Registering/Effacing the Memory of the Lebanese War (1/2)

by Ashraf Osman

Table of Contents
The (Larger) SITE: Past, War, Present…& Future? 
PROGRAM (and narrower site, amongst other issues): The Memorial & the Amnesiac



Prof. Theodore Ceraldi
Prof. Jonathan Massey
Prof. Anne Munly

© Ashraf Osman 2001 -2021
Ashraf Osman was born in Beirut in 1978. He graduated from the International College in 1994 with a Baccalaureate in Experimental Sciences, class valedictorian, and received the Penrose Award. He graduated in 1997 from the American University of Beirut with a Bachelor of Science in Biology, and received the Penrose Award for the second time. In 1998, he went to Syracuse University (NY-USA) for a Master of Architecture. In 2000, he interned at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York during the summer and received the Department of International Programs Abroad (DIPA) Grant to go to Florence (Italy) for the fall semester. In 2001, he interned at KSS Architects in Princeton (NJ) during the summer, and won the Graduate School Research/ Creative Project Grant Competition for his thesis proposal. He graduated in 2002, receiving the James Britton Memorial Award for Outstanding Thesis. Ashraf Osman has been living in Philadelphia since he graduated. He is currently working at CUH2A in Princeton.

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Architecture, as a synthetic physical act, has long been a common and prevalent means of giving a commemorative presence to memory. However, just like memory, a finite selective process, architecture inescapably embodies an act of exclusion as well. Moreover, by giving physicality to memory, architecture offers simultaneously its means of annihilation, thus becoming an ideal means of achieving its antithesis, oblivion. Hence an inherent relationship emerges between architecture and forgetting that seems to only parallel the ontological intertwining of memory and forgetfulness. As such architecture, in its vulnerable physicality, becomes an ideal vehicle for memory, as well as its inherent antithesis, forgetting.

Yet the question of memory, and forgetfulness—especially in the particular context of this study, that of the Lebanese war—is an essentially political one as well. Why remember? Why forget? What to remember? And what to forget? The arguments generated by these questions reveal ethical, social and political necessities, and inevitabilities, for the intertwining of memory and forgetting. Thus a program that reflects the intertwined relationship between its antagonistic components: one that aims to facilitate forgetting of the memory of the war while inescapably reminding of it; and one that aims to register the memory of the war, but inescapably promoting ambivalence towards that memory by means of its very intention.

The site as well reflects the same antithetical intertwining of memory and forgetting. Situated in the pre-war center of the city of Beirut, the site is saturated with memory of the throbbing pre-war life of the city—as well as its destruction, and its poignant present absence. Being at the eye of the Green Line, the battlefield zone that divided the city in half during the war, that part of the city witnessed the heaviest destruction during the war. As a result, in post-war Beirut, that area of the city has become a gaping void, an immense absence at the heart of the city. For a whole generation of Lebanese youth, a generation that has known the life of the city only in the multiple ‘centers’ that proliferated at its periphery during the war, the old heart of Beirut is no more that a blank slate onto which their parents’ memories are projected. Thus, in the slowly emerging new life of this part of the city, memory and oblivion are juxtaposed.


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In his introduction to The Art of Forgetting, Adrian Forty notes that "the Western tradition of memory since the Renaissance has been founded upon an assumption that material objects, whether natural or artificial, can act as the analogues of human memory. It has been generally taken for granted that memories, formed in the mind, can be transferred to solid material objects, which can come to stand for memories and, by virtue of their durability, either prolong or preserve them indefinitely beyond their purely mental existence. Much Western artefact making (and this would include products as diverse as funerary sculpture on the one hand and information technology on the other) has been dedicated to the creation of material substitutes for the fragile world of human memory.”[1] This understanding of memory, which Forty attributes to Aristotle’s thought, implies a logical corollary, however. For, Forty continues, "if objects are made to stand for memory, their decay or destruction (as in the act of iconoclasm) is taken to exemplify forgetting.”[2] Thus, this model of memory offers a model of forgetting as well in the form of the earthly materiality of the very object of commemoration. For "in the tendency of monuments to reduce themselves to dust, they became material enactments of the mental decay of images supposed to constitute the process of forgetting and, ultimately, oblivion.” [3]

This understanding of physical objects as simultaneous embodiments of memory and the possibility of oblivion is adeptly illustrated in a parable from Russian psychologist Alexander Luria’s book The Mind of the Mnemonist. The parable describes a man "with an exceptional ability to remember everything and anything he wanted.”

