Rebuilding Pride and the Technocratic Fantasy in South Lebanese Villages and Neighborhoods

Part of the TRAFO series “Reconstructing Neighborhoods of War”

By Diana Zeidan

Shattered neighborhoods and policies

As part of its rebuilding strategy after the 2006 war, the Lebanese government put in place the adoption scheme for south-Lebanese towns and villages through which foreign countries were invited to take charge of the entire reconstruction of the “adopted’’ area. However, the provision of social services by a large array of development and foreign state actors was clear competition for Hezbollah in one of its main political and military strongholds. In this context, employees and volunteers from Jihād al-Bināʾ, the reconstruction arm of the party, were heavily deployed in the area, presenting themselves to citizens and municipalities as technical experts on reconstruction, dwelling and development. By producing plans rich in seemingly technical language, but also strikingly visual, local governments in south Lebanon were invoking the expert power of the planner as both an aesthetic and a scientific shaper of urban space.

Nonetheless, Hezbollah’s control over the reconstruction apparatus did not happen as smoothly as in the suburbs of Beirut, mainly because of the large number of international donors operating in the reconstruction and local development fields and because of the local legitimacy and authority of municipality leaders. To overcome these conflictual allegiances, Jihād al-Bināʾ needed to undertake negotiations at many levels, as kinship networks needed to be mobilized to consolidate their technical powers. In particular, they capitalized on the party’s role in developing the southern part of the country, highlighting the marginalization of rural areas by the Lebanese state.

In the municipal elections in 1998, Hezbollah proclaimed the reconstruction and development of South Lebanon as its main campaign slogan. It targeted the incoherence of public policies in the South and proposed alternative means of action. The presence of international organizations implementing development projects, closely cooperating with Hezbollah-affiliated mayors, also reinforced the party’s visibility within the international community. After the 2006 war, experts from Jihād al-Bināʾ emphasized a new approach towards postwar neighborhood design and presented planning and housing as a scientific, rational process that was the just reward for the national struggle during the war. The application of planners’ knowledge in reconstruction plans legitimized the local governments’ own positions at the head of postwar town planning, silencing and emasculating competing voices. Reconstruction plans engaged in a dialogue between experts and citizens by presenting their schemes in accessible visual and textual terms. However, they also enforced a clean break with the past by showing a future that looked different and was crucially made more legible and accessible through the technical exercise of damage mapping.

Reconstruction as a manifestation of pride.

Damage assessments and neighborhood reconstructions plans as presented in local meetings appeared to be relatively sober exercises in technical detail, showing the locations of housing estates and shops as well as demonstrating land uses and areas of green space, but were, nevertheless, somewhat lacking in many of the details that would have been necessary to make them realizable proposals. The inclusion of neighborhood maps in most reconstruction plans also appears to have been for the purpose of enhancing the impression of technical expertise among passages of text that were frequently rather vague and often quite disjointed. In information-heavy illustrations of “before and after damage”, neighborhoods were presented as colorful, arresting images that portrayed a professional planning approach that was capable of understanding the south Lebanese space, making it legible and defining its future shape and usage.

This interface between technical information and the eye-catching qualities of maps conveyed the idea of a scientifically planned world in an easy-to-understand way. It allowed local inhabitants and reconstruction stakeholders to imagine a cadre of expert planners in control of the environment and suggested that the future was in safe, knowledgeable hands. The visual material points towards the conclusion that reconstruction plans, at least in part, served as a material artefact to legitimize the role of planning and local government in shaping the future city. Framed within narratives of civilian sacrifice during the war and a brave new world as reward, the visual material of the reconstruction plans invoked an idea of progress through expertise represented in maps and figures, and representations of modernist architecture.

