“Debt, Waste, and Labor: Theorizing the Beirut Urban Condition” – Interview with Elizabeth Saleh, American University of Beirut

Beirut’s ongoing infrastructural crisis is rather underrepresented in the international media. Would you agree with this?

Yes, to a certain extent, I do agree. At first glance, the current situation might be seen as just more of the same infrastructural breakdown that residents across Beirut and, actually, Lebanon at large have endured for many decades. In fact, I think it is safe to say that at least some well-established international news outlets do report on electricity blackouts and water shortages that occur in the country.

For example, I recall that Lebanon made headline news in some English and French newspapers during the 2015 garbage crisis. This was when garbage was left strewn across the Beirut and in villages towns in the mountains above. Weeks earlier, the landfill in the Naameh region, closed down. Located south of the capital, this sanitary landfill had long since reached its capacity. For local protestors, the closure of Naameh was a success. However, with nowhere to put it, waste was either left to rot and stew on the streets of Beirut or dumped into the ravines and rivers traversing through the Mount Lebanon district. At the time, a lot of activists took to the streets, with the “YouStink” campaign perhaps being one of the better-known groups. For many, this particular infrastructural crisis brought into sharp focus a certain kind of “garbage politics.” This is the intimate relationship between infrastructural breakdown and corruption amongst the country’s political elites. Costa Brava, Lebanon by Mounia Akl is a film set in the future which tackles some of these themes. Costa Brava is also the name of one of the three landfills created following the closure of Naameh in 2015. Located not far from the country’s international airport, one can get a waft of Costa Brava just before taking off or landing.

In this regard, I would say that Lebanon, and perhaps, Beirut in particular, is especially covered especially in terms of infrastructural crisis. Another prevalent image typically portrayed in the international media is that of the kind of humanitarian crisis that comes out of war. For instance, the Lebanese Civil War which was from 1975 until 1991.

Within the last decade, the colossal displacement of Syrians has taken center stage in much of the reporting in the region. Lebanon shares a border with Syria. There has been much movement of people across this border, with many Syrians pushed into exile on account of oppressive and violent regime. Yet the complexities of such forced migration are hardly discussed in the media.

Crucially, the situation in Lebanon today does not fit neatly into either category of infrastructural breakdown or humanitarian predicament – although both kinds of crises are escalating. Since 2019, a financial crisis began to unfold. It continues today and with devastating effects.

In 1997, the Lebanese Lira was pegged to the dollar at a rate of 1500 LL to one dollar. It was an attempt to stabilize the economy not just in the aftermath of the long drawn out civil war. The currency devaluation arguably had links to a series of banking crises, including the collapse of the Intra Bank in 1966. This was a bank that facilitated the circulation of petrodollars across the region. Following its restructuring in the 1980s, it became known as the Intra Investment Company. I read somewhere that the Lebanese Central Bank invested heavily into the company.

With the peg in 1997, the currency value did not fluctuate much. In the country, we could use dollars and liras intermittently. And in fact, we could also open bank accounts in dollars and liras. Pertaining to the dollar accounts, banks offered extensive loans. Eventually the cracks began to show due in part to a dollar scarcity – there were more debts than credits in dollars inside the country.

Around the same time, people descended into the streets and squares, blocking roads and burning tires. This has come to be known by some as the October 2019 uprising. Fed up with political elites, corruption, and the general breakdown of infrastructures, people chanted things like “kiloun yaani kiloun,” which can be translated into English as “all means all of them” referring to the fact that there was no exception to the rule. All politicians who have been in power since at least the civil war, but arguably since the concept of modern Lebanon were deemed as corrupt and had to go. In many ways, the garbage crisis of 2015 was a precursor to this moment in 2019.

