Tag Archives: Beirut

“Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop

Back in March I participated in the “Urban land and conflict in the global South” workshop organized by Melanie Lombard of the Global Urban Research Centre at the University of Manchester.  It was a good occasion to reflect on urban conflict in the frame of urban informality and I am now preparing an article on the new informal boundaries in Beirut  post-2008 clashes.

Melanie wrote a brief thematic summary outlining avenues for future research. You can read it here:


Sara Fregonese

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We need to talk about fieldwork. And hotels.

During my latest fieldwork trip in Beirut last September, I was interviewed by The National, an UAE-based newspaper in English. This article on the significance of Beirut’s war-torn buildings appeared yesterday.

Parallel to my British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellowship on sovereignty and urban infrastructure in Beirut which has kept me busy in the last 3 years, I have been working on another, smaller British Academy-sponsored research on the role of international hotels in pre-war Beirut as sites of geopolitical experiences and significance in the everyday life of cities. The theme is inspired by a session that Klaus Dodds and I organised at the 2010 RGS-IBG on hotels and geopolitics.

The overarching question here is: Why and how do cities go from coexistence to communitarian violence in such a little time as it happened in Beirut?

I worked on this during the last couple of trips to Beirut (June 2011 in archives and September 2012 with interviews). The case of Beirut’s former hotels area, and especially the Holiday Inn hotel, can provide answers.

Roughly 1 square km near the north-western waterfront of Beirut’s reconstructed city centre, included between the neighborhoods of Ayn el Mreisset, Minet el Hosn and Kantari, nowadays lies in ruins. In 1976, this area went from being a diverse international mobility hub – comprising hotels, embassies, bars, banks, and located besides a highway connected to the airport – to one of the roughest battleground of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991). But Between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, as I got to know the urban history in detail, this area was full of life. According to a 1974 tourist guide, the area used to host 18 international hotels 10 restaurants (Lebanese and international), at least 5 night clubs (plus dozens more less reputable ones), 6 cabarets and 1 theatre. But in the early 1970s, the quality of the place started to decline when the price of the land soared and independent owners started to struggle to keep up with rents and maintain the quality of the local entertainment. Part of the area became a low-end night entertainment hub, as magazines of the time show, and the area was defined as a place where one could go if “they wanted women”, as an interviewee put it.

Advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, ca 1974.

“Around the world and now in Lebanon”: advertisement for Beirut’s Holiday Inn, Al Hawadess magazine, 31 August 1973

While the first fieldwork was mainly digging into local archives, this September I focused on interviews. Apart from a series of more formal conversations with architects, political analysts, and academics, there was all a part of the fieldwork which involved casual conversations with locals of the neighbourhood. Every early morning my RA and I went to the former hotel area, recorded our conversations with people still residing in the neighborhood – among whom some of the older ones who could remember the events. Some conversations were short: 2 or 3 minutes. Others were much longer, and one ended with a shopkeeper making us coffee and telling us about his global connections in the 1960s with the local diplomatic personnel – including a vatican embassy employee who used to bring him classic trousers from Italy. We also used 1960s urban planning maps to understand the changes that happened the area, in a process of urban archaeology that gave way to some interesting discoveries.I had the luck of being assisted by two bright researchers: Imad Aoun of RHUL who translated meticulously the archive material in Arabic and pilot interviews that I collected during the first trip; and Simona Loi from Lebanese International University, who walked with me wherever the research took us, from dead-end alleyways, churches, former cemeteries, primary schools, or abandoned hotel lobbies.

This shopkeeper told me that his shop used to be on the fire line of snipers hidden in the Holiday Inn hotel. The hotel, actually, towers over from the end of the street. Photo: Sara Fregonese.

The Holiday Inn hotel nowadays. Photo: Sara Fregonese

Now it’s data analysis time and I am about to hire an artist to design an artefact that is unique to the history of this site. For me, one important issue is to understand whether and how the presence of a certain ‘temporary’ built environment constructed around mobility and flows – hotels, embassies, and temporarily inhabited architectures for open, mobile social groups like tourists, diplomats, and business people – influenced the demise and takeover of the area by militias.

Sara Fregonese

Related publications:

Fregonese, S. (2012) Between a refuge and a battleground. Beirut’s discrepant cosmopolitanisms. In: Geographical Review, Vol. 102, 2012, p. 316–336.

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The Lion in the Room. Or, how to cope during tough times in Beirut.

Beirut is certainly one of the cities where geopolitical processes are most entwined in its everyday life.

A video has just been released, showing the Chase Restaurant in Sassine Square in Beirut, at the moment of the explosion of the car bomb which on Friday 19 October killed General Wissam al Hassan, Head of the intelligence branch of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces.

Video of the moment of the explosion at Sassine Square.

Last Friday, the delicate relationship between Lebanon and neighboring Syria, the attempts to expand the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, and the renewed polarisation of the Lebanese political and sectarian scene since the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in 2005, all materialised in this powerful blast. It came from a car bomb parked in a narrow street between a bank and some residential buildings, adjacent to the lively Sassine Square, the heart of traditional Christian Beirut, but now becoming more and more populated with Shi’a middle class residents.

After the bomb, came the funeral, and after the funeral, came the protest for the government to resign, and for the first time since the Lebanese civil war, the Ottoman-epoch Government building, the Serail, came under violent attack by demonstrators.

There are clear leads connecting this bomb with Syria and the regime of Bashar al-Assad (Assad in Arabic means ‘Lion’). Last Summer, General Al-Hasan ordered the arrest of former minister of information Michel Samaha. Wiretapping and intelligence agents had caught Samaha plotting with the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau Ali al-Mamlouk  to bring explosives into Lebanon and blow up Sunni political exponents.

Yesterday the French foreign minister declared that a Syrian involvement is ‘probable’.

While the geopolitical balance of the region is once more in question after Friday, the everyday geopolitics of Beirut and other polarised cities like Tripoli in the north of the country develop with street protests, burning barricades, shooting, and the resurgence of the lines of contention that remain latent in those areas where the population is politically polarized and more susceptible to being radicalised.

Part of living in Beirut consists of such tough times, when moving around and feeling safe in the city is a continuous negotiation and adaptation of one’s routines and habits.

Among the many coping mechanisms is a user-generated mobile application called Ma2too3a (in arabic: ‘cut’). Created by the CEO of Larochesoft, Mohammad Taha, Ma2too3a works by posting notifications about roads that are cut (ma2too3a) not only because of traffic jams, but above all because of checkpoints, demonstrations, burning tires, shooting and so on. In August 2012, Taha was in talks with the Interior Ministry and fire department in Beirut to have it officially launched and plans were for it to reach the Android market. It is nicely designed and when an event terminates, a red rose appears indicating that the road is free.

The app is the twenty-first century version of the 1970s radio announcers who in Beirut updated the population about the situation in the streets and the position of snipers.

Living through (often very negative) change is part of the everyday life of a city like Beirut. Ma2too3a is the example of dual-use technologies that truly can help cities and communities be resilient in times of conflict.

In the face of the lion in the room.

Sara Fregonese

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