For the War Yet to Come
Planning Beirut's Frontiers
Hiba Bou Akar



TALK OF SECTARIANISM is on the rise again in the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, as wars continue to rage in Iraq and Syria and sectarian violence rocks cities like Cairo, Kuwait, and Manama. For a long time now, Lebanon has epitomized nations divided by sectarian conflict. And since the nineteenth century, much has been written on the issue of sectarianism in Lebanon. But what is interesting is that, despite its volume, much of this literature does not approach sectarianism ethnographically. In Lebanon, most studies of the topic are political theses or historiographies on the relationship between sectarianism and the formation of the nation state—debating, for example, whether sectarianism represents a traditional characteristic, a construct of colonial and/or modernization projects, or a project of class domination.1 By contrast, this book focuses on understanding how sectarianism is constructed, lived, and practiced. Such questions have garnered more interest recently as scholars set out to examine “everyday sectarianism.”2 To that end, I have sought to unearth the spatial production of the sectarian order through ethnographic and archival investigation. My larger purpose, if such a thing can be presupposed, is to show how the production of sectarian difference is as unstable and contested as the spaces of conflict, domination, and profit that that difference produces. This, in turn, has involved investigating how the spatiality of the sectarian political order is constantly being negotiated, reconfigured, and reproduced, redefining what sectarianism may mean at each successive historical moment.

From the perspective of my two principal periods of fieldwork (in 2004 to 2005 and 2009 to 2010), for example, it was interesting to see how real estate deals that were once considered “normal” within Beirut’s market-led economy were variously portrayed seven years later as a threat to the national coexistence of Lebanon’s various religious groups, an “Islamization scheme of the Middle East,” and a threat to all Christians and Druze in the region. It is in light of such fears that one must understand how the Lebanese Parliament came in 2011 to debate a proposed law that would have banned land sales between Christians and Muslims for a period of fifteen years. Passage of such a law, whose stated aim was to preserve “religious coexistence,” would of course have represented the ultimate spatial manifestation of the war yet to come. Its effect would have been to lock the city into its present state because the future could not be conceived as anything less than bleak. Yet, as I will argue, territories of poverty and frontiers of sectarian violence in Beirut are constantly being negotiated and reconfigured. And it is within these unstable, continuously shifting spatial logics that one can also locate hope for urban politics in what are otherwise seen to be the dystopic planned geographies of the war yet to come.

Patching Stories and Maps

My methodology in this study can best be conceived as an ethnography of spatial practices that investigates how territories may be rearranged by practices and discourses of fear, rumors of conflict, and talk of war. It is based primarily on sixteen months of interviews and archival research I conducted in 2009 and 2010 in relation to three peripheral areas in Beirut—Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, Sahra Choueifat, and Doha Aramoun (see Figure 1). Yet my research engagement with Beirut’s peripheries is actually much older. It dates to 1998 when I was an undergraduate studying architecture and urbanism at the American University of Beirut. My involvement with these areas then became more systematic following 2004, when I first began targeted research in Sahra Choueifat. I have also practiced urban planning and architecture in Beirut, which has allowed me to become professionally familiar with the spatial tools and products I analyze. In addition, I have a personal connection to one of the study sites: my family, members of the Druze minority who moved to Doha Aramoun in 1993, still live there. This is the location of my home in Lebanon.

At the time I performed the bulk of my research, I was living in Doha Aramoun and commuting to Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail and Sahra Choueifat, my other two research sites. Among my informants were residents, government and municipal officials, developers, planners, landowners, real estate brokers, members of religious-political organizations, intellectuals, journalists, and former militiamen. I observed the work of planners and heads of planning units at public agencies and private consultancies. And I conducted extensive research in newspaper archives on the spatial quality of conflict in the city’s peripheries since the beginning of the civil war. In addition, I reviewed master plans, planning proposals, and reports from public and private planning agencies, and examined reports and publications held in the archives of the American University of Beirut and the Council for Development and Reconstruction (CDR) that detailed expert discourse on planning and development in the city since the mid-1950s.3

