“The walls of hiding”: a tale of Beirut’s wall of shame
The walls of the medieval city possessed dual functions of hiding and revealing. These urban barricades created official borders in the form of perimeter walls, revealing the city’s power and glory to outsiders while protecting citizens and hiding their everyday life. City gates ensured this duality when they remained open during the day and closed at night. Today, this complicated relationship ceases to exist, and a new form of walls is erected inside the city in direct confrontation with its citizens.
This is indeed the case of Beirut where security walls and other urban barriers suppress and silence protestors. By concealing the oppressor, these new walls protect those in power. In August 2015, and then again in December 2019, security walls appeared overnight in front of the government’s headquarters in the wake of a civil movement against political corruption. Activists appropriated the wall in response, painting their demands on their side, and turning the urban apparatus of hiding into a canvas for political expression—a site of revelation.
Examining both Michel Foucault and George Bataille’s writings on architecture, Denis Hollier draws an analogy between a silent architecture that controls in hiding and a colossal architecture that spreads fear in plain sight. Both the public and the subtle manifestation of architecture are effective as apparatuses of subjectification and control: “but one works because it draws attention to itself and the other because it does not. One represses (imposes silence); the other expresses (makes one talk).”1 The intertwining of the histories of wall building with political violence in Beirut points to the theory of spatial violence.9 It asserts that architecture harbours within itself a potential to exhibit violence. The analysis of various forms of political violence (oppression, silence) inflicted on the city and its residents cannot be separated from the mediation through which this harm was possible—the wall(s).
Looking at the medieval and contemporary wall building practices, the wall of Beirut is analyzed as an architectural apparatus of both revealing and hiding in the city.
Keywords: hiding, Beirut, walls, political violence
1 Denis Hollier, Against Architecture: the Writings of Georges Bataille, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1992), x.
2 Andrew Herscher and Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, “Spatial Violence,” Architectural Theory Review 19, 3 (2014): 269–277.
JENAN GHAZAL is a PhD candidate at the ASAU, affiliated with the Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations (NMC) at the University of Toronto. She was nominated Azrieli Teaching Fellow in Fall 2020 at ASAU where she teaches a history/theory course titled: Reporting from the front: on architecture, politics, and spatial violence. She holds a BArch (2012) and a MArch (2014) from the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Lebanon, where she also has professional experience as a licensed architect. Before holding a Master of Architectural Studies (MAS, 2016) from Carleton University, Jenan was involved with community-based activism and documentation of endangered heritage buildings in her hometown Tripoli, Lebanon. By dwelling upon her firsthand experience of urban conflicts following upheavals in Lebanon, her research addresses the question of spatial violence as a continuous immanence in the architecture of our cities. She has presented papers in Canada and internationally on historical and contemporary entanglements of architecture, political violence, and the body in urban spaces. She has received various awards in Lebanon and Canada, most recently a SSHRC Doctoral award (2020).