Enter the basement of the Centre des Archives Nationales in Beirut and you’ll immediately notice the large white sacks, overflowing with documents and papers, strewn across the main hall. Lumped on top of each other, the sacks rest in the corners of the maze of corridors and side chambers that form the physical space housing historical records from the Levant, some as old as a thousand years. According to Ibrahim, the director of the Department of Paper Records at the center, the white sacks—the very same kind used to cart away rubble from the explosion at the Port of Beirut two years ago, to clean up this country’s present ruins—were the latest addition to the archives. Ibrahim is a tall, broad man in his mid-fifties, with a charming smile and combed-back silver hair. Anticipating my bewilderment, he cut short my question about the bags and jumped mid-sentence into a detailed description, worthy of a charismatic salesman, of how he managed to save the documents.
According to Ibrahim, the bags had rested for several years in the basement of the Baabda serail, an old Ottoman governmental building about ten kilometers southeast of downtown Beirut that houses the governor of the province of Mount Lebanon. Among the documents were property deeds, legal decisions from old Ottoman courts and local government decrees. Some material dated as far back as the nineteenth century. Social and legal historians of the period would consider such papers priceless and vital to understanding everyday life at the time.
An official at the Baabda serail had struck a deal to sell the materials to a private university in Lebanon for a certain sum of money. When the director got wind of the scheme, he intervened to stop it and then had the local authorities send everything to the national archives. Ibrahim’s story is emblematic of the nature of the decentralized archival landscape in Lebanon. Private institutions, such as universities, compete among themselves and with a whole host of cultural institutions, museums and the national archives in a race for material that renders both archival access and the process of historical inquiry muddied and opaque.
Ibrahim lamented that there is hardly a culture of preservation within Lebanese state institutions. Though the Centre des Archives Nationales possesses the administrative prerogative to house and archive all state documents, it lacks the power to enforce its interests. It’s not just cultural institutions that are jousting over Lebanon’s archival legacy, however. The country is riddled with small bookshops run by collectors, each of which has a basement or closet where the owner hides a personal stash of archival documents, collected over decades, to be sold on the private market. Bookshops in small alleys of Ashrafiyeh and Basta dominate this trade, where everything is priced by the dollar. At a time when the national currency has lost 95 percent of its pre-crisis value, private markets have become a lucrative source of profit.
In a country built on long-standing political and social contradictions and saddled with what many describe as the most severe economic crisis of the past two hundred years, Lebanon’s neglect of its historical documents ranks pretty low on a long list of spectacular failures. But it clearly mattered to Ibrahim, who personified the contradictions one faces every day in Lebanon. As he reminded me, he didn’t identify politically with any sectarian affiliation, though he didn’t hesitate to throw a sectarian joke here and there; he insisted he doesn’t involve himself in the graft that plagues Lebanese public institutions yet boasted about his ability to navigate corruption with ease. And, I’d learn, the fate of Lebanon’s historical patrimony mattered to me too. Over the months I spent in the archives, I came to admire the director and his quest to save the remnants of Lebanon’s history, to ensure they wouldn’t be lost to private collectors and profiteers. It took on new urgency when, outside the archive, my country seemed to be falling apart at the seams.
I had come to Beirut in August 2021 to do research for my dissertation on development and urban planning in 1960s Lebanon, a period defined by what is now called Shehabism. Shehabism spanned the entire 1960s, when the Lebanese state, led by President Fuad Shehab and his chosen successor Charles Helu, expanded and undertook large-scale socioeconomic development projects and social-welfare schemes aimed at revitalizing the country and improving the lives of its citizens. These projects were rooted in then-fashionable notions of global development, planning and progress. I was particularly interested in finding documents produced by the state’s legion of foreign and local advisers, engineers and planners. These tedious and inconspicuous mid-level bureaucrats were tasked with effectively turning Shehab’s lofty vision of national unity into blueprints for applicable projects. I wanted to learn about what they considered Lebanon’s societal ills to be, and how their understanding of “progress” defined their solutions to those ills.
