Planning for War in Beirut

For the War Yet to Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers, by Hiba Bou Akar (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2018).

Reviewed by Alice Stefanelli, Durham University

Hiba Bou Akar’s For the War Yet to Come is a comprehensive investigation of spatial and planning practices in Beirut and their implications in the production of sectarian geographies. The monograph draws from long-term fieldwork and extensive archival research to outline how three peripheral neighborhoods—Hayy Madi/Mar Mikhail, Sahra Choueifat, and Doha Aramoun—have become the theater of an ongoing power struggle among religious-political actors, set against the anticipation of future conflict.

After a thorough introduction to the political and planning history of Beirut, the central chapters of the book are devoted to the in-depth analysis of the strategies that actors in these three neighborhoods employ to expand or entrench their territorial control. Each chapter explores, further, one of three “urbanisation concepts” (p. 33)—doubleness, lacework, ballooning. These chapters show how political parties and religious institutions, from Hezbollah to the Maronite Church, employ and appropriate urban planning tools and market mechanisms to advance their own political and military interests and secure the upper hand over their sectarian neighbors-cum-rivals.

One strength of this book is that Bou Akar sets these processes clearly against a background of collective anticipation of renewed inter-communal violence. Taken together, the different case-studies show convincingly that decisions over land use and building practices reflect tactical interests, rather than any technical planning rationality, and that planning arrangements made in times of peace are geared towards an ever-looming time of war. The image of Beirut that emerges from this analysis is that of a city that is being prepared for conflict, rather than for a brighter future. Bou Akar’s key proposition is in fact that planning practice in Beirut is emptied of its optimistic character and developmental aspirations, becoming a mere instrument of power and brokerage in the context of a complex game of chess that is at once sectarian and spatial. If, for instance, inhabitants in Sahra Choueifat are forced to live next doors to factories, it is because this zoning arrangement helps maintaining the balance between Hezbollah and the Progressive Socialist Party, regardless of the potential harm to people in the neighborhood from industrial pollution.

Although Bou Akar’s work is rooted in urban planning, it has a distinct ethnographic flavor, and another of the book’s strengths is that it offers a multi-level analysis. She does not only focus on religious-political actors, but also encompasses the experiences and perspectives of state planners alongside those of ordinary inhabitants. The book is most refreshing when it examines municipal planners as full ethnographic subjects. Bou Akar emphasizes that, despite their best efforts to resist political pressures, planners are invariably relieved of their professional duties and reduced to mere clerks, “technicians of the war yet to come” (p. 172). Their only task is that of formalizing on municipal maps the informal decisions already taken by political actors. Bou Akar paints a vivid and well-rounded picture of these actors. The figure of “Mister I” (Chapter 3), whose story we follow throughout a decade of political and planning history, becomes emblematic of the frustrations and endless compromises that planners are forced to accept in the face of political parties’ “dirty operations” (amaliyyiat wishka, p. 97). In so doing, the book also nuances a common narrative in anthropology according to which planners are “natural” allies of political elites, eager to do their bidding regardless of any negative consequences that might befall inhabitants. In this respect, the book could have engaged more thoroughly with anthropological literature on experts and expertise, which Bou Akar does acknowledge, to further mark out the ways in which For the War Yet to Come offers a different perspective.

Bou Akar is likewise successful in conveying the fears and anxieties that inhabitants of previously socially-homogeneous spaces (called bi’a, or natural environment) feel at the perceived encroachment of a sectarian “other.” In Doha Aramoun (Chapter 4), the purchase or lease of apartments by Shi’a families is an alarm bell to existing inhabitants, fearful of the potential extension of Hezbollah’s influence in the area. These worries are also motivated by Beirutis’ constant fear that a war might break out at any point, and that domestic living spaces occupied by neighbors might be taken over by militias and turned into enemy outposts. With its attention for the ways in which identity, fear of violence and planning intersect, the book adds to a growing body of literature which investigates the everyday production of sectarian identities and the everyday anticipation of war.

Overall, Bou Akar shows that this peculiar combination of planning, politics, and the expectation of violence has produced a fragmented urban spatiality where the peripheries are transformed into the frontlines-in-waiting of an anticipated but not yet manifested conflict. By highlighting the role of geographically marginal spaces in the unfolding of inter-sectarian conflict, Bou Akar compels scholars to rethink assumptions about the role of center and periphery in the shaping of urban politics, in Beirut and elsewhere. For the War Yet to Come makes an important contribution to urban studies, to be sure. Moreover, while the book is in strong dialogue with the already rich scholarship of planning and politics in Lebanon, its insights apply more broadly to contexts of urban political conflict well beyond Beirut and the Arab world.

[[EDITORIAL NOTE: For further, related reading in PoLAR reviews, see Joanne Rando Nucho’s review of War is Coming by Sami Hermez.]