Explosions and Cities. The Power of Illusion

by Bilal Khbeiz

In invoking the memory of the cars that exploded during the Lebanese Civil War, this article does not seek to condemn or condone the war, nor lay responsibility on any of the participants. This article simply claims that the war has left traces that are indelible by the years of peace or reconstruction, and so must the Lebanese learn to live in its wake.

On the twenty-first of January 1986 at 11:24 a.m. a car exploded in the area of Furn El-Chebbak east of Beirut. At once the neighbouring cars caught fire, and soon the main street was blocked by the flames and rubble. This explosion erased one of the main features of the foundations on which a city is formed.
Features of the City
The city is, first and foremost, a passage to somewhere - a station in a long journey, a transit area for people, commodities, and tools. The availability of transportation is essential and indispensable for the city: no city is without an active transportation network. One may grant as much in our day, there is no need for sterile arguments or discussions to support this. But the active transportation network is a feature that has always accompanied cities. There are no insulated cities in the sense that one may not enter or leave them. No city lacks an active transportation network. An explosion paralyses this aspect of the city’s life& its stability by interrupting the flow of passengers. It freezes the city scene into a single image of which the first characteristic is an inability to move.
Moreover, an explosion brings death to the forefront of events. The city averts its face from death. It already turns away from old age, impotence, and approaching death. The city authorities constantly see to it that these states remain veiled to the eye, and thus forbid them to stall the daily pursuits of the citizens on their way to work, oblivious to all death. In the instant of the explosion, these pursuits are halted and replaced by death’s scene, which is a sign of the city’s paralysis and its simultaneous loss of its magic and mighty face. Whereas living and daily pursuits used to be permanent headlines in cities, the sign of which is traffic.
Besides these two, a third and no less important feature is paralysed by explosions, or very nearly. In Umberto Eco’s “Paodolino”, one character, participating in the building of the city of Alexandria, against and in defiance of the wishes of Frederic Barbarossa, has the following to say in defence of his enthusiastic participation:

“if one had a goat and sold it for two pounds, he could carry these two pounds with him wherever he went, and they would remain two pounds and not diminish under any circumstances; were one to trade his goat for two chickens, however, he might find himself forced to eat them before they die, and in this way he would have lost both goat and two chickens”.

The city replaces bartering with buying and selling, which is reason enough to disobey Barbarossa, and bear the consequences of the destruction of Alexandria by the king’s hand. Modern cities in particular master the circulation of commodities and gather them in assigned places. After being pulled out of their natural environment (be it a tree or a soap factory), they are displayed in the shops and supermarkets. It is of no concern to the citizen how leather is tanned or from what source it was produced; he is only interested in buying the shoe. Explosion halts this function of the city as well, which to Eco is a feature worth dying for. Thus the burnt-down shops are among the first losses to be surveyed after the event of an explosion.
A fourth feature of the modern city blasted and near-erased by an explosion is its insistence on a surface as well as a depth to a person. This surface is agreed upon, organised, regulated, and rationalized in relation to authority. The private depth is not to be violated, unless a crime was committed by the citizen that puts an end to his privacy.
An explosion goes off and on to expose all insides, spilling the guts of buildings and apartments and baring their secrets, when no crime has been committed to deserve this violation of privacy. In addition, there is the destruction that befalls the buildings and goes against the logic of the city, which demands care and maintenance at all times. A city is not to be treated like some aging tree, it must have its roads and buildings fit for transportation and habitation, or at least in progress: never can a city justify its buildings turning into rubble.
The last feature which the explosion violates, and all but totally destroys, is one’s tendency to be anonymous through the city’s ability to bring different directions, purposes and depths together into one surface. A citizen crossing the street in a city, on his way to the office, passes another on his way to the hospital to visit his sick wife, and he in turn passes a young girl on her way to university, books under her arm, etc. All have gathered to the unifying task of crossing the street to get to the other side. Here the city presupposes variety as one of the conditions for its survival, where the differences in goals and destinations are a prerequisite. But the explosion at once transforms these individuals into one homogeneous crowd of unified purpose and destination: they are either escaping the hell that suddenly broke loose or else trying to help survivors.