In the summer of 1958, sectarian violence erupted in Lebanon as residents in predominantly Muslim rural regions revolted against what they believed were policies that concentrated wealth and capital within the hands of Christian elites and their communities in Beirut and nearby Mount Lebanon. Crucially, many Lebanese Muslims—but also socialists, union leaders and communists of varying confessions—believed that the sectarian state, as designed by the previous French colonial regime, had favored Lebanon’s Christian community at the expense of the others. Tensions also flared over then-president Camille Chamoun’s pro-Western positioning with regards to Lebanon’s foreign policy, putting him at odds with Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and his supporters in Lebanon. An international crisis ensued. After the U.S. and Egypt helped broker a resolution, Shehab was elected in July 1958 and assumed office in September. His interpretation of the causes of the crisis resembled that of those who had risen up in protest. According to Shehab, future sectarian violence could be avoided if socioeconomic parity could be established between sects and regions. Development planning in Lebanon—directed both by outsider experts and Shehab himself—began as a response to the deep divisions in Lebanese society and politics laid bare by the civil war. To this day, political power and resources continue to be allocated along confessional lines.
The Shehab era is fondly remembered by people in Lebanon, who credit the former president with effectively building the state and being an evenhanded arbitrator in disputes between Muslims and Christians. During the 1960s, the state intervened on behalf of many: establishing a social security system modeled after America’s own Social Security Act of 1935, building hundreds of miles of roads connecting rural villages with the country’s main highway system, and rehabilitating thousands of acres of farmland while also undertaking massive affordable public housing projects. Many Lebanese people, from various confessions, still characterize the Sixties as the country’s golden period.
I wanted to pull back the layers of nostalgia to learn what Shehabism actually entailed, and how Lebanese development plans for rural regions had been designed, implemented and resisted. I wanted to know how citizens at the other end of development plans reacted to such interventions. Yet the deeper I went down the historical rabbit hole, the more it dawned on me that this was not a uniquely Lebanese story, but one that rippled out across the postcolonial world. The head of the French think tank that Shehab hired to draw up Lebanese development plans was a Dominican priest and former naval officer named Louis-Joseph Lebret, who had earned his developmentalist pedigree designing similar schemes in Senegal and Brazil. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) sent a statistician to help reorganize the Lebanese Ministry of Agriculture’s statistics department in 1959, who not long after left for a similar mission in Peru. The FAO then chose Lebanon as their Near East headquarters, where agricultural experts from around the region would gather for training. For a brief period in the mid-twentieth century, Beirut had become a crucible and testing ground of global development.
This period was important to me not solely as a matter of academic interest, but also because I grew up in the shadow of Shehabism and was shaped by its successes and failures. Raised in the suburbs just south of Beirut, I became politically active during the early days of the Arab Spring, radicalized by fellow—predominantly leftist—anti-sectarian activists and organizers. These people, many of whom I call my colleagues today, strongly believed that the system of political sectarianism in Lebanon could be dismantled if we could only somehow reach the levers of power and enforce some form of social democracy—a vision of political life where state resources and services would be allocated equitably across the country, regardless of any confessional affiliation. Yet, for all their ambition, even the most radical political imaginations in Lebanon continue to be haunted by Shehabism. Activists of my generation, born just at the end of or right after Lebanon’s protracted, bloody civil war (1975-90), parroted Shehabi talking points about social justice, development and welfare—whether they knew it or not. Indeed, the rationale of many vocal opponents of sectarianism eerily mimics the basic idea that took hold within Shehab’s administration—that fixing the country’s problems was a matter of having the right competent people manning rehabilitated state institutions.
The problem with hearkening back to Shehabism is that many of the bureaucratic norms that still dictate political and economic rights in Lebanon today emerged out of the contradictions of Shehabist reforms. The laws that adjudicate bidding over state projects and grant exclusive rights to certain importers with close ties to sectarian elites, for example, were passed during this supposed golden era of institution-building.
