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What A Queer Urban Future Looks Like: Beirut

[Beirut, Provincetown of the Middle East. Image from the New York Times] [Beirut, Provincetown of the Middle East. Image from the New York Times]

The conditions of possibility for queer life and queer cities are never singular. Instead, these conditions of possibility are radically different for gender conforming and gender nonconforming people, and for cis men and women. They are also different for racialized displaced persons and refugees, and for racialized migrant labor forces. Moreover, as cities are historically specific and situated sites that are irreducible to each other (e.g., Beirut is not Istanbul is not Mumbai is not Paris), we must resist the desire to think singularly about “queer life” or “queer cities.” We do not have the same pasts so why would we have the same futures? What, and whom, does the term “queer future,” a future oriented towards a better life, imagine as its subject? Who and what are the conditions and practices of life that mark a city “queer?”

Between the years of 1975 and 1990, Lebanon was locked in a civil war that was punctuated by military invasions and occupations. The Israeli state occupied the south of Lebanon, one fourth of the country’s landmass, until the year 2000. Since then, there has been another war and intermittent bombing raids by Israel, a series of political assassinations and terrorist attacks, and a war in Syria that is also fought by Lebanese, sometimes within Lebanese territory. When the Lebanese civil war ended, so did public conversation about it. Back then, downtown Beirut was still filled with rabid dogs who, it was rumored, liked the taste of human flesh. The buildings and shops of Hamra street were still pockmarked with bullet holes and veined with cracks and craters, and the city still stunk of garbage (a smell that is once again pervasive given the state’s criminal neglect of trash collection and processing), and billboards did not stare down at you from every vantage point. In fact, bullet holes and barbed wire were much more common than buildings with more than four floors. West Beirut was much less crowded than it is today. I remember feeling disoriented as the landmarks of my childhood were replaced with shiny new restaurants, cafes, and advertisements. As downtown Beirut was remodeled into a visitor’s brochure, it was difficult to talk about the structural violences that pervaded the post-war “reconstruction” of Lebanon. It was difficult to resist the seduction, and the induction, not to remember.

Today, Beirut is highly securitized, exorbitantly expensive, and buttressed by garbage. It is a masculinist, heternormative, sectarian, and economically polarized and segregated space, where access to public space has been commoditized and rationed. The spectre of past civil wars and fears of new ones are everywhere and nowhere. It is a capital city with more than two million residents in a country of approximately four million citizens and over six million residents, a full two million of whom are war refugees from Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Sudan. It is a city where tens of thousands of migrant and domestic laborers live, often in conditions of structural servitude and slavery. In Beirut, a majority of residents do not have access to twenty-hour hour electricity or reliable potable water, neither public nor private, but Beirut is also currently one of the most stable capital cities in the Arab world (a sign of the degree of political instability in the region, not of the political or economic health of Lebanon). There is currently no legitimately elected government beyond the municipal level in Lebanon. Beirut is “cosmopolitan,” certainly more so than neighboring Arab capitals, or so the story goes. Mainstream western press outlets such as The New York Times continue to gawk at and write about Beirut’s bars, clubs, and stylishness—at one point re-christening Beirut as “The Provincetown of the Middle East.”

Beirut is a popular tourist and research destination, though most confine themselves to two or three areas of the city. It is not uncommon to see “queer” acts, gestures, bars, or graffiti there. Is it the two men holding hands, the two others cruising each other in a Hamra bar, or the six-year-old refugee carrying roses through that bar that makes Beirut “queer”? This child, in this bar, is one of thousands that circulate through the city daily, selling whatever they can not because they hope for or are oriented towards a “better” future, but merely to survive in a present where war has displaced almost two million people to Lebanon, and where Israeli occupation and colonization, coupled with Lebanese xenophobia, nationalism, and classism, has kept hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in refugee camps. Laws and policies ensure that Syrian and Palestinian refugees remain in an inferior position to Lebanese citizens economically, socially, and politically. Both Syrian and Palestinian refugees are hyper-visible and securitized through gendered and sexed discourses on terrorism, religious extremism, and Islam (and increasingly, discourses on homophobia as a mark of intolerance and thus cultural or civilizational inferiority). Importantly, these discourses also reproduce Beirut’s exceptionality in the Arab world (i.e., not Muslim-majority, liberal, secular), its cosmopolitanism.

This child in a bar is not alone—he and others like him are ubiquitous parts of nightlife in Beirut—they are literally part of the sociopolitical space of desire—for bodies, for history, for a sense of futurity. When he leaves this bar he will sleep under a nearby bridge that has been exploded and shelled and rebuilt so many times it appears as an intricate mosaic of concrete and metal patchwork. The bridge is not a melancholic object for him as it is for me, signifying a past that cannot be expressed or mourned but that continues to animate and irritate the present. It is simply his shelter.

We should interrogate our desire to speak of queer futures, or of queer cities, and our inclination to anchor that queerness in a recognizable sexual practice. Who is the body or masses of bodies that makes a city queer, that uses the city in queer ways? Who is the subject of a queer future? What subjects does a queer future, or the conceptualization and fantasy of such a future, require to not have a future?

 

[This article was originally published by Arts Everywhere as part of a global roundtable responding to the question: What does a queer urban future look like? Authors addressed this question from the vantage point of São Paolo, Alexandria, New York City, Zaghreb, Warsaw, Nairobi, and Malmö.]

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