The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods

An Introduction to the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By Birgit Schäbler

The blog series that is about to start with this contribution assembles the presentations of the 3-day international and interdisciplinary conference, ‘Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War’, held from 29 November to 1 December 2018 at the Orient-Institut Beirut, a member institute of the Max Weber Foundation.

The aim of the conference was to bring together two concepts, namely the concepts of ‘neighborhood’ and ‘post-war reconstruction’ (in the broadest sense), and with them two sets of scholars: on the one hand those who are professionally concerned with reconstruction, be it as architects, city planners, activists, and on the other hand those who study post-war reconstruction historically.

Reconstruction is more often than not talked about in terms of mapping of damages, developing plans, restoring and renovating buildings and infrastructures. But apart from these technical aspects there is the social perspective involving questions pertaining to the social fabric of destroyed neighborhoods. This aspect tends to be neglected in the process of after-war strategies and needs of speedy reconstruction.

Yet, neighborhoods are the spatial and social clusters which make up cities. A neighborhood is not only a city quarter, i.e. a bounded geographical territory made up of living spaces but also a cluster of social networks of varying intensity. The concept of “neighbourhood” is particularly apt to capture these aspects as neighbourhood implies both the area, the space of a city quarter and the social relationships of the people living in it.

Beirut, Lebanon, a city and country with a recent history of conflict and a complex experience of post-war reconstruction of which there has been considerable criticism is a particularly apt place to discuss the issues of reconstructing neighborhoods of war, especially at a moment of intense debates and large-scale political problems concerning a number of war-stricken countries in the Middle East.

To bring the neighborhood perspective into these discussions implied a bottom-up, people-centered approach. It also raised the important question of how and under which circumstances local community actors and intermediate actors including activists managed to find ways to negotiate the reconstruction of their neighborhoods with state actors, thereby making their needs and preferences heard. This question implies another one: What kinds of master-plans and preferences were put forward by state actors who pursued goals such as speedy reconstruction, prestige reconstruction and/or ideological competition (as in the time of the Cold War), which prevented the neighborhood perspective to be taken into account in any meaningful way.      

In order to tackle these questions in a comparative way and possibly learn from past experience the conference included presentations on Berlin, Dresden, Hiroshima, Khorramshahr and Warsaw. This global perspective also brought to light quite different approaches to the question of reconstruction in the very present. While in the West a certain kind of nostalgia seems to prevail where historic palaces are rebuilt over the legacy of a more recent past, as in the case of the Stadtschloss in Berlin and other cases, in the (Middle) East structures of chrome and glass are replacing the old villas and palaces of the 19th century as well as the classical modernist architecture of the 20th destroyed in wars without much looking back – except for civil society activists concerned with heritage.

So the global focus on neighborhoods of war and the problems of their reconstruction made abundantly clear how political the seemingly unpolitical question of the neighborhood was and still is, both in the West and the East.

The global approach also brought to light that the cases which were presented were indeed comparable, offering insights that may be valuable for actors involved in the future reconstruction of destroyed neighborhoods in Syria, Iraq, and other Middle Eastern countries. While the papers on Syria and Iraq showed the active involvement of local neighborhood actors as youth groups and city activists at this very moment in time, it was the recent historical case of Lebanon which provided some hope for the neighborhood perspective even under heavily political and ideological pressures. In the town of Bint Jbail, i.e. outside the Lebanese capital, it was possible for university activists, i.e. academics from Beirut, and neighborhood actors of Bint Jbail, to prevent the bulldozing of entire quarters which were supposed to be rebuilt according to a masterplan from above, and to heed the wishes of locals – a success even if those were not entirely based on their own architectural heritage in the town.

Indirectly then this case, as well as some others presented at the conference, also thematizes the possible nexus between academia and actual reconstruction. More broadly speaking, the conference thus also contributed to the question of how academia, especially historical scholarship and the humanities at large can contribute to the discussion and possibly even solution of pressing social and political problems in the region and elsewhere.

Birgit Schäbler studied History, Islamic Studies and Political Science at the Universities of Würzburg, Berkeley (USA) and Erlangen-Nürnberg. Between 1997 and 2002, she has held positions and fellowships at Erlangen University, Duke University, Harvard University and Georgia’s Public Liberal Arts University. From 2002 until 2017, she held the Chair of Middle East History at the University of Erfurt, where she founded the first transregional research platform in 2008. Since October 2017, she has been Director of the Orient-Institut Beirut. Her research focuses on Area History and Global History, Middle Eastern Studies, Postcolonial Studies, Social and Cultural History, Nationalism and Islamism.

Citation: Birgit Schäbler, The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods. An Introduction to the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.08.2019

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