01 December 2007

Bint Jbeil Memories, from Above

NOTE: this post was first published on my first blog, Ibn Bint Jbeil, in April of 07. My co-writer on this blog, Poshlemon, encouraged me to re-publish it here.

(click on picture for a larger view)

A in the first picture above shows Wast-el-Balad, or "Center of Town" in Bint Jbeil, the village of my family and my ancestors. This is the highest hill in the village, and is the oldest part of town. The oldest architecture of Bint Jbeil is there, hundreds of years old, including beautiful yellow-stone arched homes and some beautiful old doors and windows. the rest of the areas in the picture are a series of outlying valleys surrounding the center of town, and those outlying valleys are surrounded by highlands (not visible in the picture.) The highest is "Jabal Maroon" (Mt. Maroon,) overlooking Bint Jbeil on one side and the occupied Palestinian Jaleel (Galilee) on the other side.

B (the dark-green area) "el-Birkeh" or "the Pool," is a man-made pool that is currently not in use, but which for countless generations had been a place that collected rain water for livestock to drink, and also served as a place where all the villagers came to wash their clothes and housewares, before the time when running water became available.

C is "Karm el-Midan," the field in whose earth my grandfather and his children toiled for their livelihood. Many farm fields in Bint Jbeil are given names by their families. During the mid to late 70's, when I was a child, there were two large craters in "Karm el-Midan", each about three meters in diameter and just as deep, caused by Israeli bombs. We used them as playthings, sliding down their slopes and climbing back up in countless hours of play.

For a time, my grandfather planted tobacco in that field. At a difficult period in the history of Southern Lebanon, during and after the famine of the 20's, many farmers in the South of Lebanon were duped by a French company called ROGÉS into planting tobacco, a very difficult crop to maintain, requiring year-round labor, and waking up before sunrise to harvest the large prickly leaves, since doing so under the hot sun caused the sticky milky-white liquid that seeped from the stem to build up on one's hands and caused problems for the farmworkers. ROGÉS exploited the farmers by securing a monopoly from the French-Mandated government of Lebanon, giving the company the ONLY legal license to buy and distribute the farmers' tobacco crop. Many farmers lived in debt throughout the year, until ROGÉS came at the end of each year to pay them just enough to pay off their debts for the previous year.

D shows our house and barn. The house was abandoned throughout the Israeli occupation of Bint Jbeil (1978-2000,) a dark period for the town when 90% of the poor villagers chose to leave instead of live under the degradation of occupation. Many struggled against the occupation from outside of the occupied zone. The blue-grey rectangle is the barn and the bright white triangle is the house. The small clump of green directly to the right of the barn is our olive grove.

When my grandfather first moved from the old part of town to these outlying parts, during the first half of the twentieth century, the townfolk did not understand why he did so and all asked him why he was moving out "to live among the wild wolves," as they put it. This part of town at that time was all wilderness and outlying farmland and fruit groves, and his new two-room mud house was the only structure in the area.

E shows "Al-Wadi," or "the Valley," where my family maintained a grove of fig trees. I don't quite remember which of the sections is the one that belonged to our family, because the Wadi was sectioned off into various groves and fields for various farming families, but I have many memories of going there.

Throughout the 70's, we left Beirut during summer vacations for three months of paradise in Bint Jbeil. My three uncles Yusuf, Abdallah and Ghassan, who were just a few years older than my older sisters, would walk us younger kids to the Wadi for an afternoon among the fig trees. All the fig trees in our field bore fruit that was golden on the inside, except one tree, whose fruit had a red inside; this one tree, however, was never approached by us, because there was a large poisonous snake that lived in its trunk. My uncles would send us on our way to play among the trees, and when we got back they would have a pot of tea brewing on a small campfire. They would have the pot, the tea leaves, the matches, the tea glasses, spoons and sugar hid somewhere among the rocky terrain of the fig grove, and never told us where. It was a game, a sort of a trick they played on us every time we went there: They would first distract us, then they would dig up the tea kit before we knew it, we would drink tea and eat and play for a while, then they would distract us one more time with some playing in order to hide everything again.