"Taking advantage of his extraordinary memory, the man became a professional mnemonist and gave performances at which he would recall with complete accuracy prose, poetry, or random lists of words and numbers presented to him by the audience. With his capacity to remember everything, his greatest difficulty became the chaotic congestion of his mind with unwanted memories: he had to learn to forget what he no longer needed to remember. Experimenting with various techniques, he first tried writing things down, on the assumption that if this method enabled other people to remember what they did not want to forget, it might help him forget what he no longer wanted to remember. ‘Writing something down’, he said, ‘means I know I won’t have to remember it.’ Finding that simply writing things down was not sufficient to forget them, he took to throwing the pieces of paper away. Finally when even this failed, he tried burning them.” [4]

As such our mnemonist made use of "two well-tried and familiar techniques: first of all the making of an artefact—in this case writing on a piece of paper; and secondly its destruction—iconoclasm.” [5]

What’s so curious according to Forty, however, is that "throughout the various attempts to create through architecture and urbanism a consciousness of collective memory—or, perhaps, as seems more likely, to fill the emptiness that comes from having no memories—what was remarkable was the unquestioned assumption that the objects created would come to stand for memory. In every aspect, architecture most perfectly reproduced the old, Aristotelian-based assumption that to transfer memories to objects would preserve them from mental decay. Looking at the works with claims to reconstitute the memory of cities, they reveal no misgivings about the capacity of objects to take the place of memory—buildings and memory seem to have been treated as exchangeable currencies.” [6] Modern thought, however, has presented us an alternate model of memory and forgetting in the form of Sigmund Freud’s theory of mental processes. For Freud suggested that "in mental life, nothing that has once been formed can perish—that everything is somehow preserved and in suitable circumstances… can once more be brought to light.” [7] Thus, within the life of the individual, "forgetting was an impossibility, and oblivion non-existent.” [8] Hence, "rather than memory loss taking place through the passive attrition of time, as in the Aristotelian model, Freud posited it as the active force; rather than being natural and involuntary, Freud stressed that ‘forgetting is often intentional and desired.’ ” [9] This, Forty argues, not only inverted the Aristotelian model, but "it also called into question the relationship between objects and memory that had grown up of the Aristotelian tradition. For Freud, physical artefacts could no longer be regarded as analogues of memory, because mental material was not subject to the same processes of decay as objects of the phenomenal world.” [10] According to this model, Forty suggests, "were a city to truly represent the mind, it would have to contain simultaneously all the structures that had ever been built within it, with many sites occupied at once by the successive buildings of different ages.” [11]

This model of memory finds echoes in the writings of contemporary thinkers, such as Michel de Certeau, for whom the principal feature of memory was "that it comes from somewhere else, it is outside of itself, it moves things about,” [12] and thus "when it ceases to be capable of this alteration, when it becomes fixed to particular objects, then it is in decay. Seen in these terms, objects are the enemy of memory, they are what tie it down and lead to forgetfulness.” [13]Thus a highly complex relationship starts to emerge between memory and forgetfulness, a relationship so intertwined that it becomes all but impossible to mention one without inadvertently referring to the other. In a highly ambitious effort, Forty, in the same introduction, attempts to identify facets of this highly tense relationship. One of those facets is what he refers to as exclusion, mentioning the example of post-WWII Dresden to illustrate it. After being destroyed in an air raid in February of 1945, Dresden began to be gradually rebuilt, a process that consumed close to forty years. Only a "great domed eighteenth century baroque church”, the Frauenkirche, was left "a weed-infested pile of rubble dominating the city center.” Thus, Forty argues, "By default, if not by intention, it became one of the most potent memorials anywhere of the Second World War.” In the 1980’s, the citizens of Dresden, in "an attempt to erase the memory of the GDR” that seemed to overwhelm the city, set about its reconstruction. Thus, "the filling of a void, whose emptiness had exercised diverse collective memories, [has ended] by excluding all but a single dominant one.”  The citizens’ response Forty identifies as a perfect example of what he refers to as counter-iconoclasm, "remaking something in order to forget what its absence signified.” [14]

In a reverse facet of this complex relationship between memory and forgetting, what Forty refers to as iconoclasm, he narrates the example of the destruction of monuments in Moscow after the fall of communism. After 1989, fifty to sixty monuments to Lenin were removed from the streets and squares of Moscow. That left, all around the city, "empty plinths, above which the voids were as noticeable as the sculptures that stood on them previously had been invisible. The empty pedestals, far from erasing the memory of the communist regime, became memorable in a way that they had never been when topped by statues.” [15]

These examples raise very important questions about the political nature of memory, and oblivion, questions that are especially pertinent given the specific focus of this thesis study, the memory of the Lebanese War. In fact, this exploration began as a series of questions that revolved around this aspect of memory and forgetting especially. "How do you entice a people to remember what they want to forget? Why do you want them to remember, in the first place? And why is it that they prefer to forget? And ultimately, is it really possible to achieve this blissful oblivion?”

