Imagine a life without any memories. As LSE PhD and 2012-2013 Emirates PhD Support Award Winner Hadi Makarem writes, without memories, we have lives without pasts, without any anticipations for the future and importantly, lives without identities. In the face of different memories across the population that were often hostile to one another, at end of the Civil War in Lebanon, leaders adopted a policy of national forgetting. While this policy helped paved the way for the physical reconstruction of parts of the country, Makarem argues it also stalled the country’s transition from civil war to civil peace.

By Hadi Makarem

A slide show put together by Makarem contrasting downtown Beirut before and after the Civil War. Most photos were taken from Ayman Tarawi’s ‘Beirut’s Memory’ (Anis Commercial Printing Press, 2000)

In post-civil war situations, there is no universal perspective on what should be remembered and what should be forgotten of past violence. In Mexico, for example, the process of reconciliation involved the declassification of select documents relating to the so-called ‘dirty war’ of the 1970s and 1980s, but the refusal to establish truth commissions. In post-Apartheid South Africa, a bolder experiment in reconciliation was undertaken as the government established a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to help uncover the whole ‘truth’ behind the violence of this period. As the experiences of both countries highlight, the efficacy of transition from civil conflict to civil peace – and the move towards national reconciliation and reintegration – depends entirely on context.

In the case of post-civil war Lebanon, a policy of ‘forgetting’ was drawn by the country’s wartime elite, which largely comprised of former warlords, wartime Syrian clients, and war entrepreneurs. The basis of this policy was drawn from the famous dictum of ‘no victors, no vanquished’ (la ghalib wa la maghloub).[1] Importantly, the policy was endorsed by the then former Prime Minister of Lebanon Rafiq Hariri, a figure who was constantly criticised for putting private interests before public interests. According to some observers, Hariri had a big opportunity to oppose this policy since he was not connected to the wartime elite. However, he chose not to do so, not necessarily because the wartime elite did not let him, but rather because he was a businessman before a statesman. As a result, the policy of forgetting came at the expense of public opinion on the matter.

To understand the impact of disregarding public opinion on a sensitive subject such as this, we can look at how this policy shaped the reconstruction effort since the end of the Lebanese Civil War. Despite the physical makeover that the country has witnessed so far, Lebanon has struggled to transition effectively from civil conflict to civil peace. Memories of past violence remain raw, sensitive and undigested and many Lebanese families feel uneasy and incapable of mourning their losses. To explain how and why the reconstruction effort has thus far failed to transcend the after effects of the civil war, we can look at how memory was treated during Solidere’s reconstruction of Downtown Beirut; a private real-estate project that was personally overlooked and supervised by Hariri himself.

Why is memory important?

Try to imagine a life without memories. We would continue to ask the same questions over and over again, because we would not have any recollection of them. We would live forever in the present moment, and not be able to remember our pasts, or have any anticipation for the future. In short, we would have no identity.  Memory preserves the knowledge that helps us know what ‘social groups’ we belong to whether they are mediated by familial, religious, ethnic, ideological, class or national characteristics. At the same time, memory helps us to identify what is ‘foreign’ or ‘opposite’ of us, and in turn, determines whether or how to negotiate, fight, or cooperate with other people.

With this mind, we can begin to fathom how important memory is for postwar societies. Every postwar society is faced with the enormous task of re-writing its own history. This is particularly difficult in the case of civil wars, in which different memories that are often hostile to one another exist in the same society. Twenty years after the end of the civil war, the Lebanese have failed in re-writing a historic account that everyone can agree on.

Solidere’s Vision of Downtown Beirut:

Critics describe Solidere’s reconstruction of Downtown Beirut as a ‘privatised corporate attempt’ to ‘spectacularize history’.[2] Local accounts of the city’s past have not been worked into Solidere’s plans, these critics argue. Instead, the company has imposed its own version and vision of the area’s past while disregarding the collective memories of the local population.[3] This vision begins with the detailed restoration of old-styled building structures, to the rampant consumerism in the area. As a result, the downtown area today comes across as an open-air theme park like Disneyland rather than a city centre. Solidere has stripped the area of its history and reconstructed a past that can be described according to the two following characteristics: firstly, a ‘fake’ past that has stripped the city centre of its traditional role as a centre where people of various socio-economic configurations could interact with one another; and secondly, a ‘depoliticised’ past that is purely based on an ethos of consumerism and commercialism.

