This interview aims to examine how an increased engagement with Middle East urbanism impacts the wider field of urban studies. Hiba Bou Akar’s book For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers on Lebanon makes a significant contribution to urban scholarship, specifically through its examination of the logics of urban planning in cities struggling with urban violence, religious-political difference, and grassroots real-estate development. The book has won the 2019 Middle East Studies Association’s Nikki Keddie Book Award and the Anthony Leeds Prize from the American Anthropological Association (AAA)’s Critical Urban Anthropology Association (formerly Society for Urban, National, and Transnational / Global Anthropology), along with an Honorable Mention from the Lebanese Studies Association in 2020. The book highlights the gap in relating case studies from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to wider urban studies debates on conflict, segregation, and urban growth.
In the book, Bou Akar analyses how urban planning is implemented in anticipation of an undetermined war and explores the spatial manifestations of political struggle in times of peace. At the beginning of the book, she details how past sectarian armed struggles have shaped the logics of planning for war in the present, and how future-based planning challenges conceptions of peripheries and frontiers. She traces Beirut’s sectarian geographies and the role of the state and political-religious organizations in spatial planning and development. Researching three neighborhoods in Beirut’s southern periphery, she documents how the urban logic of Beirut is organized by neoliberalism, militarization, and religious ideologies. Each neighborhood reflects a different spatial and temporal dimension: ruins ‘double’ as spaces of past and future, zoning practices become a ‘lacework’ of political reconfiguration, and frontiers ‘balloon’ at multiple scales creating new urban centers.
The planning for war in peacetime – what Bou Akar calls ‘planning without development’ – is a central contribution. Combining ethnographic and archival methodologies, she explores how planning reflects and reproduces the spatialization of everyday sectarianism as Beirut continues to outgrow its borders. In her analysis of everyday territorial conquest through zoning, access to housing, and the grassroots real estate market, her interlocutors muddy categories of peace and war, frontiers, and peripheries. These revelations force us to pause and evaluate planning as part of longer histories of segregation, in both colonial and sectarian contexts. These questions are particularly relevant to current events in Beirut as mobilization, protest, and violence transcend political, sectarian, and spatial lines.
Bou Akar’s contribution extends beyond the Lebanese context. Her examination of post-conflict cities in times of peace and war speaks to many decolonizing contexts. Cities of the Global South have and continue to witness cycles of struggle and violence, that are hidden or embedded in systems of discipline like urban planning. Yet urban knowledge production from and on the MENA region in particular has remained underrepresented in global urban studies. In this interview, Noura Wahby and Hiba Bou Akar discuss how an increased engagement with Middle East urbanism can impact the wider field of urban studies, and its relevance to recent political mobilizations.
1. Your interest in post-conflict cities is obvious from the book’s title: ‘For the War Yet to Come’, which centers warfare and the anticipation of war as the organizing logic for urban development in Beirut. You challenge Lebanese urban planners by showing how this urbanization process is actually ‘planning without development.’ Can you elaborate a bit more on this and how Beirut offers a critical reflection on theorizing planning?
When I first started this research, I was not thinking about questions of planning and war. I was curious about the new apartment complexes that were mushrooming on the peripheries of Beirut, particularly in a south-east periphery called Sahra Choueifat, close to where my family lived. Every time I drove by, I wondered: who was building these seemingly low-cost housing complexes? Who lives in them? And why did many of the apartments seem to be vacant? When I started field research, I soon learned that many of these uninhabited apartments were in fact purchased by war-displaced families that had been squatting in abandoned war-torn buildings along the Green Line [the battle line that divided Beirut into Christian East and a Muslim West at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990)]. Threatened with eviction by post-war governmental policies, war-displaced families rushed to purchase and put down payments on low-cost apartments in Beirut’s peripheries, in areas like Sahra Choueifat. However, they could not move in until after they received their governmental monetary compensation. I also learned that many of the developers offering these low-cost housing options at the time were affiliated with key religious-political organizations, many of which were militias during the civil war.