In "Think/Classify”, Georges Perec states that "remembering is a malady for which forgetting is the cure.” [16] And in his preface to The Art of Forgetting, David Lowenthal declares that "much forgetting turns out to be more benefit than bereavement, a mercy rather than a malady,” [17] and goes further to say that "forgetting is often a merciful as well as a mandatory art.” [18] For the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, forgetting was "the basis of a just state, [and] amnesia the cornerstone of the social contract.” [19]Ernest Renan, echoed that in his pique observation that "the essence of a nation is that all the individuals share a great many things in common and also that they have forgotten some things.” [20] In an attempt to understand this concurrence, Lowenthal refers to "the close etymological connection of amnesia with amnesty” being at the basis of the "confusion of forgiving with forgetting.” [21] This find a particular resonance in the case of the Lebanese War in the form of the general amnesty law decreed by the Lebanese government at the end of the war:

On 26 August 1991 the Lebanese National Assembly approved the ‘Amnesty for War Crimes’ law, governing crimes committed in the civil war of 1975-90. Excluded from amnesty were those responsible for the incident alleged to have sparked off the civil war (the assassination of Maarouf Saada [sic] in February 1975), as well as the attack by armed Falangists on the bus carrying Palestinians through the Ain Rumaniyeh [sic] suburb, and the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt in 1977, Rashid Karami in 1987, Rene Mouawad in 1989, Dany Chamoun in 1990 and several others. [22]

This seems to be a perfect illustration of what Lowenthal must be referring to when he says, "Artfully selective oblivion is necessary to all societies. Collective well-being requires sanitizing what time renders unspeakable.” [23] Adrian Forty, however, warns that "there has been a tendency to confuse the memory of individuals with the memory of societies, and to attempt to explain the one through the other. This confusion has to be challenged.” He then adds, clarifying the distinction, that "as far as societies are concerned, material objects have less significance in perpetuating memory than embodied acts, rituals and normative social behavior. The question of how societies forget remains uninvestigated, however, and here one may ask how much object making has to do with the process.”[24]Lowenthal notes another distinction between individual and collective memory, saying, "Individual forgetting is largely involuntary… Collective oblivion, on the other hand, is mainly deliberate, purposeful and regulated. Therein lies the art of forgetting—art as opposed to ailment, choice rather than compulsion or obligation. The art is a high and delicate enterprise, demanding astute judgement about what to keep and what to let go, to salvage or to shred or shelve, to memorialize or to anathematize.”[25] Thus forgetting is revealed as a highly political act, a revelation that seems to beg the question: "Are there appointed agents of oblivion as there are of memory, official erasers like official scribes?”[26]

But if such was the case, if the argument for the necessity of forgetting stands so strong, why then should there be any need for remembrance? One of the most convincing answers to that question comes from the Holocaust. Forty writes that "the natural reaction to its unbearable memory was to forget—which is exactly what many of the survivors themselves did, or attempted to do. Yet, as they and everyone else knew, to forget it was to risk its repetition. The difficulty was to know how to remember the atrocity without lessening its horror, without somehow sanitizing it by making it tolerable to remember.” [27]Indeed, some of the symptoms of the prevalent general amnesia/amnesty in post-war Lebanon are at the very least disturbing. Leaders of wartime militias, thanks to the General Amnesty Law, now assume high-ranking governmental positions, including seats in the Parliament and heading ministries. The situation for anybody with the slightest traces of memory is nothing short of revolting. But the greater fear, perhaps, is that with amnesia comes the risk that the lesson has been missed—a lesson that has come at too high a price to be missed—and thus the risk of repetition.


[1] Adrian Forty, "Introduction” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 2.
[2] Ibid., 4.
[3] Ibid., 4.
[4] Ibid., 1.
[5] Ibid., 1.
[6] Ibid., 15.
[7] Sigmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, trans. J Riviere. (London: Hogarth Press, 1969), 6.
[8] Adrian Forty, "Introduction” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 1.
[9] Ibid., 1.
[10] Ibid., 1.
[11] Ibid., 6.
[12] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Los Angeles, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 87.
[13] Adrian Forty, "Introduction” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 7.
[14] Ibid., 10.
[15] Ibid., 10.
[16] George Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, trans. J. Sturrock (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 199.
[17] David Lowenthal, "Preface” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), xi.
[18] Ibid., xiii.
[19] Ibid., xi.
[20] Quoted in S. S. Wolin, The Presence of the Past (Baltimore:Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989), 37.
[21] David Lowenthal, "Preface” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), xi.
[22] Edgar O’Ballance, Civil War in Lebanon, 1975-92. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc. 1998), 213.
[23] David Lowenthal, "Preface” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), xii.
[24] Adrian Forty, "Introduction” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 2.
[25] David Lowenthal, "Preface” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), xi.
[26] Ibid., xii.
[27] Adrian Forty, "Introduction” to The Art of Forgetting.  Adrian Forty and Susanne Kuchler, eds. (Oxford: Berg, 1999), 6.


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The (Larger) SITE
Past, War, Present…& Future?
click to enlarge

"How can I write about Beirut? How can I collect it into one volume: the years of pain; of watching a world collapse while trying to stave off that collapse; the layers of memories and hopes, of tragedy and even sometimes comedy, of violence and kindness, of courage and fear? Above all, how can I express my strange love for this mutilated city; how to explain, both to myself and to others, the lingering magic of the place that has kept me and so many others clinging to its wreckage, refusing to let go, refusing to abandon it?”

"The streets of Beirut, even those that are relatively intact, provide a shifting landscape of memories and sorrow... Each of these physical landmarks, and so many others like them, are milestones in my inner journey of pain. Memories wash over the map, and layers of time alter its shadings.”

