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New Texts Out Now: Abir Saksouk-Sasso, Making Spaces for Communal Sovereignty: The Story of Beirut's Dalieh

[Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015] [Cover of Arab Studies Journal (Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015]

AbirSaksouk-Sasso, “Making Spaces for Communal Sovereignty: The Story of Beirut's Dalieh,” in Arab Studies Journal(Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015: 296-319.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

AbirSaksouk-Sasso(AS): When I started working on this article back in 2012, I had just finished a collaborative project entitled “This Sea Is Mine” about the coast of Beirut. The project had triggered a series of questions in relation to the coast and public space in Beirut. In fact, in a debate that took place at Beirut Art Center where the Dalieh case was presented, some argued that “public space” in Lebanon is “an ideal”. They considered public space as a product of a sovereign modern state which Lebanon is not. Others added that the lack of public space in Beirut is the symptom of a failed citizenship project where city dwellers are incapable of associating with any sense of common good, largely due to sectarian divisions.

As these arguments revealed, the dominant discourse on public space presupposes citizenship and central authority, generally assuming that it is dependent on a sense of entitlement and predictability, where the state is the provider of such spaces. What I was rather trying to argue was that shared spaces in Beirut are constantly produced and sustained through individual as well as communal efforts of diverse publics. These shared spaces are defined by their users’ social practices of gathering and recreation, beyond the areas allocated by the state as “public”. Restricting the discussion on public space within notions of state and citizenship in Lebanon not only freezes activism in the struggle for “state building", but also traps policies and future visions for urban planning within a strictly propertied understanding of the city, turning dwellers and everyday users of space into passive agents with no claims over the city.

Yet based on observations and a constant interest in public practices in outdoors urban space, it was obvious that Beirut dwellers lay claim to a number of open (yet privately-owned) areas in the city whose uses are “public” in the sense that they are accessed freely and allow for a range of social activities to occur. Access to these spaces is secured through social and communal agreements through which their uses are organized, rather than the laws and institutions of a central state. As such, I developed this article by investigating and documenting social practices in several shared spaces in contemporary Beirut - such as Dalieh, left over seaside plots, or communal football fields - and putting them in historical context.

Through this investigation, I wanted to tell the story (history and present) of public space in Beirut from below; public space as used – hence spaces for the public. It is a story of people and places that were never made visible in official representations of the city, nor in most academic historicizing of Beirut.

I wanted to situate the claims and practices of these users within a political framework of the right to the city. These sites—namely Dalieh—have been in fact the platform for representing low-income city dwellers, refugees, suburb dwellers, ethnic communities, and others, as a legitimate part of the public, and of the city.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

AS:The article discussed dominant ideals of what should take place in public space and who should use it. This was very important for me, particularly after Beirut’s mayor declared that the reasons behind the decades of closure of Beirut’s only large park—the Horsh—included the “undesirable” activities that he believed would dominate the uses of the park if it were open. His talk demonstrated an undeniably classed, sexed, and racialized understanding of what an acceptable public might be. As such, I explore public space literature, and how it was defined. I am mostly interested in how Don Mitchell describes public space, as a space where politics is possible and a space where different social groups make themselves visible and represented in the city. I also referred very much to the work of Simon Springer who describes public space as unpredictable by definition, with a need to keep it unscripted, versus how state officials regulate public space.

In the end, I truly believed that it is how users, state officials, professionals, academics and activists conceive of the public sphere that shapes the policies that are put in place to govern such spaces. I was therefore using this literature and the issues they opened to advocate for understanding public space as unpredictable, and hence the need to be open to the unknown, and this means trusting our public, all of our public; Or at least allowing for space to be a tool for building up this trust. Departing from this idea, I was also very keen on approaching public space, as well as the theme of sovereignty, in spatial terms (largely inspired by the work of Lefebvre). By spatializing the notion of public sovereignty on the level of social practice, it was possible for me to document its material existence. This spatialization of everyday practices enabled me to reveal a form of historical as well as emerging communal sovereignty in Beirut.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

AS:As mentioned earlier, this article was a continuation of the “This Sea Is Mine” projectabout public spacesalong Beirut’s coast. However, it also connects tightly with my university studies, as well as my current work. In fact, my final year thesis project in architecture was about a seaside site in Beirut (‘Ajram Beach). Rather than approaching it merely in physical terms, I was very interested in communal and social practices that were taking place in that women-only resort. In urban terms, I had proposed to re-insert the public into this site by creating a series of public programs that would bring back the site to the city. Recently, I have finished two relevant collaborative projects: a publication entitled “Practicing the Public” about the multiple visions of public space in Beirut, and a site-specific performance entitled “I Will Guide You Through Saida” about the city’sshared and communal spaces, specifically coastal areas and the changes they are undergoing.

