Re-Constructing the Historic Neighbourhood in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, after the 2006 War
Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”
By Howayda Al-Harithy
During the July 2006 war, Israel targeted various sites across Lebanon, including the southern town of Bint Jbeil. Institutions, infrastructure, and the tightly knit residential fabric of Bint Jbeil were left heavily destroyed as a result of the war. The following are excerpts from the chapter “The Politics of Identity: Construction in Post-War Reconstruction” (2010) that offer an overview of the reconstruction of the old neighbourhood in Bint Jbeil:
[T]he initial vision for the reconstruction project was centred on the ‘opportunity’ to build a new ‘ideal city’. Accordingly, the clearing of the site of the old town was ordered. […] The Municipality’s initiative was driven by the political decision to bring the people back, to facilitate their return in a speedy fashion and to offer them an improved – not just rebuilt – environment. This was politically motivated by the need to minimize the sacrifices made and maximize the victory, a position that is rooted in the need to bring the people back to their villages and towns as part of the resistance strategy.
… [T]the reconstruction process lacked a recovery strategy and coordination between central government agencies, local actors and donors. This lack of coordination was most critical when it came to damage assessment and recovery plans. Two initial surveys were conducted in Bint Jbeil. The first was by Jihad al-Bina’, the reconstruction NGO of Hezbollah, and was intended to serve as the basis for funding the iwa’, or compensation for temporary housing. The second was by Majlis al-Janoub, the Council of the South, to be used as a basis for the compensation of rebuilding financed by the donor country. The donor in Bint Jbeil was the government of Qatar, which had pledged 300 million dollars towards post-war reconstruction in Lebanon (2010: 78).
… When our team of volunteer experts arrived in Bint Jbeil, […] the stage was set for the locally produced and managed reconstruction scenario which had already began to clear the entire site of the old town, despite all the damage assessment surveys. In our capacity as architects and planners, the team from the Reconstruction Unit (RU) at the American University of Beirut (AUB) decided to intervene to save the old town with its distinctive vernacular architecture and urban fabric from total destruction, thus opening the debate on process and product, identity and resistance, memory and ownership. We actively engaged the Municipality and decision-makers in a discussion to warn against the erasure of memory and to acknowledge the value of the old town as built heritage and a source of identity representative of the socio-economic network of its residents and a resource for cultural and economic value (2010: 79).
A petition ‘to save the heritage of the South’ was circulated in September 2006 to be signed by the public in support of efforts to halt demolition and save the heritage of the old town. The second objective was to raise awareness and mobilize the community by discussing the value of heritage in identity construction, preservation of social memory and sustainability of historic landownership. The third was to convince stakeholders in the planning process to adopt the initiative for the protection of urban heritage. This group includes the donors (the Qatari government), the Municipality and home owners (2010: 80).
According to these objectives, the team worked on multiple tracks:…The first was to establish contact with public agencies and politicians who are critical in putting pressure on the Council of the South. It was extremely hard to operate outside the political machinery in Bint Jbeil. The Council of the South granted our team three weeks during which work was halted in the old town, to conduct our survey and documented the historic fabric and houses (2010: 80).
The second track was to raise awareness about heritage and its value through meetings and interviews with the community at large and home owners in the old town in particular. Local partners were essential to this process. […] Efforts on this track resulted in a local movement to establish a new society devoted to heritage protection in Bint Jbeil (2010: 81-82).
… One of the most challenging aspects of this track was to reverse people’s concept of ‘heritage’. Most thought heritage had to do with some distant past and culture, and thus the monuments and frozen icons that reference them. Some were even convinced that we were looking for archaeological ruins to preserve, and felt threatened by a scheme that intended to bring forth a cultural heritage alien to them. Others debated heritage with us through the lens of the oriental model, an Arab city with walls and gates, which was never the morpho-typology of Bint Jbeil or towns in Southern Lebanon where the urban settlements are open to the agricultural lands beyond. […] It took some time to convince some of the people that their vernacular architecture is a living heritage that can be protected and at the same time upgraded.