It soon became clear that past wars, the post-war neoliberal policies of the Lebanese government, and the spatial practices of militias-turned-religious-political organizations were vital to understanding the urbanization of Beirut and its peripheries. Thus, the question of vacant low-cost housing on the city fringes became an inquiry into war and displacement, planning and development, and urbanization and the spatial practices of religious-political organizations. With time, my research into the urbanization of the city started showing clearly how in times of peace, since the end of the civil war, war is not fought by tanks, bullets, and military maneuvers, but is being fought by other means. Master plans, real estate developments, infrastructure developments, and zoning scuffles have become the terrains on which battles are fought. With every round of violence, new zoning plans were drawn and redrawn. Through ethnographic engagement over more than a decade, I show how not only past wars but also expected future wars are intrinsic to shaping urban development in the contested geographies of Beirut’s peripheries-turned-frontiers. These processes have formed the basis of my theorization on the role of planning in war and post-war geographies.
As for the logic of ‘planning without development,’ I show in the book how even at the height of war in the 1980s, when bombs were falling everywhere in Beirut and its peripheries, planning continued to ‘happen,’ associated with projects of economic and social development. However, since the end of the war, discourses around planning as a tool of development, poverty alleviation, and affordable housing production, have almost disappeared, replaced mostly by a sectarian logic of development, which I call ‘planning without development.’ This logic was apparent during my interviews with key planners which showed a stark change from the development discourses that were at the heart of planning in the 1950s and 1960s and continued to be–to a certain extent–during the war. In the book, I show how ‘planning without development’ has become a tool that delineates a sectarian organization of territories, leaving ‘development’ inside these fiefdoms to religious-political organizations, thus transforming Beirut’s peripheries from poor peripheries to sectarian frontiers. From these empirical observations, I started thinking about the theoretical implications to planning in Beirut and beyond, where the expected futures are not those of fictive limitless progress. Essentially, I reflect on what planning looks like if the expected futures are that of war, like in Lebanon, and of threats, like climate change and police violence, among others in different contexts.
2. We are used to hearing about war and sectarianism in Lebanon and Beirut’s infamous spatial segregation, which has become a stereotypical Middle East case study in global urban studies. But in the book, you look at sectarianism through its spatial logics and implications on power distribution and territorial expansion. Can you clarify how you differentiate between a spatial segregation that we are familiar with from contexts like the United States, and the spatial logics of sectarianism in Lebanon? How does your book depart from earlier studies?
For a long time, belonging to a sect was considered to be primordial in Lebanon; and therefore, sectarianism was seen as an inevitable structure organizing social life. More recently, scholars have been countering these narratives by showing how sect is a modern social construct, and how sectarianism is socio-economically and politically constructed. Through my ethnographic engagement, I became more attuned to how the talk of sectarianism, sometimes by using words like bi’a in Arabic (environment), is critical to understanding the spatial production of Beirut’s peripheries. By spending time with residents, planners, developers, and public officials, I came to realize how sectarianism is spatially and temporally constructed through everyday practices through which certain boundaries solidify while others disintegrate. They changed over time as alliances ebbed and flowed between religious-political organizations and as geopolitical interests shifted. By mapping how sectarianism is in fact spatially constructed on a daily basis, and by recognizing that sectarian borders and differences are not set in stone, this work shows that sectarianism is constructed, and if it is constructed then it could also be undone—which is where I find hope for social-political change.
The case of Beirut differs from the processes of ethnic and sectarian segregation for example in the Palestinian-Israeli context and the racialized geographies of the United States. The Palestinian territories are dominated by the State of Israel, an ethno-nationalist state, that is premised on the exclusion of the Palestinians—so there is a clear dominant power and a clear dispossessed and marginalized group. Similarly, in U.S. cities, white supremacy has imposed zoning, banking, and real estate policies that have intentionally ‘ghettoized’ Black folks for decades. One can trace similar spatial practices in Lebanon; however, Lebanon provides a different context for thinking about the dark side of planning and its tools. Lebanon does not have a dominant ruling class or one ruling party. Religious-political organizations, like the Shiite Hezbollah, the Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) , the Sunni Future Movement, and dominant Christian parties, are equally part of the government while also operating outside it. We do not have a dominant nationalist discourse through which sectarian territories are being systematically arranged.