I am also a passionate advocate for understanding the city and planning its future departing from the different spatial practices of dwellers and their rights. This takes shape in several forms, such as activism in the Civil Campaign to Protect Dalieh, or in professional collaborative projects that recognize and support collective claims and communal interests, such as a recent research about the informal making of neighborhood football fields in Beirut.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

AS:Ideally, I would like anyone to read this article, no matter what her/his background is. The article attempts to tell the story of public space in Beirut. Yet it has gaps surely. I am specifically keen if readers were to seize upon the missing ideasin this article and develop them, such as the status of public spaces during the civil war in Lebanon, or the historical (mandate and pre-mandate) conditions that have produced a privatelyowned coast in Beirut.

J: Has your article changed with the development of the activism to save Dalieh?

AS:Definitely. Evicting the fishermen, demolishing their houses, and fencing Dalieh by real-estate developers happened one year after starting writing this article. Ever since then, the article was being updated with developments on the ground. Large sections of it were also developed by constant inspiration from the campaign that was launched in March 2014. One important fact that is not mentioned in the article, is that the fence was recently removed by activists during the harak (You Stink movement) in Lebanon.

I ended the article with the following: “The fact that Dalieh has so far been open, unrestricted, and uncontrolled is in itself inspiring. The right that city dwellers have acquired to Dalieh has been the premise for the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh. It is a prescriptive right to become legally established or accepted by long usage or the passage of time. By recognizing this prescriptive right, the campaign is essentially battling to transform the notion of “property to exclude” into “property not to be excluded.” (...) As such, Dalieh has been an ideal space to imagine possibilities for reclaiming our city by focusing on our rights to it as both a working slogan and a political ideal. As we chant in our rallies, “To whom does Dalieh belong?” “TO US!”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

AS:I am currently working on several collaborative projects, whether through Public Works Studio or Dictaphone Group, of which I am a member and co-founder. Besides the theme of public space, I am working on projects that tackle housing rights in Beirut and the fight against evictions in the city, as well as participatory planning and community building in Palestinian refugee camps. In partnership with the Legal Agenda and Public Works, we are developing a research project about urbanism and law.

Excerpts from “Making Spaces for Communal Sovereignty: The Story of Beirut's Dalieh”

Raouche: Contesting the Official Narrative

Beirut’s Rock of Raouche (Pigeon’s Rock) was one of the main stops for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Orientalists who came to explore the Middle East under Ottoman rule. The prominence of the rock is evident in these early explorers’ drawings. During the Egyptian occupation of Beirut (1831-40), the many French experts who accompanied Ibrahim Basha gave the name La Rocher to the rocky site, after previously being known as magharital-hamam, or grotte aux pigeons.Numerous nineteenth-century manuscripts portray Beirut through its rock. At the time, what we know today as the Raouche area of Beirut was almost completely agricultural, with many different farms, including mulberry plantations separated by cactus hedges. By the early 1900s, maps of Raouche show the presence of coastal agriculture, with orchards, orange groves, largebeds of lettuce, vineyards, and plots of other crops. It was not until the 1950s that building activity started in the Raouche area. By the early 1960s, Beirut was becoming a major tourist attraction in the region. It was at its most attractive on the coast, an area that observers and tourist agencies compared to Nice’s “Promenade des Anglais,” with its broad corniche, palm trees, and cafés overlooking the sea. A 1960s map shows several luxury hotels on the Raouche, including the Federal andthe Carlton, as well as luxury residential buildings designed by famous architects. These include PhillipeKaram’sChams’ Building, and WaseqAdib and Karl Chayer’s Shell and Ghandour Buildings. These architects belonged to Lebanon’s modern movement, the pioneers of which came from socially and politically dominant families, specifically feudal lords and the urban bourgeoisie. These modern edifices and the way of life they promoted dominated representations of 1960s Beirut. Lavish restaurants and hotels, private beach resorts, and new cars, with the background of the rock, were featured exclusively in all official postcards. The monumental rock was also Lebanon’s symbol inthe 1967 Year of International Tourism.

