News / Architecture


Beirut: Security, Surveillance, Navigation


This essay was originally part of a collection of writing on the securitization of Beirut's landcape. In this publication, the proliferation of security measures was examined through the use of both mapping techniques and the narration of life as it is lived under these circumstances. Such a document serves as a call to all those who move through, and those who police, that lived space of the city, a space which is always already refracted through gendered, economic, political dynamics. Initially, I had wanted to share my experiences as an upper middle class, unmarried, politically unafilliated (officially at least) woman who was born, raised, educated, and is currently living and conducting research in Beirut. Upon reflecting on these experiences more closely, I decided that instead I would dwell on my ambigious relationship to deployments of security in the city.

This article was featured on Jadaliyya’s website ( on September 24, 2012, written by Maya Mikdashi.
Perhaps the most obvious change in regimes of security and surveillance that I have witnessed is the shift from the presence of multiple armed militias (often tethered to that terrifying symbol of civil war, the checkpoint) to that of the Lebanese army and private security contractors. Men with guns are still everywhere, but now they purport to protect "the people" and "the state" (the army/internal security forces) and "the rich" and "the privelaged" (private security contractors aka militias). This change, or rather, this shift in uniforms, is obvious to anyone who lived through the civil war. However, what these changes mean to the city's inhabitants, and under what assemblages these security deployemnts and their intensifications emerge and shift, are less obvious.
My neighborhood, or hayy, straddles what used to be the belt of border known as the “green line.” It is quickly gentrifying (a process which threatens to consume the entirety of Beirut and make it unaffordable to anyone but the upper classes), and has gone through several population shifts throughout the years. These shifts have been due to both the rapidly changing economic landscape of Lebanon and to shifting patterns of sectarian violence in the city. To put it simply, my hayy used to be part of the divide between Christian majority and Muslim majority Beiruts. Today, my neighborhood is considered a “hot” area because it is home to Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and thus every Sunni-Shiite conflict is heralded by the sound of gunfire reaching in from outside my windows.
My apartment is down the street from a major thoroughfare that leads to the French Embassy, the University of Saint Joseph, the administrative offices of the Lebanese University, and the general security (surete general) headquarters. On the other side of that same road is a shopping mall and upscale an residential block that employs private security. If I leave my house and walk in the opposite direction down my street, I reach another road that houses military apartment blocks and the residences of more than one army general. Lower level soldiers guard their higher ups from the insides of upright coffin-like wooden boxes.
As I walk back and forth between my home and the library at the maison de l’avocat, where I conduct much of my research, I pass by three tanks and six permanent stations of soldiers. At night, there is sometimes a checkpoint at the mouth of my street where soldiers check drivers’ papers for minor infractions. If you are discernibly male, you are likely to be stopped, while the opposite holds true if you are discernibly female. As an unmarried woman living alone, there are times when I feel safer knowing that there is a twenty-four hour army presence less than one hundred meters from my home. There are other times when that same presence makes me uneasy. Here, the gendered difference between the army (all male) and the population (majority female) they are supposed to control/protect (these two functions are, after all, different sides of the same coin) has an effect which is rarely dwelled upon. Most of the women I know have been sexually harassed at some point in their lives by these men with guns. The uniforms these armed men wear, emblazoned with the Lebanese cedar tree, only underscore the fact that this harassment is backed by the force of law.
Personally, I do not experience the security mechanisms that proliferate in the city as oppressive. Rather, I should say that I do not believe that the word “oppressive” can capture the proliferation of thoughts and feelings that my body undergoes when I consciously interact (because we are always unconsciously interacting) with these deployments of security and surveillance. I do not experience walking through Quraytem checkpoints, walking by private security guards in Saifi Village, having my purse checked before entering the mall, or passing by a 1960s era tank on my way to yoga class, in the same manner. The reasons for this experiential dissonance are two-fold: Different aspects of the citizen are being “checked” (and either denied or given access to movement) in each experience, and both the mechanism and the rationale for the of the private/public security apparatus are themselves tailored to each deployment. A sample of the reasons for the deployment of the security apparatus in the above mentioned example include the protection of politicians, the protection of capital and class boundaries, and the bifurcating of a weakened sovereignty through an emphasis on symbols of a supposed hegemony of violence. Different parts of me are being “checked” at each of these moments. Am I the right class? How well do I perform my gender? Do I “look dangerous”? Am I possibly the daughter of an important man? Do I look like a good girl (bint `ayli) or a loose woman? What am I wearing? Do I look like a citizen, a foreigner, a migrant laborer or a refugee? Am I light or dark skinned? How available is my body for interrogation, and what are the possible consequences of interrogating this particular body? All of these questions are asked and answered in the seconds it takes for me to walk by a man with a gun as we both sweat under Beirut's summer sun.
But these deployments of surveillance, interrogation, and security can have unintended consequences. An action, Wittgenstein has taught us, is always more (and sometimes less) than its physical manifestation. And so the security man at the mall rarely imposes more than a sweeping, far-away glance (and a smile) at the contents of my bag, the men who guard the rich residents of Saifi Village take their job very seriously (I learned this one night when I stumbled with a male friend from Hamra to Achrafieh through Saifi), and the soldier on the tank near my house is often asleep in the afternoon sun. The tank, in turn, itself turns into a geographic marker, an object that makes movement, and navigation in Beirut’s oddly configured neighborhoods, more felicitous. For example, the first time I tried to reach a yoga studio near my house, I missed my afternoon vinyasa class. The second time, the studio manager gave me directions in a quintessentially Lebanese manner: “you pass by the first, big tank next to the French Embassy. You keep walking. When you see the second, smaller tank, you take a left on that street. There will be a lingerie billboard facing you.” Following these directions, which did not seek to avoid security apparatus but instead incorporated them into our collective psychological, historical, gendered and geographical maps of Beirut, I reached the studio in five minutes.

A shorter version of this article was originally published in Arabic as part of a special supplement to Al-Akhbar on surveillance and security in Beirut in 2011. The article has been revised and expanded by the author.

Post Your Comment

* Required Fields.
** Required, but will not be published.