In fact, these public-private hybrid actors have used any and all tools available to remain in power: they hold a grip on the government and its resources, while also dominating communal and public spheres through a myriad of social, political, and paramilitary institutions—almost fully sealing off the possibility of politics outside them. They challenge established divisions between state and market, private and public, government and insurgency, asking us to rethink conceptual categories of geographic production that we often take for granted.
This is very important to think about, because in countries across the region, some commentators see religious groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt as solely being concerned with social welfare, which limits the extent of their claim to power. But in fact they are part and parcel of neoliberal policy-making such as in real estate, and operate spatially within these logics
Indeed, groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or the Turkish AKP (Justice and Development Party) are powerful religious-political organizations that finance their activities in part through a constellation of actors engaged in market activities, including real estate development and housing markets, as well as financialization of land and banking systems—practices that have been widely documented. Therefore, there is a need to move beyond a binary approach which locates these actors as either benefiting from the neoliberal rollback of the welfare state (which never existed in some cases), or celebrated as anti-imperialist entities fighting against imperialist capitalist systems. For example, in my book, I show how Hezbollah’s role in urban development is neither a neoliberal regime tool nor an alternative non-state organization carving its niche outside the capitalist system. Rather than locating Hezbollah as either within or outside the neoliberal economic order, the transformation of Beirut’s peripheries shows how, what came to be seen as Hezbollah’s spaces are in fact produced by the continuities and discontinuities of neoliberal economics with practices of religious affiliation, sectarian construction, service provision, resistance ideology, and militarization. Instead of thinking of religious-political organizations as actors that are either inside or outside the state, inside or outside the market, it is important to recognize how these actors weave in and out of processes and structures as they shape territories and spatially and politically construct otherness. The reality, therefore, is much muddier and requires deep ethnographic engagement with these sites to understand how these actors shape territories.
3. Yes, this was one of the concepts that really struck me in the book. In one of your talks, I remember you highlighting that Lebanese actors involved in urban processes are ‘sometimes the actual state and sometimes outside the state’. The idea of the porous state is a notion that many of us grapple with as we write on urban development in the Middle East. Was it useful to conceptually think of the state and non-state actors in this way?
Through traditional literature on cities and processes of urbanization, we are trained to see entities as either public, as in relating to the state, or private, as in operating through the market. However, while reflecting on field research in Beirut, I faced a dilemma. I could not see a state to discuss in the traditional sense; I could not even write the word ‘state’ because I felt that using that word obscures more than it illuminates the spatial practices I was documenting on the ground. At the same time, I could not say that a state did not exist; on the contrary, planning schemes had to be designed, approved and revised by state entities. Therefore, a discussion of urban spaces could not escape addressing the role of the state, since state agencies remain the generators of laws and urban policies. The difficulty in Lebanon is that people’s conceptualization of the state differs across time and space. For example, its importance often fades completely in discussions of al-Dahiya (commonly known as the southern suburbs of Beirut and considered the stronghold for Hezbollah in the city), where the state is seen as absent and indifferent to the struggles of the Shiite poor. Its role here is widely assumed to have been taken over by Hezbollah—which other discourses have described as operating a ‘state within a state.’ Yet, when discussing the reconstruction of downtown Beirut (before the recent economic and political collapse), the same state may be invoked as strong and capable, establishing Solidere, a private real estate company to construct an ‘ancient city of the future.’ The Lebanese state has thus been seen as mobilizing massive power in consolidating capital to reconstruct the heart of the city, while provincializing its poor peripheries. As we just mentioned, by simultaneously taking positions both ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ the state, Lebanon’s various sectarian religious-political organizations interpolate the idea of the state when beneficial to their strategic positioning, in service of consolidating their popular base and territories.
