Rabi' Jabir's Beirut: Recovering an Obscured Urban History

By Ghenwa Hayek
Submitted to Session P2918 (Lebanon in Literature, 2011 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
How does a generation without personal memory begin to grapple with its urban past in a nation that has silenced its memories? Moreover, how are symbolic sites of memory recovered and represented by such a generation? Much recent scholarship on post-war Lebanon has studied the memory culture of the decades following the declared end of civil war in 1990. Scholars like Sune Haugbolle and, more recently, Aseel Sawalha and Charles Larkin discuss the implications of Lebanon’s ‘amnesiac’ political culture on the social and political landscape. In the meantime, Lebanon – and especially Beirut’s – urban landscape has been altered beyond recognition by post-war reconstruction, mostly by private real estate holding companies, the most notorious of which is Solidere. In the early 2000s, as Solidere’s activity picked up speed (see Najib Hourani’s Capitalists in Conflict or Saree Makdissi’s articles on downtown Beirut), a slew of historical novels about Lebanon and especially Beirut was published in both Arabic and French, including Carole Dagher’s Le Couvent de la Lune, Alexandre Najjar’s Le Roman de Beyrouth, Amin Maalouf’s Le Rocher de Tanios and Rabi‘ Jabir’s Bayrut Madinat al-‘Alam trilogy. In this presentation, I will focus exclusively on the strategies of urban commemoration in Rabi Jabir’s trilogy. I argue that the genre of historical fiction is used in these novels to re-create the downtown life of Beirut in and around Martyrs’ Square from the 19th and early 20th century, a commemoration of a cityscape and an urban lifestyle that its author recreates using the tools of the archive (documents, bibliographies, etc). This post-memorial fiction – here, I use Marianne Hirsch’s definition of postmemory as “second-generation memories of cultural and collective traumas and experience” (Family Frames, 22) – attempts to recover Beirut’s repressed Ottoman urban history, and to re-write Solidere’s own narrative of the city center. By intertwining downtown Beirut’s past with its present, in a clever back-and-forth, palimpsestic act that superimposes the historical city upon the present city, site of capitalist consumption, Jabir’s novels map out the old upon the new, and thus refuses the erasure of the ancient city by its newest urban planners. In Jabir’s novels, a new, contestatory commemorative narrative of Beirut’s history and – more significantly, its present – emerges.