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Reconstructing Beirut: Memory and Space in a Postwar Arab City by Aseel Sawalha (review)

From: Anthropological Quarterly
Volume 86, Number 3, Summer 2013
pp. 923-925 | 10.1353/anq.2013.0035

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The ethnographic literature on contemporary cities of the Arab world, though steadily growing, is still a field in search of more perceptive contributions. Aseel Sawalha’s impressive Reconstructing Beirut not only contributes to the field of urban studies in the region but is also a stellar illustration of just how perceptive a distinctly ethnographic approach to city life and urban spatial politics can be. This is not simply because of the book’s deeply probing and richly textured accounts of memory, steadfastness, and survival in a Beirut re-emerging from 16 years of civil war. The author also provides—following de Certeau and other urban theorists interested in everyday life—ample insight into how “ordinary practitioners of the city” respond to the “panoptic vision” and profit-driven policies of urban planners and their allies among governmental and business elites (10). These survival strategies and acts of resistance are, as Sawalha skillfully demonstrates, linked in crucial ways to how poor and vulnerable populations in postwar Beirut regard and imagine particular locales in the “formation of urban identities and loyalties” (11).

The complex intersections of place and memory are crucial in linking past and present in Beirut (as well as unraveling somewhat the past-present binary opposition). Sawalha’s work does just that as she connects the city’s eras of pre-war, war, and postwar. One important contribution of Reconstructing Beirut is its implicit, and at times explicit, challenge to these categories as distinct and separate ones. If war is crucially about violence, fear, displacement, and historical erasure, then the conditions the author describes in so-called “peacetime” are perhaps not so distant from the ravages of war. This study compels the reader to confront these realities, in Beirut and other urban contexts.

Sawalha also accomplishes what too many accounts of life in the city fail to do. Namely, she skillfully connects events, memories, and conflicts at the level of one Beirut neighborhood—‘Ayn el-Mreisse—to broader state, regional, and global dynamics in an informed and politically committed way. Critiquing the cynical and profit-driven political programs of the reconstruction company, Solidere, is essential to telling the story of postwar Lebanon. But it is quite another thing to actually analyze how this corporation and the elite interests it has served are imbricated in broader webs of privilege, inequality, and economic power.

The first part of the book delves into the politics of the past and what Sawalha refers to as “spatial memories” in and of Beirut. The author provides the necessary historical context for helping the reader to see how the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1991) and its aftermath set the stage for a vast reconfiguration of urban space. Though the militias who battled throughout the war have been the subject of some serious study, few scholarly works (and fewer ethnographies) have delved into the complexities of everyday life during this period. Sawalha provides the reader with fascinating details related to the lives of families and individuals displaced during the course of the war. Anyone who has conducted research in a city not their own will appreciate how skillful and sensitive this ethnographer was in approaching those she writes about in humane and respectful ways. This book is not only superbly researched and well-written but pursued in an ethical and reflexive manner not seen enough in projects of this sort.

Throughout the book, Sawalha documents various battles among non-elite communities in Beirut to prevent their displacement by Solidere and other associated private and public forces. In the case of fishermen who used a port near ‘Ayn el-Mreisse for their livelihood for decades before the 1990s, Reconstructing Beirut relates the fascinating ways in which they drew from their memories and connections to the port “to legitimize their attachment to the place and to argue for their spatial rights” in the face of displacement (71). The author clearly came to appreciate the nuances of the conflict between these workers and the business interests that sought to erase them and their pasts. So much of this analysis could only have been constructed through the particular methodological approaches Sawalha utilizes. Her account underscores the need to value the stories and spatial...

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