This is why I have tried to avoid using the word state in the book. Instead, I opted to show how actors operate inside and outside the state, making and unmaking the state on a daily basis. For example, in the case of Sahra Choueifat, I show how the constellation of actors that were involved in the socio-spatial making of the neighborhood includes ministers, parliamentarians, religious figures, developers, and everyday actors like asphalt traders, electricians, and others. The question we then need to ask is how to study spatial production when the state, as an omnipresent entity, is elusive, which I argue is the case in many cities around the world. This conceptualization thus moves away from and de-centers the dominant narrative of the binary between the state and private actors in urban and planning scholarship that is mostly rooted in cities of the Global North.
This is certainly an important epistemological approach to think through that resonates across many contexts. It also reminds me of how you complicate other categories such as legal-illegal and formal-informal. It seems that these different actors can also be informal or legal at different points in time, which dictates the types of practices they engage in.
Yes, exactly. Previously, I studied the development of Ouzaii, which is a prominent squatter settlement in the southern peripheries of Beirut, next to Beirut’s international airport. In Ouzaii, the narrative of informality followed the usual pattern in many ways: the occupation of land, building without permits, etc. Ouzaii does not lie far from the three sites I cover in my book. However, Hayy Madi, Doha Aramoun, and Sahra Choueifat are thought of as ‘formal’ neighborhoods (the latter a little less so). Most buildings in these areas have permits; land is purchased through the market, and so on. However, the construction of these formal neighborhoods involves informal practices, many of which were sanctioned by governmental actors themselves. Therefore, urban development activities in the three neighborhoods fall on a spectrum of formality/informality, such as discretionary practices of interpreting the building law, tweaking zoning maps, communal installation of electricity without approvals, and others. In Doha Aramoun, for example, I talk about the ‘ballooning’ of buildings, a common practice by developers to increase their built square foot extralegally, and at no extra cost in order to make additional profit. It is a form of invisible informality that is common not only in Beirut, and is just one example of a range of practices that are on the spectrum of in/formality. This is why I consciously did not use the words in/formal or il/legal in my book, opting instead to show how housing construction and land markets are constantly being negotiated through sectarian networks.
These are great examples of what you talk about as the processes of ‘negotiating informality’. We realize that in most cases, practices are bound to be informal, and it is simply a matter of finding out how far these practices can be tolerated.
This is exactly where the concept of ballooning came from. I used words that engineers and bureaucrats in the municipality were using in their everyday language like ballooning buildings (nafkh al-binayat), and I began to see ballooning as a metaphor for how construction is practiced in areas like Doha Aramoun. This became especially visible one day when I was looking out the window from my family’s apartment. I saw a neighbouring building that was under construction and ‘ballooning’ in real time. The developer planted extra columns overnight and workers were in the process of extending the slabs to enlarge the footprint of the building, which would have infringed on the section of public space required by law as part of any development. As I witnessed the building ballooning, I also realized that there are limits to ballooning, a limit to this form of informality. The developer cannot grow the building beyond a certain point because that informality would have become visible, and structurally dangerous. The borders of the ballooning must be constantly negotiated with a constellation of actors, including municipal officers, representatives of powerful religious-political organizations on the ground, and neighbors, to define the limits of that form of informality.
4. Using these localized approaches and meanings changes the epistemes that we are familiar with in urban studies. Another such concept that you address is the periphery. In urban theory, there have been important debates on where cities begin and end, and how to conceptualize areas that are marginalized by the center spatially and socially. Through a discussion of these localized practices, you challenge the category of the periphery and instead push us to think in terms of frontiers. Can you speak to why frontiers here make more sense, and how did you construct this ontology from the bottom-up?
