Back to Beirut: The Beginning

Since I landed a week ago in Beirut, I have been taken over by a general feeling of weakness (one of the reasons why I did not write since). I’m sure that the humidity has to do with it, and I am ready to bet that Ibn Khaldun and other social theoreticians of the Arab world were right when they conceptualized cultural practices according to regional climates, but something else was weighing on my heart (liver and wit for the Chinese).

These first moments you experience when you arrive to the ‘home’ country after spending a lot of time abroad are the most crucial because if you keep your analytical faculties wide open then you can notice all kinds of anomalous manifestations taking place and made apparent from the quick change in environment. Human beings get used to a specific socially disciplinary mode according to different habitats. Once you settle in a place you internalize these disciplinary practices and tend not to be aware anymore of some of their structures.

The first thing that struck me was the blatant absence of public space in Lebanon. I want to show how this very simple and even cliché observation can explain why confessionalism and any other parochial form of affiliation are the only effective ones. Lack of public space is not only a metaphor for the fragmentation of state institutions in turfs. It is not just an image for the fact that all ‘public’ social interaction happen in either religious schools, religious NGOs, or at home with the family or the kin as well as the socially close friend (so same confession). It is also the case that architecturally speaking (if I may permit myself to venture in a poorly understood area of ‘expertise’) there is no public space except pubs and bars.

This explains why foreigners (especially from countries where public spheres are very prevalent) are always out and everywhere. They unconsciously make up for this lack of genuinely public space. And even with that in mind a lot of non-Lebanese or Lebanese who did not live in the country confessed to me that they were struck by this harsh environment that can be wrongly perceived as too individualizing. It can be individualizing once you did a conscious process of stripping yourself out of the social mold you were brought up in only to find that there is no available space for anything else. So you’re just alone.

To go back to pubs cafes and bars, people can still talk there about their various views on life, meanings and affiliations, but free interaction is minimized in these places because you have to pay to stay. This is very important not just because it stratifies people’s availability but also because it inculcates a specific culture of public interaction. Also, these places are a nest for determined social networks. Ask any of these places managers and you will see how clientèle is finely chosen even when there isn’t a rhinoceros waiting at the door. And this is notwithstanding the culture of voyeurism and other perverse dispositions in which Lebanese finds themselves captured through this social space as subjects.

I’m not saying that in other countries you have perfect social interaction (a concept to compare with the economic one of perfect competition). London where I was staying is a far cry from that actually. It is a city rigged with a stratified social setting, and elitist mentality all throughout with Wasta as we like to call it to make it culturally specific, with paradoxical racial undertones through pragmatic practices.

But still in London you have amazingly vast and developed public spaces where people of all ‘creed’ can just pause and rest. You know parks, public libraries, gardens, benches all over the place, etc. Especially and most importantly public transportation (buses and subways). Now bear in mind that public space in itself is not sufficient to create public interaction, but its absence is symptomatic of specific practices (or lack of certain practices that are conducive to public awareness). It serves to crystallize that the only genuine dialectical process happens at home, or in a church, a mosque, a school. Sidewalks are tight whenever they even exist, people are mostly in their cars, services (shared taxis) and buses are privately managed which means that crosses, virgins, Korans and icons of all sorts are hanging down the frontal rear view mirror, and thus specific routes are favored. For example, to go from Hamra to Tabaris I had to wait until a Christian driver came along. The first one that had a Hollywood Jesus mega picture on his window was indeed the one who took me and then took along with me successively a woman to Ashrafieh and two army guys to Dora.

Take Solidere’s reconstruction and real-estate plan. Winston Smith explained to me over the most divinely prepared Foul Medammas in Sour (Vince, a poster of Nasrallah and Berri, and my sister where there too) how Solidere, although devising gardens and green spaces in downtown have made sure they were heavily guarded by private security contractors so that ‘dodgy’ people would not try to sit there. So how public is that? But wait a minute; did ‘public’ officials think for a minute how a “privately” managed monopolizing real-estate company would actually deliver a “public” social space when they amended the constitution in order to let Hariri and co take a hold on public asset? You see, a private company will care for the ‘well-being’ of its investors and clients. ‘Well-being’ in real-estate means security. Security means militarized geographic space. And in terms of disciplinary practice, this contributes to a fragmentation of societies’ groups of all genres and the crystallization of huge inequalities through separated social classes.