Jean Said Makdisi, from Beirut Fragments


"How is one to deal with a city that has become a metaphor?
For some, a symbol, an icon; for others, a comic strip…
And for many, no more than a memory…
How is one to deal with it but with all the crassness and sublimity
of the metaphor, the symbol, the icon, the comic strip,
and that elusive thing called memory?”

Ashraf Osman



"Even in the best of times, in the years before the war, Beirut was a chaotic place, its undisciplined traffic legendary. Its various quarters, each with its own character and function, were united by the downtown area at its heart, and all roads ultimately poured into that region.”[28] That region was the business center as well; it housed the head offices of all the major banks, airlines, and businesses. It also housed the souks, the specialized markets: the gold market, the fish market, the tailors’ market, the glass market, "each one an ancient alley radiating away from the center, the palm-lined Places des Martyrs, or, as it was called, the Bourj.”[29]

The historic origins of Martyrs’ Square, or the Maidan of Beirut, were military, "a cleared area beyond the city walls facing the most likely direction of the attack.” Its popular name, the Bourj, the Tower, comes from "a medieval lookout tower that once stood at its southern end”, the foundations of which have recently been unearthed. The square’s other common name, Places des Canons, stems from the Russian occupation of 1773, when "a large artillery piece was set up in the space”.

The square’s association as a place of leisure dates from the 1630’s, when "Emir Fakhr Ad Deen built his palace and gardens there, among the mulberry trees”. Some 150 years later, the area in the vicinity is reported to have housed "a circus of rare animals, places to throw dice and many other activities to attract and entertain the visitors”. First laid out as "a public garden with fountains and bandstands” in the Ottoman period, the Square was transformed during the French Mandate. In 1950, it was enlarged northward with the demolition of the Petit Serail. [30]

Martyrs’ Square was "at the heart of it all”, Angus Gavin, mastermind of the new urban plan for the reconstruction of the Beirut Central District (BCD), describes. "Busy with commerce by day, center of the cinema world by night, the hub from which bus and service-taxi terminals served destinations in Beirut, Lebanon, and even Syria and Jordan.”[31] Jean Said Makdisi describes a typical day at the Square then with vivid detail in her book Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. "Noisy and crowded, this square was wonderfully active, and one felt the vitality of the city here. Buses and taxis met in the shade of the palms to take you anywhere you wanted to go in the country, north to Tripoli or south to Tyre, east to the mountains or west to the sea; the suntanned drivers stood by their vehicles, shirt sleeves rolled up, invitingly calling their destinations and the number of seats available. ‘Three places for Baalbeck,’ one would yell; ‘One for Bikfaya,’ another; ‘Two for Aley,’ ‘Three for Sidon,’ ‘One more for Jbeil.’ The names floated innocently on the air then; many of them are forbidden places now.” [32]

That was the new order of the war. The split of Beirut came soon after the commencement of the fighting, its lines of demarcation coming into being as a means for the combating factions to delineate their area of control, and to claim control over newly gained territory."In the beginning, the lines of confrontation at the center shifted for months until they finally settled down to where they were to remain fixed, dividing the city between eastern and western portions, along the notorious Green Line, as it is called by foreigners, or as Beirutis know it, khutut at tammas.” [33] ‘Christian’ militias reigned over the eastern part of the city, which was predominantly Christian in its demographics before the war; while ‘Muslim’, Palestinian and leftist militias assumed control over the western half. The Line extended from the historic center of the city in the north, where the site is located, passing through Damascus road to the hilly slopes of the southern part. Physically, it was formed by "the alignment of wide roads and public spaces that provided fighters with comfortable physical distances, sufficient to defend their respective communities from military infringements.”[34] The Green Line was thus "marked by milestones of once-ordinary life—a museum, a harbor, a church, a shop, an oil company, a school—that have given their names to crossroads notorious in the context of the war. Here one crosses, sometimes at great peril, from one side of the now divided city to the other, from East Beirut to West Beirut, and vice versa. Other thoroughfares that, in another time when the idea did not exist that there were two sides to the city, are barricaded with mountains of sand, collapsed buildings, and a heart-stopping desolation, like the Bourj itself.” [35]

Thus a new reality descended on the city. The violent armed conflicts of a society with itself that characterize an internal war "rapidly eradicate the country’s ruling institutions, disintegrate its prevailing social structure, fragment its cities’ fabric, ruin its infrastructure and built environment, bankrupt its economy, and physically split it into hostile enclaves.”[36] Thus, as a result, the city is left divided into more or less autonomous sectors based on opposing ideological, ethnic or religious affiliations, each dominated by the corresponding armed power group. Makdisi testifies that "this division in itself was the most traumatic of the many changes that the war produced in our environment.”[37] Such elements of the public realm as avenues, streets and other public spaces now, instead of their normal function of supporting public interaction, dysfunctionally enough, acquired a strategic military role as buffers and borders and act to separate people and prevent their interaction.

