On the architecture of trauma and agency

Photograph courtesy of Abir Hashem and Warch(ée) (2020)

Lebanon’s Thawra, in the form of civil demonstrations, takes place in Fall 2019. In international media, the term October Revolution circulates. Rooted in the French Révolution, it means to turn around. As much as things, are turned up-side-down in Lebanon – lives and houses – nothing is turned around. The Arabic term, Thawra, translates to up-rising or outbreak. Thawra thus references an uncontrollable process; a breaking out and a directional movement, an uprising. This text uses the term Thawra and tells the story of a friendship that began on August 4, 2020, when an unprecedented explosion takes place in Beirut. Snapshots of the friendship shape the narrative, occurring in fragments and, with images in tow, as ridiculous as a pink stuffed bunny. It is written at a time during which, as Beirut-based writer Lina Mounzer puts it, both the Thawra and the blast ‘did a number on our imagination’ and ‘defies the imagination in such a way that somehow everything becomes possible.’

By the beginning of 2020, Lebanon experiences a severe economic and political crisis. As of March, the Covid-19 pandemic adds further difficulties. In May Lebanon experiences its first lockdown, and a second in August. By then the pandemic had catastrophically increased the multilayered crisis. The word pándēmos combines the Greek word pán, ‘all,’ with the word dēmos, ‘people.’ The pandemic concerns all people: The virus doesn’t make exceptions. The word catastrophe arises from the Greek katastrophē, ‘to overturn.’ Thus, all people are needed to ‘overturn’ the catastrophe. One of the slogans used during the Thawra, kellon ya’ani kellon (‘all of them means all of them’), references ‘all.’ Here ‘all’ refers to the protesters’ demands that all politicians leave their positions: no exceptions.

The blast

On August 4, 2020, Beirut is subject to ‘one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in modern history,’ as Bel Trew, the Independent’s Middle East Correspondent puts it. The blast in Beirut’s port caused a state of emergency, rendering 300,000 people homeless and killing 193., However, movement-lawyer Karim Namour asserts, the state of emergency had been issued unconstitutionally and, in his opinion, provides the regime with a basis to ‘develop [an] architecture of oppression.’ On August 10 the Lebanese government resigns. In October 2020 many people continue to live in the shells of their homes – exposed, unsafe and hungry – visually revisiting by day and night the trauma caused by the blast. How does one cope with trauma, if one lives in an architectural skeleton? On the day that I wrote this sentence, Anastasia, who the reader will meet, texts, ‘high rises are just tiered skeletons framing the very blue Mediterranean.’ In Beirut, skeletons of buildings are a familiar sight for those who lived through the Civil War or whose families are exposed to intergenerational trauma.

On August 4 at 14:04 EEST, I had reached out via email to Beirut-based architect Anastasia Elrouss. I am in the USA. I wrote, ‘I hope this email finds you well despite challenging times.’ Four hours later, the explosion destroys Anastasia’s home and studio. On August 11, Anastasia responds; two days later we speak on the phone. We discover that we are both feminists, makers and thinkers. Anastasia has been fighting for gender equality in Lebanon with her NGO Warch(ée).Many women have been fighting for equal rights for a long time in Lebanon. While media coverage amplifies an increased participation of women in the Thawra, scholar Suad Joseph explains that ‘The activism of Arab women for political transformation is over a century old.’

After relocating from staying with family members, Anastasia shares that she slowly starts to find things again in her new home and adds, ‘we felt like we were ejected.’ Finding objects, it seems, acts as a remedy to having been ejected out of her life. On different continents, and under very different circumstances, Anastasia and I move on the same weekend. Are we both sitting on cardboard boxes as we talk?

Shattered Glass

I continue to watch footage gathered in the days after the explosion. Shattered glass fills Beirut’s streets at its heart: in the cultural centre of its vibrant body. Historically speaking, it was the heart’s condition, its beat, that determined whether an individual was considered to be alive. Looking at the images, I doubt that Beirut’s heartbeat can still be sensed. Transferring the idea of the heartbeat to a social system, such as a city, a beating heart is the pre-requisite of the ‘healthy’ development of a society, granting active citizenship rights to all its members to participate in the imagination of a human future. This sounds theoretical. Concepts won’t feed people.