Exploring the material and temporal “formations of violence”4 in a deeply divided city like Beirut proved to be an extraordinarily complex exercise. The three areas my investigations targeted can be thought of as “zone[s] of awkward engagement,” where a variety of entities think about, speak of, and approach the subject of urban growth and conflict quite differently.5 These are not transparent, open sites of engagement; in these areas, what one group might consider natural, market-led urbanization might be deemed by others a hostile form of encroachment. And conducting research on a politically sensitive topic there, in a climate of violence, fear, and conflict, necessitated adopting a flexible methodology. Because of site conditions, I was frequently unable to take notes, record conversations, or take pictures—except when I could snap them discreetly. These limitations are not uncommon in spaces of conflict and volatility. But they meant I had to acknowledge that openings and closures of access in the field would shape the contours of knowledge production.

I came to call my methodology patching stories and maps, in reference to the particular way I juxtaposed information from interviews, observations, and popular discourse with archival fragments. My approach was first to collect what technical material I could, including maps, statistics, plans, urban regulations, building laws, private property documents, architectural drawings, and academic books on planning in Beirut. I then pieced these fragments together with public information available from news reports, visual surveys, and the virtual media posts of different political groups. Finally, I assembled these patchworks and matched them to the popular discourses,6 stories, and rumors circulating in homes, public offices, streets, and social spaces like cafés, beauty salons, grocery stores, and gyms.

Such a “haphazard and patchwork”7 approach to studying the construction of difference across space and time was necessary because it was difficult to talk to Beirut’s residents deeply about such divisive topics as war, militarization, violence, and sectarianism. In this regard, I found conditions in Beirut’s peripheries in 2009 and 2010 quite different from those I had encountered in 2004 and 2005. After the clashes in May 2008, talk of war and sectarian essentialism became so dominant and naturalized that it was often impossible to move any discussion beyond the rhetoric of conflict. This made it difficult to identify and understand the modalities of governance that had produced these discourses and spatialities in the first place.

Even though I had been engaged in field research for a long period and had an extensive network of contacts, the segmented political terrain in 2009 also meant that my access to information had always to be negotiated. Because I am Lebanese myself, my informants often tried to categorize me as “with” or “against” this or that group.8 At times, residents in certain areas also felt uneasy discussing what they thought were sensitive topics, especially when they learned I was studying in the United States. Many of my informants were dependent on religious-political organizations for services, jobs, and (more importantly) security. In addition, during my research, politically motivated violence was taking place in and around my chosen areas of study on an almost weekly basis. Moreover, to understand diverse points of view, I had to cross emergent dividing lines again and again—both physical lines and social, political, and psychological ones. To overcome a number of these obstacles, I worked toward building trust among my informants by offering to be of help to them. For example, I sought out information for a number of families who wanted help with housing loans. And I offered advice to others who were unsure of the eviction and compensation processes being used to move displaced persons out of the buildings they had informally settled in two decades before (as discussed later). I also helped municipal officials by sharing data I had collected from other research venues. At times, these actions helped to bridge certain gaps. But at other times, I had to be satisfied with information provided in public forums.

A patchwork process was also necessary because Lebanon does not currently maintain a system of national archives. Neither do state agencies maintain formal systems of document storage and retrieval. Even when an agency has an archiving procedure, documents are quite often incomplete, randomly placed in drawers, or thrown in a corner. Tellingly, the most complete archives for public planning projects are locked up in the offices of a handful of prominent private planning firms that have received public commissions from the CDR or the Directorate General of Urbanism (DGU). As a result, my access to supposedly public discourse and data depended to a great extent on the benevolence of officials and other actors I interviewed. In this context, as in many others, “benevolence” and “at the mercy of” were two sides of the same coin, with conditions of access being defined along political lines. I also soon came to realize that the officials I interviewed were often only willing to disclose parts of a story.

