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Beirut: A City of Security

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #15&16 Autumn 2010 Winter  2011

Mona Fawaz

Mona Fawaz is Associate Professor in the Masters of Urban Planning and Policy/Masters of Urban Design programs at the American University of Beirut. Her research spans contemporary and historical investigations of Beirut’s spatial production, taken notably from the perspective of low-income urban dwellers. Her publications include “Hezbollah as Urban Planner? Questions To and From Planning Theory”, Planning Theory, 2009 (8): 323-334 and “An Unusual Clique of City-Makers: Social Networks in the Production of a Neighborhood in Beirut (1950-75)”, 2008, 32(3), 565-585.

Beirut: A City of Security

In Christmas 2007, my three-year-old son received from Santa Claus a city construction kit. As he unpacked his toy and assembled building components, he came inquiring about one of the pieces. Much to my surprise, that “city piece” was a surveillance camera, which the toy manufacturer had included as part of the city’s building blocks. Marwan’s Christmas present left me wondering about the inscription of the security infrastructure in the organization of the city and the normalization of surveillance as one (perhaps dominant) form of social relation through which urban dwellers interact. It also forced me to take a second look at the city in which I have grown and lived, Beirut, a city torn by successive conflicts, demarcated by zillions of boundaries, and where “security” has become entrenched in the organization of almost all spaces.

A rapid scan of the recent literature on the city swiftly confirmed my suspicions: there was nothing unusual about the proliferation of security mechanisms in Beirut. London, Paris, New York, Sao Paulo, and many other cities now flaunt heavy security mechanisms. For at least a decade, scholars have reflected on their repercussions on the public realm and on the professional practices of urban planners and designers.)1( Still, the complex entanglement of threats – international war, political crime, religious/ sectarian strife, and income inequalities- seems to generate a powerful mix, unique to Beirut. The overlap of recent security measures with historical layers of spatial divisions has also deeply entrenched security systems, which now considerably influence urban practices. Yet, there are few opportunities for urban dwellers to debate the effects of security publicly.

These observations strengthened my concerns with security in/of the city. They also brought me closer to exploring the possibilities I have as a “public academic” in an American University of the South: How does one combine research, teaching, and activist work in ways that can be simultaneously useful to one’s discipline and peers and one’s context(2) ? Over the past three years, with the help of several colleagues, I have tried to engage with security in both local and international/scholarly contexts. In doing so, my main aim has been to carve platforms where serious discussions about the significance of the security/city nexus can be carried. This essay is an attempt to reflect on these experiences. The first attempt was to assign to the thirty students enrolled in my Introduction to Urban Theory the task of documenting the security systems deployed in/around the neighborhood where each of them lived. This was, I thought, a way to test my assessment of how security was influencing life in the City, the visibility, extent, and consequences of its deployment. The students came back with narratives that widely confirmed my evaluation: they described restrictions sometimes as extreme as closed-off neighborhood blocks or traffic deviated away from main circulation arteries. They recorded street signs, surveillance cameras, concrete blocks, barbed wire, metal barriers, plastic cones, check points, and observation towers among the many constituents of the architecture of security that they navigated daily. It was also clear that the security deployment interferes with everyone’s daily practices. Dana, for example, lives in the same apartment building with a politician whose “personal safety” had “necessitated” blocking off the only building’s staircase in order to restrict vertical circulation to the elevator that was deemed more easily controllable. This was not only a fire hazard but also a daily inconvenience to neighbors trapped home during electricity outages. Michel’s bedroom had also lost its window openings since the Minister who lives across directed surveillance cameras to the windows that face his property. “I don’t open the curtains anymore,” Michel explained, “who wants to be videotaped in his bedroom?” As for André, it was the ride to the gym that had been extended by 10 minutes because several roads on his way had been closed for bikers.

The students’ findings allowed me to decipher the multiplicity of security regimes which co-exist in the city. Several public (e.g. police, national army) and private (e.g. private security companies, neighborhood dwellers’ watch, militias, etc.) security systems had come to overlap, and it is sometimes difficult to clearly categorize them. Each of these systems had also identified (or constructed) different threats (e.g. popular riot, political assassination, petty crime, etc.) and it is not unusual for one system’s “threat” to be another’s “object of protection”. These systems have also often reorganized social hierarchies where they have been deployed- most notably when “targeted” political figures establish residence in highend neighborhoods where, until then, the wealthy had gated entrances to keep the poor away. The students’ comments didn’t however entirely confirm my assessment of the security systems. My distaste for what I described as “restrictions imposed on the daily practice of public spaces” was protested by several students who identified with security mechanisms and indeed felt “safer” because of their proliferation. Farah, for example, had seen “others” come in her neighborhood on motorbikes, wreaking havoc in its quiet life, and she was grateful to the Lebanese Army for positioning tanks around the neighborhood entrances… even as she conceded that her father disliked the fact that she had to interact with young male soldiers on her way from/to home. Sarah, a foreign student who lived alone in Beirut, explained that she had deliberately opted to live near a politician so she can benefit from the “protection”. In sum, things were more complicated than I thought and the issue was not limited to denouncing the proliferation of security. It was rather, once again, about carving the space for a public debate about who is protected, who was protecting, and how threats were being constructed, adopted, and changed in Beirut.

