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Place names as heritage: the case of Beiruti street names

30 minutes
Place names “provide for the intersection of hegemonic ideological structures with the spatial practices of everyday life” according to geographer Maoz Azaryahu. They are considered as essential part of immaterial heritage and genius loci. In commemorative names the national founding myth/legend is narrated but the narrative is not complete: the villains of the story are not worthy to be commemorated, thus we do not find street names commemorating those who are considered to be “enemies” or “villains” of the national construction. In this paper we assess the street names of Centre-Ville Beirut, the political and economic centre of Lebanon since its foundation in 1920. Being the capital of Lebanon, Beirut presents itself as a bridge between “East” and “West” (implying “Islam” and “Christendom”) thus being external to both and following “positive neutrality”. The National Pact of 1943, depicted as a gentlemen’s agreement between Christian and Muslim leaders, affirms the non-alignment of Lebanon by its famous Non à l’Occident et Non à l’Orient. National Pact signatories, Muslims and Christians, are commemorated in street names of Centre-Ville Beirut, besides the names of British and French army men who shaped the Grand Liban (e.g. Gouraud, Weygand and Allenby). Commemorating both Mandatory Powers and fathers of Lebanese independence gives Beirut a unique flavour of “buffer” between “East” and “West” where colonial military power can continue to exist peacefully with its ideological and political opponents. The Centre-Ville underwent substantial damage during the civil war of 1975-1990, and was entirely destroyed then “reconstructed” after the war: the reconstruction is perceived as a rupture in the Beiruti urban space. But street names were kept intact and minor changes were introduced with the reconstruction plans. Some totally new “reconstruction” projects, Beirut Souks for example, have kept old street names and aim to find legitimacy in occupying the place as “continuity” of pre-war souks via street names. But at the same time this heritage, Beirut's city-text, reflects conflicts over the urban space: place-names are integral parts of place-identities. In the post-civil-war reconstructed Centre-Ville is there a real consensus on the roles of Allenby and Gouraud in building the Lebanese State? Many questions would lead to the conclusion that Beirut-as-text is, too, a field of conflict over the urban space and its identity. The “heroes” and the “villains” of the ones and of the others are commemorated altogether: a situation that creates ambiguity, even conflict, over the founding myth of the Lebanese Republic. As a result Beirut-as-text is per excellence a heritage that could outlive French Mandate and then the civil war of 1975-1990. But it is a heritage that reflects the deep identity crisis Lebanon has had since its foundation in 1920.
Université Paris IV Sorbonne