Robert Frost—as some of his most enchanting poems and aphorisms richly demonstrate—had a strong aversion to walls, barriers and all other forms of human confinement and exclusion. He didn’t, however, mind “fences;” those more porous and malleable forms of human demarcation.
As the cruelties of protracted violence became more menacing, it is understandable that traumatized and threatened groups should seek shelter in communal solidarities and cloistered spaces. Confessional sentiments and their supportive loyalties, even in times of relative peace and stability, have always been effective sources of social support and political mobilization. But they are not, as Lebanon’s fractious history demonstrates, an unmixed blessing. While they cushion individuals and groups against the alienation of public life, they also heighten the density of communal hostility and enmity.
Hence, more and more Lebanese are today brandishing their confessionalism, if I may invoke a dual metaphor, as both emblem and armor. Emblem, because confessional identity has become the most viable medium for asserting presence and securing vital needs and benefits. Without it, groups are literally rootless, nameless, and voiceless. One is not heard or recognized unless one’s confessional allegiances are first disclosed. Confessionalism is also being used as armor because it has become a shield against real or imagined threats. The more vulnerable the emblem, the thicker the armor. Conversely, the thicker the armor, the more vulnerable and paranoid other communities become.
It is precisely this dialectic between threatened communities and the urge to seek shelter in cloistered worlds which has plagued Lebanon for so long. Expressed in more spatial terms, if urbanization normally stands for variety, diversity, mix and openness, then what has been happening in Lebanon, at least in a majority of areas, is ghettoization.
Such realities can no longer be dismissed or mystified. They must be recognized as efforts on the part of threatened groups not only to ward off the future erosion of communal identities, but also to seek more incorporation into the torrents of public life.
The coalition of confessional and territorial entities, since it draws upon a potentially larger base of support, is particularly potent in Lebanon. It is clearly a more viable vector for political mobilization than kinship, fealty, or sectarian loyalties. Such realities pose critical challenges to architects and planners. Aberrant as this may seem, the Lebanese must be reassured that their territorial commitments are understandable and legitimate under the circumstances. But, so is their need to break away. Being anchored spatially reinforces their need for shelter, security and solidarity.
Like other territorialized groups, many of the Lebanese who fear the threats of displacement, become obsessed with delineating boundaries and safeguarding their community against trespassers and interlopers. The needs for wonder, exhilaration, exposure to new sensations, of world views, the elevation of appreciative sympathies—which are all enhanced through connection with strangers—are also equally vital for sustenance. Witness the euphoria of kids in an urban playground as they cut themselves off in play form the ties of family and home or the excitement of visitors in a bustling city street.
Look how accomplished, gifted and daring our students become in foreign capitals and universities, once they have broken their ties with their familiar surroundings. The village mkari, in an admittedly much different time and place played much the same role. He too broke away, crossed barriers and was a “cultural broker” of sorts, precisely because he availed himself to new sensations and contacts.
The mkari had no aversion to strangers. He wandered away but always managed to return home. We need to revive and extend the ethos of such cultural brokers as the prototype of an idyllic national character. With all his folk eccentricities, the mkari epitomizes some of the enabling virtues of a “traveler” and a “potentate.”
Edward Said employs this bipolar imagery to construct two archetypes for elucidating the interplay between identity, authority and freedom in an academic environment. In the ideal academy, Said tells us “we should regard knowledge as something for which to risk identity, and we should think of academic freedom as an invitation to give up on identity in the hope of understanding and perhaps even assuming more than one. We must always view the academy as a place to voyage in, owning none of it but at home everywhere in it.”
Are these not also the attributes we should seek in restoring our cities or the places and institutions within them to render them more permeable for this kind of voyaging? Insightfully, Said goes on to tell us that “the image of the traveler depends not on power but on motion, on a willingness to go into different worlds, use different idioms and understand a variety of disguises, makes and rhetoric. “Travelers must suspend the claim of customary routine in order to live in new rhythms and rituals. Most of all, and most unlike the potentate who must guard only one place and defend its frontiers, the traveler crosses over, traverses territory, and abandons fixed positions, all the time.”
Ideally, this could well serve as a leitmotif of urbanists and town planners to create the conditions germane for this transformation of Lebanese “potentates” into “travelers.” We have to, in other words, find some way of making “ghettos” and all other cloistered spaces more open to facilitate the voyaging, traversing and crossing over.
They should be, in other words, like all other envisioned public spaces, redesigned in such a way that people can move on when the need for communal support and shelter is no longer essential. We must all bear in mind that any form of confinement, in the long run, becomes a deprivation. Conversely, open urban spaces can also be rendered more genial to cushion groups against the tempestuousness of city life.
The image of the Lebanese as spatially anchored being, compulsively huddling and defending his domains—the compact enclosures of family and neighborhood—against potential trespassers needs to be modified. So is the phobic and nostalgic drive for heritage and the longing to reclaim seemingly unique communal legacies, which border today on a national pastime.
The Lebanese also longed—or at least did until the war terrorized his public spaces—for the outdoors. Here again, urban design can do much to restore the conviviality of such open spaces. Streetlife, after all, is emblematic of urban provocation and arousal precisely because one lets go, so to speak, and drops his conventional reserves toward “others.”
This impulse to venture beyond familiar enclaves is always driven by mixed emotions. There is the exuberance of strange places, the pleasure and excitement of being drawn to one’s secure routines to encounter the novel and surprising. This induces an element of anxiety and fearfulness.
But, one also takes pleasure in being open to and interested in people we experience as “different.” Both these impulses, the need for intimacy and the need for distance, the urge to break away and the equally trenchant urge to reconnect with one’s original moorings, are essential for human sustenance. They also account for much of the viability of open and permeable places. To borrow a trite but apt metaphor, we need at different interludes in our lives, both “roots” and “wings.” Roots nourish our need for security, solidarity, commitment and heritage. Wings express our longing for movement, breaking away and taking occasional flights of fancy. It behooves us to heed and incorporate both impulses in strategies for spatial rearrangement.
The urbanist has to design weak borders rather than strong and turgid walls. This means spaces constructed malleably enough to permit constant alterations and shifts. There is still much to commend in Robert Frost’s adage that “good fences make good neighbors.” Fences are not, after all, impassable barriers, they merely delineate borders, often through hedges, shrubs and other demarcating but scalable objects.
Indeed, fences are borders and not boundaries. Borders are usually more porous and malleable; hence they are less likely to serve as partitions between one area and another. Boundaries, on the other hand, conjure up images of confinement and exclusion.
Dr. Samir Khalaf is a retired professor of sociology at the American University of Beirut and has been a director of the Centre for Behavioural Research at the university since 1994. He received his Ph.D. in Sociology in 1964 from Princeton University.
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