During the Lebanese civil war (1975-90), Raouche was also a relocation site for merchants of the old souks (marketplaces) of downtown Beirut. A few of these merchants relocated to Raouche in 1976, and were gradually followed by friends, familymembers, and other merchants who squatted along the cornice sidewalk. However, in 1982, a time of political instability during the Israeli invasion,Beirut’s mayor ChaficSardoukordered the systematic twelve-day destruction of the merchant kiosks. According to Sardouk, destroying the kiosks was in the interest of the capital’s touristic image. He expressed that he was “fedup with them blocking the cornice view for so many years and wanted to ‘open the heart of Beirut’ by evicting them.”Today, Raouche is one of the most expensive neighborhoods in the real estate market in Beirut. Luxury residential towers and hotels, including Bahri Gardens, the Carlton Residences, and the infamous MövenpickBeach Resort,as well as the signs of fast food chains and high-end caféspunctuate its skyline. Official postcards, airline magazines, andministry advertisements all portraytheRaouche standing monumentally in a depoliticized landscapedevoid of people.

The nearby Dalieh peninsula does not appear in pictorial representations of the city. Photos of the “Dalieh of Beirut” only appear in family albums. Nevertheless, although Dalieh is neither a park nor public property, it is one of the main spaces for the public in the city. The area boasts a number of informal seashore kiosks and a steady stream of visitors enjoying the sea, picnicking, swimming, bathing, and strolling. Dalieh is also a prime destination for divers, who come from different parts of Beirut to exercise their passion for jumping off high cliffs into the Mediterranean waters. Two local fishing ports, one of which is famous for offering touristic boat rides along the coast of Beirut, are also in the area.

While cars use an untreated road next to the nearby Mövenpick hotel entrance, pedestrians access Dalieh through a makeshift gap created in the corniche balustrade. Every day, the seashore is filled with strolling couples. As Abu ‘Abid, a long-time fisherman in Dalieh, says, “Everywhere you look you will see lovers; they sit on the rocks staring out to the sea and at each other. They have no place to go, so they come here.”Today Dalieh includes a variety of social groups, such as Beiruti fishermen, corniche visitors, suburb dwellers, Iraqi refugees, Syrian migrant workers and refugees, and others. It is also site of the grand Nowruz festivities of the Kurdish community. On 21March of every year, the Dalieh transforms into a space in which the Kurdish community gathers by the thousands, setting up food kiosks and a music stage, and dancing all day carrying national flags.

None of these vibrant and diverse activities on Beirut’s seashore appear in publicity images of an empty and sanitized Raouche Rock.Indeed, these promotional representations erase everyday life, and the possibility of a public. As a lived space, Dalieh, with its local practices and alternative forms of tourism,is an asset to the city at large. Yet it is invisible in official narratives of Beirut’s history and present. The following section contests this official Raouche narrative by centering the Dalieh as a social and communal space that various publics have reclaimed. Despite its invisibility, the Dalieh has grown as an unofficial, informal space. Its various users—the fishermen, the strollers, the swimmers, the lovers, the Kurdish community, and others—retain their own narratives and collective memories.

A Social and Communal Space: The Dalieh of Beirut

According to cadastral registry documents, the Daliehis an unbuiltland property that several familieshave owned since the 1940s. During the Ottoman period, Dalieh was outside the city walls. Most lands outside the walls of old Beirut were miri (amiri) lands, under state domain or the jurisdiction of the sultan. The Ottoman Land Registration (tapu), begunas part of the Tanzimatreforms of in 1861, enabled the sultan to bestowsome mirilands to notables or persons of influence, such as the Arslan family. Thecadastral archive indicates thatAmir Sa‘idArslanowned plot number 1113, the largest plot in Dalieh. In 1876, Amir Arslan sold the plot to ‘Ali Shatila. According to a tapu dated 1916, the land later became the property of ‘Abdal-Majid and ‘UthmanShatila, who inherited it from their father ‘Ali. During the French Land Registration, plot 1113 was the registered property of ‘Abdal-Majid and ‘UthmanShatila. By the 1950s, the plot had more than ten owners, who had split the land through inheritance. Over the years, other families bought shares in the plot, including the‘Itani, ‘Arab, Haddad, Matar, ‘Afif, and Mu‘awwad families. This sale of plots, along with inheritances, led to multiple owners sharing the land.

Yet despite this long history of various private owners, people have understood and used Dalieh seafront lands as a crucial open-access shared space in the city. The use of Dalieh as a shared space challenges the modern conventional notion of public space as tied to state ownership, through the state’s designation of city spaces as “parks” or “gardens.” Abandoning this limited model opens new possibilities for understanding how negotiations and interactions categorize space in Beirut. Thus, despite familial land claims, different people maintain Dalieh as public domain.