Within urban research, there are seemingly clear spatial categories: periphery, center, and frontier. The periphery has been a powerful concept used both in discussions of specific areas of cities in the Global South, and more generally in urban theory. For instance, the term has been used as a description of informal, auto-constructed spaces, often excluded from the center but also asserting their potential for destabilizing this core. In his book ‘For the City Yet to Come,’—which my work closely engages with—AbdouMaliq Simone beautifully illustrates how peripheries, while often left out of the center, are always waiting for the center to engulf them. Those hopes have materialized in many cities around the world as informal peripheries find themselves part of the center as cities expand and urbanize. However, in cities like Beirut, issues of sectarianism, wars, and territorial competition have introduced a darker reality to such areas. In Beirut’s peripheries, and many areas in Lebanon, land has a religion. My three research sites: Hayy Madi, Sahra Choueifat and Doha Aramoun, are not only peripheries of Beirut but they also peripheries of the peripheries, particularly Al-Dahiya which is considered a Shiite stronghold and a major node and center in Hezbollah’s transnational geographies of finance, militarization, and religion. The surrounding peripheries used to be inhabited by families of other sectarian groups. Therefore, while these peripheries have enabled middle- and low-income families to secure housing on the fringes of an expensive city with scarce affordable housing, they have also been transformed to contested sectarian frontiers of urban growth. As Beirut and al-Dahiya continue to urbanize, these areas emerged as zones of friction, seen as undergoing sectarian demographic change. Such processes of urbanization transformed Beirut’s peripheries through continuous cycles of sectarian violence into frontiers, and the possibility of being displaced again is always looming as future wars are expected to erupt.
I am personally familiar with life in the periphery-turned-frontier and how a ‘boring bedroom community’ was gradually transformed into a place where one has to always be prepared for some round of violence and to be on the move again. While thankful for Doha Aramoun for allowing them the possibility of home ownership, my family and many others continue to have a packed bag with the most important belongings in case any local altercations lead to large-scale violence that requires temporary displacement, which happens occasionally.
This makes a lot of sense. It seems that these areas are becoming the battlegrounds for the war yet to come, but have also moved power away from the centre.
Indeed. These areas illustrate how much the city has become unaffordable for its residents. Neoliberal urban policies have caused residents to seek homes in the peripheries, similar to many cities globally. But in the context of Lebanon, these families have to deal with the added layer of everyday militarization of urban space arranged within the logics of past wars and present contestations, as well as the anticipation of future wars.
Although it is not necessarily pessimistic, you are dealing with this idea of the periphery as a frontier, which may seem to be doomsday-making.
There is a pragmatic attitude to everyday spatial practices under conditions of ongoing conflict that one could describe as ‘making do.’ It challenges top-down narratives about a city that is described and imagined only as sectarian-segregated and in continuous conflict. In peripheries-turned-frontiers, although residents continue to live through cycles of violence, they have built and continue to build homes and arrange their everyday lives (go to work, send their children to school, go to gyms, socialize). If a battle erupts, they grab their readily-prepared emergency bags and simply leave. Thus, while the urbanization of peripheries-turned-frontiers is produced within a framework of past wars and expected future wars, I was relieved to observe how sectarianism was made and unmade through everyday life practices in these contested zones. That gave me the hope that we are not ‘doomed’ to live with its recurrent and mutating forms of violence. If sectarianism is made through daily practices, then there is hope that its geographies could also be undone, possibly allowing for new forms of political life to emerge, which we saw coalesce for a moment during the October 2019 uprising in Lebanon.
Is the ’war yet to come’ about a future of war?
When I use the phrase ‘the war yet to come’ I do not imply a future that is definitely about war. Instead, the war yet to come is about the ways in which the present is organized in anticipation of wars, regardless of whether or not they ever come Even if war never materializes, the logic of expected wars manifests in daily practices, such as where residents choose to live, contestation over zoning designations, and an overarching paramilitary and security logic of urbanization.
