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