The Traumatized City, Tree and Chair : A Lebanese architect shares her thoughts following the Beirut blast.

Dina Mneimneh, an engaged beiruti architect, advocates for the preservation of cultural heritage and the development of public spaces. Having extensively researched the post-war reconstruction plan of Beirut after the Civil War (1975-1990), and having personally experienced the Beirut port explosion of August 2020 – a man-made disaster well-inscribed within conditions of entrenched political conflict and socio-economic regression- Dina found refuge in distancing herself and immersing in the study of other conflicts, other localities and other issues.

“Here I am reading, reflecting and addressing trauma, conflict and urban life. Somehow, despite the different geographies, distances and cultures, the discourse seems familiar and so intricately intertwined. Mostar, Nablus, Jenin, Beirut as well as many other cities are living and producing intense representations of violence, fear, angst and injustices, stirring all kinds of feelings in their dwellers. 

When asked about the role of emotions and affect in engaging as a citizen and urban practitioner in post-conflict contexts, I could hardly find the right words to respond. So I chose a picture that I took on my very first walk in one of the most heavily damaged areas by the explosion of August 2020.

This picture precisely conveys a moment of internalized exile, unfamiliarity, and denial emanating from within. Looking at this picture, I ask myself, my-citizen/urban practitioner/traumatized blur of a-self, is this what a scarred city looks like? How can I approach it? How can I participate in the repair of the shattered glass, the abandoned chair, the left out tree? What will we be repairing? the smells of food cooked on the first floor? The voices of drunken youths shouting on the GF shop? The conversation of the old man sitting on the sidewalk? The bird’s space to poop on the head of passers-by?

As I ask these questions, I start to recollect the intense memories invoked by this representation of physical remains and untold stories. It depicts the trauma described eleven years ago, arriving “unrecognizably and without warning, an inassimilable event that shatters the very coordinates of our experiential landscape, leaving us adrift on a sea of excessive sensation.” (Lahoud, 2010:17) In conflict/disaster contexts, emotions and affect are intensified and projected in multiple ways. They are born and develop nestled in what looks like Doris Salcedo’s crack, meandering throughout our lived spaces and wounded bodies (Salcedo, 2007). They become a powerful agent mobilizing the wide array of actions and relations that we shape with the surroundings.

A picture that looks at trauma in the eye.

It does not say a thousand words.

It says a thousand emotions and deeply severed imaginations.

The journey of recovery to rebuild trust in our collective capacity to dream and imagine our urban life, starts with communication, reconnection with our memories and disrupted culture of solidarity.

Acknowledging these feelings, amplifying and sharing them, individually or collectively, would be the first step to rethink our engagement and approach to participatory practices in re-imagining the urban of conflict contexts.

While emotions and affect might at times cripple and push us into a dysfunctional abyss, they can simultaneously be the very momentum stirring participation and action for the recovery of our bodies, spaces and lives. The power and agency of emotions and affect thus lies precisely in their ability to transform but never disappear”.

Written by : Dina H. Mneimneh – MSc Building and Urban Design in Development University College London, The Bartlett, DPU

Edited by : Rindala Semaan.

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