I would also like to elaborate further on the concept of militarization. The research on militarization in geography has been mainly the domain of white male theorists and policy experts. Within these frameworks, war and militarization are conceptualized as top-down interventions, mostly theorized from a distance. Grounded accounts of war and conflict, on the other hand, fall mostly under the writing genre of war journalism. Instead, what I try to do in my research is to think about militarization and para-militarization from the ground up through an ethnographic investigation of everyday life using a feminist postcolonial lens. One of the ways I do this is by turning to data that is much more diverse than just army and paramilitary discourses, weapon technologies, and maps of destruction. Instead, my study of the geographies of war involves taking seriously residents’ daily discourses, the circulation of rumors in neighborhoods, gendered gossip in spaces such as cafes, gyms, and nail salons. Using a feminist outlook, I treat these sources of knowledge on par with other sources I collected from maps, government reports, and experts accounts. At the same time, my postcolonial approach delineates everyday life as a legitimate site of urban theory, showing how seemingly constructed binaries such as war and peace, destruction and construction, home and displacement, are intimately entangled.
I strongly believe this epistemological turn in valuing different forms of data is crucial in urban research, especially as we locate spaces at the margins. Scholars are constantly juggling to accommodate these different types of knowledge, but also developing serious analysis that portrays these realities.
We have to take seriously the conversations that occur in communal spaces like grocery stores, hair salons, gyms, cafes, and in group gatherings in private spaces like over family dinners. These spaces are critical to how rumors and knowledges are circulated. Whether war is coming or not, where to buy an apartment, which rumors of militarization are circulating, which political groups are buying real estate, etc., are all common topics at dinner tables, and they have spatial as well as socio-economic and political consequences. In order to develop a complex understanding of how urban spaces are produced, these discourses and daily practices are just as critical as top-down master planning tools and expert policy briefs.
5. For many authors, it is very difficult to create the space for realistic hopefulness especially when you are dealing with home. One of your case studies, ‘Doha Aramoun’ is the neighborhood you call home in Beirut. What was it like to do fieldwork at home?
Doha Aramoun, where I grew up after the end of the civil war, became a site of my inquiry while I was working on my doctoral research. At the time, I was living with my family in Doha Aramoun and commuting to neighboring Sahra Choueifat and Hayy Madi, the two areas where I started my research years before. As I learned about planning and urbanization in Sahra Chouiefat and Hayy Madi, I gradually started to look critically at Doha Aramoun, which until then I thought of as a familiar ‘boring’ neighborhood; my home. During the war, and for decades afterwards, Doha Aramoun experienced frenzied urbanization as buildings rose from the ground one after the other, replacing existing villas and what remained of the green hills that used to characterize the area. Then during the events of May 2008, the city came closest to a new civil war and Doha Aramoun was transformed into a battle zone where dozens were killed, and many families, including my own, had to temporarily leave the area. Later, as buildings continued to rise and balloon in the area’s neighborhoods, they were accompanied by local contestation against this new construction. I transformed my everyday engagement with the area, especially around the politics of the built environment, into an auto-ethnographic lens to examine Doha Aramoun’s urban development as it intersected with war and militarization, from my positionality as someone who grew up there.
Although this periphery has always been home since my parents moved there right after the end of the civil war, I realized that it was in fact barely familiar. In essence, I had an ‘intimate estrangement’ with an area that I called home for decades– a place that is familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. As I started to understand the fascinating processes of Doha Aramoun’s urbanization, both the violent and the mundane, I also started becoming interested in deconstructing the area’s image as a boring bedroom suburb where nothing happens—not only contemporarily but also historically. For example, Doha Aramoun is an interesting site for which to understand the role that the Syrian Armed Forces (SAF) played in the urbanization of the town (and other towns in Lebanon), such as setting-up checkpoints in vacated buildings in neighborhoods. Growing up surrounded by three Syrian Armed Forces checkpoints, it was common to hear stories about a developer’s negotiations and bribes to the SAF about how many floors they could build, how residents need to get SAF’s approval to enclose a balcony for indoor use, and for me personally, safety instructions from parents on how to walk under the gaze of SAF’s soldiers and their pointed rifles as I ran errands in the neighborhood. Through my auto-ethnographic engagement with Doha Aramoun, I realized that these forms of everyday circulated knowledges were central to the ‘intimate estrangement’ I felt with my home, which I gradually learned is one of the most territorially contested peripheries-turned-frontiers of Beirut.
6. In your new research, you are looking at post-conflict cities in the region more generally and within Beirut as well. Can you tell us more about this work?