One could cite a lot of examples like services, Solidere, pubs, institutions, etc. to show this pervasive manifestation of parochial social practices enmeshed in a façade of “modern” institutional framework. I want to stress the point that the absence of these public structures inhibits significantly any genuine collective initiative. It illustrates very well how opposition groups in downtown are simple salaried functionaries of elite party cadres. There is even a natour (concierge) with a table and a phone at the north beginning of downtown who stopped me after looking at me suspiciously and asked me where I was going. I said “what?”, and then he hesitantly carried on: “what are you carrying?” alluding to a cylindrical case containing my nays. I told him that these were musical instruments and so after a moment he let me go. These guys would stop bystanders walking in the city but they would not stop Solidere’s on-going projects, or besiege the Serail or something.

Why? Because they are functionaries of higher diplomatic quibbling. Because while their leaders are finding a way out where some type of exploitative structures can be preserved, they sit idle, smoke narguileh and make the lives of people walking, driving and working like hell. This is a direct consequence of a lack of genuine social initiatives at this scale. This is also the result of disciplinary practices. Although causes espoused by the opposition groups are more socially oriented than any of the ideologically rightist and chauvinistic 14th of March mobilizing drives, the practices of elite and constituency in this case is still similar to those of the ruling ‘majority’. And this is but a manifestation of disciplinary practices in the ‘modern’ Lebanon as created by French and local elites.

Social and political discipline in London and in most of Europe means rule of law, the efficient functioning of market institutions and certain key monopolistic economic settings. In Beirut and the rest of fragmented Lebanon disciplinary practices involves the absence of public space, through urban and rural specific institutional and architectural settings. But disciplinary practices are also discursive. So it explains very well why sectarian narratives are the most influential in mobilizing and forming the different Lebanese subjects.

Also there is an unbridgeable discrepancy between State and parochial discourse. What I am trying to say is that although there is a recurring ideas and metaphors fed by the state that Lebanon is as such discursively defined outside the scope of the sects, the daily practices do not mirror this fact. The only time Lebanese act as Lebanese is when they pay their taxes (of course not even during elections as they are confessionally defined), a negative way of defining your identity one could say. This last idea needs further studying through a close look at state, government official but also media rhetoric and symbols. If energy continues to go ascending then I will surely write more.

28 Replies to “Back to Beirut: The Beginning”

  1. The foul meddammas, bech’s post or both? I’ll go with the third option, but it’s also more than a little disheartening…Keep writing bech.

  2. well, according to Ibn Khaldun, the more you come near africa (the south) the more you feel like dancing. Im fuckin sick!! how the hell could i dance!
    And his theory describes nature’s effect on human beings but do not talk of how “social agents resist in their practice”, as one may say, to nature’s effect. Like for instance, i have a big ass, so even though i’ve got rythm, i dont feel sometime like dancing cos i feel my big ass exposed! 😉
    About public spaces, i will add for my part that solidere’s plan for the central “houriyyeh” square — next to be called rafik hariri square, i bet my dick on it — is a thin garden “a multi niveau encadre de toutes part par des immeubles”, that is probably, to make it uncomfortable for social protest activities. I mean why else could they have accelerated building this ugly 5 stories thing near the catholic armenian church, when they know that for the next ten years at least they wont win the “street contest” they thought they ignitioned on the 14th of february?

  3. the parallell you draw between the sectarian governance and the absence of public sphere is an interesting hypothesis. But i would also cross it with other variables (i.e. the kind of regime in place, the genealogy of space etc…), because i feel that there is more to it. The idea of a ‘public’ is a very recent invention, which can be dated back to the 19th century, and it is also a means to monitor and displine a particular type of ‘modern’ subject.

