The discursive formation of reinhabiting and recovery

by Fadi Shayya (as it appeared in the printed book At the Edge of the City, 2010)

Searching for an alternative discourse

In Beirut, as in urban agglomerations across the globe, public space constitutes an interactive landscape of convergence and/or conflict. Nevertheless, public space as part of spatial planning is neither a priority for, nor an integral component of, the agenda of public policy or spatial design at the Lebanese municipal and national levels. On the rare occasions where it is included in the agenda, public space is dealt with as a product of urban design that is restricted to formal aesthetics and affected by the availability of resources and institutional capacity.

Despite this prevailing reality, we need something different. Not different in a flashy sense, but rather to convey and influence an alternative discourse on public space. The social and political constructs of this complex and complicated country manifest in a recurring dichotomy: either Lebanon is bravely unique within its regional – and sometimes international – context, or Lebanon is retrograde with its deficient state and the ill-mannered behaviors of its citizens. This discourse is reflected in the conceptualizing of public space in Beirut, where Beirutis share a socio-economic, political, and cultural centrality amid the Lebanese landscape.

Since the early 1990s, Beirut’s Park1 – Horsh Al-Sanawbar – has been sealed off from the lives of many Beiruti residents and visitors. Regardless of the justification of this exclusion, a major section of the park has been quarantined for nearly 20 years now – in addition to the civil war years. In a country where confessional politics and hegemonic influences (domestic and foreign) prevail, and a dragging, dire, social agenda and economy stagger in parallel, the appeal of spatial justice as part of a modern citizenship’s fundamental components becomes secondary, or tertiary. The closure of this huge public space is a deviation from the norm of modern states and societies; and still, people accepting this closure – willingly or unwillingly – enact an atypical acceptance of what is not right, not constitutional, and not just. People continue to live this reality, as they have done with other severe and more pressing realities, and this has become part of their discourse of “how things work” in Lebanon.

This deviation from the norm can be better understood within a framework of postcolonial analysis, where modern institutional systems of the state – including spatial planning – have always depended on copying or borrowing from advanced, influential systems ranging from the Ottoman Empire, to the French Mandate, and to Globalization and Americanization. This copying or borrowing perpetuated a constant deviation from “the way things should work,” until people in Lebanon developed a discourse accustomed to deviation as the norm; as tolerant of deviance as of the practice itself. Or, rather, is it that this behavior, which is regarded as “deviation from the way things should work,” is, in fact, a conscious/unconscious practice of contesting alien constructs and appropriating alternative frames of cultural reference?

Reinhabiting as part of the process of recovery

With the early drafts of the book’s contributions, it was not a surprise to find that many authors referred to the closed section of the park as the, “secret garden,” “forbidden garden,” or “paradise.” One can easily read the discourse of “deviation from the norm,” where citizens speak of the inaccessible public space, as an inherent linguistic and conceptual contradiction between “inaccessible” and “public.” This semantic confusion of “public” is evident when, in Beirut, a park2 becomes a botanical garden; a garden3 becomes an asphalt area with some green space left over; a plaza4 becomes infrastructure like an intersection of streets; and, leftover, small places5 become green spaces. This discursive condition creates a view of things “at the edge;” there is neither discipline nor decisiveness in concept or in practice.

Similarly, the public space of Beirut’s Park lies at the edge of modernity, politics, social convention, conflict, power, class, and confessionalism; the park itself is at the edge of history, memory, nature, and design; and, the location is actually at the geographic edge of city and suburb. Therein lies the book’s title, At the Edge of the City. But how can one account for transitioning – at least analytically – a public space from being at the edge of the city into becoming at the center of daily social practice? How can one suggest an alternative discourse to the constant treatment of public space as a dichotomy of total freedom and absolute control?

Public space acquires its key significance because it constitutes the institutional intersection and spatial interface between governing and governed, policy directives and institutional competence, state and citizen. In this regard, the subtitle of the book reflects an investigation of the meanings of a park and the dimensions of public space in Beirut. The undertaking involves a contemporary documentation, reading, and analysis of Horsh Al-Sanawbar; more specifically, how it transformed from a seventeenth century pine woods to a twentieth century park. But, the contemporary condition of Horsh Al-Sanawbar from woods to park and from open to closed space propelled an alternative discourse to promote, in return, its re-opening such that it sustains its raison d’être and the investment of rehabilitation.

In order to, “avoid words that are already overladen with conditions and consequences,” in order to define a, “regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations),” one has to deal with a, “discursive formation.”6 The input of two critical colleagues and friends was of great value: George Arbid, who specialized in Modern architecture and urbanism; and Fouad Asfour, an expert in linguistics and criticism. George suggested the concept of “recovery,” and Fouad proposed the concept of “reinhabiting.”

