Beirut, Lebanon has a long history of social and political conflict that has given rise to a unique urban condition driven by non-human authorship. Hiba Bou Akar, head of the Post-Conflict Urban Research Lab at Columbia, identifies this unique urbanism as a loss of hope in her book For the War Yet to Come.23
Typical urban planning strategies, according to Bou Akar, are characterized by a singular optimism which envisions a unfied, better future for the city. In Beirut, the trauma of perpetual violent conflict has eliminated optimism for a unified future, and instead the urban planning is guided by anxiety-ridden militarism as both citizens and institutions try to prepare for the next war. Bou Akar identifies Future War as the author of the urban plan in Beirut.
To better understand the nature of this Future War, it is necessary to understand Beirut’s past. This is a gargantuan task. Beirut is one of the longest continuously inhabited urban centers in the world--the city began alongside Mesopotamia and has been a population center ever since. Even before that, Beirut had an ancient history. Within the modern municipal zone of Beirut, archeological sites contain evidence of Homo Neandethalensis, the rise of the anatomically modern human, the invention of shelters, the invention of farming, and so forth.
Arguably, the city’s urban history began
with the Phoenicians around 2500 B.C., who were conquered by the Hellenes, who were conquered by the Romans, who were conquered by the Arab Caliphate, who were conquered by the Christians during the Crusades, who were conquered again by the Arab Caliphate, who was reconquered by the Ottomans, who eventually fell apart at the end of World War I, at which point the region was placed under a French mandate until its independence in 1946. All this to say that the city of Beirut has a long, tumultuous history, and a hugely diverse population of people who all have long cultural and religious ties to the land, and who have almost all experienced the city as both the colonizer and the colonized. When we consider Lebanon’s modern history of civil war and the influx of Syrian and Palestinean refugees, it is no wonder Beirut is in perpetual conflict. It is a city pulled a thousand ways.
This colorful history often earns Beirut the title of Most Cosmopolitan City in the Middle East. At the macro-scale, perhaps this is true. But in reality, the diverse populations of Beirut are strictly segregated along geographic lines that are in constant flux. These territory lines are the sites of ongoing conflict as different religious and cultural groups vie for high ground and other militarily strategic land. The land-grabbing strategy has reached such heights that the Lebanese parliament periodically considers a law that would outlaw the exchange of land between religious groups; Christians could only sell to Christians, Sunnis to Sunnis, and so forth.
This law is also a product of a unique cultural attitude in the city. The Arabic word biya translates literally to “a natural environment.” In Beirut, however, it has taken on new meaning. In Beirut, a biya is a homogenous neighborhood, and everyone wants to live in their natural biya. A healthy Christian biya is one where no Muslims live. If Muslims move in, it is no longer a healthy Christian biya, and Christians retreat to less diverse neighborhoods. This attitude might be one of the few commonalities between all the cultural groups of Beirut.
Hiba Bou Akar notes another novelty in the relationship between the people of Beirut and their city. She calls in “urbanicide.” It is a phenomenon where the urban infrastructure becomes the primary target in violent conflict, not the people, becauseit is understood that eliminating the right set of infrastructures will disallow certain groups from living in certain areas. In this way, the infrastructure of the city becomes its own party in the conflict.