    Besides this, however, i do wonder whether “the corniche” does not approach the kind of ‘public’ you would envisage. Having been to beirut only twice of my life, i cannot really grasp the complexity of the city the way you can; but i did feel a nice ‘interaction’ (if i may use the word) between a jogging elite, a narguile smoking crowd of youngsters, families etc… It was definately my favourite place in the city.

  4. Great post, thanks for writing it.

    Lebanon has a fascinating division between public space and private space. I always wonder why the Lebanese are not proud of their public space, especially since appearances are everything. Apartment buildings, e .g., often look terribly neglected, until you step inside. Then you see a very carefully designed/arranged interior. Perhaps they are compensating for the lack of public spaces by making their private spaces into showcases of beauty?

    Fully agree that the Corniche plays a special role. It’s great to walk there and see whole families having a nice afternoon or evening, with nargileh, food.

    Still, it is also a place of observing the gap between the haves and have-nots: the “rich” will stroll by in their latest designer jogging suits, while the “poor” are picnicking, without much interaction.

  5. apo and m.i. thank you for the encouragements.

    Nadia, I totally agree with your analysis but we are today in a forced system of modern state that contains a specific framework of the public, and the interesting thing here is that there is a friction between ‘traditional’ or historical forms of social interaction and the projected new demands created by bigger political mobilization under the homogenization framework of the institutions of a state.

    Lebanese want a state, well, here is the challenge. Create the public sphere. There will not be a well functioning state and a discursively defined nation without ‘modern’ (taken in the historical sense) of a public subject outside earlier forms of mobilization.

    Hizbullah is already half way here by the way.

  6. bech,
    thanks for your answer, but my question is do you have to go through that. Is it really an either/or question? Either engaging with a ‘modern’ project of a unified subject and unified nation-state, with all the homogenising aspects it imlies; or remaining in a ‘sectarian’ governance which also has its perversive mechanism, but does offer the ‘advantage’ of allowing for a plurality in the way of being and existing in the state?

    Is the ‘modern’ state (i.e. the ‘liberal’ goverance Foucault describes) the only way forward to exist as a ‘collectivity’?

    Not being a lebanese, i know that my discourse may come over as painfully ‘theoretical’ and ‘academical’ when you realise what is at stake ‘on the ground’… So apologies for that…

  7. Nadia, you have asked the most central question and I don’t think you’re simplifying. This is the main question on the future of this territorial and discursive field that is Lebanon.

    I think that sectarian governance and modern state formation cannot co-exist. Because their features are so contradictory in terms of flux of power. And one’s practices annuls the other.

    Also, with the economic modes of production, and economic structures we know today the modern state is a prerequisite. Last is the monopolization of security (to some extent at least).

    Actually I just thought of one thing. The presence of massive poles of political power (empires etc.) are another impediment. Don’t forget that even in an initial tribal setting, an empire creates always more stability (Ottoman empire in this case). From one to the other, structures must change.

    Tell me what you think.

  8. Dear Bech,

    I really don’t know…

    ‘Practically’ i can relate with what you say, and i see the need of taking into account the hegemonic mode of functioning (both politically, economically, in terms of stability…). And shaping a ‘state’ might be one of the only means ‘forward’ to ‘exist’.

    I do believe, though, that having a state is by no means a guarantee of ‘agency’ in the larger structure (look at all the empty states we have in the arab world and other parts of the world). But it might be a minimal and necessary condition…

    ‘Ideally’, however, i also dream (sic!) of a model where ‘existing’ can imply heterogeneity, a hetereogenity both in the ways of being, thinking, doing politics etc…

    What i find fascinating about lebanon, is that it is at the crosspoint of these two historical ‘realities’, and that it even is the closest model I have ever encountered (in my euro- and arabo-centric world) which reflected this ‘heterogeneity’ which i find so attractive.

    But i also know that it comes with price, and that i’m not the one paying it…

    Conclusion: many questions and no clear idea of where to go from this point.

  9. Hello Bech.

    I asked the question about taxation because anecdotal evidence from spending a year in Lebanon suggests to me that not many people do in fact pay their taxes.

