Media imagery and the shaping of Beirut’s urban spaces

Beirut 3

“For some people, the word Beirut conjures images of the war-torn landscape of the city in the 1980s, or … a place of danger and seemingly intractable conflict,” opens Hatim El-Hibri, Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies at George Mason University, in his recent research seminar at SOAS. “That image, which defined mainstream U.S press coverage during the country’s 15-year civil war from 1975-1990 is of course not the whole story.” 

Earlier this year, El-Hibri released his first book, titled “Visions of Beirut: The Urban Life of Media Infrastructure”, which explores how the creation and circulation of images have shaped the urban spaces and cultural imaginaries of Beirut. The book was inspired by his visit to Lebanon as a graduate student in 2006, where he witnessed a Hezbollah sit-in demonstration in downtown Beirut – a part of the city that was badly damaged and largely depopulated during the civil war, and later transformed into a hub for luxury boutiques, banks, government buildings and high-end restaurants. El-Hibri recalls what was remarkable about this Hezbollah demonstration was that it shut down the district almost entirely for 18 months, and ultimately transformed a heavily policed and manicured part of the city into a “night-time street fair”. His observation of this transformed space would inform his multi-year research project that examined how Beirut’s urban space and public life intertwine with images and infrastructure, and how media embody and exacerbate the region’s political fault lines. 

Media and state power

Drawing upon theoretical approaches in media studies and urban studies, El-Hibri proposes an infrastructural approach to media in its relationship to the city: “I want to show how technological and institutional forms that condition the production and circulation of images express the social and political as much as the social and political wind up built into the urban and media landscape.” He conducted fieldwork throughout the city and studied archival texts including maps, urban plans, aerial photographs, television broadcasts and war memorials to trace the histories of how the technologies and media infrastructure that visualize the city are used to consolidate or destabilize regimes of power.

Maps and urban planning

In the webinar, organised by the SOAS Middle East Institute and chaired by Dina Matar and Narguess Farzad, El-Hibri presents four key takeaways from four images in his book. The first is a cadastral map from 1931 which shows the area near the modernized port now called “downtown”. The map shows the Yugoslavian embassy, which is significant because the Russian engineers hired to carry out the cadastral survey profited off of their personal connections to the French officer in charge of the implementation of the cadastral system. The Russian team had previously been hired to do work supporting the formation of this and other states after World War I that were meant to contain the conflicts of ethno-religiously mixed societies. 

The key story, El-Hibri explains, is that “Even at the high point of empire and state-led development in the 1960s, maps and urban plans were often left half implemented or ignored with large sections of the country unmapped entirely. At the same time that social processes were brought into government purview, the resulting political formation would double back on to the planning efforts themselves.” 

Before & after imagery

The second image is a “lenticulation” meaning it melts from one image of ruined buildings into another scene of warmly lit street cafes as one moves past it. El-Hibri explains that the use of before/after imagery during the period of arrival of urban neoliberalism was a key tactic in dictating urban form. He argues, among other things, that a morbid, dystopian interpretation of this image is that “the erasure of rubble leads to its ultimate return” and that before/after images “ultimately and unwittingly signal the malleability of space, demonstrating … that there have always been other possibilities for what is becoming of the city since post-war construction began.”

‘Concealment’ theory

The third image is a screen grab of a communications engineer on a Hezbollah-run television channel after he successfully restored the connection during the 2006 war with Israel. The fourth image shows the communications room inside the Bunker el Mleeta, staged with vintage technology. Both of these images can be understood through the concept of ‘concealment’ which El-Hibri describes as “a heterogeneous set of practices and tactics that aim to keep people, places and things out of sight, undetected, unnoticed.” In other words, he explains, if visualization brings people and spaces into the light, acts of concealment keep them in the dark. The museum’s architecture that invites visitors into secret underground spaces embodies what El-Hibri describes as “critical strategies of suspicion that seek to go below the surface.” 

At first glance, it’s difficult to grasp the complexity of the individual images, but “Taken all together, these images demonstrate how the incompleteness of infrastructure and the always unfinished nature of urban space define our media landscape constituting the condition of possibility for communicative practices,” said El-Hibri.  

As he was editing the final manuscripts of his book, El-Hibri describes watching a series of crises unfold in Lebanon, including the unprecedented collapse of the entire banking system, the global pandemic and then a devastating blast at the downtown port in August 2020. “If this book now seems like a document of a previous moment – ‘the before times’ – I hope that it also perhaps shows how things can and always could be otherwise,” he said. 

Visions of Beirut is available for sale in the UK at: 

To watch El-Hibri’s full seminar and audience Q&A, see the SOAS Middle East Institute Facebook page

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in South East Asia and West Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes.

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