Accepted paper:

Deliberate debris: strategies of spacial repulsion in a Beirut neighborhood


Samar Kanafani (Working group on Ethnography and Knowledge Production, Arab Council for Social Sciences)

Paper short abstract:

This paper attests to the ways a neoliberal urban regime co-mingles with religious identity in the socio-political configuration of a post-colonial Arab city, where the deliberate ruination of urban properties by their owners serves to repel a religious other deemed encroaching and unwanted.

Paper long abstract:

Religious sectarian politics and the liberal economy, which are foundational to Lebanon as a nation-state, have made for a patchy influence of Western Enlightenment philosophy in Lebanese political and social affairs. In this troubled post-colonial setting, aspirations for modernity co-mingle with religious tradition in both social and spacial configuration. A neoliberal urbanization regime regulates construction and rationalizes land acquisition and development. Meanwhile, rival religious sects deploy this regime to compete over property, while an increasingly clamorous though powerless heritage preservation discourse seeks to salvage "traditional" houses and neighborhoods from the oblivion urban transformation produces. Based on ethnographic research among Sunni Muslim inhabitants and owners of near-derelict houses in a lower-income mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhood in Beirut, this paper examines the ways deliberate neglect of ruined domestic spaces are deployed as strategies for repelling potential occupation by an unwanted Shiite Muslim other. I argue that empty flats and sections of houses left piled with clutter and dust-coated debris are not the product of abandonment but an instrumental act of repulsion: not only making them uninhabited, but conveniently uninhabitable. Contrary to the well-meaning vision of local heritage preservationism, the material priorities (aesthetic and economic) of owners of "traditional" properties are not an investment in national heritage writ large in the vacuous arena of a fragmented nation-state. It is for the preservation of family inheritance and the kinship group enfolded in its religious sect, struggling to maintain socio-political ground in the heavily contested capital.

panel P55
Ruined bodies and aging buildings: architecture, oblivion, decay