As Lebanon “embraced” Western modernity eagerly in the 1950s, the rise of automobility created the image of a small country where one could ski in the mountains and bathe in the Mediterranean in the same day. Yet, decades of poor transport policies have plunged the country in a chronic congestion which impedes mobility, pollutes the environment, and is radically changing perceptions of the national space-time. Focusing on the entanglement of politics and transport policies in the longue durée, this project investigates “extreme” automobility and its evils in Lebanon not as neutral outcomes of the adoption of modern culture and lifestyles, but crucially as products of specific political processes, interests and histories.
Project director(s): Alice Stafanelli
Lead institutions and funding:
1950s Lebanon was famously known as the ‘Switzerland of the Orient’, a modern yet fascinating country where wealthy tourists could ski in the mountains and bathe in the Mediterranean in the same day. These images and practices were partly enabled by the introduction of cars – a global epitome of modern life – which covered longer distance in a short time, making the country feel smaller and more intimate. Yet, decades of increased car use and poor transport policies have plunged the country into chronic congestion, impeding mobility, polluting the environment, and radically changing local perceptions of the national space-time.
This project builds on previous doctoral research on the protection of green public space in Beirut and examines how intense automobility is affecting life in the city. Thanks to the CBRL travel grant, I conducted follow-up interviews with traffic activists in Beirut and consulted the archives and cartothèque of the Institut Français du Proche-Orient.
Findings show that while cars are still objects of desire, the exhausting experience of navigating traffic hinders rather than enables modern urban living, encouraging commuters to dream of more public transport instead of more cars, such as the rehabilitation of the long-halted railways. Modernity, it seems, is changing shape, at least on the road.
Preliminary results were presented at the Centre for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut, within the ‘Assembling the Middle East: Materiality, Infrastructure and Ecology’ lecture series, also thanks to the CBRL award.
Stefanelli, Alice. 2021. Excesses of modernity: the politics of everyday mobility in Lebanon. Bulletin of the Council for British Research in the Levant 2020, p 19.
Published:10 December 2021