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Reflections on Marjaa//Limbo urbanisms: Violence, urban change and multi-modal methodologies

The Marjaa//Limbo urbanisms: Violence, urban change and multi-modal methodologies workshop, held in UCL on 1st May 2024, was inspired by Mayssa Jallad’s recent album, Marjaa: The battle of the hotels, which Mayssa performed on 2nd May at Folklore, Hoxton. The album walks the listener through Beirut’s seaside, the site of luxury hotels offering views onto the Mediterranean Sea, and a place still marked by the gun battles of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). Mayssa’s narrative weaves the violence of the battle of the hotels – a period of 5 months within the Civil War, in which warring factions fought for control over the hotel district – into the violence of pre-war “prosperity” and post-war rebuilding, which saw intense development and erasure of Downtown Beirut’s built and cultural heritage.


The workshop took the theme of violence within the urban and through urban development, and invited scholars, urban practitioners and artists to explore its nuances in their own work. The organisers – Dr Hannah Sender, Mayssa Jallad and Dr Hanna Baumann – asked presenters to reflect on how they understand processes of destruction, reconstruction, development and decline to cohere in urban trajectories; to consider how the material world – including buildings, cement, ruins and other elements – offers a lens onto shared histories of violence; and, how sound, including song and field recordings, can constitute politically incisive knowledge about violence.


The workshop created spaces for listening – to songs, to field recordings, to poetry – as well as observing photography, film and drawings. We engaged with sites of urban violence in Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, the UK, Palestine, Egypt and the US. Together, we played at the edges of academia, creative practice, archiving and curation.


Rayya Badran presented a selection of sound works from the South West Asian & North African (SWANA) region, highlighting the sonic terrains of state violence, protest, and infrastructural decay to present non-visual ways of navigating the city. Ariana Markowitz and Abbie Ametewee laid bare their process of creating an archive of violence in Lambeth: an archive which sought to demonstrate the existence of, and possibility of responding to, the kinds of violence which are not reported nor recognised as ‘crimes’. Their efforts to make apparent often-overlooked violence resonated with Hayes Buchanan’s work with the Beirut Urban Lab, to map and visualise violence in the West Bank. Hayes gathered objectively verified narratives of violent conflict involving Israeli residents and forces, and Palestinian residents, braking these narratives down into ‘types’ of violence, ultimately demonstrating the dramatic unevenness in harm caused by each group.


In amongst the state-condoned violence of housing destruction, ecocide and settlement, people resist. Around cities of the Mediterranean, sounds of protest, solidarity, connection and belonging move across the sea: an entity which Tom Western suggests functions as a kind of radio, that connects people through sound in an anti-Imperialist struggle. In Francesco Pasta’s exploration of a redeveloping neighbourhood – Fikirtepe, Istanbul – people continue to ‘scrap along’ by gathering, disassembling, repurposing, the material scraps and leftovers. Collectively threatened of eviction and living precariously, residents are in a limbo state, anticipating state violence whilst finding opportunities to get by. Attending to people’s sustained attachment to places that they are in the process of being removed from, Aya Nassar offered Cairo residents’ dream narratives during a period of curfews in Cairo. These affective anxieties and glitches remained in the background of the spectacular violence for which Mubarak’s regime gained infamy. Reflecting on the role of the architect in acts of slow violence, Christophe Kumpusch performed a list of desires, attitudes and norms to resist, in order to open up new possibilities for architectural and artistic practice that are not based on ownership, easy acceptance and, ultimately, violent dispossession.


Our conversation was paced by the work of Mayssa Jallad and Ely Dagher. Ely’s visual interpretation of Mayssa’s music located us in visual archives of the Lebanese Civil War, within buildings which remain almost as monuments to violence, within the map of Beirut. The notion of the video as an archival document, and as a potential archive of other data itself, connects Ely’s interpretations of Marjaa with his feature films: these are ‘testimonies of a time, of a feeling’. To borrow from Ely’s closing statements, these films, as well as the sounds, images, drawings, photographs, that we all engaged with, were employed against the erasure of people, culture and memory in the face of violence.


Biographies

Dr Hannah Sender is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UCL Department of Geography.


Dr Hanna Baumann is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL.


Mayssa Jallad is a singer/songwriter and urban researcher for PROCOL Lebanon (Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL).


Rayya Badran is a writer, translator and educator based in Beirut.


Dr Ariana Markowitz is a Community Safety Engagement Manager at the London Borough of Lambeth.


Abbie Ametewee is a Project Manager at the London Borough of Lambeth.


Hayes Buchanan is a Research Coordinator at Beirut Urban Lab and PhD candidate at Columbia University.


Dr Tom Western is a Lecturer in Social and Cultural Geography at UCL Department of Geography.


Francesco Pasta is a PhD candidate at Politecnico di Milano.


Dr Aya Nassar is British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Warwick University.


Christophe Kumpusch is a New York-based architect and the Head of Forward-slash ( / ) Architektur and the Co-Founder of the Mutating-Cities Institute.


Ely Dagher is an award-winning director and animator.


Photo Credit: Ely Dagher, still from the music video for "Holiday Inn (January to March)" from Mayssa Jallad's album "Marjaa: The Battle of the Hotels"

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