In this context, expressions of pride are fundamental in understanding the shifts in governance in post-2006 South Lebanon. While the presence of a large array of stakeholders in the reconstruction landscape meant that pride was no longer connected solely to party affiliation, it still became a reflection of the ambitions and dreams of the governing authorities, local councelors, professional planners, architects and designers, and the developers and builders. Local authorities continued to use the aspirational language of pride and resistance in rebuilding neighborhoods. The ambitions, architecture, design and planning choices of local partnerships were portrayed as elevating the status of the city or the village and as creating a unified environment with which everyone could identify. However, this was also different from the past. Pride embraced modernism with its promise of a new, dynamic and clean city. The language used promised to clear away the old and worn. As such, pride was no longer an expression of party affiliation but the language of the technocrat, councelor and developer.

Members of Jihad al-Bina conducting technical assessment of destroyed properties (Source: tarmeem.org)

Conclusion

Postwar discourses of town planning situated the destroyed towns of South Lebanon at a crucial moment of transformation and posited expert-led planning as the means to create modern cities fit for the people who had lost homes and loved ones during the war. Narratives of sacrifice and national duty were intertwined with debates concerning damaged and destroyed cities, and the invocation of these interrelated debates presented local governments with an opportunity to articulate their desire, evident in inter-war schemes and postwar spatial policies, to holistically control the space of the city. The apparent radicalism of the solutions presented at the end of the war appears not merely as an overly ambitious product of a period where planners dreamt of utopia, but as a specific and useful tool which communicated ideas of progress and planning expertise to an expectant population. Hezbollah development experts and local governments asserted their right to plan the city through the exploitation of a language of progress, both in the form of spoken or written communication, and through visual depictions of the future contained in reconstruction plans presented in local meetings with various development stakeholders. In doing so they seem to have deliberately obscured significant continuities with pre-war projects, which in turn have pushed histories of the postwar period to accept too readily both their plans and local policies as evidence of radical change.


References and Further Reading

Al-Harithy, H (2010) Lessons in Post-War Reconstruction: Case Studies from Lebanon in the Aftermath of the 2006 War, London: Routledge.

Harb, Mona. (2009) “La gestion du local par les maires du Hezbollah au Liban.” Critique Internationale, No. 42, pp. 57–72.

Picard, Elizabeth. (2011) “Unité et diversité de la communauté chiite libanaise à l’épreuve des urnes (2009– 2010).” Critique Internationale, No. 51, pp. 35–55.

Zeidan, Diana. (2018) “Networks of Dependencies and Governmentality in Southern Lebanon: Development as a Tool for Hezbollah’s Clientelist Strategies,” in Ruiz de Elvira et al. (eds.), Clientelism, and Patronage in the Middle East and North Africa: Networks of Dependency, London: Routledge, pp. 192–210.


Diana Zeidan is a PhD candidate in Development Studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales. She holds a MA in Comparative Development Studies from the same university and a BA in Political Science from Saint-Joseph University in Beirut. Her research interests focus on questions related to the deployment of development policies in post-war Lebanon and the “making of politics” through the post-reconstruction aid system in Arab countries. Currently based in Ottawa, Diana is a contributor for the Canadian International Development Platform, examining development and reconstruction initiatives in the MENA region. Her most recent publications include two policy memos for the POMEPS at George Washington University, and a chapter in Clientelism and Patronage in the Middle East and North Africa published by Routledge in 2018. She is also currently working as a service delivery consultant for the Canadian Immigrant Integration Program.


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.

Zoya Masoud, A Treasure of Heritage for the Poor of Aleppo: Neighborhoods between the Hammer of Political Insecurity and the Anvil of Warlords, 14 November 2019.

M. Wesam Al Asali, Majida Malo, and Iyass Shahin, Informality for Reconstruction: A Possible Partnership, 21 November 2019.

Mamoun Fansa, Post-conflict Analysis and Post-war Reconstruction Strategies: Sociopolitical Considerations Using the Old City of Aleppo as an Example, 12 December 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.

Howayda Al-Harithy, Re-Constructing the Historic Neighbourhood in Bint Jbeil, Lebanon, after the 2006 War, 13 March 2020.


Citation: Diana Zeidan, Rebuilding Pride and the Technocratic Fantasy in South Lebanese Villages and Neighborhoods, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 23.03.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/23535.


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