The Heaviness of Hope
A single explosion is enough to break down the already fragile city, cancelling out nearly all of its functions and justifications. Imagine then that in the Lebanese Civil War we are dealing with over 3500 detonated cars, in addition to the random shelling that paralysed civilians and remained present and lethal and nerve-wracking throughout the entire span of the war, not to mention the concentrated aerial bombardment that froze West Beirut during the Israeli Invasion, in the summer of 1982. We’re dealing here with a city life in the permanent throes of explosion, shelling, and destruction. Rather than being a passing incident, it became a lifestyle that we learned to cope with as best we could, surviving and enduring in a city that, we discovered without preparation of any sort, was so fragile as to need our constant tending and care. Life under such pressure ceases to be self-evident, continuous, or even foreseeable.
Here one finds himself before three options:
One may live a life in perpetual motion, avoiding proximity to battle areas and those prone to shelling, as well as neighbourhoods that might attract car explosions. This is the technique of the nomad, who spurns all ties with the place he lives in, and for whom the road becomes the only shelter. But car explosions are not so easily avoided. Then one must leave the country altogether, or at least stay away as far as possible from all city-like gatherings. Precious advice exists to this end: stay away from bus stops, avoid crowded streets, do not linger in broad and commercially busy avenues… One who opts for this technique must therefore break all the rules, and so start to work when people are leaving theirs, and head back home when others are starting out. As we know this is impossible: it is a condition of cities that time is precisely ordered, including our own personal time. There is a certain time for eating, one for having sex, another for sleeping, and another for leisure. All are common knowledge and organised in such a way as to leave no room for confusion or misunderstanding. The nomad, though, breaks down the concept of time and renders it unfit for regulation, and similarly, he breaks down the concept of space that was formerly coherent and familiar and fit for study. In other words, we are dealing here with the immigration of subject, which we find ourselves unable to observe, predict, or analyse, for the subject of our study is no longer behaving in any comprehensible or organised way that we may research. The nomad, then, destroys three major concepts of the city: time, space, and the authority of science.
The second option is to stay at home and not venture out except rarely and reluctantly. This option recalls the technique of the cave people, who stayed 300 years waiting for the rule of their day to blow over. It is a technique that makes all surfaces in the city redundant and thus disinclined to yield to the ruling power. In a way, this is a revolutionary technique, though ultimately it renders the people obsolete rather than confront the acting power.
In any case, one can not fully succeed in taking either one of the aforementioned options, and so one opts for the third more suitable and pragmatic possibility by bringing the other two together, their virtues as well as their dangers — now multiplied to a near irreparable degree.
In such circumstances, one rations one’s movement within the bare minimum of what is familiar to him. He moves within an extremely narrow territory and depends on his limited knowledge of it. For this reason, his neighbours must lose their depths to him, so that he may be reassured as to their hidden intentions. He categorically rejects any sort of stranger or outsider unless merely passing through his neighbourhood, and he closes the border between his and the adjacent neighbourhood, and refrains from forming any sort of communicative relationship with it. And so he goes about his daily pursuits within this narrow area, so that he works, eats, and marries in it without ever having to venture outside it. As we know, this destroys, above all, the city culture’s ability to spread, by squeezing it into a small elite that keeps shrinking the longer the war exercises its direct tyranny. Consequently, it renders any opposition to any future power unable to effectively reach and influence the social fabric. By the same token, this behaviour allows power to repeatedly contradict itself by treating the groups of citizens -scattered about and shut in on themselves and unable to forge any sort of communication with one another - to totally different sets of rules, so that people are no longer equal before the law - a necessary and obligatory condition for the credibility of social and political life in modern cities.