These newly formed borders were not haphazard, however. They tended to trace social, ethnic, or religious boundaries that were latent but not necessarily physically present in the fabric of the city. Some would argue however that the lines of division were makers, rather than tracers, of such differences. "The barriers, once entirely artificial, have only partly achieved the intention of those who erected them. There now is a difference between East and West Beirut that never existed before. East Beirut has tended to be cleaner and more orderly, reflecting the greater degree of homogeneity of its people since the war. West Beirut has become more chaotic than ever but still boasts that pluralism that was once the principal pride of the Beirutis and which, even here, is threatened. But the difference between one side and the other is staved off by those sullen people who stubbornly cross over, day after day by the thousands, some to go to work, others to visit friends and relatives, and many just to make a point.”[38] This could probably be explained by the demographic shift incurred by the demarcation itself. "Fearing persecution,” Oussama Kabbani writes, "people generally relocate to whichever district of the city provides them with a sense of security. Soon after, what might have been a pluralistic city is transformed into a mosaic of human settlements based on religious affiliations, ethnicity, and/or political loyalty.”[39] However, even the staunchest of optimists/romanticists had to admit that a deeper fissure was brewing. "But there is another kind of change even more difficult to describe: In some places altered appearance is a function of an organic mutation, a kind of metamorphosis from one state of existence to another, from one meaning and function in the city’s life to another, from one social, economic, or political symbol to another. In some cases, the changed meaning of a place is a direct reflection of the changed meaning of the country, and of the progress of the war.”[40] In either case, it was clear that the physical division obviated deeper differences along the Line. "We noticed these physical changes around us long before we noticed the changes within ourselves. We had to draw up a new map of our world, and we had no instruments to assist us except our wits and our senses. And our lives often depended on the accuracy of our construction, so it was a serious business, drawing up this map.”[41]

The ‘downtown area’, now the ‘BCD’, was amongst the first areas to ‘take the blow’. (And eventually it proved it was perhaps the one to take the hardest blow.) Makdisi reports ominously in her memoir, "Today, the souks are dead. Early on in the war, the downtown region was devastated, and the markets were all burnt down. The Bourj became the no-man’s-land between the two halves of the city, and gradually weeds grew up and covered the spot where the bustle and life had been.”[42] But the destruction didn’t take long to get loose on its own rampant logic. "Early on in the war, pianos and organs were systematically destroyed: There was a meaning to the destruction then, and symbols counted for something. Later of course, the destruction was haphazard, and all embracing.”[43] However, destruction was not limited to that incurred directly from combat artillery; the social shifts had their ways indelible mark as well. "In addition to those downtown, buildings and whole streets that we once frequented were leveled. Some were reduced to a state of ghastly, lopsided ruin and decomposition, or, more often, marred by layers of scar tissue. Superb mountain forests in the background were transformed into charred wastelands. Sandy beaches became slums or concrete jungles, visual echoes of demographic flux. Refugees arriving in large numbers built hideous structures in the hurry necessitated by the urgency of their situation. The refugees have not all been poor, and the structures reflect the relative wealth of their owners. Luxurious apartment blocks can mutilate a landscape as much as—or perhaps more than—the low-lying bare concrete buildings of the poor, which have a less permanent air to them.”[44]

Since the 1989 Ta’if peace agreement Beirut has been caught up in a process of recovery and reorganization, which is proving to be an extremely complex and often painful social process. In his article "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut” Oussama Kabbani differentiates the social and urban post-war implications of the two main types of war: external and internal. External wars are defined as those engaging one or more countries, whereas internal ones (a term I find far more appropriate to the Lebanese War than ‘civil war’) are those that take place within the same country. "In a war between different countries,” Kabbani writes, "the enemy is clearly identifiable by each side of the conflict. It is the ‘other’, the aggressive regime or people across one’s border. At the end of such aggression, euphoria tends to bring people of the victorious country closer together with an exceptional willingness to sacrifice and rebuild the physical destruction and to heal the social wounds of war.”[45] However, that is not the case with internal wars where the end of aggression brings no such expression of comradeship and solidarity. Kabbani considers that in the case of internal struggles "the end of civil strife does not necessarily lead to an exceptional willingness for sacrifice by the war-torn society in the same manner that can be witnessed in cross-border wars. The process of healing has to go through a quite complex journey of political reconstruction, common re-identification, and social assimilation.”[46] Indeed, that process can extend for many generations after the actual fighting has ceased. "Having been victimized by their fellow citizens during the course of the war, the fragmented post-civil-war era accelerates the restoration of the prewar ‘normal’ state which once governed all constituents, even if more fundamental, still controversial issues are not resolved.” [47]

