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Des banlieues à la ville

Élisabeth Longuenesse
Caecilia Pieri

I. Villes et banlieues, visions et relations croisées

Notes on Beirut’s Historiography: Towards a People’s History of the City

Notes sur l’historiographie de Beyrouth : pour une histoire populaire de la ville

ملاحظات حول علم تاريخ بيروت: نحو تاريخٍ شعبي للمدينة

Mona Fawaz


La présentation vise à cartographier et relater l’histoire récente de Beyrouth (1950-1975), à partir de ses périphéries. Elle souligne les principaux axes et points de méthode d’une recherche plus vaste qu’illustrent des histories multiples.

Entrées d'index

Géographique :


فهرس الكلمات المفتاحية :

بيروت, تاريخ, أطراف المدينة

Texte intégral

Extension de Beyrouth vers le sud

Extension de Beyrouth vers le sud

Photo C. Pieri, 2011


1Beirut counts several authoritative histories that trace back its development over the centuries, since its first establishment in the Phoenician era. Historians of the city concur that the city grew until the 19th century as a walled settlement, with several gates that controlled its accesses. Since then, the narrative goes, the walled city expanded along main trade routes (Beyhum 1995), fuelled by the interplay of local factors -particularly the shape of its national economy – as well as global factors, such as changes in the global economic system through trade and capital flows, regional geographic political events and wars, and others (Yassin 2011).

2Most historians of the city have focused on the institutional history of Beirut. They write from the perspective of urban planners and decision-makers and outline the history of the city through the main designs that were developed to control and guide its growth (or lack thereof). As a result, Beirut’s histories tend to bias its “center”, its historic core, which has been the focus of many development projects and interventions. This can well be representative of the city’s pre-modern period. Since the 1930s, however, the city has seen other patterns that were triggered by different logics of growth. In this short presentation, I want to argue that a more comprehensive understanding of the history of Beirut is needed and that, to do so requires an alternative conceptualization of both the history of the city and its present.

3My presentation is part of an ongoing research project which aims to map and narrate the city’s recent history, particularly the 1950-1975 period, from the vantage point of its peripheries. I do not present here the full elements of an alternative narrative of the city. Instead, I outline the main guidelines and methods, illustrated through a number of stories that I have unraveled in the course of my research.

Methodological Notes

4Before going further, a few methodological notes are necessary to explain the approach of the project.

The Positionality of the Historian

5The project begins with the premise that history is necessarily plural and that its content, form, and focus depend critically on the vantage point that the historian adopts. My approach builds on the seminal work of the late historian Howard Zinn. In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn argues against a self-described technical or objective history that is unwittingly told from the position of “authoritative” and/or credible powers (Zinn 1980). In contrast, he outlines an approach to writing history that is skeptical of governments and their efforts to “ensnare ordinary people” in the giant web of a so-called common or national interest. “It is not, Zinn adds, that the historian can avoid emphasis of some facts and not of others. [...] The historian’s distortion is more than technical, it is ideological; it is released into a world of contending interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual (id., p. 10).”

6Following Zinn’s approach, I deliberately take the position of actors positioned outside the social, economic, and political elites of the city and, by unraveling their narratives, I aim to sketch ways of city building or making that are invisible to those who write history from the vantage point of decision-makers. I aim to document small time encroachments, re-captured development failures, and sometimes incidences of open defiance. Most important, I want to unravel ways in which disenfranchised, excluded social groups – often late comers to the city – learn about ways of building/making the city (Berry-Chikaoui and Deboulet 2000) and exercise their knowledge in the production of their city spaces. This approach, I should clarify, is not positioned outside the social hierarchies of the city. It is rather understood and analyzed in relation to proposed public and private strategies, the main development projects, the economic, social and political realities of the city, etc.

Spatial and Social Peripheries

7By peripheries, I refer to a geographic location, the spatial hinterlands, the edges of the city at any particular historic stage or time. This is hence a dynamic concept, which investigates the relation between center and edges at specific historical moments. By peripheries, I also mean the social peripheries, pointing to communities and individuals who are generally considered outsiders to the city, whose role, strategies and visions have been disregarded in the mainstream histories of the city. Narrating Beirut from the Peripheries is hence a plural project, by definition. It cannot amount to a single authoritative narrative.

