Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Politics of Pleasure: Promenading on the Corniche and Beachgoing

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

The Politics of Pleasure: Promenading on the Corniche and Beachgoing

Article excerpt

Abstract

Can the pleasures of young Palestinian women from refugee camps in promenading on the Beirut seaside Corniche on a warm summer evening be political? Or days spent at women-only beaches? If so, how do we understand such pleasure as everyday practices, as a politics of the present moment, or conversely (or simultaneously) as mechanisms of being co-opted into a broader apparatus of consumerist ideology and capitalist complacency? Drawing on ethnographic research over 2 years I argue that these moments of pleasure are caesuras in the massive apparatus of power--welded from strands of work, neoliberal practice, nationalist certitudes and political exclusion--which binds these women. These acts of pleasure cannot easily be categorised as 'resistance' but I argue that they should not facilely be considered reinforcements of hegemonic control either. They are momentary and ephemeral recognitions of ordinary life lived in hard times, attempts at clawing back an instant of joy from the drudgery of the everyday, and a surrender to the enjoyment of conviviality in public and urban spaces. If they are at all political, they are so because such conviviality is ever harder to sustain in the calamity of hopelessness that characterises so much politics today.

Keywords

Public spaces, Palestinian refugees, Beirut, Corniche, beaches, pleasure, politics, conviviality

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This is the aim of my explorations: Examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance. Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

The incongruity between the beach and the Corniche on the one hand and the Palestinian camps in southern Beirut on the other cannot be overstated. While the beach and the Corniche vibrate with the pleasures of open skies, coruscating waves and human interaction, the camps are about constriction. Established on sandy grounds outside Beirut city limits in the years following Palestinian refugees' expulsion in 1948, Burj al-Barajna and Shatila are now concrete slums absorbed into the fabric of the city, dense, dark, and expanding vertically. Their narrow skies are criss-crossed with the dark tangle of electric wires, and their narrow alleyways flood in the rainy season. Shatila's borders blur into the adjacent neighbourhoods while Burj al-Barajna's boundaries are ever encroached upon by the network of highways that now delimit its northern and western sides. The proximity of the buildings to each other across the cramped camp lanes means that what you do in your house can easily be seen and heard by your neighbours.

By contrast, you can fill your lungs with sultry sea air on the Corniche or at the beach. You can wander along the wide pavement of the Corniche and people-watch. You can smoke a shisha; you can rent a bicycle at the Corniche. You can chat and laugh, knowing that you are not observed or overheard. The 'you' in this instance is a group of young women from the southern camps of Beirut. They are in their late teens and twenties. Some are students in universities or vocational training courses; others work for small businesses in the southern suburbs. Though they do not represent the majority of their age and gender cohort in the camps, they are nevertheless the harbingers of transformations taking place there. These transformations--resulting from legal and political shifts in the last decade--mean that Palestinians can now formally hold jobs and attend universities (if they can afford the fees). The income they earn is mostly saved or shared with their families; but they also hold back a small amount for leisure spending. This meagre spending covers the cost of transport, the entry fees for the beach, and some foods or drinks.

This article argues against seeing these women's practices of leisure--especially in the context of ongoing struggles over recognition and against exploitation--as frivolous performances of consumerism or a betrayal of politics. …

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