The emergency in Beirut acts like a magnifying glass pushing intersectional gender inequalities into hypervisibility. As the magnifying glass hoovers over streets covered with shattered glass, these start to burn. ‘Who,’ asks Mona Harb, ‘can protect the public good when the state […] is ready to burn the grounds and the people in a place?’ As suggested in The New Yorker, fire had also been the drop that made the barrel overflow in October 2019, when, after a wildfire, protests ignited on October 17. Fire is one of the next images I see footage of in August 2020. As I look at footage, an email arrives. It contains the building instructions for pieces of fragmentable furniture to be built by women carpenter apprentices trained as part of Warchée’s new project Beirut Awiy(ée). It is NGO’s who, in Mona Harb’s words, ‘are trying to inform the process [of reconstruction] and make it more accountable and inclusive.’


I look at the instructions that Anastasia sent. Each furniture piece carry names evoking happiness and seems to inhabit two identities – e.g. the table can be a dining or a coffee table. The world breaks apart; people starve, and Anastasia’s designed table is called ‘pizza table’ and, as if this isn’t enough, she names a second table ‘chocolate table.’ I call her and order one with 80% cacao. We laugh, both knowing that, through humour, we try to cope with a scenario that is beyond what we can grasp. Meaning-making for Anastasia takes the shape of a pizza; it is drawn in fine lines, asserting the control of space and imagining what one can only dare to imagine from within: happiness. Family members – none killed – sitting around a table sharing food. Nobody eats pizza just to eat. Then again, her pen did not draw a table – it drew fragments that can ‘click’ into each other and within seconds be taken apart again – pizza, gone. Pack up the table, leave. Does the confrontation with death, just the thickness of a bathing suit’s fabric away, bring the desire to taste life?

Dominoes. See them hitting each other? Dominoes lined up, for hours, hands shaking. Poke the first one – collapsing time and space – the line of dominoes crumbles. Once fallen, the line is no longer orderly, dominoes fall left or right of it. How are the modules of the furniture connected I ask? Joints that hold is all that matters. Anastasia shares that the connection uses the domino principle, whereby a domino-shaped piece joins two pieces. Of, course, I think, it had to be dominoes. Couldn’t it have been a dovetail connection? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to have wings?

Hit by trauma, processes of meaning-making, shape survival. What’s left that’s not uncontrollable? A pen – drawing even when electricity is shut off – paper, lines tracing memories: pizza, chocolate, the afternoon at the beach with her baby that started late, because she couldn’t find a bathing suit that would fit. ‘I took an hour to look for a bathing suit; if I hadn’t left so late, I would have returned to the city earlier,’ Anastasia shares. The search for a bathing-suit, pizza, the ocean, waves pushing through bodies – the blast. A mother’s body at the beach when death hits the city. Anastasia’s meaning-making in lines, her pizza, does not make sense of a political system that one cannot make sense of. The pizza’s narrative is different, it is one on the other side of life, injecting (as opposed to being ejected) hope into the spatial fabric of a city that has collapsed, leaving offspring to inherit pain and dust. There’s no cell in a human body that doesn’t store trauma. How does pizza taste with trauma-drenched taste-buds?

The city’s veins

I watch footage. After the explosion, distinctive lines seem to run through Beirut like veins. Lines made of shields and brooms – aiming to ‘clean up’. Lines of brooms in the streets pushing, gathering and collecting glass splinters. Lines of shields pushing back demonstrators. Cracked lines in buildings everywhere. Lines also on the furniture plans that Anastasia sent. These lines, drawn with control, appear on coloured paper. All furniture pieces are collapsible, hybrid identities built and rebuilt from fragments; from modules. As I look at the brooms, the shields, and the lines on paper that divide furniture components, I start thinking about connections, joints, and pre-determined breaking points; meanwhile, Anastasia invites me to join her NGO and thus, invites my watching to become a doing. I think, ‘who am I to engage in this?’ I am an outsider, with embarrassingly little understanding of the multilayered crisis in Lebanon and with no possibility to even start to imagine life there. Another answer to her invitation is that I am who she has invited. I accept Anastasia’s invitation, understanding that we act toward strengthening women’s rights and reminding myself that the word pandemic suggests that it needs all.

