Redemption in an Open Space

By Andrea Stanton

Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj 
By Samir Khalaf
Saqi Books, 2006

Samir Khalaf’s “Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj” is a lively and engaging look at one of central Beirut’s more storied areas: the open space downtown known today as Martyrs’ Square and historically as the sahhat bourj al-Kashef. Khalaf argues that the 2005 intifada’s use of this space is but the latest example of its function as a public sphere: embracing all comers, regardless of their background or degree of social marginalization, and supporting collective endeavors, whether intellectual, artistic, or political, that critique the city’s norms.

Today’s task is to revitalize the bourj’s historic position as both instantiator and instantiation of this “still center” of Lebanon’s turning world. Revitalization will enable its “redemptive and healing features” to cure a Lebanese public accustomed to self-medicating the wounds of the civil war by retreating either into sectarianism or into hyper-consumerism.

Khalaf opens with a wide-ranging essay on the broader issues at play in contemporary Lebanon, including the after-effects of the long civil war and collective efforts towards either obsessive remembrance or adamant forgetting. He then offers a historical treatment of thebourj, situating it vis-à-vis 19th and 20th  century developments in Beirut’s urban topography. Finally, he returns to the present with an analysis of the bourj’s role in building the Beirut of today and of the future.

Khalaf offers a sensitive and piercing assessment of the ways in which the Lebanese social fabric has ruptured in the post-civil war era. He notes that the war’s destruction of the bourjand other non-communal public places resulted in the creation of sectarian common spaces, whose effects are compounded by the post-war trend of minorities abandoning mixed neighborhoods, taking the neighborhoods’ diversity with them. A reinvigorated bourj can help correct this decreasing likelihood that Lebanese of different sects will live together as neighbors. This possibility plays into Khalaf’s description of the bourj as a collective playground: a space for play, for experimentation and – less happily – for excess. This is a highly productive notion, particularly when coupled with others like Donna Haraway’s concept of “serious play.” A more analytic treatment might flesh out how the bourj could serve as a site for redemption by teaching lessons of civility and fair play.

It is unfortunate that Khalaf’s expressed distaste for the Ottomans prevented him from taking advantage of the rich Ottoman archive. His reliance upon Europeans’ and Americans’ travelogue impressions for his estimates of Beirut’s 19th century population, rather than the rigorously statistical Ottoman salnames, reflects poorly on his capacity to put good scholarship above personal sentiment.

His insistence on Lebanon’s in-but-not-of position in the Arab world also leads to error. A review of the vast scholarly literature on the press in the Arab world would have saved him from the claim that the Lebanese press response to the censorship of the Chamoun era, which was to print blank spaces to indicate where particular words, sentences, or even entire stories had been stricken by the censor, was “an ingenious practice [that] did not exist elsewhere in the Arab world.” This practice was begun in early 20th century Ottoman newspapers and continued into the mandate era in Palestine and elsewhere.

Regardless of its errors, and beyond its argument, this book offers a fascinating trove of Beirut trivia: that the Virgin Megastore is housed not in Beirut’s old opera house, as newcomers are often told, but in an old bourj cinema called the Opéra, that the Gemayel family began its Phalangist politicking in the New Gemayel Pharmacy elsewhere on the bourj, and especially Khalaf’s insightful account of French attempts to accomplish the mission civilisatrice via the Haussmannian Place de l’Etoile. It also gives a sense of how quickly events overtake printed materials: this book went to press before Gebran Tueni’s assassination in December 2005, which event (along with those of all 2006) makes some of Khalaf’s optimism appear hollow.

Curiously, the March 14 coalition that Khalaf endorses does not support his vision of a bourjopen to all. Starting with the shrine to Rafiq Hariri, it has attempted to claim this space as its own. This cooption of a public space for private interest goes against what Khalaf sees as the bourj’s identity as an open space, where all are welcome and sectarian and other private affiliations do not dominate. Perhaps the Hizbullah- and Free Patriotic Movement-led opposition’s use of that space in the December protests is proof that the bourj cannot be claimed by any particular interest. With Lebanon’s future so unclear, this book is excellent grounding for discussions of a site where hopes of unity, and fears of difference, collide. 

This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 12, Nos. 56/57 (2006)
Copyright (c) 2006 by Al Jadid