During the uprisings, banks closed temporarily claiming lack of security. But I think that most knew that the post-civil war house of cards was about to come tumbling down. Although I don’t think many knew the extent. According to the Foreign Policy, Lebanon’s political elite transferred up to $6 billion abroad during this period. Meanwhile, regular depositors were unable to access much of their savings in dollars, never mind transfer it abroad. Dollar accounts were more or less frozen­. Depositors could get their dollars in liras at a rate slightly higher than the peg. These dollars came to be known as “lollars.” Hyperinflation is currently, I think, at more than 130%. Bank accounts in Lebanese Liras therefore lost 130% purchasing power – although, arguably more. As I write, the Lebanese Lira is trading in the black market at 90,000LL to the dollar. Last week it was 80,000.  

Most people currently live without electricity because the Lebanese state has been unable to provide any. The so-called generator mafia charge extortionate rates that few can afford. Most of these privately-run generator enterprises demand payment in dollar cash. A lot of people do not have access to water because pumps cannot work without electricity. Most recently, there are cholera outbreaks across the country. Malnutrition is on the rise because food prices have increased by 400%. Public schools have either shut down or remain closed for a long period of time.  Anyway, I don’t think I need to continue to elaborate on the compounded effects of the country’s financial collapse. The current crisis, which some call a “collapse,” might be difficult to cover extensively by the international media because it is just so complex. I also imagine that it is the kind of crisis that lays to bear the contradictions that underpin many debt-driven political economies around the world.

What would be your story of this crisis? In your take, how much of this story is Lebanon specific, and how much is it part of wider tendencies (in view of the much-grown popularity of infrastructure as a topic of urban social research)?

I began fieldwork with Syrian underage waste pickers based at a small scrapyard in 2015. This was a few months after the 2015 garbage crisis. Their labor buttresses, engages, and becomes entangled with Beirut’s infrastructures as well as different economies of recycling and their supply chains. One of their main objectives out across the city is to salvage scrap metal. The scrap metal industry is an important one in Lebanon, with scrap copper and iron being two leading exports.

My study of the lives of young waste pickers situates the issue of labor and value within the contexts of urban infrastructures and economies of recycling. Here I ask, what are the potential repercussions of the devolution of labor from infrastructures due to profit-driven recycling enterprises at global and national levels? Such consequences are not only in relation to the social and material politics of infrastructural assemblages but also pertaining to the marginalization of labor within critical infrastructural studies. As such, my insistence to focus on the labor of migrant waste pickers rather than on citizenship per se offers crucially needed insights into the differentiated statuses that transpire vis a vis infrastructural provisioning. Doing so raises a final question pertaining to the ambivalent status of undocumented migrant workers, such as waste pickers whose provisioning services are essential for the infrastructural survival of the city itself. How to understand the complex interplay of so-called migrant and host communities as their lives become heavily entangled and co-dependent?

In a country like Lebanon, with a splintered waste management system, it is perhaps no surprise that profit making in the circular scrap economy requires the movement of material through export. And that, at the same time, the local scrap metal industry relies heavily upon informal workers. Yet the disparities between the free flow of material and the restricted movements of people is hardly specific to Lebanon. The global scrap metal industry – like with other economies of recycling – utilise models such as Material Flow Analysis (MFA) that focuses its scope of analysis exclusively on materials rather than on human sustainability. As such industrial ecological models strive to adhere to neoclassical economic logic, where the essential role of labor is almost entirely overlooked.

With Lebanon’s long historical legacy of a laissez-faire political economy, the marginalisation of waste work has also come to be entangled with the legacies of the civil war (1975-1992) as well as post-civil war neoliberal and financialised adjustments. Rita Jarrous, a graduate student working with me at AUB, has conducted invaluable fieldwork documenting the life histories of sanitary waste workers employed during the 1980s by the Beirut municipality and those hired by private waste companies in the post-civil war 1990s era. Her research will culminate in her thesis and, quite possibly some articles that examine the long shifting infrastructural terrain of Beirut.