I have watched the ebb and flow of leftist politics in Lebanon since 2011. Opposition groups have often formed only to disintegrate into various factions, mirroring a pattern that has long been a source of exasperation for leftists in other countries. The reality is that we—the anti-sectarian, broadly progressive political activists—have been consistently losing battles for more than a decade. In 2013 and 2014 we failed to prevent parliament from unconstitutionally extending its mandate. In 2015, when Beirut sank in trash, our protests shook the government’s resolve but ultimately stopped short of achieving any concrete long-term solutions. The Syrian revolution next door, which many of us saw as our own, escalated into a bloody civil conflict where Lebanese, Iranian and Russian forces killed thousands of Syrians to help keep Bashar al-Assad in power. The defeat of the Arab Spring nearby reverberated negatively in Beirut as spaces of protest, contention and civil liberties shrank, particularly as political elites and the Lebanese police state went after journalists and activists. In 2018, despite a somewhat more organized presence, opposition groups failed to break through in the parliamentary elections. And finally, our own uprising, which erupted in October of 2019, hastily hailed by many as the “end of the civil war,” was crushed only a few months later under the weight of state repression and sectarian militia violence. These disappointments were then followed by a global pandemic that crippled any form of organizing, the Beirut port explosion of August 2020 and an economic collapse that wiped out most people’s savings.
The political cleavages between society and state, opened by the shocks of uprising, explosion and pandemic, provided a chance for those of us seeking an alternative future for Lebanon to showcase what that might look like. Thanks to the uprising, a group of Lebanese people of various backgrounds across the country coalesced into a powerful anti-sectarian bloc capable of coordinating movements and strategizing future subversive actions. After the explosion, relief efforts in Beirut were led by community organizers and activists in response to massive state neglect. It was these ordinary civilians who descended upon the city, cleared away the rubble, boarded windows and helped residents defend their homes against predatory real-estate developers. A network of decentralized activist groups and NGOs provided food, medicine and care for the victims of the blast. These were the same people who provided mutual aid during the pandemic and economic collapse and formed the nucleus for various legal and advocacy cooperatives that challenged the state’s austerity measures and defended protesters in court. A nascent, decentralized movement of self-governance quietly emerged from the cracks of the decaying sectarian state. Yet even this failed to mature into an ambitious political project. When it came to national politics, many activists retreated into the Shehabist default position of expecting the state to serve as guarantor of national unity, the only viable safeguard against sectarian disintegration.
I like to tell myself that this experience played an important role in why I’m investigating development politics and design in 1960s Lebanon. We all need our quasi-fictional, slightly self-important narratives to justify the choices we make. Maybe it’s my own way of managing my guilt for leaving in the summer of 2018 to pursue a graduate degree.
I arrived back in Beirut a day after the one-year anniversary of the explosion that ripped through our city, killing hundreds and maiming thousands. I’d come to spend my dissertation research year as a Ph.D. candidate in modern Middle Eastern history, though I couldn’t access the archives for another month and a half. The suffocating summer heat and lack of electricity meant that nobody at the institution—with a staff of over thirty people—actually showed up to work. The Lebanese lira at the time was floating at around 20,500 lira to the dollar, roughly a collapse of 1,300 percent from October 2019, when it was still pegged by the central bank at 1,500 lira to the dollar. Public-sector workers, in general, had stopped going to work, citing the lack of gas, dwindling wages and the absence of government support. Many of the state’s institutions and agencies remain barely staffed today, which has driven governmental function—already crippled by negligence and rampant corruption—to a halt.
Permeating the inertia was the humidity: you couldn’t walk even a few blocks around Beirut without getting soaked in your own sweat. The currency collapse hit the network of private generators still providing power to people’s houses. The electricity didn’t come regularly enough to turn the air conditioning on, rendering them useless for most of the day. The city itself was empty. Gas stations ceased selling fuel as the state slowly removed subsidies it could no longer afford. When gas stations finally reopened, cars swarmed them, blocking vital arteries and streets across the city.
