Neighborhoods as Propertied Landscapes: Lessons from Beirut’s Reconstructions
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Mona Fawaz and Nada Moumtaz
Too often, planners reduce the neighborhood of intervention to a map layered to reflect the scientific disciplines or dimensions through which they can contain the spaces of intervention. In this process, stakeholders are typically identified through one of the layers: the cadastral (property) layer. Every property lot on the map corresponds to one, or several, clearly identifiable and knowable property claimants. The sum of these claimants, in turn, determines the “stakeholders,” those who will be invited to participate in deliberations and imagine the future of an area. While this definition of stakeholders has often been contested in past years, with participatory meetings being more open to non-property holders, post-war reconstructions seem to evade the process. Rushed to determine the “scope” of the intervention and to assess the “scale” of damage, planners too often converge on the property map as the tool to assess losses and identify stakeholders. As a result, post-war reconstruction projects become powerful opportunities for reducing the significance of space, consolidating power over its production, and silencing alternative meanings of shared areas. Our presentation dwelled on the post-war reconstruction of the neighborhood of Haret Hreik (South Beirut) in the post-2006 Israeli war in Lebanon and drew parallels with the post-war reconstruction of Beirut’s historic core in the aftermath of the Lebanese civil war. In both cases, the conclusion was the same: a propertied approach to space reduced alternative forms of claiming, ultimately limiting the imaginary of possible collectives and forms of being together to those imposed by the imperatives of project designers.
In Haret Hreik, Hezbollah surveyed damaged and demolished apartments as the war was unfolding, matching each demolished commercial or housing unit with a claimant on the basis of property records. Ultimately, the sum of these property lots determined the pool of stakeholders who would be considered the “claimants” of the neighborhood. By assessing war damages as the sum of lost assets, the rebuilders could outline a well-defined pool of claimants and quantify the losses according to the value of the demolished square meters. As defined, however, the pool of claimants eligible to voice concern and/or receive compensation in the post-war reconstruction was reduced to the sum of property owners who could provide the evidence of entitlement in the form of a property record. Absent from this pool of claimants were visitors, tenants, students, shoppers, workers, prayers, and other regular users of this urban neighborhood whose loss of the neighborhood could not be scaled to the physical demolition of an actual asset, because their loss took the form of memories of past experiences and practices such as studying, shopping, working and/or praying, visiting, remembering, and numerous other intangible basis for claiming spaces.
Limiting the neighborhood’s war damage, however, to the sum of property assets did not correspond to the expectation of neighborhood residents and users. Responding to a questionnaire in the immediate aftermath of the war, many described a rich lived experience of the area, bustling with a multiplicity of practices, such as shopping and working, but also a space of remembrance and/or sociability. It was there, in the 1980s, that the southern suburbs of Beirut had seen its first (now closed) cinema and its first office building – but also its first important religious congregations and schools. Many also remembered the vibrant commercial arteries. These were communal, shared functions that went well beyond the individual definition of lost property to extend to a multiplicity of shared, yet sometimes conflicting, commons. Moreover, prompted to define what was meant by Hezbollah’s General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah when he pledged to rebuild Haret Hreik “more beautiful than it was,” most residents described large sidewalks where you could push a stroller and walk easily, lots of greenery, and less traffic congestion – all dimensions of shared and communal spaces. This shared dimension was however rapidly dismissed once the Party defined the reconstruction task, well in line with its limited conception of the claimants, as better equipped homes with modern sanitation and elevators, potentially with stone cladding.
It is furthermore worth noting that the pool of claimants defined as the sum of property owners was part and parcel of the making of the planning project, rather than a reality to which the planners adapted. The project designers had indeed to confront the reality of the “messy” forms of owning through which people typically claim space: shares, accommodations, rentals, and numerous other forms of arrangements existed, so the way people had secured shelter before the war hardly fit the imagined representation of a clear property title. Instead, ownership had to be streamlined as each unit was reassessed, negotiations conducted when needed, and eventually ownership streamlined and redefined to fit the ownership model. As has been documented elsewhere, the task was sizable, and the project had not only reduced neighborhood claimants to property owners, and the neighborhood to their sum, it also contributed to the making of these very property owners.