Another challenge to archival work involved dependence on politically key people. Although such people could open doors, I had to find a way to connect to them. And in this search, my gender and class markers as well as the sectarian affiliation that people assumed about me frequently influenced what information key individuals would volunteer or withhold. As I discovered, the ability to do research on urban development in Beirut is determined by social and economic forms of capital as well as political connections. And the social capital that comes from class and sectarian affiliations is further crucial when attempting to access official sites. Lacking on both accounts, I was forced to rely on academic and personal connections to access high-profile decision-making networks. While I succeeded in many instances, at many other times I was simply denied access. Moreover, gender played a further role in facilitating or impeding access, depending on how threatening a female researcher was perceived to be at different research sites. Gender was also relevant to how each office constructed the spaces in which I was allowed to examine documents. In particular, these arrangements often involved male supervision, and sometimes intimidation.

Yet another challenge was how to do fieldwork around what felt like a moving target. How could I research something that was simultaneously unfolding in multiple temporalities and spatialities? In Beirut in 2009, the very issues described in this book (such as the intervention of religious-political organizations in housing and land markets) had become central to local and national politics. These issues were taken up in multiple forums, including frequent media reports, legal proposals, planning schemes, and civil-society initiatives. They were also a frequent topic of conversation in cafés, gyms, and homes. In addition, political views around these issues were continuously in flux as new alliances formed and others dissolved. In ever-evolving real time, these shifts might facilitate data collection in one place while hindering it somewhere else. For example, in 2010 the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) shifted its alliances away from the Sunni Future Movement, associated with the March 14 camp, to be closer to the Shiite Hezbollah, associated with March 8. This significantly weakened the March 14 forces, which (with the PSP support) had won the 2009 elections just a few months earlier. On the one hand, it was interesting to be doing fieldwork that seemed so inherent to the everyday lives of people. On the other, it was a challenge to have to continuously redefine the field of study. These conditions eventually meant that I had to integrate flows of information simultaneously unfolding in multiple spaces.

Ultimately, this “snowballing” method of data collection—as it unfolded in real time in a segmented political terrain, with only partial archival resources—resulted in certain limits to and fractures within the research. To address these problem areas, and to arrive at a more complete understanding of local conditions, I had to carefully seek out personal stories from informants in my research sites. This is where the archival aspect of my work interfaced most critically with ethnography to produce what I call an ethnography of spatial practices.

It is in this regard that this research work has also benefited most from being in part an auto-ethnography of my own engagements with a place I call home. I lived in Doha Aramoun for a large part of my adolescent life. My family still lives there, and it is where I stay when I visit Lebanon once or twice a year. It is also where I lived during my sixteen months of concentrated fieldwork. I have tried both to use and to lay bare the personal entanglements resulting from my being a Lebanese citizen and long-time resident of Doha Aramoun. This has at times meant collapsing the distinction between the expert and researcher on the one hand and the informant and resident on the other. Indeed, as a person who lived through the civil war in Lebanon, I have experienced firsthand the geographies of war, the itineraries of war displacement, and the ways in which the fear of future wars shapes everyday life.

In choosing the location of home as the site of investigation, my aim was to provide a lens that builds on the intertwined personal, professional, and political aspects of my life in order to understand the intricacies and intimacies of war and its geographies. To a certain extent, in the cases of Sahra Choueifat and Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, I was able to dissociate myself from my sites and subjects of study. But the intertwinement of my life history with that of Doha Aramoun since 1993 rendered it impossible to establish this same distance there. Over the course of my fieldwork, however, I found that it was not distance that I was striving for. On the contrary, I found myself excavating a sense of intimacy with a place where my family has long lived. Interestingly, this was also a place that had never felt completely like home to me. It was a place that always felt transient, in flux, floating, strange, uprooted, incomprehensible, and uncomfortable. I eventually realized that it was exactly these feelings of both entanglement and estrangement that I wished to interrogate—feelings that for many people made living in Beirut’s peripheries an experience of “intimate estrangement.”9