Fear is the Means for Survival
The most dangerous of all, is for racism and fear of the other to turn into a means of escaping death; this would destroy the cornerstone upon which a city’s foundations are laid, making the city incapable of standing again. We find ourselves haunted by the return of feudalist fortresses, against which the homes of the subjects rub on all sides. This feeling is akin to looking down from one of the modern towers of Rio de Janeiro at the tin cities spreading below like some kind of measles.
This situation produces extremely dangerous consequences that were we to try and identify or define them, we would soon discover that their threat is much too serious to be dealt with by the military apparatus, or by the acting bureaucracies of our modern democracies.
The first change in the citizen’s way of life when every moment is lived in the threat of some explosion has to do with his demand to know who is around and next to him; who’s walking behind him. Thus one transforms from being an anonymous citizen into a kind of genealogist, preoccupied with the origins of his neighbours as well as all those that he has to interact with, and he tries to discriminate among their features, behaviours, and fashions. All those who differ from himself are enemies that want to kill him, so he avoids them as best he can in the places where he is forced to mingle with them, and keeps them off his private territory, be that a residential neighbourhood, a quarter, or a district of Beirut. This means that the authorities that are supposed to be protecting the citizen in his daily pursuits are no longer able to do so, and he is fully aware of their impotence. Hence, his citizenship ceases to provide him with the reassurance he needs, and he seeks shelter in kinship and neighbourly relations instead.
On a different level, this setting promotes village values at the expense of city values, so that village mentality once again replaces city mentality to dictate neighbourhood and district laws. In this way, even the most ardent in his citizenship becomes helpless before it. Village values prevail and hold sway. The citizen, scared as he is of the shelling, needs the generosity of his neighbour on the ground floor apartment that might shelter him when the shelling starts. The citizen trapped in a burning apartment needs his neighbours to rescue him, and the owner of the shop below needs his neighbours’ help to put out the flames before they reach their own apartments. The city space in this sense is no longer safe in the hands of state authority. It is no longer safe anyway, but it is still safer when lived by village values than by city or state values.

Citizenship and Kinship
With this discovery, along with the impotence he feels at having become a peasant and a genealogist in order to more actively protect himself, the changed citizen finds that his city has come to resemble an utter tragedy. Lacking and inadequate, it needs someone to care for and protect it, and nurse its illnesses round the clock. The citizen realizes that he is serving a city that does not serve him back. The city is fragile, unable to survive, constantly threatened by disease and old age and sudden death, and it is he who has to nurse and protect it. As a result, the neighbourhood people find themselves forced to provide their own services: from electricity to water to communications, through transportation, and on to neighbourhood safety and constant guard. These neighbourhoods are small nations beneath the loose national mask that no truce is able to eclipse or dissolve, and forever they will remain small obstacles demonstrating in the face of the state seeking to spread its authority.
Were the times of such enormous pressure to last, with the deaths and explosions repeating and the links of the city snapping, the city spaces would become radically transformed. City as space would no longer be what it once was. The city becomes constantly threatened by its explosions and past, constantly heeding future destruction. For the city, destruction ceases to be imagined: it has become a reality. As far as the explosions kept happening, and did not turn out to be some condemned and passing incident, the possibility of their happening again becomes manifest in every moment, and whenever the slightest problem arises. When a war ends, one lives obsessed with its return, and this sort of existence leaves visible traces upon the city and upon the life running through it. The cautious living and unrelenting fear of the future, the wariness of the stranger and of the “other”, pushes life under the shadow of war conditions way past the war’s official ending.
Let us take a closer look at what one might feel when he lives obsessed by another explosion. It is not the number of explosions that matters here, but rather their possibility. In this setting, one is well aware that the explosion that went off just moments ago is but a preview of the lifestyle that will be imposed upon him by other explosions to come. The big dilemma is that the promise of a life at the mercy of explosions might never be fulfilled, but remain just that, a promise, which is what makes it so terribly frightening and effective to a dangerous degree. For one is living under the burden of a bitter hope. In this case, one may not surrender to fate, as one might in an earthquake or active volcano zone. Rather, one must live in the burdensome hope that he might one day solve the mystery of these crimes and punish the respective criminals. That the war will one day be over, that terrorism will stop, that its conditions and demands will be met, that it will show its face… hope forces you to compromise and forbids you to confront; it pushes you to deny your own responsibility for the events, and to dump it on others instead. To this day we still say that they were the wars of others on our land.
To live in burdensome hope is to disastrously confuse the tenses. One daily goes to work burdened by an explosion that already happened, in a state of anticipation of the next one. He is living the past and the future in the present, in conflict with the conditions of city life under modern state power, which demands that one be only concerned with his present, is secure about his future, and folds his past behind him as he goes along. It is a citizen’s right to begin a new life with each day. In these settings described above, there emerges what we may consider a loss of trust between citizen and state. The state seems helpless to put the citizen’s safety in order, and he in turn seems reluctant to trust his state, and the situation unfolds in the dying of political and cultural life in an unparalleled way.