My father's mother died at the age of 36, when he was only ten. Medicine was not readily accessible in remote villages back then. He was raised by his father and his mother's mother, Amneh. My great-grandmother Amneh was paralyzed from the waist down, but she was still an active member of the farming family. Every season, when the figs were ripe, she would tell her family to transport her to the grove in the Wadi, where she would camp out for the duration of the season. She actually lived in a tent! Because she was paralyzed, she did not want to be carried back and forth daily. For the entire harvest season, she would sit in her tent and work on the fruit, pickling, drying, and preserving the fruit.

(click on picture for a larger view)

The pictures above show Bint Jbeil before the Israeli assault on it this past summer. The picture below shows the aftermath of the war. All the grey is debris of the destroyed town. The Israeli assault on Bint Jbeil included the elite of the supposed "mighty" Israeli army, including the "famed" Golani Brigade, but they could not take the town. The battle for Bint Jbeil was compared to the siege of Stalingrad during World War II, when the Nazi army besieged the city for more than half a year but could not occupy it, and destroyed it in the process. Israel was defeated in its siege of Bint Jbeil because it could not occupy the town but chose to destroy it out of spiteful punishment.

(click on picture for a larger view)

09 November 2007

The Islamic City

One of the most controversial topics, which has been the subject of debate by many scholars, is the nature of the Islamic city. Studies on the nature and morphology of the Islamic city began in the late 19th century with historians trying to find a model for this Islamic city in comparison to the "West" and from an "Orientalist" point of view, i.e. French Historians were more concerned with North African cities while the British were more focused on Egypt and Syrian cities. It is a topic that may not be viewed from one angle but rather from many including urban, geographical, socio-historical, legal and architectural frameworks and this is mainly why the debate remains unresolved.

What is an Islamic city? What are its fundamentals? What sets this city apart from other cities? Is it its walls, its quarters, its mosques, its souqs/markets, its baths/hammams? In studying its morphology, what is the point of departure? Is it through a socio-historical - 'cultural' - examination or through a purely urbanistic and architectural mode?

When one speaks of a Muslim character of a city, one tends to undermine the importance of the city's indigenous characteristics; the fact that these Muslim cities coexisted simultaneously(at one point) and shared a set of religious protocols amongst one another is almost continuously stressed over the fact that also these cities existed in different geographical settings with particulars of their own. Yet, interestingly, one notices a common pattern throughout most of the Muslim cities around the world, which is that of a very similar topographical character. This was characterized by very little thoroughfares and lots of streets with dead-ends. Being the contentious topic it is, many scholars argue that the structure of the Islamic city was a continuation of what had prior existed, while others argue that it was a way of living that was newly introduced through the 'culture' of Islam.

In a dissertation I had written on the politics behind the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, I briefly discussed the character of the city of Damascus before and after Islam. While some historians are of the idea that the Greco-Roman character of the city, which was that of a grid-like system, began to disappear with the advent of Islam, there is a tendency amongst historians to conclude that this change in character did not come with Islam but actually started happening under the Byzantines. In fourth to sixth century Syria, there was a mass emergence of churches, basilicas, monasteries and all forms of Byzantine worship, life and architecture. Generally speaking, the thriving urban life in Byzantine Syria took off from the Greco-Roman times and continued with an influx in settlement and an increase in economies, especially in major cities such as Damascus, Aleppo and Jerusalem. It seems the architectural/urban structure of the Syrian land was being transformed into that of a Christian/Byzantine character. When Damascus became a Byzantine province, it started losing its Greco-Roman character, which was more of an organized city governed by strict rules, to the privatization of public spaces and confused and unclear plans. Burns explains that despite the existence of arguments stressing that the loss of Damascus’ Greco-Roman character came after the Muslim conquest, there is profound reason to believe that it followed the annexation of Syria under the Byzantine Empire. This theory is supported by Kennedy who, after careful examination, firmly contends that this urban structural change was the result of several economical and political factors that began during the Byzantine times. Degeorge, too, confirms that by the fifth century, the Greco-Roman urban impression was slowly turning ‘Oriental’ with many stalls and shops marking the narrowing streets. I am an advocate of this theory since – apart from archaeological findings and architectural remains – it may not seem plausible for the Byzantines to have been in Damascus for over 3 centuries without leaving a substantial imprint on the city.