Rideshares and cabs stopped working as fares barely covered fuel costs. On the off chance a cab was roaming the streets and you managed to get in, the driver spent most of his time trying to sell you fuel he procured from the black market. That summer, gas stations turned into militarized inflection points. Local militias and state security officials took over many of Beirut’s stations managing access.
One day, at a gas station at the end of Hamra, a neighborhood in Ras Beirut, I saw a giant fracas devolve into a fistfight with weapons drawn. A group of at least twenty large men battled over who got to fill up their car first. The proprietors of the gas station and the local strongmen controlling entry pumped gasoline into canisters for connected smugglers, who later sold the fuel at market price.
After a week of waiting in long queues in the hope of filling up his car, a friend of mine relented and resorted to purchasing fuel on the black market. An acquaintance had given him a phone number. After several exchanges over WhatsApp, we found ourselves buying gas from a local militia. At ten in the evening, we made the deal in a dark alley off the Bechara El Khoury Boulevard. We bought four ten-liter containers filled with top-of-the-line standard 95-octane fuel, placed them in the back of my friend’s hatchback, then drove below our building and filled his tank in total darkness, as passersby shot us suspicious looks.
Everyday urban life has turned into a struggle to provide for basic needs. Informal strategies have proliferated to meet those needs, and all across the country regional markets for goods and services—not just gas but also food, medicine and other essentials—have sprouted and disseminated through word of mouth, social media websites, texting services and local gatekeepers. In the vacuum left by a state no longer capable of guaranteeing security for its citizens or regulating the distribution of necessities, a space has opened up for reconfiguring social and political ties, particularly among city-dwellers, away from the established sectarian status quo.
But these informal encounters also present new threats of social disintegration. In the Christian town of Maghdoushe, in southern Lebanon, for example, a fight over access to a gas station turned dangerously sectarian: Reuters reported that a man claimed he was assaulted while trying to get gas by a group of men from nearby Shi’ite Ankoun. When local police went to apprehend the assailants, Ankoun residents retaliated by attacking houses in Maghdoushe, leaving severe damage in their wake. The Lebanese army was deployed the keep the peace as sectarian MPs and local religious leaders pleaded for calm.
Once the subsidies were completely removed by early fall, the melees outside gas stations relented. Gas lines vanished, but only because most people could no longer afford paying for fuel at market prices. The entire economy was dollarized—everything was available, for the right price—but for most Lebanese people the situation was unsustainable, and normal life remained suspended.
On October 14th of last year, clashes erupted in Beirut, sending most of us into a frenzy. Earlier that day, Hezbollah supporters were marching on the Ministry of Justice, prompted by their leadership to voice their opposition to Judge Tarek Bitar. Bitar, the embattled state judge leading the investigation of the Beirut port explosion, had issued warrants and subpoenas summoning Lebanese statesmen, including Hezbollah-affiliated members and allies, thought to be responsible for creating the dangerous conditions that caused the explosion. As Hezbollah-affiliated protesters marched toward the ministry from the Tayouneh roundabout, some tried to enter the nearby neighborhood of Ain el-Remmaneh, a suburb just outside East Beirut, where many supporters of the Lebanese Forces—a Maronite Christian party, and Hezbollah’s main opponents—reside. Shots were fired at the protesters, who soon rallied with assault rifles and RPGs, and a gun fight ensued. Seven people were killed, and the Lebanese army had to evacuate a nearby school—the pictures of terrified kids and teachers bringing back stark reminders of the civil war.
We lived long, tense days in the wake of the clashes, eerily similar to the ones that had occurred in the aftermath of the 1958 civil war. As the country’s streets emptied, my friends and I sat solemnly in our houses watching the events unfold. A close friend and colleague of mine was particularly despondent. This friend, with whom I’ve long worked to establish some form of viable, long-lasting political infrastructure for the Lebanese opposition, is one of the few people I’ve come across in my ten years of organizing in Beirut whose resolve has rarely wavered. Yet even he felt in the aftermath of the latest bout of sectarian violence that we were back to square one, as if all the organizing work we’d done since 2011 had come unraveled.
