Rethinking the right to the divided city: An analysis of non-sectarian memorywork as political activism

29th Feb 2020 by John Nagle

While sectarianized conflict cannot simply be attributed to ancient hatreds, sectarian groups construct memory to advance divisive contemporary political projects. Sectarian groups use memory to legitimate the idea that they are the true tenants of the sacred homeland. The respective groups further mark public space to commemorate historical traumatic events that constantly remind members to remain vigil of their victimhood status and that violent defence of the ethnic community remains always necessary. 

 This nexus between memory, space and sectarianized conflict is particularly acute in divided cities. Cities such as Belfast, Beirut and Mostar have been characterized by a violent conflict of political legitimacy concerning the wider state (Nagle 2016a, b). In these contested environments, sectarian groups routinely imprint memory into space in order to exercise control over urban environments. Such memorywork is enacted through various forms, including public ritual, parades, and images of martyrs.  

The task of peacebuilding in divided cities needs to consider how to disentangle this conflict-driving relationship between space and memory (Nagle, 2017). Yet, in peace processes, rather than seek to deal with the legacy of the past, the state often enacts a culture of amnesia to support the logic of political transition, while at the communal level the rival sectarian groups proliferate commemorative practices as part of ‘memorywars’. 

These twin forces –amnesia and sectarianized memory –are also often embedded into postconflict urban reconstruction, particularly the city centres of the municipal capitals. These city centres contain the main political, economic and cultural institutions of the state. For this reason, they are ‘battlegrounds of national memory’ (Nagel, 2002) as contending ethnonational groups and political elites compete to control these spaces. At the same time, city centres are civic, cosmopolitan spaces where individuals can come together to constitute new forms of community that transcend ethnic cleavages.

In this paper, I explore how non-sectarian movements imprint memory into city centre space to challenge the paradoxical forces of forgetting and ethnic communal remembrance. Towards this, I explore the memorywork of non-sectarian groups in Beirut whose politics transcend established ethnic cleavages, such as trade unionists, feminists and LGBTQ activists, movements resisting the privatization of public space and activists mobilizing to protect public services (see Nagle, 2018).

Downtown Beirut: ‘The Forgetful Landscape’

In a state historically fragmented by sectarianism, the city centre prior to the civil war symbolised a public sphere marked by pluralism and tolerance; it is remembered for its openness and fluidity and a capacity to accommodate multiple identities.

For many Beirutis the postwar rebuilding of the city centre needed to help heal the wounds of the war. The rebuilding of Beirut city was central to peacebuilding as it had the potential to foster a rare shared public sphere in a society in which public and urban space is increasingly sectarianized or privatized. This hope was frustrated: the postwar reconstruction of the city centre rendered the space amnesiac, with no reference to the history of sectarian violence, and exclusivist by de facto limiting public access.

The impulse for ‘collective amnesia’ (Khalaf, 2012,p.78) became sewn into the fabric of the reconstruction of Beirut city centre. Under Law 117 a real estate company, Solidere – owned by the then Lebanese Prime Minister – was granted special powers by the government to redevelop what it termed ‘Beirut Central District’. Solidere presented the reconstructed city centre as a symbol of postwar Lebanon’s aspiration to overcome its divisions and to rebuild a peaceful state (Makdisi,1997). 

For critics, the amnesiac city centre derives a ‘detrimental impact on reconciliation and reintegration’ (Makarem, 2012), since it reinforces the logic of political forgetting about the civil war. The reconstruction of the city centre further obscures and even reinforces the contemporary process of postwar ethnic segmentation and territorialisation of the city by constricting public space that could be used as vital meeting point for citizens to meet and interact.

In a provocative thesis, Svetlana Boym (2001) distinguishes between two types of nostalgia: ‘restorative’ and ‘reflective’. Restorative nostalgia signifies a return to the original stasis, to the and thus emphasizes the absolute truth. Such memory focuses on fixity, homogeneity and does not broach ambiguity and ambivalence. Reflective nostalgia, alternatively, ‘dwells on the ambivalences of human longing and belonging and does not shy away from the contradictions of modernity’ (Boym, 2011,p.14). Reflective nostalgia encourages fluidity, the imperfect process of remembrance, and it lingers on ruins, the patina of time and history. 

Restorative nostalgia captures the logic and affect of the regenerated city centre. Solidere’s restorative nostalgia, however, does not strive to restore the inclusive bourj; instead, its intention was to re-create a fantasized depiction of a pre-war past, ‘to the happy Lebanon of the “good old days”’ (Makdisi, 1997, p.687). Solidere’s slogan: Beirut – ‘An Ancient City for the Future’ –sought to ‘create a new collective memory’ (Nagel, 2002, p.717) for the nation by paradoxically looking back to Beirut’s mythical heritage as a peaceful and affluent trading centre in the Middle East. Yet, rather than this restorative nostalgia re-establishing the ‘bourj’, it acted “to wipe clean the surface of central Beirut; to purify it of all historical associations in the form of its buildings; to render it pure space, pure commodity, pure real estate’ (Makdisi, 1997, p.692). While the bourj is remembered as an ‘open space in which diverse groups can celebrate their differences without indifference to each other’ (Khalaf, 2006, p.1), the effect of the nostalgic revamp was to sanitize the space. Rather than the ‘gathering place of all Beirutis from all backgrounds, the city centre is now an exclusive space for “appropriate” people only’ (Makarem,2012). At the same time, the reconstruction sought to forget and replace the troubling memories of the civil war with ‘safe’ memories that supposedly antedate conflict. 

