Visions of Beirut: The Urban life of Media Infrastructure

by Hatem El-Hibri, Duke University Press, 2021, 272 pp.
Paperback, $26.95 ISBN 978-1-4780-1077-7 

Visions of Beirut

Hatem El-Hibri’s Visions of Beirut takes readers on an intellectual journey through the ways that media infrastructure defines both spaces and their history in cities. Beirut, Lebanon, is the protagonist city in El-Hibri’s field research, carried out between 2009 and 2017, depicting a divided country that has strived to define itself since inception. This book’s comprehensive analysis entices anyone interested in the history of Beirut and Middle Eastern studies; furthermore, its interdisciplinary nature appeals to any scholar working in or between the fields of media, infrastructure, and urban studies.

The book highlights the ongoing relationships between media, urban form, and politics. Adopting an infrastructural understanding of media, El-Hibri analyzes maps, aerial photographs, urban plans, images, TV broadcasting techniques, and a specific spatial experience in a war museum. Building on the scholarship of Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, and Brian Larkin, El-Hibri starts by offering his own definition of “infrastructure.” His study not only is concerned with infrastructures themselves but also focuses on “the modes of relations they create” (5) in reference to culture, space, and power.1

In the first chapter, El-Hibri presents a historical overview of the making and utilization of maps and masterplans in Beirut starting from the French Mandate era. He organizes his analysis around three main periods, linked to key historical events: 1920s to 1940s during the Mandate period, 1946 to 1975 during Lebanon’s “Golden era,” and the Civil War between 1975 and 1991. The historical description invokes El-Hibri’s focus question: “What role have images [and maps] played in attempts to manage, shape, and contest the spaces of Beirut?” (2).

In the second chapter, El-Hibri discusses Beirut’s postwar era with the establishment of SOLIDERE by Rafiq Hariri in 1994, a private company that reshaped the capital’s center, dubbed Downtown, or Beirut Central District.2  His focus is directed toward images—extracted from books and films generated during the 1990s—specifically deployed to justify SOLIDERE’s “reconstruction” project. El-Hibri concentrates on the use of before-and-after images that, on the one hand, celebrate a future global financial district (the after) and, on the other, distance themselves from the before images of a city in ruins in an attempt to replace the rubble and destruction incurred by the Civil War and—as the book establishes—by SOLIDERE itself into a city center that captures the interest of what El-Hibri coins the “citizen-investor.” The latter is lured into celebrating SOLIDERE’s efficacy and investment opportunity without the need to examine or experience the actual complex process of “removal” of people and rubble, excavation, demolition, and construction.

These two chapters constitute the first part of the book, which examines images that are important to regimes of power (i.e., the French Mandate and SOLIDERE). The second part of the book, comprising chapters 3 and 4, addresses matters of concealment during and after the 2006 Lebanese-Israeli War. Chapter 3 tackles how media infrastructure, in this case Hizbullah’s affiliated television channel Al-Manar, symbolically displays a political message of “resistance,” achieved through concealment and materialized in the form of continued broadcasting and liveness during the 2006 war. The paradox here between concealment and the visual is described by El-Hibri as a situation in which “the broadcast is the event” (130) and “the mask is not the masked condition” (115). In this chapter, El-Hibri further analyzes the link between concealment and live television by providing an analysis of Hassan Nasrallah’s (Hizbullah’s secretary general) speeches during the sit-in demonstration in Beirut’s center organized by Hizbullah in December 2006 as a protest against the government of Siniora, the prime minister at the time.

Unlike previous chapters, chapter 4 leaves the context of the capital to present the case study of the Mleeta Museum, built in South Lebanon, a place that, as El-Hibri states, stages concealment in the form of a tourist attraction that invites visitors to spatially engage with Hizbullah’s guerrilla fighters’ experience during the 2006 war. El-Hibri distinguishes between the experience of the sacred, on the one hand, as communal and the act of faith, on the other, as an individual religious experience.3  Here, “the medium is not the message” (148). Instead, the museum communicates Hizbullah’s political message in a capitalist and neoliberal setting, linking place, memory, and a sense of social belonging.

El-Hibri writes to maintain an objective terminology while tackling issues of great cultural and political controversy within a context highly susceptible to linguistic traps. His overall voice is constantly backed by extensive data from field research, interviews and access to archives in Lebanon, and a grounded theoretical framework, especially in relation to the fields of media, infrastructure, spatialization of power, and, more specifically, literature on drones and aerial warfare, critical cartography, the urban and cinematic, and colonial and anticolonial nationalist imaginaries, as well as discourse around memory and forgetting.

Visions of Beirut comes at a crucial moment for the city and for the country, coinciding with the most stringent economic crisis Lebanon has ever faced and in the aftermath of one of the largest nonnuclear explosions ever recorded, which took place on August 4, 2020, at the Beirut Port.4  El-Hibri’s analysis about SOLIDERE, its financialization of the city center, and its privatization of the state in the early 1990s arguably bears witness to one of the major underlying causes of the ongoing financial collapse in Lebanon.5  Furthermore, the current political paralysis, incited by sectarian and political factions, along with the contested role of Hizbullah as a key player in local and regional geopolitical dynamics, also evidences the country’s political fragmentation, which leaves it incapable of forming a government for more than ten months. The massive destruction caused by the August 4 blast is bound to reshape the city once again; from this perspective, it is inevitable to link the infrastructural incompleteness that El-Hibri tackles with the government dysfunction and institutional neglect that led to the explosion in the first place. The recent events confirm, once again, El-Hibri’s treatise and the validity of its theoretical framework.

Notes
Lisa Parks, “Technostruggles and the Satellite Dish: A Populist Approach to Infrastructure,” in Cultural Technologies: The Shaping of Culture in Media and Society, ed. Göran Bolin (New York: Routledge, 2012); Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski, introduction to Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures, ed. Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielski (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2015); Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 327–43, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-092412-155522.

El-Hibri stresses “reshaped” rather than “rebuilt” (67).

Jacques Derrida, “Faith and Knowledge: The Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone,” in Religion, ed. Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996).
 
“Lebanon Overview,” the World Bank, April 12, 2021, https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/lebanon/overview; Michael Safi et al., “Beirut Blast: A Night of Horror, Captured by Its Victims,” The Guardian, November 12, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2020/nov/12/beirut-blas....

“Rather than privatizing state assets, . . . the state itself was captured” (74).

Aya Jazaierly, Loughborough University