Before the civil war, Downtown Beirut was a ‘city-of-contrasts’, which mixed together the clean and unclean, the ugly and beautiful, and the smelly and the perfumed. It was an urban hub that encompassed a variety of activities, ranging from official state and municipal bureaucracies, travel terminals, hotels, locandas, and sidewalks cafes to retail stores, popular souks, to less reputable venues such as brothels, bars, and gambling houses.[4] After the war ended in 1990, Solidere destroyed this contrasting environment in favour of a picture-perfect site without trash, mud, or dust. Instead of being the gathering place of all Beirutis from all backgrounds, it is now an exclusive space for ‘appropriate’ people only.[5]

One of the most striking examples of the exclusive nature of the recreated downtown area is the new ‘Beirut Souks’. Before the civil war, the souks used to be a traditional Arab-style market that one would expect to see in other major cities in the area, such as Cairo, Damascus and Istanbul. However, the new souks are a collection of fashion boutiques, exclusive restaurants and designer outlets that make the area resemble American malls rather than Arab popular markets and sell foreign luxury goods rather than locally made products. As a result, Solidere has not only built a city centre with a depoliticised past, but it has also built a city centre with a fake past, as people’s activities in the area are limited to expensive living, luxurious shopping and elitist lifestyles.

Solidere has also completely sanitised the area-aesthetically. Since the reconstruction began, it is estimated that 80% of the buildings and structures that survived the civil war were unofficially demolished by Solidere, fitting with the company’s ‘tabula rasa’ approach.[6] Critics argue that Solidere used this approach to remove potentially troubling buildings that would remind people of a ‘disturbing’, ‘unsafe’ or ‘undesirable’ past. The fact that the new Downtown Beirut is void of any war-memorials, war-museums or adequate public spaces for national mourning and remembrance is a testament to this argument.

However, not everything was demolished. Approximately 300 old-styled buildings and iconic structures and ruins were salvaged and restored. The restorations included buildings that date back to the Byzantine, Ottoman and French eras, as well as iconic structures and ruins that include Roman ruins, statues dedicated to Lebanon’s independence, and other landmarks such as the clock tower in Nejmeh Square. As a result, the reconstruction effort was meant to substitute troubling memories with neutral, ‘safe’ memories that predate the era of sectarianism and the civil war. Through the systemic removal of ‘unwanted history’, it would then become difficult for the population to remember what happened before.

Detrimental Impact on Reconciliation and Reintegration:

At this point, it must be remembered that Downtown Beirut is the most important piece of territory in the country for two particular reasons: firstly, because it is a melting pot where persons of different faiths converge in one place; and secondly, because it represents the natural location for Lebanon’s financial and economic core.[7] As a result, it is supposed to be the most familiar and comfortable physical environment in the country. However so, there is a general sense that most people in the country are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the newly reconstructed Downtown Beirut. At a basic level, this is symbolised by the fact that the city centre has been transformed into an exclusive zone that is only accessible to a minority of upper-class Lebanese and visitors from the Arab Gulf. At a deeper level however, it is confirmed by the emptiness and soullessness of the area, and by the degradation of public spaces where mourning and remembrance can take place. This second point is particularly worrying. The absence of a public space for people of different faiths to meet and interact with one another has meant that the urban environment in Beirut has remained just as communally segmented and territorialised as it ever was since the civil war. Thus, the reconstruction of Downtown Beirut was a missed opportunity, not only because it created an exclusive zone, but also because it reinforced the communal segmentation and territorialisation of the city, and in turn, hindered the process of reconciliation and reintegration in the country.

[1] The policy of forgetting was epitomised by the general amnesty law that was passed on 28 March 1991 (Law No. 84/91), which essentially pardoned all war crimes prior to its enactment in the name of reconciliation. These included crimes against humanity and those which seriously infringe human dignity.[2] Sune Haugbolle, War and Memory in Lebanon, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010): 93; SareeMakdisi, ‘Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere’, Critical Inquiry,23(3) (1997): 691.
[3] In 2010, Solidere’s CEO, Nasser Chammaa, stated: “The memory of Beirut in ruins is fading…Repressing the past horror, with its traumatic effects on our lives, we go about our business and confidently face the future.” [Nasser Chammaa quotes in Solidere, ‘City in Layers’, Annual Report, (2010): 7].
[4] Samir Khalaf, ‘Reclaiming the Bourj’, in Hashim Sarkis (ed.), Two Squares: Martyrs Square, Beirut, and Sirkeci Square, Istanbul, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006): 39.
[5] To a certain extent enforced by Solidere’s privately hired security, as well as by a conscious decision by many in the lower and middle classes who feel uncomfortable about going to an expensive area.
[6] Makdisi, ‘Laying Claim to Beirut: Urban Narrative and Spatial Identity in the Age of Solidere’, 167.
[7] Tom P. Najem, Lebanon’s Renaissance: The Political Economy of Reconstruction, (Reading: Ithaca Press, 2000), p.164.


Hadi Makarem is a PhD student from Lebanon now studying in LSE’s International Relations Department. His thesis research focuses on postwar reconstruction in Lebanon with an explicit focus on Solidere’s reconstruction of Downtown Beirut. He can be found on Twitter @hmakarem.

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