On Rubble and Buried Meaning

Leyla El Sayed Hussein

Imad Kaafarani, Where Is It? Digital illustration, 2021.

“Tread softly;
For I believe the crust of this earth
Is nothing but the crumbled dust of these bodies
It is disgraceful of us, regardless of time,
To desecrate our fathers and forefathers”

-Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī [1]

There is no clear and documented historical context for the reasons that prompted al-Maʿarrī to write these verses. However, in the context of this text, the “crust” he refers to is central to the concept of ​​human burial as the skin that envelops the bodies of humans and animals alike. One cannot know for sure if this “crust” is inanimate or whether it is altogether intangible. Perhaps, it is both at once. One also wonders whether al-Maʿarrī’s prompt to tread softly was intended for the bodies of his forefathers or their legacy. Perhaps here again, it is both at once.

By attributing his human existence and immortality after death to the notion of the crust of the earth as an envelope and the act of burying, Al-Maʿarrī weighs not only on his ancestors, but also on his postmortal self. The time intervals here seem condensed into one: the poet views himself and his demise as part of the same accumulated crust through which he sees his ancestors. It is as if this backfill, or rather the crust it creates, undermines the meaning of time, permeating across the past, present, and future. It moves from one site to another, from one body to another –it does not wane.

This text focuses on amalgamating acts of backfilling, be they human remnants or architectural and urban rubble. Situating itself at the intersection of the tangible and the intangible, it discusses the ways in which this multifaceted concept of rubble can be employed as a tool to reclaim the right to the city[2] and to memory, through political activity, protest, and even literary production and consumption. Since language, like rubble, can build and be destroyed, one cannot compare the destruction of the urban fabric and the repression of memory without addressing the words employed in that process.

In this text, I discuss Al-Maʿarrī’s notion of backfilling along three stages. The first stage encompasses a better understanding of the buried rubble at the level of both the individual and collective unconscious. Seen as a primary catalyst of collective consciousness, this rubble can generate a political positioning by activating the intellectual and sensorial capacities necessary to the creative processes of meaning-making.

This generative ability is rooted in connecting with the historical realities of the city through a linguistic framework, given that self-discovery is ontological to the creation of language. In this way, a closer inspection of rubble can be a potent instigator for rebellion against the urban, political, social, and intellectual realities we are living. I refer to this first stage as buried rubble. The second stage, which I will call exposed rubble, brings an empirical or rather sensorial understanding of rubble and the various uses of its backfilling. A final stage assimilates these observations and employs them in the production of meaning and knowledge. Let us call this stage functional rubble. Taken together, these 3 stages –buried rubble, exposed rubble, and functional rubble– are an attempt to synthesize a theoretical and practical framework through which acts of backfilling can be confronted.

The Symbolism of Rubble: Perpetual Immortality and the Collective Unconscious

The cemeteries are far, sometimes close. Once there, we walk over the bodies of our ancestors, lying in the ground beneath us; a tombstone sits above, bearing the name of the dead. In the cemeteries, we mourn the departed and weep over the name the tombstone bears. In the cemeteries, we weep for the stone as well, the bones petrifying and fusing with it. The stone becomes an extension of our bodies, and we do hers.

 “When we dream of the house we were born in, in the utmost depths of revery, we participate in this original warmth, in this well-tempered matter of the material paradise.”[3] In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard defines the primary sensory material as being closely related to the primary non-sensory substance, “the original warmth”. We can thus conclude that the first backfill (at the level of the built fabric) lies at the center of the second (at the level of memory), and vice versa. That is, there is a symbiotic relationship between the two forms of rubble\backfilling in that the absence of either affects the other and modifies the foundations of its existence.

The reality of backfilling which startled Al-Maʿarrī is reflected in urban and architectural rubble, where it is impossible to separate between the intangible backfill of narratives, and the tangible one of buildings and the city. In spite of the symbiotic relationship that ties the two, rubble in its intangible form remains buried until it is confronted with its tangible counterpart; narratives thus remain embedded in memory until they are resurrected in the senses. The process is triggered by a sensorial confrontation of the rubble in familiar contexts, in spaces one has inhabited or can relate to, be they a partly destroyed house or architectural ruins.

