THE POROUS CITY

By Nadir Lahiji

If one term could be offered to characterize the city of Beirut, it would certainly be the word 'permeable'. Permeability denotes the state in which the categorical distinction between the city, body politics, and the text written on that body, dissolve. On this body, one can "read what was never written," as the German writer Hugo von Hoffmannsthal once said. Porosity is the image of this (un)written text which defines the physical and political (pre)modernity of Beirut; it constitutes a continuum in the shifting identity of the city and its social body. Porosity of Beirut is the symptom of an urban life in which the remnants of the pre-modern and pre-capitalist social forms that never succumbed to the modernist segregation of life between private and public spheres survive. In contemporary Beirut, the metaphor of porosity of undifferentiated space competes and survives side by side with 'modern' Beirut in a dialectical relation between interior and exterior which belongs to the modernist representational space.

Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis in the essay they wrote together in1925, poignantly discussed the city of Naples evoking the central image of porosity. I want to suggest that what they wrote about Naples is equally illustrative of the city of Beirut, although topographically the two cities are entirely different. Moreover, reading Beirut through images of Naples that I am advancing here is consistent with Benjamin's own method of reading one city through the images of another city. Describing the city of Naples as grown into the rock, Lacis and Benjamin wrote: "At the base of the cliff itself, where it touches the shore, caves have been hewn... As porous as this stone is the architecture. Building and action interpenetrate in the courtyards, arcades, and stairways. In everything, they preserve the scope to become a theatre of new, unforeseen constellation. The stamp of definitive is avoided. No situation appears intended for ever, no figure asserts it 'thus and not otherwise'. This is how architecture, the most binding part of the communal rhythm, comes into being here..." Further they reflected that "Porosity is the inexhaustible law of life in this city." This 'inexhaustible law of life', presciently put forward by Lacis and Benjamin, is surprisingly also the law of life in Beirut where "building and action interpenetrate" at least in those areas that have survived the ravage of time and destruction. Yet, the aesthetic 'richness' of this space of action only takes place within the sea of the poverty engulfing it and buried under the thick layers of dust.

Extending this image to the character and the psychology of the inhabitant of the city, Benjamin and Lacis further wrote that "Porosity results not only from the indolence of the southern artisan, above all, from the passion for improvisation, which demands that space and opportunity be preserved at any price. Buildings are used as a popular stage. They are all divided into innumerable, simultaneously animated theaters. Balcony, courtyard, windows, gateways, staircase, roof are at the same time stage and boxes." Thus, in the Porous City the fast and the categorical demarcation between inside and outside, between private and communal life, between the skin and the body, begins to blur: "Just as the living room reappears on the street, with chairs, hearth, and altar, so...the street migrates into the living room." The remnants of this spatial organization still can be observed in many areas in the west Beirut district of Hamra where the migration of the street, or, rather its intrusion, into the interior space is total.

Porosity, moreover, is a psychocorporeal boundary of space, expressive of the fragile state of the body. As Victor Burgin remarks, this image of space is latent in all of us: "The pre-Oedipal, maternal, space: the space, perhaps, that Benjamin and Lacis momentarily refound in Naples. In this space it is not simply that the boundaries are 'porous', but the subject itself is soluble. This space is the source of bliss and terror, of the 'oceanic' feeling, and of the feeling of coming apart; just as it is at the origin of feelings of being invaded, overwhelmed, suffocated." How suggestive is this "feeling of coming apart" for the state of the subject and its space in Beirut who soon found itself increasing overwhelmed not by the bliss and terror of pre-oedipal maternal space, but rather by the invasion of the modernization invading its very interiority.

In the Porous City, the organization of space does not lend itself to the law of perspectival optics. Yet, the continuum of this spatial organization of the city was brutally interrupted when Beirut became a stage for the theater of the War. Ironically, the actors on the stage of the war insisted on a violent denial of their own permeable identities and separated themselves from the porous body of the city. In the aftermath of the war, new actors in the global capital, with a deliberate disregard, but also with an unintended ignorance, of the psychological constitution of porosity of the city, began to prepare Beirut for an ongoing global homogenous space, turning the Porous City into a city of perspectival space. In such space, the permeable body finds itself in a situation in which face to face encounter gives way to the mediatized encounter of interface. This way, the 'reconstruction' of Beirut in its fundamental premise disavows the inherent permeability of its social organization and denies the constitution of the psychocorporeal boundaries of space acting on the body politics of the city.