Often infrastructural crises are equated with state crises. Would you agree with this from Beirut’s perspective? Would you recognise non-state actors who now tend to take the state functions?
I find it useful to think about Beirut’s infrastructures in terms of increasing fragmentation. I draw broadly from the work of Graham and Marvin who talk about the splintering of urbanism as a process through which access to different infrastructural networks become more disparate. In Lebanon, these disparities are ever more apparent in light of the financial crisis. Some people have profited immensely from the devaluation of the Lebanese currency. They are sometimes described as the “fresh class” as they are somehow earning large amounts of “fresh dollars” circulating outside the collapse financial system. Most people live without electricity. Some pay for twelve to thirteen hours of electricity from the generator mafia. A very small portion – the “fresh class” – live with 24-hour electricity.

This fragmentation which is as much social as it is infrastructural was also apparent before the start of the 2019 financial crisis. This is why there are waste pickers, such as the boys I worked with. They are very much situated inside Beirut’s informal economies but nevertheless contribute to the national economy and feed into broader economies of recycling. In this vein, on the one hand, I understand the weariness amongst certain scholars about analytical binaries such as that between formal and informal. This is especially in light of how the notion of the informal is deployed as a term by certain organizations to describe what should be formalized. Thinking through the distinction between formal and informal economies through anthropological lens however permits us to reflect upon the kinds of politics at stake.

Across the city of Beirut, different political parties extend their clout through networks that patrol and oversee different neighborhoods. They surveil and monitor the area. They also might mediate on behalf of different residents with the electricity mafia or the private water companies. These men are ultimately informal security officials who also manage and control the provisioning of so-called public services. As such, governance in Lebanon typically operates beyond bureaucratic institutions that often understood to unpin a state’s apparatus. Although, I have to say that bureaucracy is quite an intricate maze in the country!

Finally, alongside informal workers such as waste pickers or the street security officials, there are many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) established to tackle different infrastructural breakdowns. Some are doing very important work. However, with an overall absence of any integrated infrastructural vision in the country, or indeed, in the world at large, they have their work cut out. In the meantime, cities like Beirut will continue to splinter and disparities grow.

Do you think about some comparable cases, helping to locate Beirut and Lebanon in more theoretical discussions? In your take would any comparison be fruitful?

This is an important question. I am glad you asked it! Comparison is very fruitful and allows for us to move beyond reductionist forms of the case study approach. Although the kind of case study which came out of the Manchester School of anthropology was anything but based on exceptionalism. Scholars in that school sought out ways to understand the kinds of crises that surfaced during the somewhat early postcolonial periods. For instance, how to understand the kinds of rural to urban migrations that took place in light of the emergence of newly independent states? In this regard, the case studies are important – and I don’t want to do away with them. I am trying to think about Beirut’s scrap economies in ways that rescale case studies, and the anthropological project more broadly. This is so that there is, in the words of anthropologist Sophie Chevalier, a much stronger embrace with “world history in the making, through the life histories and journeys.”

On a broader conceptual level, I am interested in thinking through the restructuring of informal economies and urban infrastructures in cities as cosmopolitan and fragmented as Beirut. This is in light of a world moving fast towards a potentially new era of capitalism, one framed by finance conjoined with an increasing shift inward– perhaps even toward a form of national capitalism.

Rather crucially, waste infrastructures and economies of recycling are useful ways to think through such urban related issues. I am thinking here of scholars such as Minh Nguyen who documented the lives of waste workers who migrated from rural Viet-Nam to more urbanized districts, demonstrating their complex status as part of city waste infrastructures. Meanwhile Rosalind Fredericks’ study in Dakar, Senegal has brought to fore critical insights for infrastructural studies[3]. One important strand of her research shows how waste labor moves into categories not necessarily deemed as work per se –– for example, in terms of citizen participation. Both such ethnographic accounts shed important light upon what I mentioned earlier on, which is the kinds of politics at stake. This is not just when urban infrastructures start to splinter. The point is that most kinds of infrastructures, and perhaps particularly those across much of the global south, are always but together in ad hoc ways. At stake for us scholars then, is that particular moment of study and the kinds of comparisons we can draw.

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