This special collection of articles is based on an interdisciplinary symposium held at University College London in June 2019. The event concluded the project "Public Services and Vulnerability in the Lebanese Context of Large-Scale Displacement," a collaboration between researchers at University College London and the American University of Beirut, funded by the British Academy.
In the workshop, we examined the links between vulnerability and infrastructure, with a particular focus on the contemporary Lebanese situation. Here, public service provision has been far from universal, and further stretched by the presence of a large number of refugees in recent years. We will consider vulnerability across spatial and temporal scales–from the embodied individual to the system or entire grid, from the layered histories of obdurate matter to the planning that the provision of services, and attempts to alleviate vulnerability, require. Public services are often linked to citizenship, indeed seen as a means of shaping citizenship. What does this mean in Lebanon, where since the civil war (1975–90), the experience of the state has been manifested in the fragmentation and selective distribution of infrastructural provision? We ask: When non-citizens’ exclusion is marked by their ongoing disconnection from public services, what role does infrastructure play when temporary displacement becomes permanent? Lebanon’s long history with multi-layered and protracted displacements will serve as a complex case to interrogate the different ways that displaced groups get excluded from or incorporating into formal and informal infrastructural systems.
The contributions are divided into three sections, following the structure of the symposium panels:
Our first section examines the links between the (built) environment and the vulnerability of refugees, migrants, and hosts. Hanna Baumann’s paper reads humanitarian notions of "vulnerability" against recent feminist debates on the links between infrastructure and vulnerability. In introducing and grappling with some of the key terms of the symposium, she argues that we must understand vulnerability as both relational and interdependent. Samar Kanafani’s paper explores the way precarious migrants (both refugees and migrant workers) make spatial and infrastructural arrangements that enable them to access housing in residual and derelict spaces in a wealthy Beirut neighborhood, even as they are instrumentalized within dominant regimes of urban capital accumulation and marginalized by urban residents with more social capital. Nadine Bekdache and Monica Basbous of Public Works, together with Camillo Boano, investigate cases of evictions of elderly people from Beirut’s Tareek al-Jdeede area at the intersection of the urban landscape, legal frameworks, and class. In her response to the papers on this panel, Laleh Khalili draws attention to the spatial and historical continuities of the condition of vulnerability within Lebanon–between refugees, migrant workers, and impoverished citizens.
The second section deals with new methodological approaches to studying infrastructure and vulnerability. Mayssa Jallad and Nikolay Mintchev discuss the experience of working with local "Citizen Scientists" (residents recruited as researchers) to carry out a building survey in the Hamra neighborhood of Beirut–with its insights and ethical pitfalls, as well as moments when local researchers felt "too close for comfort" to the research topic and participants. Based on his practice in development planning in Kenya, Andrea Rigon has developed guidelines for approaching diversity in participatory action research through an intersectional lens. Together with the charity and design studio CatalyticAction, he applied these insights in participatory planning work in Bar Elias in the Beqaa Valley, a project that is documented in a photo essay. Here we begin to see ways in which public services are not only a site of conflict over resources, but how their co-design can potentially help overcome shared vulnerabilities. Mira Tfaily shows how grassroots documentation, as carried out by The Bus Map Project in Beirut, can combat the invisibilization of Lebanon's bus network. She highlights the delegitimization of some informal practices, while by planners and residents acknowledge and co-op other elite informalities. Based on a survey conducted with Lebanese and Syrians via the messaging app WhatsApp, Leila Ullrich’s paper interrogates how "host" and "refugee" discourses express ideas of belonging, vulnerability, and otherness.
The final section examines Lebanon’s infrastructural "crisis" from the point of view of distinct urban circulations: Dana Abi Ghanem focuses on electricity, documenting the tragic deaths of refugees who volunteer to fix the Palestinian Shatila camp’s lethal electricity wires, which dangerously weave through the spatial fabric of this informal settlement. Fadi Mansour’s artistic work and research deals with the consequences of solid-waste mismanagement in Lebanon, his research revealing the vulnerability of bodies entangled within an environment of increasing toxicity. Lyne Jabri traces the history of Saida’s water infrastructures. Through the experience of Lil Medina, an urban-activist initiative working in Saida, her paper unpacks the dynamic that links crisis with clientelism and destructive forms of urban development. Eric Verdeil offers a response to the papers engaging with human and non-human circulations in the city.
The symposium also featured a small exhibition of artistic works grappling with the themes discussed. Featured artists included Rana Haddad, Mustapha Jundi, Jessika Khazrik, Diala Makki, Fadi Mansour, and Merijn Royaards.
Panel 1: Vulnerability and the (Built) Environment
- "Thinking Through Vulnerability: How Conceptual Approaches Shape Infrastructural Responses"
By Hanna Baumann
- "Residues of Ras Beirut: Derelict Spaces, Delicate Arrangements, and the Precarity of Migrant Housing"
By Samar Kanafani
- "Housing, Displacement, and the Elderly: Intersectional Spatial Narratives from Tareek al-Jdeede, Beirut"
By Public Works Studio
- "Response to Papers of Panel on 'Vulnerability and the (Built) Environment'"
By Laleh Khalili
- "Beirut’s Buses and the Filtering of Urban Informalities"
By Mira Tfaily
- "Too Close for Comfort: Citizen Social Science and Methodological Innovation in Hamra, Beirut"
By Mayssa Jallad and Nikolay Mintchev
- "Towns vs. People: Insights from a Qualitative WhatsApp Survey in Lebanon"
By Leila Ullrich
- "Recognising Diversity in Participatory Urban Interventions"
By Andrea Rigon, Joana Dabaj, Hanna Baumann
- "Clientelism and the Destruction of Ancient Water Systems in Saida"
By Lyne Jabri
- "Infrastructure and the Vulnerability of Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon: The Story of Shatila Camp’s 'Electricity Martyrs'"
By Dana Abi Ghanem
By Fadi Mansour
- "Infrastructure, the Circulation of Matter, and Vulnerability: Response to Jabri, Mansour, and Abi Ghanem"
By Eric Verdeil