Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Mazen Haidar
When it comes to retracing the urban history of Beirut, the long-established narrative often considers the war as a compact parenthesis confined by two distinct actions: destruction and reconstruction. While focusing mainly on the division of the city and the loss of its old center, this representation ignores other significant aspects that have characterized living in certain warzone neighborhoods. The system of adaptation to the crisis developed by the Lebanese, the effects of destruction on their perception of the built environment, and the evolving meaning of reconstruction and rebirth during the long period of the conflict come to mind in this regard.
A close look the local written press of 1975 gives an idea of the conflict’s repercussions on the practices of the domestic spaces and the general evolution of the attitude of citizens towards the destruction and possible rehabilitation of their built environment.
At the end of the first round of violence (April 13th – 20th 1975), the conviction that what was referred to as “the events” had come to a final end opened the discussion about loss and damage compensation while establishing an atmosphere of solidarity among affected residents in certain neighborhoods on what would soon be known as the demarcation line. Problems began with the definition of the nature of the events themselves by insurance companies. These companies would very soon refuse all responsibility and would announce that future contracts would not cover damages due to armed conflict. Insurance companies instead called on residents to claim compensation from the Lebanese government. But affected citizens quickly realized that, with the return of fighting, the authorities were powerless to stop further deterioration of their environment and even less able to offer any help in restoring what was damaged. With the repetition of the “events” in May 1975 (second round), demands for compensation and protection from the public authorities were still echoed in the Lebanese press, but more urgent reclamations would appear, such as the return of displaced residents to certain neighborhoods in the Eastern suburbs. Progressively, these new reclamations took over, and many repairs were carried out by tenants without even waiting for any type of compensation or contribution from the state.
If on the one hand, the war taught people to be appreciative and thankful for what they still had, it also established a palpable skepticism about the role of public authorities in providing any concrete help in the phase of reconstruction. Although many promises regarding financial support were repeated sporadically after April of 1975, the extent of damage and destruction and the urgent humanitarian crisis of the displaced population made it seemingly impossible for the weakened state to come up with a viable solution for compensations. Instead, a proposal was made by the Ministry of Housing and Cooperatives to offer long-term loans for repairs only to owners or tenants who could provide solid proof that they did not have the financial means to cover such expenses. In all other cases, the owner was appointed, by the authorities, to be the only entity in charge of repairing damaged apartments.
Rather than solving problems, this caused a sharp split between renters (more than 70% of the residents of Beirut) and owners. The vast majority of owners declared themselves unable to fund any repairs. Furthermore, the new rental law issued in February 1977 gave tenants who had fled certain neighborhoods during the “Two Year War”(1975-1976) the right to pay only half of the amount of rent due and to spread out payments over six months. Readers’ letters columns in different newspapers witness the creation of the first tenants’ organizations in some areas created to launch repairs in response to the systematic refusal of owners to participate in such tasks, and to a loss of all confidence in the public authorities to provide practical support in the short term.
Apart from financial issues, tenants and landlords wanting to repair their homes in 1977 had to face some major new challenges, such as a labor shortage due to the departure of Syrian workers back to their home country. This major loss to the construction industry would be further accentuated in 1978 in Eastern Beirut after the massive migration of Lebanese workers as well.
Other challenges, such as defense measures not supplied previously, had to be faced through precarious means. In fact, the security issue would become predominant and would replace old terms describing modern comforts in real estate commercials. An apartment was considered secure and comfortable if it could protect tenants from the war or from looting if abandoned.
That said, repairs had to be carried out rapidly in order to house residents with a minimal cost. Rather than a global project, most interventions were structured around a priority list where the rehabilitation of interior space came before other more aesthetic concerns. Without the need for scaffolding, each tenant would manage their own space, giving priority to isolate the interior, secure damaged balconies and repair any accessible damaged surface. Often carried out by the same workers contemporaneously in different units of a building, these interventions were customized to the users’ needs and budget. While legitimating the customization of each damaged apartment, these spontaneous repairs show a constant need for simplification in terms of forms, materials, and construction techniques.
Once the wartime living had settled in, it would no longer be understood as a trauma. Crisis management skills developed by the residents of affected neighborhoods would take a long time to be recognized by the press as a subject of any particular sociological interest. In 1975, the situation was deemed reversible, and a return to peace was widely expected and proclaimed by all parties and on all channels. It is only after the official end of the Two Year War—the first phase of the Lebanese Civil War—in October 1976 that the adaptability and creativity of the Lebanese during the crisis period were recognized in the written press. When the war was no longer considered traumatic, emerging situations of forced displacement, service deterioration, damage and destruction were transformed from a deplorable aberration to a habitual annoyance that one must learn to live with and to domesticate.
While reflecting on the type of relationship between residents/neighbors and neighborhoods of war, the intermediate scale of housing and building typologies necessarily stands out. Having played the role of a shelter, of a small neighborhood, and of the symbol of a postwar renaissance, residential buildings in Beirut have fully embraced the war’s history. By cultivating residents’ adaptability and creativity in dealing with their built environment, in addition to the physical effects of the armed conflict, these buildings have witnessed residents’ evolving perception of destruction, deterioration, and residential architecture more generally.
Identifying traces of the Two Year War through the improvised reaction to destruction connects us to the significance of this period in modern Lebanese history. The very long duration of the Lebanese war suggests that further investigations can be conducted on the postwar period (1990-1993) in the same neighborhoods perhaps, not only to tackle the issue of spontaneity in repairs, but also to explore the roots of residents’ propensity to constantly modify their domestic space, an attitude that seems to characterize modern Lebanese society.
References and further reading:
As-Safir, (April 1975- June 1977)
An-Nahar, (April 1975- June 1977)
As-Sayad, No. 1618 – September 1975
Davie, Michael (1991). “La gestion des espaces urbains en temps de guerre : circuits parallèles à Beyrouth,” in Nabil Beyhum (ss.dir.) Reconstruire Beyrouth, les paris sur le possible. Lyon : E.M.A No. 5, Maison de l’Orient Méditerranéen, pp.157-194
Chakhtoura, Maria (2008). Mémoires de survie. Beirut: Les Éditions L’Orient-Le Jour.
Mazen Haidar is an architect in conservation who graduated from La Sapienza University of Rome in Italy where he lived for over ten years. A practicing architect, he is currently involved in several conservation projects in Lebanon and has taught in several Academic institutions such as the Lebanese American University, the American University of Beirut and the Académie Libanaise des Beaux-Arts. He regularly contributes articles on architecture and culture to a number of national newspapers and journals. His many publications include: “Città e memoria, Beirut, Berlino, Sarajevo” (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2006) and the Arabic novel Four Steps Down (Dar Al Adab, 2017). His ongoing PhD project at Paris 1 – La Sorbonne deals with the history of the residential building in Beirut and practices of appropriation of architecture from the “modern movement.”
Further articles in the series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War” on TRAFO:
Birgit Schäbler, Introduction: The Importance of Being Earnest About Neighborhoods, 28 August 2019.
Kevin Mazur, Not Just Neo-Liberalism: Spontaneous Settlement and Violent Conflict in Homs, Syria, 4 September 2019.
Citation: Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 11.09.2019 https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19640.