In excavating this sense of intimacy, I have also sought to elucidate the more general entanglements of the personal and the political that are constitutive of subjectivity in contested geographies. And I have sought to bear witness to the many ways—bold and subtle, fast and slow, formal and intimate—by which violent geographies are produced and reproduced through the intricacies of everyday life. This may become particularly significant as sites are reinscribed over time as nodes in the circulation of local and transnational real estate value, violence, ideology, and militarization. Ultimately, the violence and fear I bear witness to here is not that of emergency, terror, destruction, or death.10 It is rather that caused by the gradual construction of buildings and infrastructure in ways designed to produce geographies of everyday life and militarization, of normalcy and exception, of peace and war—all at the same time. Eventually, therefore, what the yoking of multiple methodological approaches has allowed me to produce is a situated understanding of the changing geography of Beirut’s peripheries as they have been shaped equally by master plans, territorial struggles, discourses, and everyday events.

Transforming Peripheries into Frontiers

As I mentioned in the Prologue, my three principal research sites are located in or adjacent to Beirut’s southern suburbs. These southern suburbs are commonly and collectively known as al-Dahiya (the Suburb). In 2001, Mona Harb identified this area as comprising a geographic zone extending south from central Beirut to its airport, and east to the agricultural fields of al-Hadath and Choueifat. Considered to be Hezbollah’s stronghold in Beirut, the area is densely inhabited and mostly by people who identify as Shiites. Even the name al-Dahiya today conveys an emotionally charged message that is often reinforced in the media and in conversation among Lebanese citizens. These discourses describe “the Suburb” as a belt of misery characterized by illegal urbanization, squatter settlement, and underdevelopment.11

Areas like al-Dahiya and its surroundings have been the subject of scrutiny by urban studies scholars for many years, largely through the conceptual distinction between the urban center and periphery. Within this framework, the periphery has been a powerful concept both in discussions of specific areas of cities in the Global South and with regard more generally to urban theory.12 In the first instance, peripheries are usually seen as the spaces left out of the center, waiting for the center to engulf them. Commonly, such areas may form on the outskirts of a city.13 In the second instance, peripheries have been seen as key sites for the discussion of urban informality.14 As such, they are frequently theorized as receptors of “unwanted” populations, moved out of the way by the more profitable forces of “development.”15

Whatever way they are viewed, peripheries are constituted and constructed according to social, economic, and political conditions quite different from those that govern the metropolitan center. Such an alternative logic both contributes to their exclusion from the center and asserts their potential for destabilizing it. Because of their exclusion, however, peripheries have also been theorized as spaces of hope. They thus accommodate “volatility that is permitted to go nowhere and a completion always yet to come.”16 And it is in such areas that “struggles . . . for the basic resources of daily life and shelter have also generated new movements of insurgent citizenship based on . . . claims to . . . a right to the city and a right to rights.”17

However, in cities like Beirut, issues of sectarian identity and spatial competition have introduced a darker reality to such areas. In Beirut, this has largely resulted from the rapid expansion of al-Dahiya after the civil war into adjacent areas with land inhabited or owned by people of other sectarian affiliations—principally Christians in Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail and Druze (and previously Christians) in Sahra Choueifat and Doha Aramoun. In conceptual terms, this expansion has created the social, political, and economic conditions by which al-Dahiya may now be viewed as a new center, defining the peripheral condition of adjacent areas. And in terms of lived reality, al-Dahiya’s expansion is seen as “Shiite encroachment” on the territories of other sectarian groups and a challenge to their existence in the city. It was this sense of encroachment that ultimately produced interface zones characterized by friction, which were solidified as battle lines in May 2008.

Adding to the perception of al-Dahiya as a threatening new center is the fact that Hezbollah’s headquarters, Haret Hreik, is located there, and that it emerged in the early 2000s as a node for the transnational circulation of religion, finance, militarization, and violence. Thus, during its war on Lebanon in July 2006, Israel bombed what it defined as areas of Beirut belonging to Hezbollah, and many of the buildings leveled were in Haret Hreik.18 Surrounding areas, such as Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail and Sahra Choueifat, which were seen as extensions of these areas of Hezbollah control, were likewise targeted. Most recently, Haret Hreik and other supposed Shiite neighborhoods have also been the target of suicide bombings by Sunni extremists, with one such bomb being detonated on the road separating Shiite Sahra Choueifat from Druze Choueifat.