The fire and counter-fire between Hezbollah and the Lebanese Forces being played out both in real life and in media statements reinforced the fault lines between Lebanon’s sectarian communities, deepening a chasm—which many of us had labored tirelessly to bridge—that now seemed insurmountable. The Lebanese sectarian political regime that threatened us with violence and civil war every time we protested for justice, dignity and a better life delivered on its threats this time, and all we could do was sit on the sidelines. All that work since 2011, all the opportunities afforded to us by a bumbling, pernicious regime, had slipped through our fingers. History seemed flat and grating.
As for Bitar, Lebanese politicians filed lawsuit after lawsuit through the weak justice system, which brought his investigation to a slow crawl. No one knows whether his efforts will ever amount to anything, but for many Bitar has become a rare symbol of integrity and justice. Still, after the clashes in the fall, the hope that those responsible would be held to account has all but faded away.
That fall and winter I spent my days reading hundreds of government documents on development planning and social-welfare schemes in the 1960s: a mountain of reports, studies and maps issued by state bureaucrats and experts precisely detailing projects aimed at improving people’s social lives through science and design. As a historian, I had been trained to maintain critical distance from the materials I was analyzing, to second- and triple-guess the motives and incentives of their authors, to understand and contextualize the contingencies surrounding their work processes and decisions. At the same time, I was living in a place and a moment where everything seemed ad hoc, where a travesty lurked at every corner and the existing social contract was lit aflame. A country? More like a set of elements somehow still stitched together, decaying into oblivion.
The sorrow of it is the hardest thing to shake. It creeps into your social circles, and once there it is difficult to extract, just as people are still finding stray glass shards in their homes two years after the explosion. Historians study things that no longer exist all the time. We agonize and spend endless hours investigating why something is the way it is. But for the year I’ve spent back home, I’ve been witnessing things cease to exist, fully aware that the worst is still to come. I find myself mourning something that isn’t quite dead yet, but that was never actually alive either.
My investigation of an era where the state actively tried to shape society through grand schemes clashed with the daily reminders that there is no longer a state to speak of, and society staggers on, informally, cruelly and ever more violently. Yet somehow opposition groups still adopt the same tropes and diagnoses of a bygone era of nation-building—a project that obviously failed, and has been failing every day since. For all its effort to curb rural flight, the Shehabi era saw the ballooning of the population of Beirut and other coastal cities—people who would later fill the ranks of wartime militias. Development projects aimed at redistributing wealth to farmers and disenfranchised communities ended up expanding economic inequality by increasing the profits of traders and export monopolies in cahoots with the state. Five years after the last Shehabi president was in power, Lebanon erupted into a fifteen-year civil war. And although many external geopolitical pressures contributed to the collapse of Lebanese society, the internal contradictions that the Shehabi state attempted to resolve persisted.
On May 15, 2022, Lebanon held its most recent round of parliamentary elections. Just 49 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot, according to the Ministry of Interior. Buoyed by diaspora voters seeking to punish Lebanon’s rulers, low voter turnout and a political class reviled for causing the worst economic crisis since the country’s founding, thirteen anti-sectarian candidates won, unseating established sectarian politicians and household names. Though their success was a bright spot in a dark time, it remains to be seen what this heterogeneous opposition bloc can achieve in a deadlocked parliament. The sectarian establishment, split between pro- and anti-Hezbollah factions, saw its vote total decrease from the previous elections. Neither bloc holds a majority, while Hezbollah, the country’s largest militia-cum-political party, still effectively holds power. Lebanese people continue to emigrate at extraordinarily high rates, while the currency hit an all-time low after elections. Many of the ideas brought forth by the new opposition MPs are just a repurposing of the old Shehabist formula. For the time being, structural change appears to be out of reach.