There are several research initiatives that I am currently working on. I continue to work on a Ford Foundation-funded project that looks at urban activism in conflict and post-conflict cities within the Middle East region, centering the discussion of Middle East urbanism with conversations in other geographies, especially cities in conflict globally. The grant enabled me to set up the Post-Conflict Cities Lab at the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) at Columbia University. Through the lab, we have brought together scholars, activists, and independent researchers to have a series of conversations on housing, urban activism, and public engagement, making sure to engage with different sets of skills from practice, activism, and academia to plan these conversations. We convened several such events, which we had to move to online platforms with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic including the widely attended conference in March 2021 on ‘Planning Futures: On Postcolonial, Decolonial, and Abolitionist Planning,’ a much-needed conversation about urban planning and racism. The grant also funded several conversations on rethinking cities post-pandemic and focused on Beirut’s reconstruction after the August 4, 2020 explosion that tore the city apart.
As for my own scholarly research, I am currently working on a book project entitled Sedimentary Urbanization. Even if the future of a city can only be imagined as bleak, particularly for marginalized populations, plans still need to be made for it to be inhabited, arranged, and contested. My current research is concerned with the following question: if the imagined, planned future was halted or remained unfinished due to unanticipated events, what I call a ‘dead future,’ what other futures emerge instead in these geographies? In exploring the afterlives of foreclosed futures, Sedimentary Urbanization also focuses on contemporary Beirut. I turn, once again, to ethnographic and archival methods to investigate configurations that have emerged from previous imaginations of the future of Beirut’s peripheries. In exploring the foreclosure of once-optimistic visions, the book focuses on the mutation of housing modalities over time as geopolitical conditions shifted from an era of nation-building (1950s-60s), to civil war (1975-1990), its strategic aftermath, and finally, to a period dominated by the mass influx of Syrian refugees (2011-present). I develop the framework of sedimentary urbanism as both a theoretical lens and a method of inquiry into urbanization and spatial production.
7. Your work is part of an emergent body of work theorizing on and from cities in the Middle East, which has been a dilemma for many of us. Do you see the region as part of the debate on southern urbanisms? Is the term ‘southern’ useful when looking at MENA cities?
I consider myself a participant in the debates on decentering urban and planning theory and rethinking from a Southern perspective. I locate myself in the agenda that seeks to provincialize Euro-centric mainstream theory by theorizing from the South and promoting South-South academic collaborations that allow us to think relationally about urbanism. However, even in these spaces of insurgent theorization, the Middle East remains marginalized, often seen as an anomaly. Even scholars theorizing from the Global South or southern urbanism remain unsure of what the region has to offer beyond its particularities, given how outlandish its socio-economic and political conditions seem to be. Works emerging from the region are thus often relegated to the domain of area studies. As a result, scholars working on Middle East cities have our work cut out for us given the double task to generate scholarly work from the region, while also showing how this work is relevant and has the potential to illuminate wider and global conversations on cities and urbanism. Yet, I think we have made progress in this regard. We are in an exciting moment witnessing new urban scholarship emerging from the region contributing to global conversations.
It is within these spaces of possibilities that I started becoming excited about theorizing about the war yet to come beyond Beirut, taking for example, how the notion of anticipated futures of violence also shapes the geography of New York City after the attacks of September 11, 2001 (this being the other city I now consider home). In fact, there are many urban design and planning interventions around New York City that are configured within the logic of the expected terror yet to come. For instance, there is an invisible ditch on the West Side Highway that separates traffic and the bike path, hidden under a layer of landscaping, to halt the possibility of a car attack by enemy vehicles. Similarly, the future of climate change is a dystopic future that shapes all our cities and is configuring the ways in which we organize and govern our cities and spaces in the present. Therefore, while the ‘yet to’ of Beirut is that about expected futures of war, theorizing from Beirut about geographies of anticipated futures of crises could help us think relationally about other geographies shaped by different forms of foreclosed or contested futures.