Fragility is the Origin
Every explosion is an irrefutable assault on the anonymous and reassured citizen, who is entitled to regular and reliable protection from his state. The Furn El Chebbak explosion, in this sense, is a ring in a chain that, once completed, seals the forming of the city in the absence rather than the presence of political authority. When such an assault on civilians has occurred, regardless by which side it had been committed, any state project would need a long time to prove its belonging to the city. What these explosions probably prove is that the fragile and mortal city, threatened by destruction, is in fact the origin, and that the immortal political projects and undying ideologies are mere offshoots and details.
The assault on the citizen and his safety is followed by the transformation of every authority into an arbitrary one. Could the question as to why we need an army in Lebanon be so common and logical -when we are the only country at war or at tension with Israel- if it weren’t for this history?
The cold civil war in Lebanon today feeds on the reality of the citizens’ wariness and refusal of the government project, (and this applies to all authorities, not just one in particular). Consequently, clashing and incompatible political projects suppose that the acting authority has failed to unite the people around it, along with the towns, the regions, and the economy... Accordingly, it re-proposes the original project as the only existing memory of a unifying and stable plan. It is a blundering attempt to read the country as it used to be from the angle of a narrow political project adopted and appropriated by the government.
On the other hand, the cold civil war among the Lebanese people does not seem to be of strictly civil nature upon closer inspection, despite the fact that civil societies continue to shut in on themselves. The reluctance to communicate or meet with the other neighbourhoods persists, which is partly in objection to the state’s unifying project. Let us say that the civil society remains unconvinced by the language of this state-proposed project of unity among the Lebanese, for one does not want to venture and believe the authorities once again. From now on, every state project, even if only touristic, will be regarded with extreme caution. We notice as well that there is an emerging language that is heading towards isolation and clean divisions, similar to that which emerged during the recent events in Spain.
Let us once more ask ourselves: what does it mean when one is from Sin El-Fil or Achrafieh and not from Beirut? I believe this question confirms the exclusion of one’s next-door neighbours from one’s own world. Why do we insist on the city as one great body? This is because the city favours intermingling and invents coincidences. The Achrafieh resident might say: “I receive the whole world by being an Achrafieh resident”, but he would have regarded the Ras Beirut resident as unlikely to be in that world. In this sense, the Achrafieh boy can only belong to the world by being a Beiruti first. Thus Beirut becomes the namesake of Lebanon. But Lebanon is not only Beirut, however much it depended on it to justify its existence as a second-rate state that neither covets its neighbours’ lands, nor possesses an imperial scheme.

Beirut the Negative
The question remains: why do we insist on Beirut’s being a city, and deem the city as more permanent and worthy of our care and attention?
We may define Beirut by what it is not - negative characteristics: Beirut is the city threatened by material destruction, and whose broken image does in fact exist in memory, for it has already been destroyed by a still-active faction in the vicinity
- a little Hiroshima! The Israeli does not think of or go about destroying Damascus or Cairo, but says instead, “We will destroy Beirut and conquer Syria”. For this very reason, we must not underestimate the above question and its effect on living. Are we forced to defend our city for lack of a political project to defend, and in turn, is it because of this lack of a project that we are threatened instead by the destruction of our city?
The Furn El-Chebbak explosion targets a city street as anonymous and insignificant in all its details. Supposedly, it would be easy to rebuild this street once the political project has been reformed, along with the government that will take this project to the site. This shows that the city is unable to create a reason for its inhabitants to die for it. However, we claim that a political project that is real and efficient must start from another point altogether, which is the defence of the city, not the state. A state is to follow its city, rather than claim that it can rebuild it at will. Does not the Harriri project enter in this context since it is a state decision to rebuild a city?
We may thus notice that this sort of violence that befalls the city hits a major nerve in actual space and time, the result being that they disintegrate in reality, whereas the state may only stand by considering them coherent.
After the Lebanese settled down into the sort of civil security guaranteed by the Taif Accord, aerial photographs of the city became available in Beirut in the early nineties, photographs that before and during the civil war were strictly for military use, forbidden to circulate among civilians. Since at least the mid-nineties, these aerial photographs became accessible to anyone wishing to consult them, and on their basis the maps were drawn for the urban planning of the new Beirut, as well as others maps concerning construction and development.
These photographs lost their security classification and became available to the public. Even though their circulation in some sense passed for progress, it pointed directly to the new and almost exclusive role that a post-civil war state may play and act within.
One should register a certain discrepancy in the state maps between their perception of space and time in Beirut particularly and in Lebanon generally, and between the actual space and time brought on by the war and its horrors. These maps, photographs, and books that were produced had supposed that post-war Lebanon was living in lost time. A time with no accounts; it is a time for removing the traces of war. The map and the aerial photograph, however, point to a certain time to come, in which real obstacles will have been removed in the exact same way that they have been removed from the photograph. The technique of adding up the aerial photographs of separate neighbourhoods into one unifying image of the city, demands that both photographer and editor alike modify these photos, correcting the positions of the buildings and streets deformed by falling on the picture’s edge as the camera’s magnifying lens moved. The camera, then, sees the country as deformed once it zooms in on its details. If one wanted to take a sweeping look at the city, s/he would have to modify and correct it both on the maps and in reality. The state of things being such, there is no way to read the facts for what they are.
On this basis, every state project wishing to order a certain territory becomes a futuristic one, moving within a hypothetical time and space. It means that the maps of Solidere supposed from the start that the ruined buildings did not originally exist, and similarly the maps of Beirut supposed that neighbourhoods like “El-Lija” and “El- Malla” did not in fact exist (as they were indeed drawing the maps that illustrated this non-existence). The time we’re talking about then, is one that has not yet come and might never arrive. All that the authorities are doing is building a continuous project, unified and unifying, that is based solely on numbers and facts; in other words, one that depends on quantity as the only scale for its soundness and success.

