Near the so called “Green Line” - the main front line through the middle of Beirut between the main warring factions during the civil war. Photo: Sara Fregonese



Beirut is a city that suffers from a tradition of conflict like the civil war (1975-1990), turmoil after the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri in 2005, the Israeli invasion of 2006 and clashes between pro- and anti-government paramilitary groups in 2008. Luckily – as one can tell so far – the election in June 2009 brought a degree of much desired stability to Lebanon.
However, many signs of deep seated mutual distrust will remain visible and tangible in the city for a long time. For example, a high degree of segregation characterises the residential distribution of Beirut’s population. Other material consequences of the Lebanese condition are the pockets of destruction and dereliction that still scar Beirut’s urban fabric, particularly along the “Green Line” where the territories of the warring factions used to clash during the civil war. In addition, many security features like street-blocking barrels, sand-bagged army posts or forests of barbed wire mark many boundaries between the different population groups. More recently, enclaves developed around the highly fortified residences of political leaders  which are enforced by barriers, inspection tents and armed guards.


About 400 metres away from the building with the larger-than-life poster of Gebran Tueni – just on the other side of Martyr’s square – is the Kata’eb party headquarters. The latter too displays a huge poster of one of their leaders, Pierre Gemayel, who was also part of a chain of killings following the assassination of Rafik Hariri. Photo: Sara Fregonese



Very prominent and almost ubiquitous signs of polarisation are posters with images of political leaders, flags and graffitis – often easily replicable stencils – demonstrating the territorial presence, even dominance, of a particular political party. At times of heightened tensions, the frequency of such signs increases and can thus be interpreted as evidence of radicalisation. Recently, political leaders agreed to remove political posters around Beirut which so far effectively ended what could have been called an arms race of plastering the city with political statements. Also religious artefacts like shrines or statues signify whom a certain area “belongs” to. Even mosques and churches fall into this category. The prominent new city centre mosque, for example, is perceived as blunt political statement by some.



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The `Tent City´ (with which the Hezbollah-led opposition protested against prime minister Saniora´s government) was an enormous material intervention in downtown Beirut. And with all physical urban changes come infrastructural needs like energy (hence the mobile generators), food and other human needs. Photo: Rachid Chamoun



A temporary, but particularly interesting sign of (de-)polarisation was Hezbollah’s “Tent City” which paralysed the commercial heart of the city for 18 months in protest of the government. In the wake of the conciliatory Doha Agreement (May 2008) the Tent City was dismantled as quickly as it was erected.



An interesting dynamic on the wider urban scale is the sense of encroachment, esp. by some parts of the Sunni and Christian population, due to the demographic growth of the Shi’a population which is expanding its spatial presence into some of the “other’s” neighbourhoods. Interestingly, the free market in this and other contexts can play a mixed role. In larger, purely profit orientated projects, it can be “colour blind” and contribute to social mixing. Some smaller scale, more localised development projects, however, tend to challenge existing segregation patterns much less.

Material consequences of polarisation can be felt even beyond the city of Beirut in the form of mushrooming suburbs – because this is where many people felt safer than in the city proper. This form and degree of decentralisation led to the urbanisation of coastal and mountainous areas, deforestation, road construction, additional commuter traffic and the relaxation of building regulations in the absence of civil law.

Concrete blocks protect the `Grand Serail´, the seat of the Lebanese government. Photo credit unknown



Some of the many objects which owe their existence to the socio-political situation of Lebanon, are very hard, physical, almost brutal and unyielding. The effect of many others, however, rests on their symbolic meaning and requires some kind of de-coding; which explains why many of them are hard to detect by outsiders.

What is less easy to show but not less important is the fact that such material settings are not just passive reflections mirroring the political condition. They also exerts a powerful impact upon people’s everyday lives; this is what we mean by the term mediation. If you don’t live within walking distance of “the others” how can you get to know them, challenge your inherited stereotypes or even make friends across societal divisions? Even if you do live close to a community of a different group but your neighbourhoods are divided by a wide road, why would you venture across it?




The statue on Martyrs’ Square in downtown, which commemorates those who fought for Lebanon’s independence. The square is of huge importance for Lebanon’s/Beirut’s political life with enormous symbolic value because all important demonstrations are staged here. Photo: Sara Fregonese



The reconstruction of the whole city centre by the private company Solidere is meant to create a neutral space for everyone. The symbolism to demonstrate this neutrality relies heavily on ancient Phoenician signs and artefacts because this people is perceived, or at least promoted, as free of sectarian baggage. However, the project is criticised for its commercial character which allegedly creates new divisions between those who can afford the price for a coffee at Starbucks and those who cannot.

Also Beirut Mall on a boundary between a Shi’a and Christian Maronite neighbourhood is an interesting case of shared space. Interestingly, this purely commercial project comes with a particular architectural design. In order to demonstrate neutrality, it follows a linear modernist design, avoids politically symbolic colours anywhere in the building or locates certain goods such as alcohol according to religious sensitivities in the supermarket. Our general findings indicate that it requires a lot of detailed, local knowledge to achieve such successful interventions.