However, while there is an explanation for Damascus and other Syrian cities, there isn't a clear understanding as to why this character is prevalent throughout most Muslim cities. A main reason, which had been at the forefront, is the 'obsession' in Islamic societies with the protection of privacy and families, i.e. dead-ends and certain lanes were blocked by gates or doors and these gates would be locked following the evening prayer. All of this stems from the cultural aspects of the Muslim person and society, which derives from the Islamic laws of protecting/concealing the individual, i.e. the women of the household/family. Thus, this privatization of space forced the structure of the city to evolve into one where there was a clean cut between private space and public space. Other leading factors would be the Sharia law, the Waqf system, and the policing systems. Thus, the state was concerned with the public and religious foundations and the markets, leaving it up to the dwellers to organize the rest among themselves. The state did not interfere within the private sphere and with the details of dwelling, neighbouring, windows, and so forth. Markets themselves were either closer to the gates or the center and generally this is where the life of the city was. The center was where public affairs were happening and the periphery was the private section. Interestingly, spatial organization of residential areas, although not universal in Muslim residential architecture, is the segregation of space and its gendering, i.e. an area separate for the women and that for the men. However, while the street pattern of Muslim cities is consistent through out, the introverted house or courtyard house is not consistent and may not be termed Islamic, as it rarely existed in Iraq and Cario for example. The latter, thus, supports the idea of bringing together a set of objects or symbols that would typify this Islamic city and make it 'easily identifiable' as mentioned above such as the mosques, madrassas, hammams, etc.

However, hoping to link the street and urban character of Muslim cities it would be safe to say that the Waqf system was almost identical anywhere, even between Sunni and Shia Islam, and thus it could be a main reason why there existed great commonalities between Muslim cities. Another issue to keep in mind is the fact that during different periods, there was a shift in priorities. During the medieval period, the Muslim state was more of a military state and its cities were characterized by garrisons. An example would be Salah al-Din, who was a man of war and who was busy with consolidating his power in Egypt and Syria and fighting the Crusades. Thus, he was more of a policy maker rather than an urban planner.

This whole system of identifying the city through its social structures was developed and supported by Lapidus who identifies a city through a set of socio-economical and political idioms. This is what I mean by different angles at reconstructing this Islamic city, because while certain scholars tend to look for physical institutions and layouts that mark a city, others study this city from its social structure and patterns of living that would consequently affect the physical structure of a city and not vice versa. As a result, different findings are made and this lies at the heart of the debate.

Significantly, this city underwent a series of "reforms" and began to evolve from its "unclear and chaotic" character, as would be termed by certain Weberian historians. In the case of Beirut, during the late Ottoman period and toward the end of the 19th century, during the Tanzimat and post-Tanzimat reforms, Beirut was undergoing a lot of changes in its urban character. This was mainly due to the political and economical pressures that befell the Ottomans: the Ottoman empire was at the brink of failure and was suffering greatly from European domination and interference and was reputed to be "old, archaic, sick", thus, its Arab provinces became the playground where they could prove to the Europeans that they were capable of "modernity" - here, the term modernity denotes technological and economical advances. When Beirut became provincial capital in 1888, it received a great amount of attention from the Ottoman empire in terms of economic and urban developments and some of the main Beiruti elites were directly affiliated with the Sublime Porte. Thus, road-networks were being changed and developed and architectural and administrative changes were introduced that were to ultimately alter the medieval structure of this Islamic city, which in the wake of the late Ottoman reforms began its long struggle between old and new, things European and non-European. While Beirut was receiving the utmost attention of the Ottomans in their attempts at 'modernizing it' and 'Ottomanizing it' (see Fin de Siecle Beirut by Jens Hanssen), Tripoli and Aleppo were also very integrated in this agenda.

Anyway, this is a topic by far complicated than I present here and the studies and debates are very intricate, detailed and theorized and listing them all here would require a greater input from my part, an input equal to that of writing an essay or thesis. For now, this is enough to know on the Islamic city and the questions surrounding it.

05 November 2007


I have not been posting regularly here because I haven't been having the time to actually sit and squeeze something out of my brain. Usually, when I come online or visit my blog, it's a time when I escape from reality and try to use as little brain cells as possible. However, I am in the mood for torturing my brain cells! My next post will be coming soon within the next week.

