Between nostalgia and futures-otherwise: Performances of memory in Lebanon’s railway ruins

By China Sajadian
Submitted to Session P4912 (Liminal Urbanity: Cities Between Ruin and Prosperity, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
While a wealth of excellent scholarship has charted the dynamics of memory in Beirut, this paper argues that train ruins, as both a site and subject of research, offer a compelling vantage point from which to explore alternative narrations of Lebanon’s past. This paper takes as its starting point Nothing to Declare, a book of ethnographic train narratives compiled by the Dictaphone Group, a Lebanese research and performance collective. While the stated aim of the Dictaphone Group’s project, among others, is “to question our relationship to the city, and redefine its public space,” I will locate their work within a wider set of intellectual, activist, and artistic projects focused on ruins, narratives, and memory, exploring what is politically at stake in such projects at this particular historical moment. I argue that the book’s empirical focus on narratives from three cities on the margins of Lebanon’s urban historiography - Riyaq, Tripoli, and Saida - poses a subtle challenge to a Beirut-centric understanding of the politics of memory. Further, I argue that the book’s focus on ruins of train stations themselves -- as polysemous icons of Lebanon’s pre-war past, the contested legacy of Ottoman and French influence in the region, cross-border connection to Syria and Palestine, contested class and property relations, wars and military occupations, and a site from which ideals of the state are projected -- uniquely brings into view some of the most important dynamics of struggle, contradiction, and connection within Lebanese society today.
I conclude with reflections on the ways Nothing to Declare might call into question the forward-looking futurity implied by the promise of Syria’s “post-war” reconstruction, and, in turn, the very notion of time after war. In this way, Lebanon’s train ruins reflect Christopher Pinney’s challenge to think about infrastructural objects not merely as a surface for the projection of needs and interests, but as active agents in political processes which are disjunctive, excessive, and often unrevealing of their expected cultural or historical context.