What has been said, however, constitutes only one general facet of the multi-faceted postwar situation. One of the ironies of the dysfunctional spatial dynamics of internal war is that the Green Line now emerged as the sole ‘neutral zone’ in this divided city, a role that will have significant reverberations in the re-unified city after the war. As Kabbani puts it, "for quite a while, the Demarcating Line was the only space bisecting and combining the divided city at the same time.” [48] However, the termination of the physical war, the immediate raison d’etre of this separating zone, caused a reversal in the urban role of these spaces. To understand this better, a re-examination of public space in war-torn cities is desperately called for. "One can argue that for space to be truly ‘public’, specifically in the context of a post-civil-war urban environment, it should possess a high-degree of ‘neutrality’,” observes Kabbani.[49] As a spatial quality, neutrality is manifest as the ability to allow the general public to feel on equal footing, or as Samir Khalaf phrases it in his book Beirut Reclaimed, it is that attribute of space that allows for "diversity and unity, intimacy and distance, and to allow groups to mix but not necessarily combine.”[50] Such qualities are expected to prevail in those urban spaces and elements of the public realm that do not fall under the immediate dominance of any subgroup, naturally. Thus it follows that these spaces would be located in areas that comprise the border between opposing communities rather than being within one of them. Charged with these contradictory attributes, these spaces provide the opportunity to be "used and abused by all”. As a consequence of this urban location of theirs, these spaces came to embody a seeming paradox in the postwar city, a city that no longer has physical barriers but in which the demographic separation of the wartime internal migration persists. "On the one hand, they are a separator or a buffer between rival communities,” says Kabbani in describing this paradox, "while at the same time, they are their meeting place.”[51] Thus, these spaces, initially spatial and urban separators, invariably "acquire an intrinsic power to resist the hegemony of any one group over the other”, and in a most ironic twist become the only truly "neutral public space” in the city.[52]

At the head of this zone of ‘neutral public space’, in Beirut’s city center, where once the busiest and densest structures stood, now lies… "an empty field”.[53] "The city looks now like a gigantic body with a colossal hole exactly where its center ought to be,” observes Husnu Yegenoglu in Archis upon a visit to Beirut. "Most of the destruction took place in what was once a flourishing center, transforming it into an empty and abandoned no-man’s land.”[54] However, it wasn’t solely the destruction incurred by the war that turned the center into this vacant field; reconstruction efforts, ironically enough, coupled with an allegiance of economic and political circumstances, amongst others, had their fair share as well.

During the first few years after the war, the BCD came to be regarded by anthropologists, archeologists, urban planners and above all international investors as "the biggest laboratory for contemporary trends in architecture”.[55] As a result, and thanks to "global neo-liberal economic developments, in which the tasks of the public sector are being privatized at full-speed ahead”, it was a private corporation, Solidere (Societe Libanaise pour le Developpement et la Reconstruction du Centre de Beirut) that became in charge of reconstructing the entire center, with a surface of approx. 1800 hectares. [56] All the original proprietors of property and land in the center were obliged to sell what they owned to Solidere and were paid back in shares of the company. The principal shareholder, however, and certainly not by chance, was the brain behind Solidere, the multi-millionaire Rafic Hariri, the richest man in Lebanon, and its Prime Minister from 1992 to 1998, and from 2000 to the present. It is not surprising that this systematic concentration of political and economic power stirred an immense controversy in the country at the time; many people saw it as standing in the way of broad social discussion of the city’s future. The vast majority of residents expressed feeling underrepresented in this process of rebuilding, so much that the ambitious aim of conferring meaning on the new center was risking running aground on this point.[57]

Solidere elaborated its restoration and building plan for the BCD with what seemed at first sight huge aesthetic and symbolic ambitions. These high aspirations, however, were based on a clean slate strategy. The detailed zoning plan, partly based on Ricardo Bofill’s 1988 Cite de la Mer project, indicated that during the first stage all of the heavily damaged buildings that were still standing were to be demolished, thus literally deconstructing the urban morphology of the city. As the razing proceeded, however, the bulldozers also exposed archeological strata from the Hellenistic and Roman period that had been long forgotten and erased from the city’s memory. The center of Beirut thus became one of "the world’s largest urban archeological excavation sites”. [58] And it is this that Rudolphe Khoury sees that has driven the last nail into the coffin:

"The combined effects of thoroughly destructive warfare and equally uprooting reformulations of property law and zoning ordinances—namely the forces of capital—have created a tabula rasa at the very heart of the city. This cleared ground has no discernible physical differentiation: all traces of streets and building masses are now erased. Also obliterated are the property lines, zoning envelopes, and other invisible but no less ‘real’ demarcations which customarily determine or inflect urban morphologies. The homogeneity and superficial neutrality of this clear slate may have been compromised when the archeological strata were exposed in the recent surveys. But the excavations finally participated, perhaps most effectively, in the systematic erasure of modern Beirut by challenging the primacy of the surface, eventually replacing one ground with several others: by the time the survey is complete, the valuable artifacts collected, and the trenches filled up, the new ground will be artificial, and therefore arbitrary, abstract, and more vacant still.”[59]

It seems however that this was not the first time in which the uncovering of old archeological layers of the city put a halt in the life of its more recent layers. Makdisi reports that "at one point during the war we heard a rumor that the downtown area was deliberately not being allowed to return to normal, and therefore the city was to remain divided because of the importance of the archeological discoveries made when the buildings there were destroyed. Thus were the present and the future to be sacrificed to the past, a poetic rumor indeed, and more pleasing to contemplate that the harsher interpretations which are more credible.”[60]