I would like to note that my future posts here may not be exactly about Bint Jbeil, taken my lack of experience and knowledge on it, but my topics will be dealing with issues that may be indirectly/directly related to Bint Jbeil as being part of Greater Syria, whose experience under the Crusades, Mamluks, Ottomans and so on will have its effect on its smaller localities, hence Bint Jbeil... This is where and how the parallel may be drawn. Usually, in art history, when little information/sources/material/inscriptions is available on a monument/city, comparisons are made with other monuments/cities in order to locate specific local idioms or narratives [i.e. comparing an foundation inscription on monument A with that of monument B and because we know monument B bears significant Mamluk characteristics, thus monument A may belong to the Mamluk period, etc...]. However, [not wishing to fall into the mistake of thinking that the circumstances of a more studied city will definitely apply to another] while in Greater Syria there seem to be a set of common features (such as the square minaret), its cities retained characteristics only specific to them. It is also worth noting that mistakenly we (historians/art historians) may tend to focus mainly on the macro, thus neglecting the micro. We attempt to fit the city into a larger history or fit this history into the city. I always try to keep in mind the importance of positioning both in an interlocking dialogue [many times, unknowningly, I fail]. In simple terms, both need one another and both justify one another.

Within the coming period, I hope to write on the following:

1- I want to elaborate more upon the Lebanese central hall house, taking my direct reference Bint Jbeil's pictures posted here, while illuminating on the recent studies and findings regarding this house type. Ragette's work is a pioneering work but it is outdated now.

2- I wish to write a few thoughts on the prevalent urban structure of most Islamic cities.

3- I want to write about the Mamluks and their interesting relationship with the Ayubids (historical and architectural terms).

04 October 2007

Preservation of the Old

I had written this a while ago for a thesis, which I later changed to a different topic for many reasons not particular to our topic here. However, it dealt with the preservation of certain monuments and especially in wartorn areas.

Since architecture is a manifestation of political, economical, social and cultural circumstances and conditions, monuments are built within the confines of representations specific to different periods of time. The town, village or city and its architecture are among the most imperative indications to the evolving circumstances of its people and their culture. They are always in a parallel relationship with the people and the prevalent conditions. The continuous transformation of the people and the social, political and economical conditions necessitate that the city and its architecture adjust to these changes. For example, Bint Jbeil although existing geographically in the same place, is a composition of different time periods, each with characteristics that are inherited generation after the other. This is what creates the concepts of "memory" and "recollection" and thus gives way to the concept of "belonging". It is this link between a city and its objects and the people who inhabit it and carry in their consciousness their "belonging" to the city - past and present.

After the independence, Lebanon had been undergoing a series of urban developments. In light of these developments, many issues arise regarding the already existing buildings of its cities: many of them remain unpreserved and many of them were brought down to make way for newer buildings. This leads to the idea of what constitutes a city's collective architectural past and what criteria symbolize and characterize a "past" worth preserving.

In light of all this, many questions and speculations unravel. To what extent can a past be preserved or forgotten and to what extent can a city be reconstructed in agreement with its local and collective past and whether this creates scope for the people to relate to this modern space. In other words, in reconstructing and rebuilding Lebanon, many issues surface around whether to build a Lebanon loyal to its architectural heritage (in many instances, with a pristine aesthetic) or depart to a modern approach, which incorporates Lebanon into the global and modern world; thus, serving Lebanon's political and economical needs to keep up with the global markes. When discussing the reconstruction of a certain city, its past and its people's relationship with the old and modern should be taken into consideration. The nature of the inhabitants should be taken into consideration as they tend to travel more often and are in constant contact with different spaces and thus, this may result in less association to the city and its collective past or on the contrary, may result in a nostalgic attachment with things of the past. This is especially applicable for Lebanon, which in its post-Independence years and onwards underwent a series of canges in its social structure. A great percentage of Lebanon's pre-Independence monuments were demolished with the exception of some houses, Mandate buildings and others "deemed worthy of preservation". If you examine cities in Lebanon, one would learn of many monuments that were brought down in favor of a modernization scheme and this is especially applicaple for residential spaces in comparison with public buildings such as mosques and churches.

Today, Lebanon lives an identity crisis. As a result of the civil war and the many wars with Israel, most Lebanese cities and villages are those whose inhabitants are torn between confessions, political affiliations and ethnic groups and this reflects on the architecture. Thus, another question would involve the effect the civil war and the wars with Israel had on Lebanon. During the civil war, many cities, such as Beirut, were divided and broken up into different zones, which resulted in wartorn spaces and changes in the demographic of these spaces. Thus, most of the post-war construction focused on redefining torn spaces in light of these changes of demography. How much of Lebanon's past should one be reminiscent of in the reconstructon of its cities or should one depart from the past in an attempt to rebuild a space faithful to its changes?

