Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Eric Verdeil (EV): Until recently, the prolific urban research on Beirut and Lebanese cities ignored, almost entirely, issues related to networked infrastructure, a very strange fact given the magnitude of infrastructure deficiencies in the country. Only recently have scholars (like Ziad Abu-Rish or Joanne R. Nucho, for example) begun to address infrastructure related issues, particularly as they relate to electricity. Water management also remains mostly out of the scope of urban scholarship in Lebanon, which has instead concentrated on reconstruction, housing, and urban conflict. Additionally, questions regarding waste management and sanitation have also remained largely absent from the research. This article addresses these three ongoing infrastructure crises in the Greater Beirut.
The article was initially a response to the call for papers launched by Hannes Baumann and Jamil Mouawad, under the title “Wayn al-Dawla? In search of the Lebanese state.” Baumann and Mouawad’s idea was to challenge the common (and somewhat lazy) notion of a weak state in Lebanon. They highlighted the inputs of mid-range theories that show how state institutions are part of a wider landscape of powers that interact with the state, often displaying “hybrid sovereignties.” Baumann and Mouawad personally chose to analyze the Central Bank and the Lebanese Army in the light of Marxist and Foucaldian approaches, thus showing how the state is at times able to reconfigure local capitalism, or to produce a “state effect,” for instance, in Akkar. They suggested that I write about electricity and the state in Lebanon, specifically about the fact that electricity has become the paradoxical symbol of the existence/absence of the state: “ejit al dawleh,” say the people when the electricity comes back after a power cut. Due to lengthy revisions on both sides, the article eventually appeared one year after the theme issue was released.
For me, it was also an opportunity to translate and adapt the results of a research project I had undertaken about the governance of urban infrastructure in Beirut in the framework of a project led by sociologist Dominique Lorrain on Mediterranean Metropolises. The general objective of this research was to take seriously the materiality of the city, including infrastructure, and to test the hypothesis that even when political institutions fail to govern the city, as seen when violent conflicts erupt, infrastructure provides some minimal level of consensus and agreement that allows for urban life to go on. At first glance, this hypothesis was far from obvious in the case of Beirut, but it provided an interesting chance to understand where the Lebanese state is when infrastructure fails.
Read the end of the interview on Jadaliyya.
The article will be in Open Access from the HAL-SHS repository starting November 2018.