TUE 28 - 1 - 2020
Date: Mar 19, 2019
Source: The Daily Star
Book argues sectarianism key player in Lebanese urban development
Rebecca Kelber| The Daily Star
BEIRUT: The war ruins in Beirut’s suburbs, the country’s unfinished buildings and highways, its limited green spaces - in looking to explain why such spaces pockmark Lebanon, many people point to a lack of urban planning. But Hiba Bou Akar has another theory.In her new book, “For the War Yet to Come,” presented during an event Thursday at the American University of Beirut, the assistant professor of urban planning at Columbia University argues such spaces have become “post-conflict” battlegrounds for political and religious groups seeking to gain control of what they see as potential future frontiers.

Bou Akar says that over years of field and archival research, she has found Lebanon’s various “political-religious organizations” - mainly Hezbollah, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Future Movement and the Maronite Church - are major players in the real estate sector, and often fight over land. She uses as an example Sahra Choueifat, on the periphery of Beirut’s southern suburbs, close to Beirut’s airport.

From 1996 to 2008, the official plans for the area changed at least eight times. The reason for this, Bou Akar argues, were power struggles between the Druze PSP and Hezbollah-affiliated real estate developers.

During the Civil War (1975-90), she says, Sahra Choueifat consisted mainly of agricultural land, which its Druze population guarded heavily.

When the war ended, low-cost housing projects began to crop up to house the displaced Shiite population - against the will of the Druze.

The municipality, then dominated by the PSP, managed to make the government reclassify the area from residential to industrial, resulting in the scaling back of the number of houses that could be built.

Later, as Hezbollah gained support and power, it relisted the territories as residential.

The result was a map checkered with residential and industrial areas.

Such battlegrounds are not without casualties. Over the years, Bou Akar said, the contentious urban planning in Sahra Choueifat has led to an array of environmental catastrophes, especially flooding. This month, environmental NGO Green Globe listed Choueifat as the fifth-most polluted city in Lebanon.

“By now, the area has become more residential, but it is still mixed with agricultural and industrial zones. And right now, a slaughterhouse from Karantina is supposed to move there, which is very contested,” Bou Akar says.

The two other examples Bou Akar’s book expands on are also taken from the southern suburbs’ outermost regions. She said she chose to focus on these areas for two reasons: “First, professionally ... because [they’re] understudied and, second, personally, because I moved to the peripheries of the suburbs in 1992 and grew up trying to understand [them],” Bou Akar told The Daily Star.

In both cases, she found “political-religious organizations” had also used urban planning as a proxy battleground for sectarian differences.

Bou Akar’s book has received much praise since its launch.

Jihad Farah, an associate professor of architecture and urban planning at the Lebanese University, who spoke at the launch event, said it changed his view on urban planning in Beirut’s suburbs, where he has also conducted research. However, he added the book’s methodical approach might be overly pessimistic, as he says it doesn’t factor in enough society’s role outside the religious-political organizations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 19, 2019, on page 3.

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