Backfilling has two realities: the first is its lingering and overwhelming existence, where its dismantling is often more difficult than its creation. And the second is that it is both a byproduct and an extension of human intervention.

Rubble appears to be a constantly changing tool, one that reminds us of the ephemerality of the urban while maintaining the possibility of its manifestation in other forms beyond the apparent mortality of architecture. Constantly shifting paths that extend over many years, rubble is multifaceted. Despite its basis in ancient history, rubble was made an essential and present element in our contemporary world since the Industrial Revolution. The rubble stemming from the modern era is one of distinct nature, characteristics and meanings, the rubble discussed here specifically belongs to the modern age. I will focus on the backfill stemming from the modern era, one of distinct nature, characteristics, and meaning.

Industrial waste –such as concrete, glass, and domestic refuse– is no less an extension of humans than discarded bones and bodies. In fact, the narrative of rubble can be linked to the creation of Adam, the first human, out of dust. The name Adam is derived from Adeem, signifying the crust of the earth in semitic languages. This originary link between discarded refuse and the human body, is reflected in the fact that the notion of ​​defecation, or production of human waste, and its distribution to unknown places, is inscribed in the human psyche from childhood. A child reads the refuse they produce –that is their excretion–  as waste leaving the body, quickly disappearing from sight. The mystery surrounding this process is ingrained in the individual mind, finding its way into the collective subconscious. Our ignorance of the fate of the backfill we collectively experience is similar to that of waste we physically produce: it is assumed to disappear from sight the moment it emerges. This is why it can be called buried rubble.

This particular backfill has a special chronological narrative. One questions whether this form of rubble completely breaks down, in all its dimensions, the moment it disappears from sight; whether its rapid perceived dissolution necessarily implies a similar fate for its repercussions. In the context of architecture and the city, how do we explain the enduring memory of buried architectural rubble, the persistent memory of a house that was torn down, or a room that is no longer there? Usually the opposite is true: It is the quick disappearance of the architectural backfill/rubble that increases the value of the immortality of memory. Therefore, we need an exposed rubble which reveals the buried one.

Rubble as Political Tool

The Industrial Revolution brought about a significant acceleration in urban decay. We thus cannot compare the rubble generated by Modern buildings[4] with that of other buildings, because its historical characteristic is inseparable from its nature.

Describing Beirut, Dean Sharp observes tangible urban changes: “If you look today at the skyline of downtowns throughout the Middle East and beyond, the joint-stock corporation has transformed the urban landscape.”[5]

Based on this, along with the painful fact that corporations select the oldest, most immortal cities, only to convert them into clusters of skyscrapers, we can assert that reconstruction projects in these cities have contributed to the commodification of backfill. The rubble belonging to the reconstruction projects of the modern era is shaped in a purely capitalist mold.

To understand the policies employed by authorities and private companies to divert and often block the paths of the rubble they generate, one must revisit the three stages of backfilling: buried, exposed, and functional rubble. Authorities select urban spaces overflowing with historical, cultural, and architectural heritage, in order to destroy them. Consequently, the transformation of a buried backfill into an exposed backfill becomes almost impossible, leaving the memory buried without any material trace of it in the city. This is where the importance of reappropriating the right to the city and its memory becomes abundantly clear.

One way to fight this capitalist process is by publicly insisting that rubble derived from systematic destruction has a public function, and thus to refuse the commodification of rubble. The first part of this equation requires that we recognize that the rubble resulting from demolition and reconstruction is part of the tools and weapons we use in reclaiming the city.

On the night of October 17, 2019, Lebanon witnessed a widespread uprising, with the largest protests beginning in downtown Beirut, an area at the center of post-war reconstruction projects, which has, due to extensive backfilling, become foreign to its own inhabitants.[6] With its vast open piazzas atop buried histories, or rather buried memories, downtown Beirut is fertile ground for protests and confrontations with the security apparatuses of the system. Indeed, the urban clarity of these spaces –between backfilling and construction– is an ideal starting point for the act of rebellion.