The Historical Period

8Several factors explain the choice of the 1950s-1975 as the period for this study. To begin with, the 1950-1975 period is one of the most important phases of population growth in the city. Between 1950 and 1975, Beirut grew by four folds, going from 300,000 inhabitants in 1950 to some 1.2 million inhabitants in 1975 – what Bourgey estimates to be half of Lebanon’s population (Bourgey 1985). The 1950-1975 period also coincides with the establishment of modern planning agencies, the adoption of urban and building regulations that rendered for instance building permits a pre-requisite to construction, etc. These regulations had a major effect in transforming the city, not only its regulatory framework, and influencing sharply who can build in the city and in what form. They hence mark the identification of so-called slums or illegal settlements, neighborhoods where low-income dwellers access housing in conditions and/or situations where they would otherwise be unable to find a home (Fawaz and Peillen 2002).

Reflecting on Existing Histories of Beirut

9Using this critical approach to writing the city’s history, one can already outline several trends or constants in the way the city’s history has been told.

10When urban historians speak of the production of space, they mostly think/outline the strategies of leaders. Those of us who are familiar with Beirut’s modern history are accustomed to the sequence of zoning and urban regulations, to the names of European planners such as Michel Écochard, and Ernst Egli as well as to the Presidency of Fuad Shehab during which the nation witnessed the establishment of its first planning agencies. We have also learned about the transposition of modern/western styles and the failure of modern tools of planning to regulate and organize the development of the Lebanese capital city (Verdeil 2009). Most histories, however, fail to place agency in the social agents who take part in the organization and development of the city from below. We have, for instance, very little information about the developers who invested and organized the built environment. We are furthermore particularly ignorant of the organization and production of space of lower income groups. If the national government never engaged in the production of public housing, who organized access to the city for the thousands of local and foreign workers who were needed for the development of the Lebanese capital city? How did they acquire this know-how? How did they negotiate their access to the city?

  • 1 The critical analysis of the production of space in Beirut was first developed in collaboration wit (...)

11Most histories of Beirut represent a centralized core and its peripheries, showing growth in successive concentric circles where the city exceeds its old walls.1 We are thus under the impression that the city’s core is gradually expanding from the center outward. Urbanization is explained in terms of flows to the center (1860), the development of main road arteries, and the expansion of the port. When Beirut’s later developments are outlined, it is generally from the perspective of the expanding historic core and the development of the neighborhood of Hamra as the commercial and service sector in the 1960s/1970s. As for Beirut’s informal settlements, they are integrated in the analysis of the city as of the 1970s, sporadically. Throughout these analyses, they are depicted as desolate, unplanned, unfortunate areas. Here is how they appear in one of Beirut’s most authoritative references: “Quant aux bidonvilles, ils étaient devenus des labyrinthes impénétrables, à l’est comme au sud de l’agglomération, abritant un florilège humain, en situation irrégulière et cherchant l’intégration [...]. Ces quartiers informels, faits de bric et de broc, grandissaient à vue d’œil, rongeant les zones vierges restantes” (Davie 2001, p. 107).

12Looking however closely at the maps tracing the urbanization of the city on the basis of aerial photography and/or historic documents, one notices an alternative pattern of growth where access to the city and hence urban growth occurs around other cores around which urbanization is expanding. In fact, aside from the city center, a large section of Beirut’s urbanization was fuelled by the establishment of refugee camps where access to land occurred in exceptional form, meaning outside of market channels. These camps eventually acted as entry points to the city, places where access to housing was possible in the context of otherwise unaffordable rent prices for new entrants to the city. Eventually, the prices of land dropped in the proximity of these areas, allowing for cheaper shelter and the development of informal neighborhoods in their vicinities. Thus, when one speaks of the historic growth of the city, it is important to point out refugee camps (Armenian settlements, first in Karantina and eventually in Bourj Hammoud) as cores in relation to the nearby areas of Nab‘ah, Medawar, and others. It is also imperative to point out the Shatila, Bourj el Barajneh, Mar Elias, and Tell ez-Za‘tar camps as cores from which the nearby areas of Sabra, Raml, Dikwaneh, and others developed (map x). One should particularly understand the growth of the camps’ peripheries during these moments, etc. Similarly, the old villages in the vicinity of the city acted in every historical moment as hosting cores, allowing entrants to the city an affordable -albeit relatively remote- foothold in the city. While some of these areas maintained until a late date their rural identities and economies, they well emcompassed in the urbanization of the city -prompting the famous title of From Village to Suburbs for one of the most fascinating histories of the urbanization of Beirut’s southern suburbs (Khuri 1975).