However, the archeological importance of uncovering all the historical layers of the city clashes with economic interests, as well. And, "perhaps not unfairly for a city that has just been through a long period of destruction”, the protection of whatever cultural heritage happens to surface has a low priority. [61] In fact, Helen Sader, who has been in charge of the excavations since 1992, claims that "the ‘archeological project’ of Beirut has lost its vitality by now and will gradually die away”.[62] Until then, the allure of the empty center halted in the process continues. "Visitors to the city have yet to exhaust their fascination with this dusty field . . . Do not be fooled by the subterfuge: their curiosity for the excavated past and the speculative future is an alibi for a morbid fixation on the scene of the absent center.”[63] Burton Pikes writes, "The fascination people have always felt at the destruction of a city may be partly an expression of satisfaction at the destruction of an embelem of irresolvable conflict.”[64] Roland Barthes suggests that to go downtown, or to the city center, is "to encounter the social ‘truth,’ to participate in the proud plentitude of ‘reality.’ ” [65]Khoury proposes that this ritual persists in Beirut in its inverted form. "In today’s Beirut, we go downtown to encounter another truth in the spectacle of a sublime emptiness.” [66]

However, the fixation with this "sublime emptiness” may be well beyond mere inconsequential fascination, Khoury suggests most perceptively:

"Beirut has survived for twenty-two years without its downtown and its centrifugal energy and is not about to waste its momentum, despite the efforts of planners, legislators, and investors. So no matter what we build on the site, be it the developer’s fantasy of a miniature Manhattan where enclaves of wired office buildings will rival the inscrutability of Tokyo’s walled precinct, or the nostalgic reconstruction of a vanished historical district where simulation can only hasten cultural degradation, losses will linger on and indifference will grow. But as long as this terrain vague persists in its vagueness, vacancy, and vagrancy . . . we may see in the emptiness of the evacuated center the possibility of difference, of mutation, of a revolution in the propriety of symbolic systems. At the site of Beirut’s sacrificial immolation, we may recognize an opportunity for the remorseless detournement of a negative yet liberating violence.” [67]

According to Solidere’s plans, when the center is done in about 2015, it will be "a paragon of optimism and a symbol of regained identity”, however a paragon that Yegenoglu suggests refers to a past that has never existed. [68] Façades that at first seem to be bona fide Beaux-Arts will hide concrete structures, and the traditional Souk al-Jamil from the Ottoman period will be ‘reconstructed’ in its entirety atop the center’s largest indoor facility. "In line with the postmodern tendencies towards turning cities into theme parks”, the new center will consist of clearly recognizable ‘urban fragments’ with which one can easily identify, such as the ‘Saifi Village’, the ‘Souks District’, the ‘Seaside Park’, the ‘Financial District’ the ‘Historic Core’ and the ‘Archeological Area’. The center will become a combination of "seriously upmarket flats, offices, shops and attractions”. In fact many citizens already voice the concern that Solidere’s only concern is to "bulldoze buildings that survived two decades of war and replace them with glass towers and sell them to non-Lebanese”. Indeed, Yegenoglu proceeds, "If the BCD ends up looking like the glossy artist’s impressions suggest, nostalgia, kitsch and imagination will intertwine there in a new reality.” [69]

The first components of this ambitious reconstruction operation can already be seen in place around the Place de l’Etoile, historicized compositions of sandstone, concrete, glass and false ornaments. However,"the users of the chic apartments, offices and shops are nowhere to be seen and in the evening, when the last building worker has left, the center becomes a surreal ghost town. Traffic lights direct a flow of traffic that isn’t there, while the homeless cluster around small fires.” [70]

While the debate rages about Solidere’s plans, however, the districts around the center that have actually grown during the war continue their rapidly development, and the suburbs and periphery are expanding without a "discernible planning framework”. Thanks to a weak and corrupt government, continuing legal and illegal building activities and the occupation of and speculation in building plots spell a process of complex, opaque and hybrid urban growth. The transformation of Beirut, however, from a "well-ordered city” into an unpredictable conglomerate expanding "at breakneck pace”, though accelerated during the war due to the influx of hundreds of thousands of refuges as mentioned earlier, was already under way in the Sixties, influenced by the flows of migrants. As a result, the old city center disappeared, but this gave rise to many new centers, such as Cola, "a dusty and noisy quarter where dilapidated buses depart for the suburbs and dozens of street vendors try to force their wares on the hastening passer-by”. This cultural change, however, which enabled the city to survive the war, at the same time reinforced a set of economic activities that are no longer dependant on a dominant center.[71] The centrifugal urban process has turned the city into a belt growing alongside the country’s main motorway which runs parallel to the coast in a North-South direction. Coastal towns like Jbail (Byblos) and Jounieh, once independent small towns some forty kilometers north of Beirut, are now the new suburbs with all the trappings of a "Third World metropolis”: slums next door to hideously expensive casinos, clubs and shopping centers, the gated communities of the economic elite beside ruins of steel and concrete.[72]

