Despite the absence of shared public spaces, the serious environmental problems and the lack of centralized urban planning that characterize it, and despite the recurring political violence that marks its history (Hermez 2017), Beirut’s inhabitants of all classes, even if in different ways, often speak of a quasi-mysterious but nonetheless tangible “buzz,” a sense of “quiet pleasure,” a type of urban jouissance, woven into the texture of the city’s everyday life. What is more, this jouissance is seen as closely entangled with rather than in opposition to the sense of chaos and uncertainty that the city is able to produce in people. Lebanon’s semi-chaotic social life partly mirrors its economy. Someone, long ago now, defined Lebanon’s laissez faire capitalist economy as laissez tout faire, so bereft of any government regulation it is. The economic anarchy which allows investors and developers to pursue profit with little regard to the social, urban or ecological consequences of their investment is replicated in the way religious communal organizations, political parties and groups as well as individuals behave socially and politically in everyday life pursuing their interests with little regards to their impact on the collectivity. This is often found exasperating, and is part of what gives Lebanon’s periodic civil wars their particularly chaotic form. “Shoo hal fawda b’hal balad!” (What a chaotic nation this is!), “Ma fi nazam b’hal balad!” (There is no law and order in this nation!) or “Ma fi dawleh!” (There is no state!) are exclamations/moanings that are commonly heard. But it would be a very poor ethnographer indeed the one who does not notice that, without diminishing in any sense the general sense of exasperation that these exclamations contain, or the fact that they point to real often encountered problems, they nonetheless, and at the same time, contain a kind of mischievous enjoyment of the very chaos that they are bemoaning.
I refer to this enjoyment as “jouissance” because of its mischievousness but also because people speak of it as a state of the body just as much as a state of the mind. Of course, like everywhere people spend their time bogged down in the grind of everyday life worrying about practical and financial realities. And more than everywhere, people will be crankily caught up in an impossible traffic jam or trying to negotiate a transaction with the state bureaucracy. Yet, despite and alongside all this, people are able to express a certain joy in maneuvering through these very difficulties. And more predictably, on a quite evening alone or with family and friends, walking on the Corniche, having an arghileh (water pipe) in a café by the sea, or just sitting having a smoke and a coffee with the concierge and a few others in front of one’s apartment building, or having a man’ousheh in the morning and taking cover underneath someone’s balcony as the rain starts falling, people will readily tell you that “there’s something about this place.” A fisherman near Beirut’s Manara (lighthouse), who began by relating a variety of personal and financial problems he encounters on a daily basis finished by telling me “life is hard but every time my friends come and we play a game of cards by the sunset here, all my problems disappear, even the traffic behind us (GH: I was complaining to him about the traffic) seems like a nice traffic.” “I have the best of friends and this must be the most beautiful sunset in the world” he said. “Where else in the world did you see the sunset?” I asked, somewhat naively and genuinely wanting to find out. He hesitates for a second before turning his head and replying, “I haven’t been anywhere.” I inadvertently embarrassed him. “But it must be one of the most beautiful sunsets in the world, don’t you think?” he asks with a sense of pleading. “Yes” I said. “the most beautiful sunset and the most beautiful traffic.” Something I, being after all a Beiruti at heart, actually deeply believed.
While it is important to remember that almost everyone expresses these feelings every now and then, it is also the case, for obvious sociological reasons, that the more unburdened people are from the dismal local wages people receive, the uncertainties of the future, the effect of pollution, the weight of class, patriarchal, racial, bureaucratic and clientelist arbitrariness and domination, the more willing they are to be effusive about this “something,” this, “mellow and yet intense feeling at the same time” in the words of a man I was chatting to on the Corniche. Thus it is not surprising to note that middle-class Westerners who come to live in the city for extended periods of time have often expressed similar feelings. In her book Once Upon a Time in Beirut, the Australian journalist Catherine Taylor (2007) describes living with her husband Matthew in Beirut for a number of years while working as a Middle East foreign correspondent for an Australian newspaper. She reflects:
Matthew and I would often talk about why we liked Beirut so much. After all, it was polluted and chaotic and noisy. Don’t even start on the traffic. The politics was turbulent and sometimes dangerous… And… it was quite an expensive place to live... It was the little things, we decided, that we loved. The upside of chaos was that regulations were sporadic. We could drink cocktails hanging off the edge of a tower block with a view of the ocean; drive the wrong way down a highway when all other routes were closed and break the speed limit (what speed limit?). The pace of life itself was slow and rhythmic, soothing and full of things to like... We would wonder out loud to each other if perhaps it was simply that Beirut’s extremes exaggerated everything, made every moment seem alive. (233–234)
There is also a whole genre of light touristic journalism, regularly appearing in the international press, celebrating the way Beirut keeps being a city of enjoyment despite war and chaos, though without being based on long term experiences of life in Beirut. Radical activists and academics often bemoan this type of journalism and the clichés it circulates. They rightly see it as mystifying the serious problems Lebanon is facing. The way it is criticized, however, ends up itself being so absolute that it negates the fact that this reporting does point to a jouissance experienced by many. After all, mystificatory and light-weight as they might be, these same journalists do not write the same touristic thing about every single city. What’s more, such journalists are hardly the only ones who inflate their experience of this Beiruti enjoyment. Indeed, no one expresses this jouissance with as much conviction as returned immigrants, particularly (but not only) middle class returnees, who carry with them the economic and ontological security that they have internalized elsewhere in the world and who come to Beirut with a nostalgic desire for an imaginary Beirut where the enjoyment of anarchy and chaos is a, if not the, central feature. It is the experience of such a group of returnees that will be the main empirical focus of this paper. It should be clear from all of the above that I don’t see this enjoyment of Beirut as specific to the culture of returned immigrants. What is specific is the clarity and intensity with which it is present in this milieu, and which allow us to better understand the phenomena in question.