The Culture of Erasure
The books illustrating pre-war Beirut and the reconstructed version, which became quite popular since the late 90s of the past century, try to assume the task of establishing a unified cultural project within a fragmented state. They picture the city as incorrigibly lacking some of its vital ingredients. These books and images try to fool us with the illusion that a city established on the basis of the aforementioned maps may be considered as open and accessible to all. However, the first to be rejected by this city in the photographs are those who participated in the war, and in the crime of destroying the country; in other words, certainly all Lebanese. In this sense, they confirm the same relations maintained by the maps and aerial photographs, and propagate the same illusion. For the aerial photographs which form the basis for the maps, and which may be consulted by anyone, can not survive without their relation to other photographs and maps of their kind and quality. We are then before a factory of signs and symbols that only a specialist can make use or sense of. We are living in the illusion that the necessary material is available and easily obtainable by everyone, but we soon discover that this information finally remains blind and dumb if it ever fell into non-specialist hands. For this reason, public matters are fully assigned to specialists, from security to politics and on to the lowest services. The photographs, then, not only reflect that which exists, they also decide it -- in the same way that the government claims that everybody is a citizen. In the map, every neighbourhood, every building, is emptied out of its secrets, in order to make it possible for everyone to enter it, and it is left to float weightlessly in its own private space. Whereas its value is determined by price alone.
Even our history has become available in the exclusive form of information, which may be easily gathered, now that its organisation is well under way.
Space and time have resumed their continuity, which means that we may now measure and order them. On this level, every state project, in the sense that it is a task for exclusive authorities, is transformed into a project of services. We may thus learn of the extent of the state’s helplessness before any civil party offering services to citizens, as is the case in the Southern suburb of Beirut for example; for state authority cannot pretend to be unified or unifying except in the realm of services.
When services become the state’s sole and exclusive task, the state will not resume its role as keeper of the citizen’s safety and security, so that he is forced to hand his safety over to extremely complicated and branched-out organisms, from private companies to gangs to political parties. This allows for the state to take on two very contradicting projects at once. Just as a war wages in South Lebanon, for instance, while an enormous and endless construction workshop goes on in Beirut; likewise, just as Lebanese politicians wonder about the use for the national army simultaneously as they approve government policy to prolong tension at the state borders.
Citizens lose their trust in their government and come to regard it with caution, so that even touristic projects start to need several justifications. However, the loss of this trust does not allow for anyone or any group to replace the acting power, or introduce a general and thorough political program. Oppositions become isolated islands, and the government remains in possession of the only legitimate unifying project, that, to be realized, must ask the entire people to change.