(image courtesy of Palgrave Macmillan; cover illustration © Dimitri Messinis / AP, Hollandse Hoogte)

A little online research into Beirut reveals that the city is often constructed through clichéd binaries, such as “resilient city” and “iconic city.” Articles range from fantastical promises of food, leisure, and Parisian-style decadence to foreign policy analyses on the city’s war-torn past that vaguely discuss sectarianism.

Judith Naeff, a scholar and lecturer at Leiden University, radically rejects this binary, instead developing a complex archive of the various images of Beirut through its art, literature, cultural geography, monuments, and garbage. Her voluminous and haunting study, Precarious Imaginaries of Beirut: A City’s Suspended Now, spans the period between 1990 and 2015. In it, Naeff argues that Beirut exists in a prolonged state of “protracted ‘presentness’ with limited access to past and future” — specifically, a prolonged state of precarity. This unresolved character stems from the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), and the continued presence of war criminals in the city. She claims that any articulation of a shared urban identity for Beirut “needs to contain a notion of radical alterity within itself.”

Naeff’s analysis of Beirut’s cultural geography, both lived and imagined, and the city’s collective preoccupation with the present moment, inform her concept of a “suspended now.” Not a state of halted progress, rather, this echoes George Simmel’s descriptions in his essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) of the violence of the metropolis and its overwhelming stimuli. She explains in the chapter “Beirut’s Suspended Now”:

What struck me most during this initial exploration was that the objects I analyzed express a particular sense of time, a sense of being stuck in the present, not being able to move forward, nor to look back. What emerges from many cultural objects is the experience of being cut off from the past by a traumatic rupture followed by a culture of silence.

Naeff uses a range of works to illustrate the ubiquity of Beirut’s “suspended now,” for example, filmmaker Ghassan Salhab’s 2006 film The Last Man (2006). The movie’s post-apocalyptic themes of doom and vampirism, enacted through the character Khalil, a 40-year old doctor, serve as a commentary on the continuous proximity of violence in Beirut. In her analysis, Naeff explains, “[…] cinematic Beirut in Salhab’s movies is also a real place, socially, politically, economically and geographically constituted in ways unlike other cities.”

Naeff’s exhaustive study of the cultural geography of Beirut brings multiple cultural practitioners in conversation with one another. She cites lectures by the renowned artist Walid Raad, in which he discusses his fictional work in The Atlas Group Archive as “historical hysterical symptoms” (2008). In addition, she analyzes neoliberal urban redevelopment and the search for inaccessible past narratives in the novels of Rabee Jaber, as well as Randa Mirza’s photography series, Beirutopia (2011), which situates real-estate development ads that promise white and bourgeois gated living in Beirut in their actual gritty environment. The author’s archival practice bridges a range of diverse Beiruti sites, from garbage dumps to nightclubs, under the rubric of the “suspended now.” Particularly enthralling is her concentration on debris, which she treats as an index of the city’s multiplicity. In Beirut, debris embodies the history of urban erasure, but also an acquired local knowledge that debris represents future urban redevelopment and gentrification. She writes:

By exploring how cultural objects engage with contemporary Beirut through imaginaries of ruins, debris, dumps and squandering […] the concept of disposability allows a view of different ways in which Beirut’s suspended now is given meaning.

One example she offers is the 2008 film Je veux voir by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joureige. French actress Catherine Deneuve, playing herself, visits Lebanon in the aftermath of the 2006 Israeli War. Deneuve insists on seeing the sites of Israeli destruction, indicating a desire for a fetishistic encounter with catastrophic debris. Yet Lebanese actor and artist Rabih Mroué, also playing himself, expresses a more emotional and delirious state when confronted with the debris of the Ouzai landfill. Naeff concludes Mroué’s encounter with the landfill as a vision that “repeats the temporal rupture and spatial erasure that characterizes the chronotope of a city in transition.” Loss, she writes in another section, is “structurally reproduced by a condition of careless wasting.”

Precarious Imaginaries of Beirut does not seek to produce a naïve solution to Beirut’s precarity or engage in clichéd definitions of trauma common to postwar studies. Rather, it subjects a large and strikingly diverse cross-section of the city’s cultural production to deep and niche analysis — material that is connected through a precarious presentness, one in which the past of Beirut constantly exists in various images of its present moment. Naeff’s “suspended now” reveals the schism between past and present as residents, artists, and cultural practitioners attempt to come to terms with their attempts to find a narrative about their city. Scholars and readers concerned with fraught urban culture, temporality, memory, and violence will find her work highly educational and compelling.

Precarious Imaginaries of Beirut: A City’s Suspended Now (2018) is published by Palgrave Macmillan and is available from Amazon and other online retailers.

MK Harb is a writer from Beirut, currently serving as Editor-at-Large for Lebanon at Asymptote. He received his Master of Arts in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2018. His work has been...