Joanne Randa Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joanne Randa Nucho (JRN): I have family roots in Beirut, through Palestinian and Armenian grandparents and great-grandparents displaced to Lebanon in the early and mid-twentieth century. I was born in Los Angeles and always loved visiting cities and seeing how they are designed and remade. This love came together with questions about my family: how did my grandparents experience Beirut as home? How did they remember Beirut after they left for the United States? Stories from my Armenian grandmother about Beirut first led me to Bourj Hammoud, which was urbanized to settle Armenian refugees in Lebanon, and has continued to be a hub for refugees from Lebanon, Syria, and beyond to this day. I became fascinated by the real expertise and know-how it took to navigate the city and get basic services in Bourj Hammoud and from there around Beirut. Over time, I began to think of these in terms of infrastructures, and channels, through which people could make claims in specific times and places, and how that could help us rethink the question of sectarianism.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JRN: The book begins with a question I often heard in Beirut whenever something breaks down: Wayn al Dawleh, or “Where is the state?” That question reflects the frustration with the patchwork private provisioning systems layered on top of a barely functioning state grid. Even the state electricity grid is supplemented by a Turkish power boat. I explore the question ethnographically— how do people come to understand themselves as a member of a sectarian community in ways that are both affective but also material, especially when the provision of basic social services are channeled through sect affiliated clinics, schools and organizations? How do these channels shape and transform not only the subjects who navigate them, but also the meaning of organizations and communities themselves?
Bourj Hammoud is known as Beirut’s “Armenian neighborhood,” but, in fact, it is far more diverse. Making a claim to community there involves the mobilization of class, gender, and geography in addition to religion or sect. These elements must come together in the right moment to make a connection successful, and they can change over time.
In this book, I bring together the recent anthropological conversations in infrastructure, including work by Julia Elyachar, Paul Kockleman, Brian Larkin and others, together with critical literature on sectarianism in Lebanon by Suad Joseph and Ussama Makdisi and others. I also draw upon the great work in urban studies coming from the Beirut context by people like Lara Deeb, Mona Harb, Mona Fawaz, Aseel Sawalha, Hiba Bou Akar, and Eric Verdeil.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
JRN: Before coming to this work, I was interested in urban memory, historic preservation, and commemoration. In this book, I focus on how people navigate the city. In Bourj Hammoud, many neighborhoods are named for the Ottoman towns and villages from which Armenians were displaced and are simultaneously home to displaced people from Syria and beyond. Memory is constantly referenced, recalled, and transformed in daily lives moving through the city. So is forgetting. When do people remember things? When are those memories invoked and to what ends? My background in film and visual practice made me curious about what people saw or noticed in the city, and when things seemed to fade into the background. These turned out to be important questions.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JRN: My main target audience is people interested in Lebanon, of course, and those who are interested in troubling the concept of sectarianism. Sectarianism is often discussed as something immutable and intrinsic to Lebanon, as a conflict that stems from religious difference itself, and my book is critical of that. I take seriously the role that infrastructural investments and service provision play in shaping notions of belonging and exclusion, and that complicates the idea that whatever people understand about “community” is apriori to these investments.
I would also like for the book to be read by people interested in infrastructure and cities anywhere in the world. I have recently written about the importance of Lebanon for thinking about crumbling infrastructure in the United States, and the ways in which moments of breakdown can be used to do all kind of work to shape public opinion and discourse on the left and the right. Increasingly, the vision for rebuilding in the US context is greater privatization and public-private partnerships. The situation in Lebanon is not exceptional, especially if we take into account the ways in which racism and inequality shape access to public goods and services in the US as well.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JRN: I am currently completing two articles related to infrastructure in Beirut—the first on the garbage protests of 2015 and the second about private electricity generator subscription systems. Both approach Lebanon as a place from which to generalize about questions of privatization, rather than a site of exception. Another multi-sited project looks at migrations, transnational organizations and charities that connected communities in the United States, Europe, Aleppo, and Beirut as a way to rethink legacies of the twentieth century’s first large-scale refugee crisis.
Excerpt from the Book:
One late August afternoon, in the thick humidity of the Beirut summer, I was on one of the many private buses moving at a snail’s pace across the traffic-clogged streets between the west of the city, where I was visiting the library at Haigazian University, and Bourj Hammoud, just east of Beirut’s municipal boundary. Since the 1930s most of Bourj Hammoud’s social and political infrastructure and educational institutions have been dominated by the Armenian population that was settled in Lebanon in the wake of the genocide in former Ottoman lands (present-day Turkey). Haigazian University was one of the few Armenian cultural institutions in the western part of the city after the end of the 1975–90 Lebanese civil war, in which violence and ethnic cleansing had transformed many Beirut neighborhoods.
We were barely moving. At this rate, it would take over an hour to reach my destination. The bus stopped at the large intersection in the middle of the city where it routinely does—either to change drivers or for the driver to have a short break. The driver jumped out and walked across the street to urinate against a wall. A woman sitting a few rows behind grew impatient with the wait and burst out: “Wayn al dawleh? Shufu hayda Lubnan!” (Where is the state? Look, this is Lebanon!).
