for Amal and Barbara for the Lebanese Forces. With the loss of credibility and legitimacy, the distinction between the different militias became one of geographic accident, intersecting in varying degrees the communal association of residents’ family and clan groups.

Warspace and resistance

Warspace is a space in which the city is eviscerated, and with that traumatic loss of its physical core, the city loses the stage on which it’s animating essence is given life. The city breaks into ever smaller fragments, ultimately culminating with the almost complete separation of the household from the urban realm.

Instead, the city becomes a field for the exercise of a more ‘honest,’ and more brutal, form of power: not of the state’s threat of violence, but of the routine application of violence in varying forms and degrees. The city becomes a geography of violence in which its spatial structure is adjusted to the requirements of military control: tall buildings give a God’s eye view and reach for snipers, thus declaring the symbolic and physical supremacy of the militias; the network of bridges and tunnels built to connect the city are used, in a manner of speaking, to disconnect the city through the kidnappings and murders that nullify the functionality of the bridges. The physical structure of the city is functionally reversed.

Warspace is anti-urban. The physical destruction of the city and its social attributes represent a primordial attack on its urban qualities. Resistance to war, as such is refusing to succumb to its perverse logic and keeping cultural pursuits alive. It is both the writer continuing to write in her besieged house and the public space remaining public in times of conflict.

 

About the author

Karl Sharro is an architect, writer and commentator on the Middle East. He blogs at Karl reMarks.