The economic equation remained the dominant concern. To agree to restoration is to lose the full compensation and to fall into a category of much less compensation. The proposal was therefore to have the owners of the traditional stone houses agree to restore their houses if offered the full compensation of $40,000. Here, the Qataris, as the main funding source, needed to approve such a proposal.
… The third track included surveying and documenting the historic fabric as well as proposing a protection and revitalization plan that addressed socio- economic needs. A team from AUB and the Lebanese University was formed to conduct the survey in October 2006 […] On the basis of the survey results, a report was prepared by the RU task team and presented to the Council of the South. The report, which was entitled ‘Preliminary Survey of the Architectural Heritage of the Old City’, was also presented to Bint Jbeil Municipality. The stone houses that were deemed of value and restorable were documented, mapped and clustered into a protected area. […] The cluster notion was important given the overlapping cellular structure of the old town (2010: 84).
In parallel, the RU team conducted a design studio at AUB that proposed a masterplan for the socio-economic revitalization of the old town. The students interacted with local officials and documented the stories of the residents through which the history of Bint Jbeil was constructed and visions were framed. The locals narrated the town through memories of social events and cultural festivals in private and public open spaces.
They saw in the reconstruction project an opportunity to change the reality on the ground and to build larger and better serviced homes. These narratives of memory, identity and ownership reveal the dialectic discourse that produces the ‘built heritage’. They are authored by different social groups and stand in an interesting comparison to the parallel process that produced the built heritage against the identity of Bint Jbeil (2010: 89).
… The process that negotiated a master plan aimed at restoring the old fabric and historic buildings revealed a contested identity for both community and place. It is most evident in the selective editing and manner with which history is constructed that memories are recalled and visions are framed. As we approached the project closer, it also became evident that the old town is a changing social landscape. Only 30 per cent of it was lived in by permanent residents before the war. (2010: 90)
… [T]he Qataris, through negotiations with the technical office, finally committed to paying full compensation to the owners of stone houses that were partially demolished and were designated as part of the vernacular heritage to be protected. The technical office had surveyed and documented 134 stone houses to recommend to the Qataris for restoration. By 13 March 2008 the Qataris adopted ninety from the list. But the threat of demolition continued due to the lack of proper management of the project. New construction was beginning in the old town and the same bulldozers were back at work, this time to clear the rubble for the new buildings to be erected. Not freezing new construction around the clusters of houses to be restored jeopardized all the efforts to restore them (2010: 93).
This process of post-war reconstruction showed that actors involved in protecting and revitalizing the historic centre were actively engaged in producing new meanings to the built heritage at the intersection of identity construction and post-war reconstruction. As such, acts of destruction and rebuilding are understood as processes of identity construction by those who dwell, build, rebuild, represent, and interpret.
Reference and Further Reading
Al-Harithy, H. (2010). The Politics of Identity Reconstruction in Post-War Reconstruction, in Lessons in Post-war Reconstruction: Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War, edited by H. Al-Harithy. London and New York: Routledge, 71-99.
Howayda Al-Harithy is Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut. She obtained a Bachelor of Architecture from the Oregon School of Design (1985), a Master of Science in Architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1987) and a PhD in History of Art and Architecture from Harvard University (1992). She joined AUB in 1994 and served as Chair of the Department of Architecture & Design from 2003 to 2006 and from 2009 to 2012. She was also a visiting professor at Harvard University, at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and at Georgetown University.
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.
Mona Fawaz and Nada Moumtaz, Neighborhoods as Propertied Landscapes: Lessons from Beirut’s Reconstructions, 4 February 2020.
Eric Lob, The Promise and Politicization of Post-War Reconstruction in Haret Hreik, 18 February 2020.
Citation: Howayda Al-Harithy, Re-Constructing the Historic Neighbourhood in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, after the 2006 War, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 13.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23458.