I join Beirut Awiy(ée), Warchée’s newly founded project that will construct furniture for destroyed houses in the epicentre of the blast, thereby training women as carpenters. Rebuilding the city with, and by, women, constructing ‘200 chairs, 200 beds, 200 partitions and 200 wooden doors while coordinating directly and assessing the needs of the inhabitants of 40 selected houses on [Beirut’s] Gouraud Street and Arménie Street.

Women’s rights

The 2020 Global Gender Gap Index ranked Lebanon at 145 out of 153 countries. The implementation of gender transformative changes in Lebanon are slow and will, as the crisis increases, decline. Women’s impact-footprint in the economic and political sphere remains minute, and gender-inequality weaves through public life. Women’s economic contribution is kept small by structural mechanisms and patriarchal family laws, which are the fertile ground upon which intersectional oppression thrives.

During the 54th Middle East Studies Association Meeting in October 2020, Amaney A. Jamal emphasized that enabling women to solidify their position in society has to start with enabling women in the labour force. During the same session, economist Jennifer Olmsted stressed that women’s economics rights include freedom from economic vulnerability as a gendered concept. Rita Stephan, who chaired the panel drew attention to space, and stated that in feminist struggles, ‘space becomes an issue.’ If so, designing and constructing objects is a route to take up space and to define its form, by defining the shapes of objects structuring it and the function of building components, thereby also choreographing the movement of people through space. Questions arising here include who is in charge to signify space in Beirut and how do the design and names of the furniture re-imagine the city space? Important for addressing the questions is the relationship between joints and resistance.

Intersections: Wood and society

In carpentry, a joint between elements provides an object with strength, resistance and flexibility. At the same time, a joint might be the pre-determined breaking point of an object: protecting the object from being shattered. Joints are spaces that enhance the movement capacity and inner mobility of an entity. Joints need edges of components to fit into each other, or else a connective piece is needed. I am thinking about pre-determined breaking points in societies. A society without pre-determined breaking points that create the least damage to the whole, with the whole including all its parts, especially those vulnerable, is subject to being shattered. Without a designed breaking point, a structure is weak. What about those people who are sleeping in ruins? In these, acute trauma caused by the blast and the intergenerational trauma of the Civil War are intrinsically interrelated. They are not separable by fine lines; they cannot be taken apart along joints. Memory does not have intended breaking points.

I study the furniture sketches and realize the imaginary power for a better future that lies in their names. The pizza table references the round shape of the table’s top, the modules of which, are triangular pieces, like pizza slices. Contemporaneous to the prototype for the pizza table being built by the first women carpenter apprentices that Beirut Awiy(ée) trains, ‘families across Lebanon are bracing for an unfathomably bleak winter, where many will starve […]‘ As much as the furniture names insist on hope for a better future, in which no-one needs to starve or sleep in ruins, in the fragmentable furniture also lies the gesture of non-forgetting: a readiness to be on the move again, to carry one’s bed with oneself. In that sense, the fragmented pieces of furniture are perfect places of belonging during the Thawra, which seems soaked with ‘not-yet.’

Time reversed

Beirut seems to be caught between this ‘not-yet’ and an ‘over and over again.’ In October 2020, the co-founder of Warch(ée), Michèle Laruë-Charlus, visits Beirut. She and Anastasia drive through the city. As they pass a building structure, Michèle says, ‘Ah, they are building here.’ The building structure that she sees is not a construction site. It is a concrete structure remaining after the blast. The explosions cut into time; it created a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ At the same time, the blast reversed time in the building Michèle believes to be a construction site. As with so many buildings with a concrete structure, the structure that remains after the blast is the preliminary substructure that is erected first. Concrete is like the bones of a building, around which its flesh grows. Skeletons do not have a heartbeat. Concrete structures are the beginning and the end of buildings or, if thinking of the city as a people body, concrete structures are the first breath a building takes and after an explosion, they are the last. Concrete used in Beirut is produced in Lebanon and is thus one of the few building components of local origin. In this sense, concrete insists on a ‘here,’ amid the ‘not yet.’ This ‘here’ cannot provide shelter to the people of Beirut. As I write this169 sites in Lebanon, enter a third lockdown.