13The key assumptions about the histories I am criticizing are perhaps best exemplified in the works of May Davie. In Beyrouth 1825-1975, un siècle et demi d’urbanisme, Davie presents an insightful history of the city’s urbanization – emphasizing the roles of notables, early urban diwans, municipal councils, and other actors who engaged in the production of the city (Davie 2001). Davie’s history is rich with details and events and we are undoubtedly indebted to her work for our current knowledge of the city. Yet, her analysis depicts the city as growing out of a nucleus, the historic core of the walled city, and describes a radial pattern of growth that gradually expands the settlement over unplanned peripheries. In one of the maps she presents to explain the city’s urbanization (id., fig. 3), Davie contrasts “concerted urbanism”, or planned and organized urbanism to the “savage urbanism”, which occurs outside the city’s edges or peripheries. The map includes a series of arrows moving from the historic centers, the “core” and the “Sanayeh area” and expanding to the fringes. Crossing the map with the rest of the text, one reads the typical representations of the city’s peripheries as “unplanned”, “chaotic” or “illegal”. This is clearly the perspective of the city planners who have played a notoriously limited role in the organization of the city’s suburbs. To them, the fact that these suburbs do not comply with their envisioned “futures” or planned spatialities renders them “savage”, as described by the historian herself.

14One can also cite Samir Kassir’s Histoire de Beyrouth for another ambitious and relatively comprehensive history of the city (Kassir 2003). In this hefty volume, Kassir attempts the daunting task of compiling all previous publications about the history of the city. To his credit, Kassir attempts to bring social, political, and economic forces in his analysis of the city’s growth and to incorporate elements of a social history in his narrative. There is however clearly a bias in Kassir’s social history, one that is invested in describing a liberal, “cosmopolitan” city where emphasis is placed on dress codes – be it bikinis, short skirts, or the veil –, on the travelling practices of well-off Lebanese youth (such as the escapades of Nicolas de Bustros in Paris or Nicolas Sursock’s love of western art and others), and other aspects of the city’s liberal elite. Although he concedes at times that his history doesn’t encompass all social classes, Kassir’s bias compromises heavily the possibility of narrating the struggle of rural migrants and/or refugees in the city. As a result, the 1960s are described through the bikinis on the terrace of the Phoenicia Hotel rather than through the struggle of various social groups for recognition and/or access to basic urban services in the city’s peripheries (Fawaz 2008, 2009). There is in fact very little information about low-income social groups. When they are mentioned, the author continues to adopt the position of the regulator, such as when – for instance – mentioning the prevalence of a number of free-accesses beaches, Kassir describes them as “unplanned” and “sometimes dangerous” (p. 369).

Towards An Alternative Approach to the City

15In order to approach an alternative history of the city, one should first take stock of the numerous monographs about particularly neighborhoods, tracing at least some important elements of their production (Charafeddine 1991, etc.). One should also point to Arnaud’s Beyrouth/Grand Beyrouth as a solid exception of the traditional works on the city where the editor outlines for the collection of essays included in the volume a relational understanding of the city’s growth that ties between its core and peripheries (Arnaud 1998). Another exception to this trend is Fuad Khuri’s From Village to Suburb (1975) where one understands the transformations of the peripheries in relation to the city through the documentation of ongoing socio-spatial transformations in one of the city’s nearby villages turned into a suburb. My ambition is to first add my voice to these works. It is also to bring, through a collection of stories documented from the period of 1950-1075, a more holistic understanding of the city that indeed includes in the mainstream narrative of the city’s history an articulate understanding of how the production of space was negotiated in the peripheries.

Case Study/Illustration: The Informal Settlement of Zʿaytariyyeh

16In order to illustrate my approach, I presented during the conference a case study of the neighborhood of Zʿaytariyyeh, in the Eastern suburbs of the capital city. Zʿaytariyyeh stands today as a relatively small informal settlement in the eastern suburbs of Beirut. Located in the area of Fanar, the neighborhood houses some 20,000 residents (Fawaz and Peillen 2002). Property owners who dwell in the area include a number of the original settlers, all Muslim Shiites rural migrants coming from the Biqa’ Valley (Lebanon) and mostly from the Z‘ayter tribe. They also include a number of impoverished Christian families who had settled in the neighborhood during the years of civil war and after. There is however also a sizable population of migrant workers, both male and female laborers who pool together to rent a housing unit and share the costs.