This paper can therefore be seen as a contribution to both an urban anthropology of Beirut and an of Lebanese diasporic culture. At the same time, however, it should be noted that urban anthropology and diasporic anthropology in general, have been more sociological and explanatory in their intent. That is, they have been anthropologies that participate in the general sociological endeavor of explaining and understanding as best as possible the nature and the dynamics of urban and diasporic phenomena. Anthropology here does not differ from sociology or any other sociologically-oriented discipline in its general analytical intent. It only diverges in terms of methodology and, in terms of the dimension of the phenomena that it chooses to analyze and emphasize. It is worth noting in this regard that with the exception of the thorough doctoral work of Kristin Monroe (2016), which explores the role of capitalism, corruption, and patronage in shaping the informal and unplanned character of urban space, some the best critically and theoretically-informed, sociologically-oriented and ethnographically-based studies of Beirut’s urban culture is neither the work of sociologists or anthropologists but of academics working at the intersection of architecture, urban design and politics (see the work of Fawaz [2009a; 2009b] and Harb [2010a; 2010b]). My approach here differs from this not so much because of a lesser commitment to the sociological project, but more because I want to wed it to what I consider a more specifically critical-anthropological quest for radical cultural alterity (Hage 2015). This can be summed up with one guiding question: in what way does the study of a particular socio-cultural phenomena expand our knowledge of the plurality of modes of existing in the world? Though not concerned with radical alterity as such, the work of AbdouMaliq Simone (2004) offers, in a general sense, a similar direction. Studying something as intimately part of our everyday life, and as connected with capitalism and modernity as Lebanese urban and diasporic cultures are today, is not usually the ground on which such a classical critical anthropological question is asked. Indeed it is more often associated with “exotic” or “primitivist” anthropology where alternative forms of existence to our own are usually found. So there is something akin to a disciplinary challenge behind engaging in such an approach while studying diaspora. Therefore, notwithstanding the desire to elucidate certain dimensions of Lebanese urban and diasporic life, it is important to remember that it is this search for “another” sociality that is the primary driving intellectual quest behind this paper. As a necessary corollary of this, is the willingness to “do” anthropology (in the philosophical sense of the word) with one’s ethnographic material. This is similar to what Holbraad and Pedersen (2017: 80) describe as the “willingness to stage the encounter with ethnography as an experiment in conceptual reflexivity.”
When confronted with the expressions of jouissance such as those noted above, it would be easy to see in them a mere individualized libertarian enjoyment of an excess agency, akin to the urban Dionysian experience described by Ulf Hannerz (1981), but magnified by the absence of any systematic law-regulated forms of sociality. But, to be clear, we are not dealing with mere chaos here. Firstly, because state laws in Beirut are never completely absent. They are merely selectively or incompetently implemented, both in terms of where and on whom they are implemented, and with what degree of tenacity and intransigence. Secondly, and as importantly, even when the state’s capacity to implement the law was at its weakest during the civil war, Beirut, except perhaps in the war zones proper, never descended into pure chaos. Indeed, while it is more customary to speak of how unruly and chaotic Lebanon is, the more astonishing, though less dramatically experienced, fact is how ruleful and disciplined it remains despite all the wars and the inability of the state to adequately govern and uphold the law. Everything continues to function: services, shops, traffic, schools, everyday social life, etc. – not wonderfully, indeed often very badly, but functions without collapsing nonetheless. It is this capacity of society to continue being one, to offer possibilities of everyday forms of relationality, co-existence and considerate interaction, in the shadow of the state, as it were, that invites us to think the presence of another, outside-the-law, mode of sociality that allows for the continuation of social life.
Anthropology, more so than other disciplines, has always had to come to terms with forms of sociality that are not based on state regulation of law and order. As James Scott (2009) notes:
Until shortly before the common era, the very last 1 percent of human history, the social landscape consisted of elementary, self-governing, kinship units that might, occasionally, cooperate in hunting, feasting, skirmishing, trading and peacemaking. It did not contain anything that one could call a state. In other words, living in the absence of state structures has been the standard human condition. (3)
And there is particularly a long lineage of anthropological work highlighting the “horizontal” sociality of the gift in opposition to the “vertically mediated” sociality of the state. The contrast between state-based and gift-based forms of social relations is already well-explored in Marcel Mauss’ classic work The Gift (2002 ) and by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1969) after him who saw in reciprocal sociality the “elementary” organizing principle of kinship. This lineage continues via the work of Pierre Clastres (1987) as well as Marshall Sahlins’ masterful analysis of Mauss’s work in Stone Age Economics (1972), where he argues that: “Where in the traditional view the contract was a form of political exchange, Mauss saw exchange as a form of political contract” (169).
This paper sees itself as a contribution to this anthropological lineage, arguing that it is to such outside of the state form of sociality that the jouissance we have introduced above takes us to. To begin to do so we need to bravely enter the world of Beirut’s traffic, for nowhere is this sociality more present than in the way people have to negotiate the city’s streets.