In Beirut, desire for ‘elsewhere’ rises. An increased number of people leave for good, some on unsafe boats towards Cyprus. The explosion unearths pain and exposes Beirut’s wounds – it also exposes its strength. Beirut Awiy(ée) means ‘Beirut is a strong city.’ While strength seems to inhabit the city’s every corner, ruptures do, too. Mona Harb, shares that ‘August 4 was a moment of rupture of hope’. Ruptures also seem to collide through time. On August 20, Lebanese writer Rasha Salti reports, that elderly victims of the current catastrophe when interviewed, demanded that all political leaders be disposed of at the landfill Normandy. During the Civil War, the area around the Hotel Normandy was used to dispose of garbage and corpses. In 1993 the hotel was demolished. Now it reoccurs as a memory site and as a site used to produce a stark image of justice being demanded. How can one make homes amidst such landscapes? How can one ‘re-animate’ homes after the death of 193 people? Where are the bodies of those still missing? What is a feminist response to the current developments?

To collapse and stand up, to re-join with others, as if forming one body, the population on one side and government forces on the other, to sweep through the city, to carry a shield – all of these images appear in front of my inner eye. What is it like to be outside of the revolutionary space yet to write about it? How can the NGO be a metaphor for processes needed? How can it facilitate writing in at time that Maya Mikadashi describes as ‘very difficult to write in this moment.’ Is it an option not to write?

The bunny

The first shared memory that Anastasia and I discover is the 1980s television commercial of the Duracell energy-bunny playing its drum long after all others stopped. Oblivious to the cut in its fur, exposing a Duracell battery to the viewer’s gaze, the bunny drums happily in solitude. The bunny is an image of the capability to continue going. I should continue writing and be held responsible for what I write. Creating joints and see if they can hold tension. Writing sentences. Spaces between paragraphs. Things are missing – remain disjointed.

How does the situation in Lebanon manifest itself through the memory-soaked objects inhabited, such as the ruins slept in and the furniture pieces built by women – furniture pieces that, in themselves, are vehicles to imagining futures entrenched with equality? Architecture in all its components is about reciprocal identity exposure. How – in a place that lives in a constant flux and exposes a tension between emplacement and unbelonging – can humans co-exist? How can societies be spatially organized in ways that enhance co-existence? How has the crisis increased gender inequality? Which forms of vulnerabilities can Beirut Awiy(ée) address? I stumble from one question into the next.

I remember a quote by Adriaan Theodoor Peperzak: ‘You surprise me by coming to me. Even if I invented you, your coming disturbs my world. Indeed, your entering in my dwelling place interrupts the coherence of my economy; you disarrange my order in which all things familiar to me have their proper place, function and time. Your emergence makes holes in the wall of my house.’ There are holes in my house. Now that there are, I am responsible to see and should be held responsible to act accordingly. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that: We are responsible for what we are doing and for what we are not doing. We are responsible for what we are doing with and against each other.

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Full Citation Information:
Rothmüller, N. (2020). Beirut: On the architecture of trauma and agency. PESA Agora.

Ninette Rothmüller

Solidarity researcher Ninette Rothmüller is a visiting scholar at the City University of New York and a committee director for the women’s rights NGO Warchée: Beirut Awiy(ée) in Lebanon. With a background in Cultural Studies, Social Work and Arts, her work is concerned with who humans are to, and with, each other under various circumstances, such as severe crises. Her work applies a gender perspective to the thematic areas of trauma, fear, and social solidarity.