    But supposing that still a significant number do, and that other incarnations of a ‘modern state’ also exist – in the form of institutions and processes -, isn’t it true that the ‘modern state’ and sectarian governance already co-exist?

    “I think that sectarian governance and modern state formation cannot co-exist. Because their features are so contradictory in terms of flux of power.”

    Is it really either-or, as nadia said? I think it’s not, these structures already coexist quite productively. Or rather, they are interdependent. Could the question to ask perhaps be: when do people refer to sectarian frameworks to obtain goods, and when to the state? And why?

  10. bech, nice pyschogeographical account. fascinating. it’s rare an analysis comes from such an angle for any subject.

  11. thanks ngh! I just don’t know how much it explains things..

    nadia and dr.m, I am trying to think of the new conceptual formulations proposed and will write something soon incorporating everything. I just need to think about how it all adds up.

  12. Hi Dr Miletzki,

    I agree to a certain extent, that different conceptions of ‘citizenship’ can and do co-exist to a certain extent.

    But i would, however, also tend to rather agree with Bech, in the sense that the modern ‘nation’ state implies a very powerful and homogenising citizenship concept, with at its heart the question of loyality.

    The history of the european nation states, and the different religious wars which preceded it, teach us that this question of loyality always stood at the heart of the various attempts at creating a ‘unified’ nation.

    The whole politico-juridical structure which developed from it also created one particular way of being a citizen, of doing politics, of casting your vote, of filing a complaint etc…

    Other forms do exist ofcourse (when you have a fight with your neightbour, only few will go immediately to the court), but the juridico-political structure has a larger ‘weight’ in relationship to other forms of arrangements: it is accompanied with an arsenal of power-structure and legitimacy which allows it to decide over who is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

    What’s interesting about Lebanon, is that – from what i’ve understood – the politico-juridico arsenale of the state is only ‘one means’ amongst others, and by no means the most dominant or powerful means (those of the sects are as powerful, or even more powerful in some cases).

    It is problematic, in the sense that the succesive civil wars are a logical outcome of the different ‘parallel structures’ coexisting (which also go together with different narratives on history, who counts as a citizen, next to different infrastructures); but i also find it challenging because it offers something the nation state cannot offer: a plurality in the ways of being (ofcourse also relative, within one’s own sect).

    Next to ‘stabilising’ a collectivity, the nation state is also a ‘totalising’ structure which has created a unified subject, a unified history, a unified culture. And it also came with a price (the different religious wars, colonisation, the different ‘world wars’, holocaust etc) and daily repression and exclusion (racism and discrimination of the ‘outsider’). But this ‘price’ is rarely problematised…

    But i dont know, you tell me…

  13. Dear Nadia and Dr. Miletzki, you’re both totally right. We are all arguing from different perspectives with the same conceptual tools. We may just need to loose these tools. For example, ‘state’ means many things. and Nadia failed states exist of course, and the point here is to think of what it takes to have either a ‘successful state’ or just a ‘successful political system’. ok, we need to define successful too.

    The main point that should be made that groups all our inquiries together is that whatever happens in terms of interaction between individuals, social subjects, is a reaction of these institutions in place. We no doubt in Lebanon have hybrid forms of institutions, especially if we categorize them as the extent to which they are imported or homegrown.

    What is interesting is to see the tension created between these various disciplinary forms. The family is an institution for example in Lebanon. But the family is an institution in say France, but has a completely different disciplinary function. In the Foucaultdian sense of discipline, the family contributes differently in the formation of subjects in these different areas of power fields.

    For now, all I can see is a clear tension between the homogeneous state as a project, and sectarian piece meal governance, because of the institutional implications (and thus disciplinary) that this engenders. But this does not mean that there is not some interesting political developments happening. Actually, the more the ‘homogeneous’ project is far fetched the more rich and diverse discursive practices will emerge. And we can see this already today. By the way the notion of subject here can help us arrive at a notion of the “public”, which is what was haunting us in the beginning. So here if we want to abandon the “westo-centric” idea of the public sphere (because indeed any social sphere is public, the modern state creating but one example of a massive public sphere), we still can try to spot glimpses of Public practices and subjectivisations in post-colonial, hybrid-institutional, etc. political regions. In the case of Lebanon, I wanted to stress the idea of a tension without really knowing how this could be played out. But the tension is there between a state discourse, used by the state, political agents of all sorts, even by social subjects in social settings and in the way they frame their identifications, and the actual functioning of state and non-state institutions, the daily practices of people, and (what was observed in this post) the structure of public (at least in the sense of shared) space.