8. Urban knowledge production in the MENA region has focused, on the one hand, on questions of top-down development and technocratic approaches; and on the other, situated case studies on techno-politics, grassroots development and urban citizenships. What types of new urban scholarship emerging from/on the region have you found to be the most exciting for the discipline?
This really is an exciting moment for urban studies in the Middle East. A couple of studies come to mind. First, Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s ‘Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine’ is a powerful account of how waste is being used by Israel as a subjugation tool and plays an integral role in the constructing of the settler colonialism spatial ideology. Similarly, in the United Arab Emirates, Gökçe Günel’s ‘Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi’ gives an interesting account on the planners of Masdar City. Also, Koenraad Bogaert’s work on urban politics in Morocco in ‘Globalized Authoritarianism: Megaprojects, Slums, and Class Relations in Urban Morocco’ has been crucial to understand the larger impacts of the neoliberal period. Mona Atia’s book, Building a House in Heaven: Pious Neoliberalism and Islamic Charity in Egypt, and her new work on poverty mapping in Morocco and Egypt are also generative conversations on urbanism, religion and the economy. Important scholarship is also being produced by urban institutes in the region, such as the Beirut Urban Lab at the American University of Beirut, which has been pivotal in cultivating novel ways to collect data and theorize about urbanization from cities in the Middle East region and the Global South more generally. This exciting moment has also been shaped by online platforms, such as Arab Urbanism and before that Jadaliyya Cities, invested in producing and publishing emerging critical work on urbanization in the region.
Yes and we have also just seen the launching of the the Middle East Urban Studies (MEUS) book series with American University in Cairo Press, which aims to publish more critical urban studies research from the region.
9. One issue that has emerged from this new research is the tense relationship between the academy and activism. In Beirut, urban uprisings are taking shape, such as in the aftermath of the 2015 waste collection protests, while protests were re-ignited again in October 2019 and during today’s pandemic lockdown. A hopeful reading sees these uprisings as the start of the secularization of protest. How have these mobilizations affected urban research and practice and do they shape a better ‘what is yet to come’?
I was very lucky to be in Lebanon during the October 17, 2019 uprising. It was one of the few periods of my life where I felt ‘cautiously’ hopeful for politics in Lebanon. Hearing people chanting ‘shed your sect’ was exhilarating, and I felt for a moment that people were willing to dismantle that system of oppression that has held us hostage to violence and war for decades. I sincerely wanted my book to be proven wrong, for my family and friends to stop living in the perpetual expectation of war, and for the ‘yet to’ to stop being about expecting the sound of battles. However, while chanting in the streets, I was also skeptical as to how we could dismantle these entrenched sectarian structures. And while we all wanted sectarianism and war to die under our marching feet, those dreams were soon usurped by a terrifying economic crisis: people have so far lost more than 90% of the value of their currency, the banks locked their savings, and on August 4, 2020, the third deadliest explosion globally ripped their city apart, killing more than 210 people killed and displacing thousands. Several people have committed suicide since because they cannot provide for their families anymore.
In Beirut, and many cities around the world, there is a constant struggle of clinging to hope while holding despair. Although in my research and political activism I see and hear despair, I also try to mark and hold on to the hopeful moments that come out of field research and the many hopeful moments that came from uprisings in Beirut, New York, and in cities across the globe. I remember an interview I conducted with David Harvey with a colleague in 2013 after the end of the Occupy movement, at a time when I was really disenchanted about the point of protest efforts. Harvey suggested that we should not think only in terms of the end of uprisings, but also to learn to recognize the forms of solidarity and community networks that emerge in the process, that we could sustain to keep building political spaces of change. I sincerely believe, these infrastructures will be at the crux of future uprisings in Beirut and elsewhere.
Thank you very much for this Hiba, this rings true with what’s happening in Egypt as well, and really hits home for many of us who have the same hopes and despairs.
Noura Wahby is an Assistant Professor at the Public Policy and Administration Department at the American University in Cairo. She completed her PhD and ESRC-funded post-doctorate at the University of Cambridge, focusing on the politics of urban infrastructure in Cairo, Egypt.