THE CASE OF SOUK AL AHAD, BEIRUT
* Excerpt, full article published on Jadaliyya.com
Beirut’s weekend market Souk al-Ahad attracts about thirty-five thousands visitors a day and has four hundred registered stalls, providing a living to five thousands families. It is located on the eastern edge of the city near its river and a highway (Figure 1). Beyond the physical collection of stalls, vendors, and affordable goods, the Souk is also the locus of a long conflict over land ownership between the Ministry of Energy and Water and the municipality of neighboring Sin el-Fil. In the case of Souk al-Ahad, “the state” that designates what is legal or illegal is not a unified front. Rather, two public bodies belonging to the state employ the designation of a space as legal or illegal as a tool to advance their own interests. In turn, just because the actors are related to “the state”, their interests cannot simply be termed “public.”
As we will show, there are significant private interests at stake in the conflict, as well as various struggles over the very meaning and limits of what/who constitutes “the public.” These interests include: i) the connection between the private actors exploiting the Souk, and the Minister who licensed them to exploit this public land, ii) racist and nationalist concerns about Syrian refugees, and iii) possible interest in the land because of nearby real estate developments that have led to skyrocketing prices of land (this last factor is not confirmed, but is expected given the many connections between real estate developers and politicians, see Achkar, 2011 and Leenders, 2012). Literature on urban informality has observed that the state’s power to designate what is legal or illegal often functions as a tool for the management of urban space (Roy, 2009b). The (il) legality—and its counterpart: (in)formality—of urban spaces is thus seen not as an inherent, absolute quality but rather a flexible tool that can be employed to serve the state’s interests. Our story complicates the narrative of homogeneous public state actors using legal/illegal designations as instruments of urban management, and also questions an understanding of state-owned, non-buildable land as supposedly serving the public good.
Moreover, our story will shed light on divisions existing within the Souk itself, moving away from simplistic representations of the market as a homogeneous collective space. Social divisions amongst the vendors have become far more acute since the influx of Syrian refugees over the past three years, with one group of vendors accusing another of being “illegal” and “foreign.” This phenomenon adds a layer of social conflict to a space whose legal foundations are already contested, thus further complicating the dispute. Many of our interviewees spoke of the existence of two separate overlapping interlocking markets within the Souk, divided by the claimed legal status and social identities (and type of goods and prices) of their vendors. This article will explore the relationships between these two markets, and explain why the Souk’s exploiters, vendors and state actors perceive them as separate entities...