Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Between a Refuge and a Battleground: Beirut's Discrepant Cosmopolitanisms

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Between a Refuge and a Battleground: Beirut's Discrepant Cosmopolitanisms

Article excerpt

Oh, [in this] time of sectarianism keep your hand on your ID [and] hold it as tight as you can.

--Ziad Rahbani, 1981 (my translation)

If cosmopolitanism, as defined by Ulrich Beck, is "a plea for cross-cultural and cross-national harmony" (2008, 26), then Lebanon's capital Beirut has experienced both cosmopolitanism and its opposite. Celebrated by nineteenth century Orientalist writers (Said 1995, 1) as site of encounter between the Orient and Europe, Islam and Christianity, and of coexistence in difference, Beirut also became a battleground for militias, foreign armies, war reporters, diplomats, and spies, while its inhabitants' daily lives remained trapped in a quickly changing urban geography (Davie 1983). Dining sixteen years of internecine war between 1975 and 1991, neighborhoods were divided and urban mobility compromised. For many, the mobility implicit in diaspora and emigration became necessity rather than vocation. The "politics of urbicide" discouraged encounters between communities and cleansed the city of so many references to its heterogeneity (Coward 2004, 167). (1) However, during the war Beirut was anything but a closed city: It followed a globalization of its own, made of transnational flows of capital managed by warlords (Hourani 2010), informal urban economies of social and infrastructural services provided by militias (Harik 1994), and real estate development despite the violence. Like a war-themed version of gated communities in the United States, new residential compounds mushroomed in the city's outskirts, granting the inhabitants self-sufficiency from a declining state and from infrastructures that had fallen or could fall into the territories of opposing militias (Glasze 2002).

Twenty-one years after the end of the war, Beirut is once again embracing discourses of cosmopolitanism. A private-public joint venture called "Solidere" (Societe Libanaise pour le Developpement et la Reconstruction) took over from the state the rehabilitation of the city center in 1994. (2) Solidere's narrative of a "reborn Beirut" mobilizes cosmopolitanism for place branding and attracting foreign direct investment. The city center is presented as enjoying "a cosmopolitan character, with English and French used in addition to Arabic" (Solidere 2012). State-shaped discourses often contribute to urban debates about cosmopolitanism (Humphrey 2004), so, for example, the Lebanese government shares with Solidere the image of a multilingual mosaic and describes the Lebanese as "friendly, open minded and genuinely welcoming people" living in a country "characterized by a diversity of cultures, traditions, and religions interwoven through time" (Ministry of Tourism 2011).

However, when walking through the manicured alleyways ot Beirut's reconstructed downtown, one cannot fail to notice myriad carefully patched-up bullet marks on its sandstone facades, the reminders of a "sectarian time"--as Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani, quoted in the epigraph, sang during the civil war--when this much-celebrated diversity became fratricidal. Although Solidere--like the government--follows an agenda of civil war amnesia (Haugbolle 2010; Larkin 2010a, 2010b), the scars of internal violence are embedded in Beirut's materiality, composing a parallel, silenced city that is in complex ways intertwined with "official" Beirut.

The following pages question how and why Beirut--once celebrated for its diversity, feted as the "Paris of the Orient" and the "Switzerland of the Middle East"--turned into a battleground in 1975. It questions the boundaries and mechanisms of a "cosmopolitan experiment" (Minca 2008) and how violence found space in it.

Within the vast literature on cosmopolitanism a geographical perspective on Beirut as cosmopolis helps answer these questions (see, for example, Archibugi 2003; Beck 2006; Brown and Held 2010). Although cosmopolitanism is an essentially spatial condition (Harvey 2000), geographical approaches have not yet found sufficient voice in debates about cosmopolitanism (Cosgrove 2003). …

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