Remaking Beirut: Contesting memory, space, and the urban imaginary of Lebanese youth

Larkin, C.

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Larkin, C. (2010). Remaking Beirut: Contesting memory, space, and the urban imaginary of Lebanese youth. City & Community, 9(4), 414–442.

Throughout the centuries Beirut has had an endless capacity for reinvention and transformation, a consequence of migration, conquest, trade, and internal conflict. The last three decades have witnessed the city center's violent self-destruction, its commercial resurrection, and most recently its national contestation, as oppositional political forces have sought to mobilize mass demonstrations and occupy strategic space. While research has been directed to the transformative processes and the principal actors involved, little attention has been given to how the next generation of Lebanese are negotiating Beirut's rehabilitation. This article seeks to address this lacuna, by exploring how postwar youth remember, imagine, and spatially encounter their city. How does Beirut's rebuilt urban landscape, with its remnants of war, sites of displacement, and transformed environs, affect and inform identity, social interaction, and perceptions of the past? Drawing on Henri Lefebvre's analysis of the social construction of space (perceived, conceived, and lived) and probing the inherent tensions within postwar youths’ encounters with history, memory, and heritage, the article presents a dynamic and complex urban imaginary of Beirut. An examination of key urban sites (Solidère's Down Town) and significant temporal moments (Independence Intifada) reveals three recurring tensions evident in Lebanese youth's engagement with their city: dislocation and liberation, spectacle and participant, pluralism and fracture. This article seeks to encourage wider discussion on the nature of postwar recovery and the construction of rehabilitated public space, amidst the backdrop of global consumerism and heritage campaigns.

Main finding
The author finds that although not all of the young participants frequent downtown, most have opinions of its redevelopment, informed by faint memories and oral histories of Beirut. To the participants, downtown is a symbol of a lost past and a reminder of an uncertain future. Some are wary of the sanitized version of history that redevelopment has offered, while others are sensitive to capitalizing on a violent past. Most found downtown to be too cosmopolitan and not representative of Lebanon. They complained that downtown was oriented primarily toward consumers and dominated by expensive boutiques, exclusive restaurants, and designer retailers, with few truly public spaces. A few participants valued downtown as an attractive civic place that offers engagement with others across religion and culture. Interviews ultimately revealed a desire for a diverse downtown that is inclusive of all people beyond class, religion, and political orientation.

Description of method used in the article
Over a hundred in-depth interviews were conducted with Lebanese high school and university students during the summer of 2005 and 2006. These interviews were conducted after mobilizations on March 8 and March 14. Snowballing and random sampling techniques were used to select students from 10 Lebanese educational institutions. Thirty-three percent of students surveyed were Christian, 26 percent were Shi’i, 24 percent were Sunni, 13 percent were Druze, and others were Armenian and Palestinian. The sample attempted to be representative and proportional of the religious makeup of Lebanon. Additionally, the author utilized site observations and secondary sources such as newspapers, journal articles, and NGO reports.

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Field Observations Interviews
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