Very much related to the above, the legislative laws of Lebanon should be looked at in light of the series of modernization and preservation attempts it is undergoing. What is the reality and the shape of the protective laws and legislations directed towards the preservation of monuments of historical worth and how could these laws act as protective measures against physical tampering by privatized companies with ulterior/fiscal motives? What role does the public play through conventions and demonstrations? Unfortunately, I know of many historical monuments in villages and cities throughout Lebanon that were demolished in the abscence of any protective legislation and in the abscence of renovation funds provided by the government and thus, they are demolished in favor of other financial benefits.

After the Independence and after every war Lebanon has witnessed, while there was an effort directed towards preservation, many monuments were either demolished or altered or left defective. I am not very informed on how the Department of Antiquities works in Lebanon. When I last checked with a few lawyers, it was explained to me that the laws are very old and that many monuments in Lebanon are in danger as their value and importance, after going through a long set of procedures, is dependent upon the decision of the President. In addition, many of the old souqs in Lebanon and many other religious monuments that were built during the Ottoman and Mamluk era are in great need for attention, which is impossible with the lack of funds. Not to forget all the important architectural/artistic periods and dynasties Lebanon has known, monuments belonging to the late 18th century and onwards are in most danger of being neglected or demolished.

I wonder what will be happening to Bint Jbeil. I leave the answer to Ibn Bint Jbeil, who would be able to give a better picture of his hometown.

29 September 2007

#3: After the War

The destruction of Bint Jbeil was immense,
especially with regards to the central part of town, the old city,
that peaceful hilltop neighborhood that stood for hundreds,
and perhaps thousands of years,
overlooking the outlying valleys and farms of its inhabitants.
It saw countless generations come and go.

It's old stones stand witness, as do the memories of the people,
and the valiant will of its children.

I have heard about the much more ancient types of ruins sitting beneath people's homes. People have talked about arches and other older rooms beneath the homes that they live in. I have never had the opportunity to see any. Pictures 1, 2 and 3 below offer glimpses.




Picture 4 below shows the interior of the "Jami3-el-Kabeer," or "Grand Mosque," after the war. A pre-war picture of the exterior is visible in post #2.


Picture 5 shows, in the distance, a view of the old "Diwan" of Haj Mohammad Said Bazzi (building with arcade,) also mentioned in post #2, as it appears next door to the green dome of the Grand Mosque.


Pictures 6, 7, 8 and 9 below, as well as pictures 1, 2, 4, 10 in post #1, show a curious use of a blue-green pigment on wooden window shutters, doors and iron railings that is prevalent throughout the town.








Dome of the "Husseiniyeh," a religious congregational building that I mentioned in post #2.


Another dome below. I don't know if this is the site of a tomb that people visit. I know that there are such sites in the area, namely a place called "Sahet el-Nabiyeh," which translates to "Square of the Prophetess." It is one of the town's various squares, located near the tomb of a nameless holy woman of long ago. Could this be it?










A relatively more recent mosque in pictures 22 (minaret in the distance) & 23.




23 September 2007

#2: "Jami3-el-Kabeer"

The old "Jami3-el-Kabeer," or "The Grand Mosque." Not necessarily a very big masjid, but nonetheless the bigger one in town from what I understand, and more significantly, the historic one. To the right of it can be seen the "Diwan," the residence of Haj Mohammad Said Bazzi, who was Bint Jbeil's preeminent social and political head of its families during the early part of the 20th century. He was not very powerful economically like other "Beyks" in the region who may have commanded the same type of influence in other towns; but he did command the respect of the town folk and did much to advance their circumstance. His residence served as the stopover for visiting dignitaries from the greater region, from Syria, Palestine and other parts of Southern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley.

I am now in the process of collecting pictures from after the war, because I did find that many buildings, although destroyed, still retained some semblance of architectural detail that is still beautiful and can still teach us about their history. These include some pictures of "Jami3-el-Kabeer," included interior and exterior shots.

Below: The "Husseiniyeh," another old religious building.


22 September 2007

#1: Old Arches, Before the War

I looked through the many pictures and tried to choose those that offer architectural detail and style.

(note: picture #1 below is identified as the home of Sayyid Abdur-Ra'uf Fadlullah, the father of Sayyid Mohammad Hussein Fadlullah.)