Such conditions are precisely what have led to the transformation of many of these peripheral areas into frontiers. Another powerful concept in urban theory, the frontier is often viewed as a dystopic space where regimes of power and capital are engaged in reconfiguring space in their own image. Within such a framework, frontiers are thought of as spaces of capital accumulation and/or racial or ethnic domination. Neil Smith thus examined how inner-city neighborhoods in American cities have become a new urban frontier, where poor people are displaced from old neighborhoods by the forces of gentrification.19 And in another important study, Oren Yiftachel argued that the creation of frontier conditions in Israel has allowed control by a dominant group to expand into adjacent areas, assisting “both in the construction of national-Jewish identity, and in capturing physical space on which this identity could be territorially constructed.”20 The elasticity of such a frontier was shown by Eyal Weizman to allow it to “continually remold itself to absorb and accommodate opposition,” diverting debate about its existence into issues of inclusion and exclusion.21

Frontiers have also shaped the geographies of the War on Terror. Derek Gregory and Steven Graham describe how spaces in Iraq and Afghanistan have been transformed to frontiers of war through their construction as “imaginative geographies,” whose selective destruction is necessary to ensure the safety of “the West.”22 Frontiers are likewise spaces of uncertainty. Thus, in their account of borderlands, Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson described a frontier as a “place of incommensurable contradictions,” and “an interstitial zone of displacement and de-territorialization that shapes the identity of the hybridized subject.”23 However, according to Helga Leitner, Eric Sheppard, and Kristin Sziarto, frontiers may also be “liminal zones of struggle, between different groups for power and influence—each seeking to expand its influence by shaping these zones on their own terms . . . [T]he frontier is a fuzzy geographic space where outcomes are uncertain.”24

Within this discourse of peripheries as left-out, hopeful spaces and frontiers as contested and impendingly dystopic, how can the transformation of Beirut’s peripheries into frontiers (or more accurately, into an increasingly overlapped geography) be understood? According to AbdouMaliq Simone, “the periphery can exist as a frontier in that it has a border with another city, nation, rural area, or periphery.”25 In such an overlapped condition, the periphery may become a hybrid space, “where different ways of doing things, of thinking about and living urban life, can come together.”26 In such a view, the periphery as frontier may be imagined as a hopeful space because it is able to “absorb tensions inherent in the intersection of substantially different ways of doing things.” But, as I will show in succeeding chapters, the situation in Beirut contradicts such a hopeful narrative. In Beirut the transformation of peripheries into frontiers, or their coexistence, is a product of ongoing cycles of conflict and a constant effort by competing religious-political organizations to gain spatial advantage in anticipation of wars yet to come.

Interestingly, while the two concepts overlap to some extent, the war yet to come is in many ways the antithesis of Simone’s “city yet to come.” For Simone, the “city is the conjunction of seemingly endless possibilities of remaking.” In such a view, precarious physical structures, provisional settlement sites, and potholed roads, “[e]ven in their supposedly depleted conditions, all are openings onto somewhere.”27 However, in cities in conflict like Beirut, the mundane geographies of peripheries turned frontiers instead prefigure the transformation of hope into dystopia. Thus, while these areas may provide affordable housing for low- and middle-income populations who could not otherwise afford to reside in the city, they are constructed as zones of conflict and contestation, where fear of future local or regional violence actively shapes both the lived present and imagined future. And while, as peripheries, such geographies may provide the possibility of a “right to the city,”28 as frontiers, they are simultaneously spaces where the contours of future violent engagements and displacements are being drawn and redrawn every day.29

As concurrently peripheries of urban growth and frontiers of sectarian conflict, areas in Beirut such as Sahra Choueifat, Doha Aramoun, and Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail also dispute the current logic of center and periphery. Indeed, what is at stake in these areas is the very definition of the center, or core, of the urban region that constitutes contemporary Beirut. Geographic paradigms that consider these areas to be peripheries define them in relation to the municipality of Beirut—a center of finance and business, the seat of national government, and a hub of employment and leisure. However, Beirut is not the only center in relation to which the peripheralization of these neighborhoods may be understood. The expansion of Shiite al-Dahiya as a center in its own right equally defines them.