“Recovery” carries the physical meaning of healing or restoring to a former, “better” state. It conceptually indicates a “positive status” of transformation or becoming, like the condition the book is trying to bring forward. Recovery in terms of Horsh Al-Sanawbar is integral to getting the public back to the public space, which leads to “reinhabiting.” In the language of bioregionalism7, “to reinhabit” the place where you live means to become aware of these natural boundaries, to become conscious of the landforms, weather patterns, soils, native plants and animals, indigenous human history, and other unique inherent features of the area. In other words, reinhabiting Horsh Al-Sanawbar implies that governing authorities and citizens utilize and respect the environmental, social, cultural, and historical context of the park through governance and practice, respectively. This is a new opportunity for an alternative “discursive formation.”

The undertaking of this book is an alternative discourse in and of itself, which advocates reinhabiting public space towards the recovery of Horsh Al-Sanawbar. The discursive formation takes places within the framework of re-inventing the public space of Beirut’s Park from a mere social collector to a multi-layered, socially and environmentally encompassing, holistic, urban landscape, one all the more vital after the traumatic experience of the civil war.

Space, place, and people

To present a holistic landscape and to spark a discursive transformation, At the Edge of the City assimilates many, although not all, layers of analysis and readings of Beirut’s Park, ranging from practices, culture, economics, gender, social groups, memory, meaning, environment, nature and design, to others. The texts and visuals include different senses and modalities of how public space could be addressed, reaching from sensory perceptions – for example through smell, feeling, moving, breathing, touching, expanding – to addressing public memories and social practices, and even to fictive imaginations. The book is structured into three main parts: the first documents the intricate urban context; the second analyzes “heterotopias”8 of space; and, the third presents citizens’ interaction.

In An Intricate Urban Context, the authors discuss the history of the park and evolving meanings of public space. From pine woods in the seventeenth century to a park in the twentieth century, Horsh Al-Sanawbar is established within Beiruti memory and continues to be a part of its imagination due to its current closure. Collective memory and social imagination in Beirut are continuously located in a peculiar context of difference, division, conflict, coexistence, and creativity. Amidst the reproduction of fear and division – during and post the civil war – and amidst dire socioeconomic disparities, people continue to remember, practice, and appropriate the public space of the city. Spatial coexistence, in Beirut’s loaded context, becomes synonymous with political and cultural coexistence.

In Heterotopias of Park & City, the authors investigate the spatial connections between Beirut and its park through the lenses of Modernity, spatial justice, confessional divisions, exclusion, gender equality, and environmental ethics. The place, its rehabilitation, and the closure of Horsh Al-Sanawbar constitute experimental fields for the authorities and citizens of Beirut to try to manifest recovery from the civil war and reinhabit a “missed” Modernity. The park and the city seem at odds, and Foucault’s notion of a heterotopia dominates all utopian imaginations of a place that is supposed to bring people together.

In Transient Citizenship, Transient Public Space, the authors inscribe citizens’ understandings of ownership of public space and their consequent practices and experiences of advocacy and activism to reclaim their domain. Enacting citizenship through public space is questioned as an imported, political, and cultural construct against practices of claiming and reclaiming collective ownership. Thus, when a group of citizens decide to mobilize to reclaim the spatial design, green space, or picnic space of the park, their citizenship is enacted. However, whether citizenship (and its enactment) or the public space (and its domain) is transient remains a central controversy in the context of the confused meanings of Beirut.

Leaving the door open

Setting a discourse is not an easy task, especially when a discursive formation is alien to the context, such as when the notion of “public space” might be alien to Beirut. A certain level of discipline and decisiveness is required to situate concepts and their semantic equivalents. However, the objectives and aspirations of setting a discourse in this book are rooted in the attempt itself to re-imagine, re-invent, and reinhabit the public space of Horsh Al-Sanawbar as part of the process to recovery. Through exploring issues of advocacy and politics, the book aims to provide a platform to contest the existing governance of Horsh Al-Sanawbar and to bring forward a well-informed public space public policy agenda.

All articles aim to shape an understanding of continuously evolving meanings of public space in Beirut, opening up the discussion and raising questions, and challenging the status quo – as well as the social imagination – of public space itself. As people aspire to pragmatic hopes, and not promised utopias, public space can become a measure of social justice and spatial equity where it transcend its “placeness” to become a deliverable of socio-political organization.


1 Beirut’s Park currently represents 1.4 percent of scarce open green space in a 25 municipal city, with 1.5 million inhabitants in the greater metropolitan area.
2 For example, Beirut’s Park is divided into many sections that may not precisely fall under the categorization of “park.”
3 For example, many public gardens in municipal Beirut.
4 For example, Sahat Khaled Alwan [Khaled Alwan Plaza] at the intersection of Abdelaziz and Hamra streets in Beirut.
5 For example, the many leftover places that are turned into isolated, fenced-in green areas in municipal Beirut.
6 Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith (London & New York: Routledge, 2002) [L’Archéologie du Savoir, 1969].
7 The term “reinhabit” originated in the bioregionalism movement of the 1970s. Still active today, the movement calls for defining areas based not on ecologically meaningless political boundaries, but instead on geographic boundaries and ecological characteristics.
8 Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Heterotopias.” Vers. This text was first published as “Des Espace Autres” by the French journal Architecture /Mouvement/ Continuité in October, 1984. Translated from the French by Jay Miskowiec. 1984. Michel Foucault, Info. 12 March 2009.

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