Between roughly 1975 and 1990, the civil war in Lebanon split the capital city Beirut in two, dividing the predominantly Muslim West from the Christian East. While popularly referred to as ‘the’ civil war, it is perhaps better understood historically as a plurality of overlapping and entangled wars between networks of diverse political groups. While the constellations of actors that participated in the conflict(s) remain largely impossible to neatly separate out into binary formations, the line of demarcation separating East and West Beirut was incessantly reinscribed through the ongoing activities performed by an assemblage of armed border checkpoints, sniper fire, road demolitions, and mortar attacks.
The cacophony of violence was in fact so intensely hostile to human life that the streets and alleyways that composed the division between East and West quickly began to erode and fall into disrepair, creating a space and time for new ecologies to proliferate within and throughout the urban geography. For these reasons, the border has historically come to be referred to as the ‘Green Line’, as a dense imbrication of plants, seed-carrying birds, and pollinating insects settled in the fissure between the East and West literally making the division ‘green’.
A soldier entering the Green Line.
One could trace the history of Beirut through the ongoing material processes of differentiation that reshaped the various neighborhoods, behaviors, architectures, and movements within and through the city, produced by a multiplicity of historical processes. As architectural scholar Ole Møystad has pointed out, the Arabic phrase for the Green Line is ‘Khutut at tammas’, or ‘confrontation lines’ (importantly plural). The unity of Beirut as a city was never a historical given, as the multiplicity of conflicts during the civil war make clear. Rather, these territorial unities were generated through webs of expressivity that produced dimensions of differentiation, in which interiorities and exteriorities take hold and stratify themselves materially and expressively. Heterogeneous coalitions act together to give birth to these unities and also labor to reproduce them – to give these territories topologies and duration. These coalitions express themselves in resonant processes that over time condense into materialities such as the construction of walls, the appearance and circulation of certain styles of dress or music, or in the organization of events much as street festivals or markets which differentiate between often overlapping territorial strata.
The Beiruti “Green Line”
Even though the military conflicts during this period produced a new dimension of differentiation that split a unified Beirut into a political East and West Beirut, there had always-already been many Beiruts circulating and reproducing themselves historically, generating heterogeneous spatialities and temporalities. Territories are contingent in nature; they are born, have historical lives, and inevitably die in ecologies of contrasting differences that resonate with and/or disrupt one another. Processes of migration, decomposition, and displacement all have the capacity to shift the boundaries of territorial formations, and also potentially can fracture them into several novel distinctive unities. When the Israeli military occupied southern Lebanon in 1978 and again between 1982 and 1985, many Lebanese and Palestinian refugees fled north and resettled in Beirut, shifting the boundaries of existing neighborhoods and establishing new ones, introducing new dialects into the city, and reorganizing its architectures. While various processes support and reproduce unities within and across territories, counteracting processes also have the potential to unravel territories into novel unities, producing boundaries that manifest new interiorities and exteriorities.
Territories are always defined by radical imbrications of unity and infinity. Any border that divides an interior from an exterior is also equally cut across by a multiplicity of other dissonant modalities of differentiation. The division that generated East and West Beirut was actualized through a differentiating assemblage, in which the Green Line was ceaselessly reproduced by urban warfare and the production of military architectures. Beirut is of course also divided along other lines, for example in the way in which bodies are differentially produced and shaped through gendered forms of labor, consumption, dress, and behavior. The gendered territories in Beirut do not simply reflect the East-West divide, but rather come to be through disjunctive differentiating processes such as women’s exclusion from certain forms of labor or in gendered architectures such as segregated seating in religious spaces. Just like the Green Line, these modalities of differentiation are expressed in material difference, such as the way in which genderred divisions of labor are materially inscribed into men and women’s bone density. The difference expressed between East and West and the difference produced between male and female at times intersect, multiplying each other’s dimensions and shifting the lines of difference into the territories themselves. At other times, they work against one another, counteracting each other’s flows and processes.
In Ziad Doueiri’s 1998 film “West Beirut”, sexual desire is figured as a force capable of unraveling the East-West divide. The young protagonist of the film, Tarek, traverses the streets of West Beirut and several times encounters the Green Line and its violent processes of differentiation. He inevitably finds himself in a brothel that exists in the ruins of the border territory, a kind of liberated space in which people from both sides of the Green Line dance and drink together. The brothel exists as a territory within which the lines of differentiation rupture into a fissure of possibility, and in the rubble of the civil war a different territory takes root. It’s only later in the film that we learn that one of the sex workers that Tarek had met no longer inhabits the brothel, as she had been attacked for sleeping separately with both Christian and Muslim men. In the film, sexual difference both escapes the East-West divide, and at other times is reinscribed by it.
Still from “West Beirut”
By virtue of the coexistence of both unity and infinity that are found in every field of difference, historical processes that generate and differentiate between territories are never complete or totalizing in their operation, but rather are always unfolding and unraveling at the fringes and multiplying into other unanticipated fields of difference. In Doueiri’s “West Beirut”, the conflict produced a fissure between the two territories that created the conditions of sexual possibility. Equally, the dense foliage that came to fill the Green Line in Beirut during the period of allowed for the plants’ growth to unsettle and blur the spatial boundary, creating habitats for birds to migrate freely between East and West. The material processes that produced political East and West Beirut could do little to stop the growth of plants or the migrations of birds; a sniper’s gun is not a useful tool for trimming plants, and a barbed wire checkpoint does little to hinder a bird’s flight. Boundaries of difference in this way are never infinitely thin lines that divide two topological territories, but rather are spaces and territories unto themselves, creating the conditions under which different material formations can take hold and engage in their own reproduction.
In the contemporary moment, the Green Line is in fact no longer green; after the conflict ended large volumes of capital investment initiated an era of urban reconstruction in Beirut and the majority of plant life along the now defunct border was removed. The appearance of East and West Beirut in 1975 and their subsequent reunification in 1990 makes apparent the historically contingent nature of difference itself, and reminds of the possibilities embedded in the differential processes of birth, reproduction, and death. Power is ultimately enacted across ecologies of difference, and politics play out in the reproduction and disruption of those differentiations. Differences do in fact come to make a difference, not just across the interior and exterior dimensions of their own boundaries but also in the multiplicities inhabiting the fringes of their imposed unities. Lines of difference invariably unfold into vibrant ecologies, themselves cut across by fields of difference and generating the conditions within which new processes of reproduction are born.