I had heard this phrase before often—during rolling electricity cuts or intense traffic jams—but not to scold someone for inappropriate behavior. Friends explained to me later that such use of wayn al dawleh was not unusual. In Beirut in 2011 it had come to express anger or humor or a hopeless appeal for efficient service provision or for accountability when that service was nowhere to be found. Wayn al dawleh is not the only phrase deployed in everyday life through which Lebanese express the longing for dependable infrastructure and anger at a government that seems unable, or unwilling, to provide it. In quite a different context, for example, the seven-year-old son of a friend of mine jumped up after hearing the familiar switch-off of the hum of the private electricity generator and said, “Ijit al dawleh!” (The state is here!), meaning that the national electricity grid was providing power again. That moment shaped the temporality of household life in neighborhoods like Bourj Hammoud, where government electricity was on for only eight to fifteen hours a day. Washing machines begin their work, air conditioners groan to life, and elevators resume their way up and down the heights of residential buildings. In each apartment of each building on each street in neighborhoods like Bourj Hammoud, people negotiate these multiple flows of electricity on a daily basis. State agencies like Electricité du Liban are but one player in this flow of services providing the infrastructure of daily life in the household. For many people in such neighborhoods, this means paying for a subscription to a generator owned by a local patron who provides electricity for that particular block. These systems pump power through wires as equal players with state utilities and kick in when the national grid supply cuts out.
As much as each household has successfully patched together platforms for the provision of essential infrastructure for family life, the frustration with the lack of “someone” in charge of it all and the failure of the state to provide these services as public goods is expressed through the utterances of daily life. Another often-repeated query in Lebanon, “Meen al-masʾoul?” (Who is in charge/responsible?), is used to locate whomever is “supposed” to be in charge in a particular context to manage resources or maintain infrastructures. In its literal translation, it is a call to locate power or responsibility, a frustration that, in 2015, was expressed as a revolt against inefficient garbage collection but quickly spread to a broader critique of state infrastructures. The unfortunate case of the driver lacking a proper place to take a restroom break raised the ire of the passenger who thought that this was yet another example of a wayward public and moral order of behavior in Lebanon and the inability to locate anyone or any governing body to “take responsibility” for the broken infrastructure and perception of disorder. “Who is in charge” is a constant refrain. Where does power reside, and in which actors—a “failed” state, a sectarian political party, a distant nation, or another state linked to a Lebanese sectarian political faction? What is organizing the flows of people, money, and things through urban streets, mediated at different levels of accountability with the family, sectarian institutions, and the state?
Map of the Book
This book navigates the human and material infrastructures and services that produce a sense of belonging, sometimes sectarian, in and through the urban district of Bourj Hammoud. To unpack popular discourses about sectarianism and conflict in the wake of the past ten years of significant geopolitical regional shifts, I begin in chapter 1 with a closer examination of a new “sectarian conflict” emerging along the fault lines in space in Bourj Hammoud. This conflict led to the mass eviction of Syrian Kurds from certain parts of the municipal district. In the chapter, I trace how violence is often interpreted as a reemerging sectarian conflict that is both entrenched and inevitable immediately after it begins.
The next three chapters focus on various municipal technologies, nonprofits, and lending institutions to show that the sectarian “community” is not a naturalized social category that is simply represented by these institutions. Rather, it is a networked system with differential access to those claiming “Armenianness” through various means not narrowly limited to religious-ethnic identity. In chapter 2, I focus on the permanently temporary housing regimes of two Armenian refugee camps in order to examine the various technologies that municipality and political actors use to mobilize notions of belonging to the “community” through informal property. These processes are deeply related to specific urban histories and class associations with particular neighborhoods as well as sets of documentation and other legal technologies. Chapter 3 focuses on the role of notions of gendered propriety in differentiating access to Armenian women’s organizations in Bourj Hammoud, which has important ramifications in accessing services and resources as well as understandings of belonging to the Armenian community. Chapter 4 compares an officially licensed credit facility to informal women’s rotating credit associations. How might official credit institutions foreclose the possibility of crosscutting patterns of lending outside of sect-affiliated channels?
Chapter 5 jumps beyond the neighborhood scale to a city-to-city collaboration between Bourj Hammoud and a foreign municipality as a means of challenging Lebanese state infrastructure projects. I analyze the ways in which the overlapping jurisdictions of power go far beyond the fragmented infrastructures of the neighborhood block to transnational circulations of expertise and resources. In doing so, I demonstrate how the popular notion that Lebanon’s infrastructural and conflict-oriented problems could be solved through a strong centralized state or through the ideology of decentralization completely ignores the way that municipal governance works through overlapping jurisdictions. While Lebanese centralized state-sponsored infrastructure projects have had a destructive impact on environmental and social conditions in Bourj Hammoud, municipality-endorsed initiatives have often been equally destructive. Chapter 5 navigates the delicate balancing act made by one urban planning expert as she tries to draw in outside experts through city-to-city collaborations to block some of the more damaging projects.
As I learned throughout my fieldwork, unexpected consequences are often just as important to the unfolding of these various projects as the intentions of their architects. The Syrian conflict, which was just beginning during the course of my fieldwork, has now escalated into a full-scale war, displacing at least one million Syrians to Lebanon. In my conclusion, I describe the ways in which many displaced Syrians in Lebanon have had to navigate the existing networks of services and aid in order to receive vital relief. As major international organizations use sect-affiliated clinics and social service centers as distribution hubs for various forms of aid and assistance for refugees, it is even more critical to think about the ways in which these institutions function within the political space of Lebanon. As the term “sectarian conflict” is presented by way of explanation for conflicts in Syria and Iraq, it is important to think about how that concept is produced, how it circulates, and what it means in different contexts. At a certain point, approaching something as always already sectarian and creating the infrastructures, institutions, and channels to accommodate it are part of the way in which it gets produced as inevitable in the first place. It is my hope that with more careful scholarship, we can demonstrate that even the most entrenched-seeming identity categories are constructed through far more contingent networks than we realize.