It is precisely this condition of not only being peripheries but of being peripheries of a periphery turned competing center that has transformed Sahra Choueifat, Doha Aramoun, and Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail into frontiers. And as peripheral articulations of both Beirut and al-Dahiya, they are actively being shaped by the conflicting local, regional, and international dialogues of capital, real estate value, diaspora, war, and militarization that this juxtaposition entails. Most commonly, this tension may be felt in terms of anxiety around the expansion of al-Dahiya and its presumed Shiite population. And this frequently surfaces in discriminatory media reports, like a recent newspaper piece whose author claimed that one of these peripheries was “drowning in al-Dahiya’s tsunami that swallows everything.”30


1. Makdisi, The Culture of Sectarianism; Picard, Lebanon, A Shattered Country; Weiss, In the Shadow of Sectarianism.

2. Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon; Hafeda, “Bordering Practices”; Deeb and Harb, Leisurely Islam.

3. The CDR was established in 1977 to undertake Beirut’s reconstruction after the first two years of the civil war. It is supposed to be responsible for capital projects that span several municipal boundaries. A second agency, the Directorate General of Urbanism (DGU), is responsible for preparing urban regulations and master plans for municipalities, and it reports to the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation. These two government agencies coordinate their activities through the Higher Council for Urban Planning, but the jurisdictional boundaries between them have long been contested. For more on the role of these two agencies, see Chapter 5.

4. Feldman, Formations of Violence.

5. Tsing, Friction, xi.

6. These popular discourses included those in comic strips, where the expectation of war also became prevalent, as Ghenwa Hayek shows in Beirut, Imagining the City.

7. Anna Tsing also discusses how studying transient global connections ethnographically in zones of “awkward engagement” requires a “patchwork and haphazard” approach to research methods (Tsing, Friction, xi).

8. I was typically categorized as part of a sectarian group based on my family name and where I said I came from. These assumptions were made immediately and without asking me directly about my position on religion or politics.

9. I borrow this phrase from Edward Said’s Orientalism. The intimate estrangement here is not about orientalist engagements with the East as Said discusses, but it is about spaces that are quite familiar yet remain unknowable and strange.

10. Feldman, “Ethnographic States of Emergency.”

11. Harb, “Urban Governance in Post-War Beirut.”

12. Caldeira, City of Walls; Yiftachel, “Social Control, Urban Planning and Ethno-class Relations”; Robinson, Ordinary Cities; Roy, “Why India Cannot Plan Its Cities”; Watson, “Seeing from the South.”

13. Simone, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar.

14. Roy and AlSayyad, Urban Informality.

15. Ghannam, Remaking the Modern.

16. Simone, “At the Frontier of the Urban Periphery,” 464.

17. Holston, “Insurgent Citizenship in an Era of Global Urban Peripheries,” 245; also see Chance, “Transitory Citizens.”

18. Fawaz, “The Politics of Property in Planning.”

19. Smith, The New Urban Frontier, 199.

20. Yiftachel, Ethnocracy, 108.

21. Weizman, Hollow Land, 173.

22. Gregory, The Colonial Present, 19; Graham, “When Life Itself is War,” 144.

23. Gupta and Ferguson, “Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference,” 18.

24. Leitner, Sheppard, and Sziarto, “The Spatialities of Contentious Politics,” 311.

25. Simone, City Life from Jakarta to Dakar, 40.

26. Ibid., 40–41.

27. Simone, For the City Yet to Come, 9.

28. Harvey, “The Right to the City”; see also Lefebvre, Writings on Cities.

29. I first developed this argument in Bou Akar, “Contesting Beirut’s Frontiers.”

30. Andary, “Bay‘ Arāin wa Mashārī‘ Sakaniyya Mashbūha wa Istinfār lil-Ahālī.”