The opportunity to push this engagement further was afforded by the project that I completed a couple of years later for the Rotterdam Architectural Biennale 2009, in collaboration with colleagues Ahmad Gharbieh and Mona Harb (maps are used to illustrate this document).(3) With the help of research assistants, we mapped the “security system” throughout Municipal Beirut thinking of what is being secured and how. We attempted to unravel the intersections between public and private security, riot and crime control, religious spatial divisions, income distributions, etc. We also tried to analyze mobility by mapping individual trajectories in relation to security and spatial boundaries. Reflecting back on this period, I think of the hundreds of animated conversations that we carried, questions about what could be mapped and what couldn’t, and how far we could push our observations before raising suspicions. The field research was itself informative: where and when research assistants were intercepted, arrested, or questioned provided good indications on what could be told. This is why I believe that the maps we produced were not only a tool for representation; they were also a method for reflection and a weapon for change.(4) Our maps provide us –and hopefully others- with a way to take stock of the extent of security and react to its presence.

Not surprisingly, other students, colleagues, journalists, and artists were also thinking about security. We compiled as many projects and commentaries on security as we could to produce the Beirut Security paper, a publication that was launched through the Rotterdam’s 2009 Open City architectural biennale. Beirut Security immediately gained the appreciation of our colleagues. Even those who expressed reservations about some of its omissions considered it an important contribution. It was timely, we were told, and it indeed forced everyone to react, to defend, decry, nuance, emphasize, or reject some of its contents. The remaining challenge was to produce an Arabic version that could be locally disseminated beyond the limited English-speaking audience. This is the task that we are now undertaking, having included a handful of additional contributors who have enriched our original work with their photography, illustrations, comics, and reflections. This, we are hoping, will be the opportunity to engage a wider audience, to provide the material on the basis of which a public discussion can happen.(5)

As an academic, I also felt the necessity to enrich my reflections on security by engaging scholars who have reflected on security in other geographic contexts, not only to question the normalization of security but also to help understand how it contributes to the creation of new subjectivities, new forms of transgression, and perhaps new imaginaries. These themes –and others- were raised in the context of an international conference that I helped organize in Spring 2010 at the American University of Beirut.(6) Bringing together world renowned (and less established) scholars, the conference contrasted international experiences, thinking notably about how notions like “security”, generally deployed to defend a western “us” against an “other”, have been adopted, remolded, and redeployed in the Global South to entrench existing social hierarchies, generate new divisions, but also elicit new practices of transgression.

One way in which the conference influenced me personally was by forcing me to acknowledge the competence that Beirutis had developed in navigating security and the multiple forms in which individual transgressions daily intercepted its systems. Looking back at the student work, I recall now how Sarah interacted with the guards under her building as “good looking guys”, how André could predict and circumvent the level of scrutiny that he would be subjected to by his dress code, or again how Wassef knew where he could enter the security perimeter biking and where he couldn’t. As much as I still believed in denouncing security, I also began to relish the resilience of urban dwellers and I hence find it useful to conclude this essay thinking through security as a moment to transgress. This year, my partner gave me for Christmas a tiny pocket camera built-in a typical car-clicker, a “surveillance tool”, it was marketed. These days, I walk around Beirut and shiver at the thought of taking pictures where I am not allowed, smile at the soldiers as I click on my button and count: one more tank, it’s kind of fun to have them as targets!

  1. By way of example, see Coaffee, Jon. Terrorism, War, and the City: The Making of a Contemporary Landscapes. London: Ashgate Publishing, 2003; Graham, Stephen. Cities, War, and Terrorism: Towards an Urban Geopolitics, London: Blackwell, 2004; Caldeira, Teresa. City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in Sao Paulo. CA: University of California Press, 2001; and Dikec, Mustafa. Badlands of the Republic: Space, Politics, and Urban Policy. London: Blackwell-Wiley, 2007.
  2. See, for example, Massey, Doreen. “When Theory Meets Politics” Antipode 40(3): 492–497
  3. The Beirut Security publication was curated by Philipp Misselwitz and Can Altay, as part of the

    “Refuge” exhibit in the 2009 Architectural Biennale in Rotterdam titled Open City. The project

    was partially funded by Prince Claus,…

  4. See Ahmad Gharbieh, “On Mapping” in Beirut Security
  5. The Arabic version of Beirut Security is due for publication with al-Akhbar daily by midSeptember 2010.
  6. This was organized in the context of the City Debates event, the yearly conference organized  by the Masters in Urban Planning and Policy/ Masters in Urban Design programs at the American University of Beirut. Hiba Bou Akar, a visiting scholar at the American University of Beirut during the 2009/2010 academic year was a main engine behind the organization of City Debates 2010: Security of/in the City. Philipp Misselwitz and Mona Harb also co-organized this conference.



    Survey conducted between February and July 2009

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