Since the 1940s, countless stories attest to Dalieh as a picnic and outing destination for families on holidays and Fridays. People bring food, beverages,and water pipes, as well as the inevitable family musician who plays the ‘oud,bozoq, ortabla. People called this activity thesiran,to referto picnicking in manatiq al-tanazzuh, or places of promenade or strolling.These tanazzuh sites included Ramlatal-Bayda’ beach, Hurshal-Awza‘i, HurshSaqiyatal-Janzir, Karmal-Ashrafiyya, Mazra‘atal-‘Arab, HurshBayrut, KarmShatila in Rawsha, and MinatZurayqa in Shawran.Historical and contemporary narratives reveal that public use of urban space in Beirut was not restricted to designated parks. To the contrary, tanazzuh and sirantook place in sites characterized by openness and lack of ascription. Their names refer to natural spaces: forest, vineyard, and plantation. Until the 1960s, Dalieh, along with Ramlatal-Bayda’ beach, hostedthe yearly Arba‘aAyyub celebration, during which residents hailing from different neighborhoods in Beirut would come together to march to the seafront. The women would serve their traditional Beiruti dish, the most delicious mufataqa, while the kids would fly their kites.

In recounting people’s recreational activities and celebrations in Beirut from the 1940s on, it is important to return to Lefebvre’s argument about the “right to the city.”Lefebvre draws a distinction between public space that the government controls and regulatesand public space that social groups use. This distinction draws attention to the power to deem particular spaces official. This power runs “concomitant to the power to exclude certain groups from such sites on the basis of this very ascription.”The controversy around an “unscripted” view of public space versus the “ordered” viewopens new questions as to the sovereign’s relationship to public space. 

Images of Martyrs’ Square at the end of the civil war further illustrate the meanings and uses of unscripted public space. In 1990, on the day the civil war ended,my mother, sister and I set foot in downtown Beirut for the first time after the fighting. The photographs I took document a moment when people gathered in Martyrs’ Square around the central statue.They celebrated thechance to once again visit the city’s historic core. Children played and jumped around the statue, people put out plastic chairs, and sweets vendors and the famous Pink Panther ice cream van gathered at the site. The informality of these interactionscontrastssharply with its contemporary reality. Today, Martyrs’Square is a central vehicular roundabout and a site of commemoration. It is, in other words, a space that both governmental and private forces have predetermined, fixed, and controlled. It is now a space free of passion. As Springer puts it: “To remove passion from public space, the state attempts to create spaces based on a desire for security more than interaction and for entertainment, more than democratic politics—the end of public space.”

Elsewhere along the coast, people swim and dive every single morning on the corniche. During the winter the swimmersuse the American University in Beirut (AUB) beach when it is open.Recently, many people frequently cross the fence of a privately owned green piece of land overlooking the sea to have picnics. Adjacent to this green space is another large privatelyowned plot, once the Summerland beach resort’s parking lot. Abandoned for many years, the parking lot is now a public space. Children ride their bicycles on the asphalt road, and families picnic on green patches where cars once parked.

Thus the public’s different spatial practices defy the language of private property and its attempts to make actions predictable in clear spatial boundaries. Shared spaces have been emerging in Beirut outside of the sovereign state’s provision. Everyday practices create these spaces for the public through what AsefBayat calls “the quiet encroachment of the ordinary.”Bayat defines this notion of “quiet encroachment” as “the silent, protracted but pervasive advancement of the ordinary people on the propertied and powerful in order to survive and improve their lives,” without clear leadership, ideology, or structured organization. In contrast to state sovereignty over public space, the acts of these ordinary people to claim spaces in Beirut form the informal or communal sovereign.

[Excerpted from “Making Spaces for Communal Sovereignty: The Story of Beirut's Dalieh,” by Abir Saksouk-Sasso, in Arab Studies Journal(Vol. XXIII No. 1), Fall 2015, by permission of the author. © 2015 The Arab Studies Journal. For more information, to view the full issue, or to subscribe to the journal, click here.]

[Abir Saksouk-Sasso's “Making Spaces for Communal Sovereignty: The Story of Beirut's Dalieh”  was featured in the New Paradigms Factory section of the Fall 2015 issue of the Arab Studies Journal (ASJ). This special section is the fruit of a joint collaboration between the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS) and ASJ. The New Paradigms Factory Program at the ACSS aims at facilitating research and publishing by innovative, critical-thinking, and engaged junior Arab scholars and activists, particularly those facing limited access to mentoring and/or publishing venues.]

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