Strangers of the Grave: Living and Dying in Al-Ghuraba Cemetery in Northern Lebanon

By Foroogh Farhang
Submitted to Session P6514 (Living with the Dead: Cemeteries, Shrines, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, 2021 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
Middle East/Near East Studies;
This paper looks at al-Ghuraba cemetery, the “cemetery of strangers”, in Tripoli, Lebanon, where the lives and deaths of estranged Lebanese, Syrians, and many others have intermingled since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Al-Ghuraba cemetery is nowadays an invisible, yet central, neighborhood in the metropolitan area of Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city. It is home to more than 250 families from Lebanon and elsewhere who are referred to as ghuraba, strangers, and have occupied the endowed lands of the graveyard for years and even generations. Before the 2011 war this included a mix of internal migrants and other people marginal to Tripoli’s urban fabric, but in recent years it has attracted refugees from the conflict in Syria as well. Drawing on 18 months of ethnographic research at the cemetery and in the community that exists around it, I aim to narrate stories of those in the peripheries of citizenship and urban space, where legal and administrative forms of belonging are airbrushed and substituted by deeply rooted social hierarchies that constantly push the inhabitants of the cemetery to the margins. To understand the lives of ghuraba requires an interrogation of many taken-for-granted assumptions regarding national borders, citizenship, and displacement as well as a revised understanding of the intersection of class, gender, and legal status, and how they play out in ordinary life and urban space in the contemporary Middle East. In this paper, I parse out how belonging, or lack thereof, is lived, felt, and acted upon before and beyond the contours of modern nations-states. I argue that Al-Ghuraba cemetery acts as the microcosm of the anomaly of everyday life in the margins of the war-torn Middle-East.