Review forum: War and the City: Urban Geopolitics in Lebanon, Sara Fregonese, I.B.Tauris (2019)

I really enjoyed taking part in Sara Fregonese’s book forum!

It was an intriguing discussion I had with the author, Sara Fregonese, and with Aya Nassar, Mona Fawaz, and Alan Ingram – all focusing on war, urbanism, and/or Lebanon – during the Royal Geographic Society Conference in August 2021.

The review has been edited by Olivia Mason, and it is now accessible in the Journal of Political Geography:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0962629822001913?dgcid=coauthor.

I republish my contribution here below, to make it open access 🙂

4. Epistemological reflections on space, violence, and relational identities

4.1. Estella Carpi

War and the City by Sara Fregonese is a powerful piece of work which demonstrates that the built environment can act as a powerful geopolitical agent and that understanding urban space is key to understanding people during conflict. Fregonese frames War and the City as a historical account, but it is more than just a history. Urban warfare is examined through a geographic and an urban lens without reducing the narrative approach to geography or urban studies. Together, the chapters contribute to the creation of an all-around interdisciplinary work. This book effectively illustrates the urban nature of the civil war and inspires reflections on other conflicts and crises characterising Beirut’s history, which may also be considered ‘urbicides’. War and the City shows that making war per se can dangerously come to represent a ‘normal’ dimension of that urbanity.

Fregonese not only effectively describes people’s complex relationships with the geographies of war and everyday violence in Beirut: through this book, we also learn how those become translated into spatialities of enmity, and, therefore, potentially constructive coexistence. In this vein, the book equips its readers with concepts and terminologies which can be employed to understand other war-marked urbanities in Lebanon’s history. One example is the northern city of Tripoli, where in the neighborhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab at-Tabbeneh antithetical polities vis-a-vis the Asad regime’s politics and Syrian politics in Lebanon are emblematically divided by Syria Street.

In the broader body of literature on Lebanon, war, and urbanity, Fregonese’s work proposes sovereignty and power in Lebanon as a hybrid assemblage which shapes the urban battleground; while, in the academic arena, the state has always been the privileged lens through which to understand welfare, crisis, and human choice. This conceptual framework, which Fregonese has developed over time since 2012, has provided more nuanced interpretations of power in action in the Lebanese context.

The book develops themes which lie at the intersection of the macro and micro aspects of urban warfare, going beyond the current theoretical deadlocks. Fregonese demonstrates how sectarian power and identity are the products of grounded mechanisms that happen through space. Thus, echoing important previous views on sectarianism in Lebanon (e.g. Makdisi, 2000), the warring parties are neither fixed categories of people nor predefined ways of thinking and behaving. If sectarian power can shape space and practices of war, the politics of urban warfare is not merely about facts and relations that shape space: those relations are also enabled or prevented by space. In other words, sectarian power shapes the territory, but it is not innately inscribed into it. However, sectarianism as an inherent characteristic of the region is a longstanding belief of many Middle East commentators who have thus actively created a Lebanese exceptionalism in identity-dictated conflict.

Methodologically, Fregonese openly shares the way in which she re-orients the interview process, an important stage which is often silenced, even in ethnographies. For example, she states that she often scaled down her interlocutors from the regional to urban level (p. 10). This politics of writing ensures greater empirical honesty. Epistemologically, by proposing the tragedy, chaos, and fate scripts, War and the City offers a systematic analysis of two key representational tropes, which I identify as ‘impossibility’ and ‘determinism’. In this section of the book, we are reminded of the fundamental role of representations: not only media representations, but also the representations produced by official diplomatic discourse, which is often underestimated in the accounts focused on the Lebanese civil war. Against the misleading role of representations, Fregonese demonstrates that urban spatiality was reorganised to serve war, rather than being captured by expressions such as ‘incomprehensible chaos’. Indeed, more than once Fregonese talks of ‘militia knowledge and practices,’ which do not develop independently from geopolitical dynamics. Scholars rarely employ such terminology when referring to militias in Lebanon or in general. Thus, Fregonese invites us to the feasibility of understanding war by detailing space. The book challenges several accounts which portray Lebanon as an impossible-to-map place, and which propose that the civil war is a conflict that we simply cannot comprehend. Indeed, she challenges the ‘descent into barbarism’ talk (p. 69). The city in wartime is configured as a set of identity-defined enclaves since the spatial basis for heterogeneity was exactly the target of sectarian violence. The latter, at the same time, is also discussed as both causing and being caused by class inequality. In War and the City, in fact, sectarianism is the most discussed form of violence, yet only one among many. For example, looting, targeting the built environment for reasons beyond military necessity, economic inequality, and street symbols such as posters, which embody the “social and material fabric of wartime Beirut” (p. 111), all interact with intersectional forms of sectarian power.

The book marks two epistemological turning points in the study of Beirut and urban warfare. The first point is that while focusing on war, Fregonese puts forward the possibility of urban space as a factor in pacification. Indeed, few are the studies which focus on the so-called capacities for peace while too many focus on tensions in human relations and the need for social cohesion. The urban space contributes considerably to reshaping such relations. Indeed, Fregonese points out that hardly any attention has been paid to the relations between space and peace (Macaspac & Moore, 2022Megoran & Dalby, 2018). However, I wonder whether it would be even more generative to see war and urban research progressing beyond the categorisation of ordinary atmospheres and political orders. This epistemological move would encourage scholars to think beyond the war/peace repertories. In my view, inhabitation, coexistence, and even wellbeing may offer emancipatory conceptual tools to finally move beyond the interpretative grids and the inner workings of official politics.

War and the City is a powerful reminder to those who focus on human relations that we cannot only speak of ‘war-affected spaces’, which is common in narratives of crisis forgetful of the agency of space itself, but also of ‘spaces making war’. In fact, human relations alone cannot make either peace or war: such conditions can only be achieved through the built environment. As a social anthropologist and a recurrent Beirut dweller, I would love to read more about the intimacies produced by the geopolitical frames discussed in the book. However, that would probably have fallen beyond its scope, which instead focusses on the balance between, on the one hand, grand narratives of representation and power and, on the other, the intimate. A connection is built between the grand narratives around the Lebanese civil war, which are called ‘regional conjunctures’ (p. 10), and the relational and ideological lifeworlds of the people. In summary, War and the City reminds those who are interested in social relations that to really understand the latter, we first need to understand the city. Thus, we must take a step back and register the spatiality of such relations and note the effects of spatial transformation. The second turning point is the suggestion that sectarian order, and more broadly societal divides, do not exist regardless of social processes. This invites us to question demographic homogeneity as a way to territorial peace.

By way of conclusion, I believe War and the City should be judged not only by how dexterously Fregonese organises and answers her own questions, but also by the questions she leaves on the table. For instance, how do cities in Lebanon (and elsewhere) manage to challenge, transform, and interrogate such geographies of war? Where did the spatiality of urban warfare challenge war dynamics? Many of the questions generated by Fregonese’s research do not have a once-and-for-all answer precisely because they are subject to enquiry within continuous debates on the layered nature of urban warfare and the Lebanese civil war.

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