It certainly would make more sense to spend the 18 billion dollars that the prestigious BCD project is going to cost on strengthening the polycentric structure, renewing the weak infrastructure and laying digital networks. The metropolis is already so extensive, diverse and heterogeneous that for the vast majority of the residents the BCD will in no way achieve the intended symbolism or "create the identity” that it is expected to do. If anything, in fact, the old districts around the BCD such as Ras-Beirut, Hamra, Yesouiyyeh and Ashrafiyyeh would benefit economically from the absence of a single dominant center. Theretraces of the Ottoman and French periods are being, if anything, eradicated at great speed. Magnificent old villas set in idyllic gardens are being replaced by densely packed luxury hotels, shops and office and apartment towers. Thus while in the center buildings are being ‘reconstructed’ that never existed, in other parts of the city the heritage that is still left is being destroyed. Yet this economic dynamism masks immense social differences and inequality. Everyone here is exposed to the universal law of the ‘survival of the fittest’, "the prime feature of an unfettered neo-liberalism”, and this in turn introduces a new phenomenon: the ‘culture of resistance’ in which local and traditional groups seek to get a grip on the process imposed on them by resorting to self-organization and self-mobilization. The Elisar project, a public initiative unlike Solidere, is perhaps the most interesting experiment in Beirut for that reason. It entails supervising and coordinating legal and illegal urban processes in the slums of South Beirut, processes such as installing infrastructure, restoring public buildings, renovating homes and reallocating illegal building plots, with the aim of "consolidating local identity”.[73]

Beirut is a city in transition. The euphoria at the termination of the war is accompanied by a fear that violence may break out again at any moment. The economy is growing, while the country is still controlled by diverse heavily armed troop units and militia. The Christian and Islamic population groups seem willing to reach consensus and have begun dialogue, but the fragile links that have been forged may break at any time. The quest for security and cohesion is understandable, and so is the attempt to contribute to it through the ‘historically’ motivated reconstruction of the BCD. And yet I wonder whether this project is not building too much on the Potemkin principle, thus becoming a pretentiously showy or imposing façade intended to mask or divert attention from an embarrassing or shabby reality. The uncertain, ambivalent situation of this city is signally ignored in the BCD. [74]

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[28] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 70.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Angus Gavin and Ramez Maluf. Beirut Reborn: The Restoration and Development of the Central District. (London: Academy Editions, 1996), 57.
[31] Ibid., 59.
[32] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 70.
[33] Ibid.
[34] Oussama Kabbani, "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis. (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 241.
[35] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 74.
[36] Oussama Kabbani, "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis. (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 241.
[37] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 74.
[38] Ibid., 76-7.
[39] Oussama Kabbani, "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis. (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 241.
[40] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 78.
[41] Ibid., 77.
[42] Ibid., 73.
[43] Ibid., 72.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Oussama Kabbani, "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis. (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 241.
[46] Ibid., 242.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid., 244.
[49] Ibid.
[50] Samir Khalaf, Beirut Reclaimed (Beirut: Dar An-Nahar, 1993), 153.
[51] Oussama Kabbani, "Public Space as Infrastructure: The Case of Postwar Reconstruction of Beirut,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 244.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Rodolphe el-Khoury, "Beirut Sublime,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 260.
[54] Yegenoglu, Husnu. "De verscheurde metropool: Verkenningen in Beirut (The Torn Metropolis: Explorations in Beirut). Archis 1, (Jan. 2000), 72.
[55] Ibid.
[56] Ibid.
[57] Ibid., 73.
[58] Ibid.
[59] Rodolphe el-Khoury, "Beirut Sublime,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 261.
[60] Jean Said Makdisi. Beirut Fragments: A War Memoir. (New York: Persea Books, 1990), 70.
[61] Yegenoglu, Husnu. "De verscheurde metropool: Verkenningen in Beirut (The Torn Metropolis: Explorations in Beirut). Archis 1, (Jan. 2000), 73.
[62] Ibid.
[63] Rodolphe el-Khoury, "Beirut Sublime,” in Projecting Beirut: Episodes in the Construction and Reconstruction of a Modern City, eds. Peter Rowe and Hashim Sarkis (Munich: Prestel, 1998), 261.
[64] Quoted in Michael Stanton. "Ontwerp als vorm van verslaggeving: Over realisme en de waarnemer (Design as Reporting: On Realism and the Observer)”. Archis 9 (Sept. 2000): 51.
[65] Quoted in Rodolphe el-Khoury, "Beirut Sublime”.
[66] Ibid.
[67] Ibid., 261-2.
[68] Yegenoglu, Husnu. "De verscheurde metropool: Verkenningen in Beirut (The Torn Metropolis: Explorations in Beirut). Archis 1, (Jan. 2000), 74.
[69] Ibid.
[70] Ibid.
[71] Ibid., 74-77.
[72] Ibid., 77.
[73] Ibid., 77-8.
[74] Ibid., 78.

Ashraf Osman

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