17The history of the settlement begins in the early 1950s, when Ms. Galina Duraffour, the widow of the late Camille Duraffour – a French engineer entrusted with the establishment of a land registry by the French Mandate in Lebanon – founded with a Lebanese businessman a land development agency, the Société libanaise d’amélioration foncière (SLAF). Due to a set of cultural affinities, Ms. Duraffour is particularly sensitive to the plight of the Assyriac community in Lebanon, a religious minority who had arrived in Lebanon a few decades earlier, seeking refuge from the Ottoman/Turkish nationalists and the threat of massacres against religious/national minorities. In 1953, the SLAF organized one of the first large-scale subdivision projects in the city in the area of Baouchriyyeh, relocating many of the members of the Assyriac community from the camps in which they dwelled in the capital city (Revue du Liban 1952 – fig. 4). The area is in relatively close vicinity to the industrial zone of the city. A few years later, the SLAF organized two additional lot subdivision projects that attracted to the area some of the other dwellers of the camps, particularly members of the Z‘ayter tribe who followed the trajectory of their former neighbors and landlords. Surely, this was not the plotted developments of the SLAF that had rather planned for suburban villas in line with the then regional, American inspired wave of suburban individual housing (American model of suburbia). Through a series of failed attempts to sell these lots, however, and pressured by a number of economic constraints, property records indicate that the SLAF sold these lots to a number of land developers who, in turn, sold them to rural migrants. Property records as well as interviews with members of the Z‘ayter family point to three (Jewish) land developers who had acted as mediator in the land transactions, allowing (Muslim Shiite) rural migrants to acquire properties over time, paid in several installments. It also points to building processes where a single lot was subdivided in four units, built as four apartments that would eventually be turned into four apartment buildings. It tells of processes through which, in relation with the nearby Palestinian community of the Tell ez-Za‘tar refugee camp and the Assyriac neighborhood, building know-how and skills to negotiate with the local police station were developed. It finally talks of community organizations that worked together to provide the first basic services and eventually negotiate one’s presence and services from the local municipality. From members of the Z‘ayter tribe, I also learned of the relation with the Jewish developers who – as they explained – was willing to sell them properties when other Christian developers were sensitive to the pressures of the local Christian community who was reluctant to accept the settlement of these outsiders in their areas. I also learned about their solidarity, mutual help, and strategies of survival and support that they extended to each other.

18There are more details to the story that it is possible to recount in this short presentation. In my larger project, I have also collected histories of other sections of the city, particularly the informal settlements of Jdaydeh, Hayy el-Sellom and Nab‘ah and the neighborhood of Haret Hreik in Beirut’s southern suburbs, and others. One however reads already in this short narrative the elements that I am trying to outline as pieces of an alternative historiography of the city: the circulation of models of building/doing the city, the adoption of modern urban regulations and their repercussions, the development strategies of various social groups – both rich and poor, the interaction of religious, social groups, the practices of city building and making, population movements, etc. The narrative that emerges confirms my original critique of the established historiography: when the plan fails and urban regulations are bypassed, history doesn’t stop. A look from outside-in is however needed to complete it.


Arnaud, J.-L., 1997, Beyrouth, Grand-Beyrouth, Beirut, Ifpo.

Berry-Chikaoui I. and Deboulet A., 2000, Les Compétences des citadins dans le Monde arabe, Paris, IRMC-Karthala-URBAMA.

Beyhum, N., 1995, Espaces éclatés, espaces domines. Étude de la recomposition des espaces publics centraux de Beyrouth de 1975 à 1990, Thèse de doctorat, Université de Lyon II.

Bourgey, A., 1985, « La Guerre et ses Conséquences Géographiques au Liban », Annales de Géographie, XCIVe année, N. 521, Janvier-Février.

Charafeddine, W., 1991, L’Habitat illégal dans la banlieue sud, Thèse de doctorat, Université de Paris VIII.

Davie, M, 2001, Beyrouth 1825-1975. Un siècle et demi d’urbanisme, Beyrouth, Ordres des ingénieurs et architectes de Beyrouth.

Fawaz, M., 2008, “An unusual clique of city-makers: Social networks in the production of a Neighborhood in Beirut (1950-1975)”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 32(3), p. 565-585.

Fawaz, M., 2009, “Neo-liberal Urbanity: A View from Beirut’s Periphery”, Development and Change 40(5), p. 827-852.

Fawaz, M. and Peillen I., 2002, “The Slums of Beirut: History and Development 1930-2002”, Paper prepared for United Nations Center for Human Settlement.

Kassir, S., 2003, Histoire de Beyrouth, Paris, Fayard.

Khuri, F., 1975, From Village de Suburbs, Chicago,The University of Chicago Press.

Verdeil, E., 2009, Beyrouth et ses Urbanistes. Une Ville en Plans (1946-1975). Beyrouth, Ifpo.

Yassin, N., 2011, Beirut. Cities 29(64-73), « Une grande œuvre sociale : la société libanaise d’amélioration foncière », Revue du Liban.


1 The critical analysis of the production of space in Beirut was first developed in collaboration with Tristan Khayat in the early 2000s when we worked together on several initiatives. Since then, Tristan has unfortunately abandoned the academic track. I remain indebted in many of the ideas developed in this paragraph to our conversations then.

Table des illustrations

Titre Extension de Beyrouth vers le sud
Crédits Photo C. Pieri, 2011
Fichier image/jpeg, 64k


Professeure associée à l’Université américaine de Beyrouth

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