#READING THE SEA
Early on in his contribution to Blackwell’s short introductions to geography, Cresswell introduces the difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’ with a story from aboard the HMS Discovery, sailing up the coast from Seattle in 1792:
“[Captain] Vancouver’s task was to map the coast and name it as he went — making it a place for empire. Naming is one of the ways a space can be given meaning and become place. Vancouver’s journal reports the seemingly nonsensical movements of natives in their canoes in the sea around them. Rather than taking a straight line from point A to point B the natives would take complicated routes that had no apparent logic. To the native canoeists their movements made perfect sense as they read the sea as a set of places associated with particular spirits and particular dangers. While the colonialists looked at the sea and saw blank space, the natives saw place.” (p. 9)
The colonialists treated the sea as a neutral and value-free technology of conquest, while the natives saw the sea as meaning-full, turning their backs to the land, forest and mountains behind them; “[they] had many names for the sea but the land remained unnamed and seemingly invisible” (p. 10).
These were two, diverging worldviews, but only paradigmatically so; the sea is substituted for the land in the natives’ reading, but “place” is still the placeholder. The colonials and the natives both stood with their backs to undifferentiated space.
Beirut provides us with an illustration of a third position betwixt space and place:
“During the early morning hours, just before dawn emerges, Corniche Al-Manara accommodates all of Beirut’s kin. During these hours, the city beckons its dwellers towards this empty street, with no predilection or intention to socialize. […] The early morning visitors of the Corniche belong to diverse classes, confessions and political tendencies. […] the unemployed and the retired attend the Corniche – a transient space of co-existence – until the day begins, the hustle takes over, and every corner is invaded. […] After the tolerant Corniche hours, Beirut wears her mask again; her kin return to their places and positions leaving behind the sea and the Corniche lonely witnesses to the chronic illnesses across the city.”
The Corniche has become something of a fetish object, but as Lahoud explains, Khbeiz’s description of ‘this empty street’ relies on his reading of the sea: “For Bilal Khbeiz, the Mediterranean Sea becomes the only neutral space in Beirut by virtue of the fact that it cannot be occupied.” This image provides us with our third figure: the subject who stands with her back to place, with all its mess, its positions and its unknown intentions.
This longing for “radical neutrality” has congealed into a veritable, post-war genre in Beirut, finding expression in the music of Maslakh (pdf), and in monuments to withdrawal like Bernard Khouri’s B018 and the new Lebanese Lira we use to get inside, underground.
This language of dark, geometric quietude is only half-serious. The sentiments are not exactly feigned, but they do seem consciously poeticized; a nurtured and deliberate “I love you but I’ve chosen the funeral in my brain.”
And it is, of course, in the nature of abysmal thinking for the thought to eventually engulf its thinker. What could those of us in Lebanon who stare out into the slate-grey sea possibly know of the world behind our backs? The abyss is not a cave; against the horizon’s pure screen, thoughts of “outside” (بـــرا) are projected until even shadows stop talking back. This is why the Lebanese who fantasize about order and its borders press their palms against their ears, cursing the fireworks of co-religionists, or the voicings of criminal clans on national television. No sound may pierce their fragile calm.
Our geography distorts. Longing for the horizon warps our map of Lebanon, weighted by desire and motility, into a grimace with a bulbous nose for an airport. The recurrent hysteria around the blocking of the ‘tarik el matar’ — a popular weapon among many in Beirut’s urban arsenal — is an expression of this fear of being cut off from the space of flows.
Makdisi wrote in 1997 (pdf) the following on the post-war plans for Downtown Beirut:
“The entire project has been focused and discussed in the narrowest possible terms so that the rest of Beirut and Lebanon fade away and become vague externalities to the plan, much like blank spaces on the company’s maps. This does not suggest merely a preoccupation with the city center […] it constitutes an effort to cover over the rest of the city with this, its postmodern alter ego; in fact, one of Solidere’s logos is simply the word Beirut, in Arabic, as though the company’s fiefdom somehow stands in for the rest of the city, representing it in its exclusion.”
15 years on, standing with our backs to Beirut — radicals, fascists and liberals alike — are we all now truly Hariri’s postmodern children? We recoil from the ‘chaos’ and ‘nonsense’ of place, colonialists in our own land, in favor of the comforts of abstraction. We dream of a ‘better Lebanon,’ far from the ravages of war and the iron maidens of sect and clan, and long to be ‘one under the law.’ Yet, how can we affect what we refuse to understand? “The understanding of the world as one is the precondition for egalitarian politics,” Trott argues, and this egalitarianism — grounded in place and accounting for all that counts — “vigorously opposes universalizing from any one particular identity in order to achieve equality […] The one world that must be performed is one of both identity and differences where the differences do not challenge the unity of the world and the identities do not establish it.”
It is time we scuttled our ships and grounded our planes; there is no escaping this one world. Turn and face it.