As I sift through the documents of the architects of Lebanon’s modernization, I can sense the hope and certainty in their task. I feel their enthusiasm and confidence in Lebanon’s future—it was a conviction I used to share, even just a few years ago. Yet facing this most recent collapse from the vantage of both living witness and historian has sapped all the optimism out of me. The present is the past but worse.
Early this summer I was asked to present at a panel organized by a local NGO on Lebanese state institutions and development prior to the civil war. The audience consisted mostly of activists, planners and architects, many of them belonging to my generation. My talk lasted only fifteen minutes and covered a slate of Shehabi development projects and government initiatives focused on rural Lebanon. When the session moved on to the discussion, the first question I received was from a young planner. Naturally, she wanted to know what lessons I had learned from digging into Lebanon’s past, what tools and insights I could impart that might be relevant to dealing with Lebanon’s current series of crises.
I had gotten used to this question—it’s something I often get asked when I’m home and someone asks about my studies. One thing policy-makers should avoid doing, I replied, was reinforcing the binary between modernity and tradition that defined the strategies of Shehabi planners in the Sixties. It was imperative that activists and planners today not conceive of themselves and their methods as purely rational and neutral while treating the people who are the subject of their development projects with condescension, as if they are not. Any oppositional political incursion in Lebanon will have to be resoundingly inclusive, democratic and respectful of the agency of everyone involved, not solely because this is the most morally correct approach but, more importantly, because this might be the only way for us to start imagining a political movement robust enough to challenge sectarianism. The audience nodded along as I spoke, but I still sensed they wanted me to offer clearer historical lessons, to lay out how to avoid the perils of the past. As a scholar I felt satisfied by my answer, but as a former activist I was not so sure. I almost envied how hopeful they seemed.
One sunny morning, I paid a visit to Ibrahim. (After spending months in his office, which also served as the archives’ reading room, I had retreated to my house to carefully pore over the documents I had photographed.) Ibrahim was eager to show me the basement, where the white sacks had been removed from the main hall and corridors and stowed away in adjacent rooms, safeguarding this land’s treasured past. On the table at the center of the main hall Ibrahim had displayed centuries-old Ottoman documents from the Baabda serail haul: affidavits, judges’ sentences, property deeds—all priceless. He had begun archiving and sorting them, a task that seemed near-impossible the first time I visited, yet there he was, toiling away at the piles one document at a time.
As he pulled from the table a document stamped with an Ottoman seal, he casually mentioned that he would be up for retirement in a couple of years. My heart sank. I didn’t dare ask him what might happen to the archives once he’s gone. A new director could make them inaccessible and unwelcoming, like many Lebanese state agencies are. In a few years, would I have to bribe some apathetic public official just for a peek inside the basement? Who would keep the material there from being slowly carted off and sold at one of Beirut’s dozen underground auctions of historical ephemera? I selfishly worried about my presently nonexistent and improbable future academic career. Ever since I’ve been back in Beirut I have had the privilege to access and mine Lebanon’s archival treasure; a few years from now that might no longer be a sure thing.
By then, I had bonded with Ibrahim, seeing him as a kind of protector of a history few cared to remember or preserve. Like many people predisposed to history, he was an excellent storyteller, and a natural jokester. He spoke constantly about his family; he was proud of how his children challenged his politics; he ranted and cussed at those in charge for depriving them, and us, of a better future here. His eyes glistened and his voice lowered when he opened a folder containing the documents he had begun to archive from the Ottoman haul he saved. During our time together I was reminded of the sense of infinity that bound our people together, not as nostalgia, but as infrastructure. It was a kind of closeness I’d felt, at times, in the solidarity emerging out of the series of crises over the last year—in the ad-hoc efforts to respond, to help, to rebuild. But it receded as people adapted to the normalcy of neglect. Life goes on. I just wish I could prevent that infinity from slipping away so soon.
Art credit: Ali Cherri. Trembling Landscapes (Beirut), lithographic prints and archival ink stamps, four panels, 70 × 100 cm, 2016. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Imane Farès.