    Now to go back to our “modern State” quest: For sure, different types of institutions will emerge in the end and we will never have the “French model” or the Anglosaxon etc. However and most importantly will we have some type of resemblance with a concentration of power towards one pole that is if we assume the system will function in the age of prevailing world structures? If not “the liberal model”, it will be another one no doubt but it will resemble it as outlined above.

    An interesting example is Hizbullah. Why am I interested in this party after all? Not because I have an ‘admiration’ or whatsoever for it but because it is something new so it is interesting, and it is being played out in front of us everyday evolving in unpredictable ways. From a sociological and political point of view, it is really something new to the Middle East. Hizbullah today is possibly the bearer of such a project (resembling the ‘liberal project’). Hizbullah is representing a confession, but its mode of mobilizing, the functioning of its institutions, etc. are totally different from traditional (“Middle Eastern” to select an area) disciplinary forms, and mirrors much more state formation say in Europe. I can elaborate more on this example but I just wanted to mention it for now.

    I leave it here, but it is important to try to see things with concrete examples in mind. So now what is needed is to be able to describe in great detail the discursive practices of the various Lebanese and see how they are embedded in changing social and political institutions.

    There is still the question of “productivity” posed by Dr m. that I will pick up later. But basically no the system is way from being efficient. It is self-destructive for now. Of course everything is relative, but judging from how much peace and ‘consensus’ we had, and how much genuine economic development we had, I must say that we score very very low. So it is not really a criterion. The most important criteria Dr. m is how efficient are those institutions that permit these people to work and produce etc.

    Oh and another thing Nadia, I just want to make sure we understand that everything is political: what you rightly called “politico-juridico system” but also other legitimating instances like sectarian formations and their institutions.

  14. hi bech,

    yes, i do adopt a generic understanding of ‘politics’, one which is not reduced to its liberal signification, but which contains each discourse, activity or action which aim at (re)shaping particular subjectivities and orders.

    And thanks for your post, and for this great conversation. I look forward to read more about your arguments concerning hizballah.

  15. yeah, i’m struggling to finish a dissertation, which explains the time I (shouldn’t) have engaging with this discussion 😉

    In a nutshell: am working on the formation of secular and religious subjectivities among (mainly) moroccans in belgium. Not from a ‘government-point’ of view, but from a ‘subject-oriented’ point of view (how the individuals shape their ‘selves’ into pious and/or secular subjects)

  16. Talal Asad is one of my gurus. I’m totally in the line of the ‘Asadian school’ which has started emerging recently (Mahmood, Hirshkind and others).


    Oh, and btw: have you read Lara Deeb’s work on shi’i (mainly hizballah) women in lebanon?

  17. Nadia and Bech,
    thanks for taking the time to respond to my points. Indeed we all seem to be arguing the same problem from different perspectives, which I find really interesting and helpful. Whereas the two of you seem to be coming from a more constructivist or sociological perspective and focus on discursive practices and identities – I guess -, I was looking at the issue posed by Bech from a more instutional angle. In the sense of Weber’s idea that a ‘modern state’s’ institutions should be independent of other forms of governance (e.g. sectarian) in a society and eventually overcome them. At least in my no doubt somewhat limited, political science reading of Weber. This is where I argued that the two structures seem to me to coexist already, and that any teleological view of state institutions winning it over sectarian ones in the near-term runs into serious problems, not least on a policy level.