The logic of restorative nostalgia does not stand uncontested. Non-sectarian social movements generate alternative forms of memorywork that counter exclusion and amnesia. These movements articulate forms of reflective nostalgia and haunting to not only make visible what has been obscured through the reconstruction process, but to also irradiate radical alternatives for understanding and using the city (Nagle, 2017). To further elaborate on reflective nostalgia, this mode of memory construction refuses to conform to singular narratives, but actively explores multiple and disordered ways of inhabiting places. Instead of returning to an imagined stasis, reflective nostalgia indicates flexibility and imperfect memories. 

An important example of a non-sectarian social movement that deploys reflective nostalgia is the campaign to limit the privatization of public space in the city centre. 

Public Space Memories

The process of postwar city centre privatization went beyond the expropriation of buildings to claim public spaces. Solidere and other developers have privatized 800,000 sq. m of the city centre’s natural shoreline in the postwar era. In 2013, developers fenced off a public space along the coastline known as Dalieh. A campaigner to preserve public spaces explained that Dalieh attained ‘sociocultural significance for the memory of the city and as one of the last natural open spaces that is not restricted’ (Interview, January 2016). The shrinkage of city centre public space derives critical importance in a divided city like Beirut which has witnessed the postwar creation of more ethnically homogeneous spaces, which have the effect of maintaining the power of ethnic leaders.

In November 2013 activists launched the ‘Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche’. Activists represented a loose gathering of ‘individuals, environmental, cultural and civil groups who share a strong commitment to the preservation of Beirut’s shared spaces, ecological and cultural diversity as the pillars of the city’s liveability’. In campaigning to preserve Dalieh as a public and shared space, campaigners view this activism contributing to peace since it facilitates not just intergroup contact, but also engagement of individuals across the sectarian divide. A non-sectarian activist explained to me:

The Lebanese need meeting points. Today, what did we do in order to create physical and social meeting points since 1990? Nothing! This kind of savage privatization of the public space is just contributing to keeping the entrenchment and engulfment of each community and each group (interview, June 2015).

Yet, the issue of how exactly shared public space contributes to peacebuilding is indeterminate. Amin (2002) warns us from expecting too much from public spaces –‘places of transit’ offering little meaningful or durable contact between strangers. While it’s correct not to overstate the ameliorative properties of public space, such spaces do perform a vital function in divided societies. Space that encourages ‘chance encounter, happenstance, the accidental and contingent, and allows for exploration and discovery’ can, over time, facilitate more porous boundaries between groups (Gaffikin, Mceldowney, & Sterrett 2010, p.498). Such spaces of encounter, it is hoped, can even contribute to the process of eroding the ‘visceral fear of “the other “that feeds conflict and separatism’ (Gaffikin, Mceldowney, & Sterrett, 2010,p.497). More than sites of chance meeting, public space in divided cities can evolve into ‘dialogic space’: arenas for deliberate debate regarding how conflicts of different identities and interests can be resolved through identifying common political projects and values. 

In the memory of the city, Dalieh is presented by activists as a space that refuses to be sectarianized or exclusive and is instead a place of pluralism, tolerance and encounter. In one sense, such narratives reproduce legitimate concerns that the privatization of space compromises and diminishes the public realm. In another sense, these representations risk reproducing nostalgic ‘paradise lost’ visions of public space that elide the fact that these spaces were never fully public and were almost always a particular locus of class interests (Iveson,2007). Nevertheless, as Iverson (2007) argues, the language of retrieval is a useful fiction in setting an ideal of public space, around which a city politics of inclusion can develop. These imaginative stories ‘of public space as life enhancing, exciting, safe and inclusive ... can take us far in creating those spaces in just that way’ (Watson, 2006, p.7).  

Thus, the social movement campaign asserts a memory of Dalieh as a place comprising various meanings for Beirutis. These memories act as plotlines through which the city can be reimagined as having public spaces that host multiple uses for its citizenry. The memory work of the Civil Campaign to Protect the Dalieh of Raouche stress the complex rage of social groups that use this space. Activists note that Dalieh is used by fishermen and 10 families live on the shore; elderly swimmers access the sea to swim every day in the natural shallow pools; it is a place for lovers to surreptitiously meet and gay men to cruise; for families to picnic in the grassy hills; and a symbolic site for various ethnoreligious groups celebrating and commemorating religious events. The project of reclaiming the city centre by non-sectarian movements also provides an immensely symbolic form of political contestation to challenge the logic and practices of postwar sectarian state. To expedite this political project, non-sectarian movements invest their activism with memory work and reflective nostalgia. 


For peacebuilding to take root, Iveson (2007) calls for ‘new scripts’ to change the perception and social use of space in divided cities. Such a vision connects with Lefebvre’s (1991) demand that the most important thing is to multiply the readings of the city – to provide pluralistic narratives in which the city is a site of renewed centrality, a place of encounter and difference which licenses the full usage of spaces for all of the citizenry regardless of background. In order to change how spaces are made accessible to the citizenry in the future requires changing the memories associated with them in the present. The ‘right to represent the past ... can be considered a right-to-the-city’ (Till, 2012, p.8). The right-to-the-city, argued Lefebvre, required social movements to re-appropriate and re-program public space –to fight against ‘specialized space and a narrow localization of function’ (Lefebvre, 1991, p.382–383). 

One important way in which the social movements included in this paper contribute to this project of re-imagining the city is by impressing memories into city centre public space that illuminate complex, awkward and disordered histories of the city that defy sectarian and amnesiac visions. Non-sectarian actors can engender new ways of understanding how these spaces can be used through memorywork. If judiciously mobilized, these memories can become ‘routes for forging new cosmopolitan identities and transcending loyalties and commitments’ (Khalaf, 2012, p.79). Although it is important not to overemphasize the impact of non-sectarian actors, they can develop into powerful networks that sustain social and political transformation. 



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