A parallel analysis of the reductive role of property as an entry point to the understanding of neighborhoods can be drawn in Moumtaz’s work on Beirut’s downtown. In the post-civil war reconstruction of Beirut, the process set in place during the early 1990s to empower the private real-estate company Solidere to organize the reconstruction of the city’s historical neighborhoods was even more brutal. Lumped into a single real estate company where every form of claims was translated into a share, the neighborhood’s historical claimants were stripped of all attachment to specific spaces, places, or memories. This included the religious parcels of the Muslim community, whose Islamic charitable endowments, or waqfs, were liquefied into shares. The process raised solid resistance from lay and scholarly voices alike. For instance, the Association for the Preservation of the Qur’an “unanimously decided to work to preserve the Islamic endowments in downtown Beirut totally, in terms of their limits and location, without any change or exchange. It will not accept any attempts at harming, decreasing, or changing the waqfs or their locations,” according to a report in an-Nahar. Similarly, The Association of al-Azhar Graduates also requested the preservation of Islamic charitable endowments in downtown Beirut and other Lebanese regions and their development “based on existing regulations while taking into account the stipulations of the founder,” as reported in an-Nahar. Eventually, this mobilization derailed the expropriation plans without leading to an actual reversal of the exchanges of inalienable religious property for shares. Instead waqfs were disciplined to a different conception of property, fungible and reduced to exchange-value, where rights of use, usufruct, and alienation were consolidated with one “owner.”
By accepting a propertied understanding of the neighborhood, post-war reconstruction planners in both cases, and numerous others, stripped spaces of communal, social, and religious meaning. More attention, consequently, needs to be paid to the basic assumptions and units through which planning projects approach the natural and built environment, particularly when it comes to the powerful ownership model. Hence, a good place to initiate a discussion about the definition of neighborhoods in post-war reconstruction practices is the development of planning tools and institutions that can manage landscapes outside of the prerogatives of property, acknowledge non-propertied forms of claiming both natural and built environments, and assign them greater value than land-use planning typically has.
References and further reading
Blomley, Nick. 2014. Making space for property. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 104, 1291–1306. doi:10.1080/00045608.2014.941738
Fawaz, Mona. 2014. “The Politics of Property in Planning: Hezbollah’s Reconstruction of Haret Hreik as Case Study,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38(3): 922-934.
Fawaz, Mona and Nada Moumtaz. (2017) “Of Property in Planning; A Brief Introduction,” Planning Theory & Practice 18:3, 345-350.
Moumtaz, Nada. (2012). Modernizing Charity, Remaking Islamic Law. PhD Dissertation, New York: The Graduate Center- City University of New York.
About the authors
Mona Fawaz is a Professor in Urban Studies and Planning and the Coordinator of the graduate programs in Urban Planning, Policy and Design at the American University of Beirut. She is also the lead coordinator of the Social Justice and the City program, a research program based at the Issam Fares Institute of Public Policy at AUB which aims to formulate an agenda for research, mobilization and policy advocacy in partnerships between scholars, policymakers, and activists working towards more inclusive cities in Lebanon. Fawaz was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute of Advanced Studies at Harvard University during the 2014/15 academic year. She is an affiliated fellow to the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. She served as a member of the Affordable Housing Institute MENA Research Advisory Board and a member of the scientific committee of the Order of Engineers and Architects in Lebanon in 2017/18.
Nada Moumtaz is an assistant professor of the study of religion at the University of Toronto. She received her Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research stands at the intersection of Islamic legal studies, the anthropology of Islam, and studies of capitalism, and spans the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries in the Levant. Throughout her work she addresses how, beginning in the nineteenth century, Islamic tradition has transformed while continuing to challenge and provide alternatives to dominant sensibilities, conceptions, and institutions of the modern world. She is currently finishing her book manuscript, tentatively entitled Reviving the Waqf: Property, Law, and Religion in Modern Beirut.
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.
Mazen Haidar, Neighbors at War in 1975-77 Beirut, 11 September 2019.
Piotr Korduba, The Reconstruction of Warsaw: Between Abhorrence and Acceptance, 18 September 2019.
Paul Sigel, “More Beautiful than Ever Before!” Neighborhood-Rebuilding in Divided Germany as Political Propaganda during the Cold War, 25 September 2019.
Allam Al-Kazei, Beyond the Atomic Bombing: The Revival of Hiroshima’s Neighborhoods, 2 October 2019.
Mohammad Hassan Khani, War Emigration and its Impact on Post-War Reconstruction of Neighborhoods: A Case Study of Khorramshahr after the Iran-Iraq War, 17 October 2019.
Namariq Al-Rawi, Baghdad Neighborhoods: Processes of Resilience against the Internally-reflected Conflict of 2006–2008, 24 October 2019.
Kefah Ahmed M. Najjar, Youth Teams and Reconstruction, 7 November 2019.
M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, 21 November 2019.
Kai Vöckler, Post-Conflict Cities and Neighborhoods, 27 December 2019.
Arshi Javid, Texture of Loss: Tapestry of a Withered Neighborhood from Kashmir, 9 January 2020.
John Hanna, The Space of Literature and Lebanese Wars, 30 January 2020.
Citation: Mona Fawaz and Nada Moumtaz, Neighborhoods as Propertied Landscapes: Lessons from Beirut’s Reconstructions, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 04.02.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/21850.