    However, Bech, I would totally agree with you that this coexistence is totally unsatisfactory in terms of output – economic development, societal peace, stability – to say the least. When I said that the two structures coexist ‘productively’, I was somewhat cynically referring to their effectiveness as from the point of view of the participating elites: sectarian governance needs a state structure to access resources for distribution, ‘the state’ – permeated by sectarian systems as it is – needs functioning sectarian governance for stability. (In the sense of Gilsenan’s ‘Lords of the Lebanese Marches’, I guess.)

    Nadia, I think that your point about the nation-state’s need for loyalty is crucial. Yet at the same time it strikes me as an outmoded concept, and discredited at least in my euro-centric perspective by too many wars and conflicts. Yet the question remains, and I don’t think anyone can answer it yet, how much of that loyalty to the central state is needed for it to function – and what do we mean by ‘function’? I would very much be on your side when you argue that a system that can accept diversity and still deliver essential goods to everyone is the most desirable one. And preferably, without having to have a unifying, constraining idea of ‘nation’ and ‘nationalism’. But that may just be a personal utopia.

    Anyway, I hope we can keep these debates going on this blog, they’re great.

  18. hey Dr. Miletski,

    to just add one point before i forget.

    what is needed is not loyalty but more like HABIT. a much more entrenched and internalized form of compliance. It needs to be explained further, but think of it when you see a french or english person, they’re don’t feel “loyal” to their state (of course they sometimes do, but typically no). But the way their lifes are geared goes through this essential institution. They can be less of of french or english “nationalist”, but in effect they would rarely reject what the state or ‘public’ space has to represent.

    You wouldn’t have something like a French not feeling “loyal” and starts littering in the street for example. or be against recycling or stop using public space and facilities, etc.

    I find the concept of “loyalty” a bit simplifying and subject to create reifications.

  19. bech, dr. M,

    when i referred to loyalty, i didn’t use it in its ‘substantial’ signification (i.e. how to be loyal), but rather in its discursive utilisation. I see the discourse of loyalty as a ‘means’ to discipline a unified collectivity. And i do believe it is an integral part of ‘modern’ types of governance, unfortunately.

    Bech, i find a very thin line in the distinction you draw between loyalty and habit, even though i understand (i think) what you mean by it.

    but those same french who don’t care about the loyalty to the state will think of ‘loyalty’ when it appears that Muslims are using different modes of participation. (particularly in france, where the question of ‘allegance à la republique’ has been often used during the headscarf and danish controversy, the danish-cartoon controversy etc…).

    So for me its not about whether there is loyalty or not, but how the discourse of ‘loyalty’ is used as a very powerful tool to create a ‘unified collectivity’ and distinguish an ‘outsider’.

    But this being said, I realise that i’m maybe not engaging with this discussion from the same perspective as you. My first intrest is not to seek for a model that ‘works best’, but rather to understand the different modes of functioning and pitfalls of different models.

  20. nadia, I do agree with what you’re saying but I still don’t see a clear understanding of loyalty stripped out of its “substantial” connotation. What happens exactly when french appeal to republican “values” in the face of Muslim divergent practices? what triggers this discontent? Isn’t something some habit to comply to a specific disciplinary mode that people are challenging? I have no idea of what “habit” actually means, so we need to define (though not be obsessed by definitional efforts) both terms. I have in mind Swidler’s ‘culture as action’ concept of Bourdieuzian habitus. Any thoughts?

    By the way I heard of Deeb’s work but haven’t read yet. I’m looking for the book desperately!

  21. hi bech,


    In controversies like the cartoon riots, i guess there might be a ‘clash of habits’ (if i can reduce the debate to those two protagonists): those who objected the cartoons for finding it blasphemeous, and those who defended a ‘right’ on free speech. I think there you have a clash of different sensibilities, different modes of communications etc.

    But I wonder whether this is what leads to the use of this discourse of loyalty. In holland, it is currently being used to single out (mainly) Turkish and Moroccan political officers who carry the double nationality, and who are being questioned about their double allegiance. (another, most infamous example is ofcourse the dreyfuss case)

    But enough… I’m starting to loose the point of where all this discussion started… What’s the lebanese public sphere even got to do with all of this again? 🙂

    ps: deeb’s book is available on amazon, and it’s worth buying

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