The protests sometimes escalated into acts of vandalism aimed at storefronts and facades of luxury high rise buildings, symbols of the speculative economies that had so spectacularly come to a crash. Though this incited harsh criticism – largely from guardians of the system attempting to hold onto the crumbling symbols of power, it is important to note that demonstrators did not raid heritage buildings and sites, which have been intentionally backfilled and deliberately neglected by the government. Not only had the government commodified these semi-decrepit buildings and sites, it had also commodified their debris, leaving their structures dilapidated.

During the events of October 17, people went into the Grand Théâtre, and the Beirut City Center complex (known locally as “the Egg”), both buildings closed off to the public and neglected by the state for many years. It was as if the demonstrators, in their reducing –however mildly– of Solidere’s buildings into rubble, were aware of the importance of collective memory and the role of the hegemonic laws of the state in transforming the public sphere into rubble.

“It will all be in ruins”, a spray-painted statement covered the walls of the downtown, announcing a guiding equation in the process of reclaiming the city: using primitive tools to break down and convert Solidere’s “violent” buildings[7] into new rubble often repurposed as projectiles to fight police repression, all the while steering clear of heritage buildings. In doing so, protesters could begin to practice their right to the city in several forms and on multiple levels, perhaps the most prominent being stripping off the cladding of these cannibalistic buildings to expose the contents of their guts. This implies a clear decision to first convert “violent” architecture into rubble, followed by another decision to politically employ this backfill. French theorist Michel de Certeau described the present conjuncture as being “marked by a contradiction between the collective mode of administration and an individual mode of re-appropriation”[8]. In the particular case of the protests in Beirut, related to the activation of destruction in order to use commodified rubble as a means of defense and expression, these actions emerge as the most prominent patterns of collective re-appropriation in the face of a top-down administration of space.

Paving the Sea – Paving Language

In his 2011 novel “Paving the Sea”, Rashid al-Daif wrote:[9]

“Though, Faris Hashem’s path diverged from his lifelong friend Jurji Zaydan’s, they nonetheless decided to travel together with their colleague Amin Fleihan on the same day, and on the same ship to Alexandria … They were three young men from the American University [of Beirut]. None of them had ever traveled by sea.

In fact, most of them were seeing the sea for the first time; each joked about it in his own way, one of them wishing the sea were a plain to harvest potatoes…”[10] Al Daif continues to describe the varying perceptions of the sea: “Taken by the vastness of the sea, the villagers thought it impossible to “pave” it. According to Jurji Zaydan, countryside dwellers came up with the expression “to pave the sea”, to imply  the subject is not up to the challenge.”

The rubble described by Al-Daif reflects the barbarity of the idea of ​​paving or backfilling the sea, an act seen, at the time, as a great challenge. And so it must remain, because it is not compatible with human nature and urban growth.

The moment “paving the sea” became a possibility and the challenge became a reality was the moment brutality was born. Al-Daif links impossible ideas to impossible linguistic structures: the notion of “paving the sea”, leads the protagonists of the novel to an in-depth discussion about the current state  of the Arabic language.

Within my suggested structure of three forms of rubble/backfill, paving the sea is a barbaric act of functional backfilling with the ability to destroy everything in this trilogy, down to language itself. Had the sea been paved in the novel, would the saying “paving the sea” have appeared as a new linguistic structure? It should be clear by now that some brutal types of backfilling are an obstacle to linguistic creativity, blocking access to meaning, burying it under the paving of the sea.

Sometimes it is the sea that paves the city and swallows it. Though this image may seem brutal, it is in fact a return of rubble to its rightful place. A brutal and unnatural act, such as “paving the sea” traumatizes the unconscious mind.

In his novel “Berytus: An Underground City,” Rabih Jaber tells the story of a security guard at the Egg Building who descends into an underground world  and discovers an altogether other Beirut underneath the current one.[11] The guard tries to draw a map of Beirut in order not to lose his memory of the city, pointing to the importance of uncovering the buried city through both cartography and narration.

It did not occur to the guard to speak to the residents of buried Beirut about the city through oral narration, as if language was also non-existent in the subterranean city he had discovered. Here, once again, the relationship between urban rubble and language emerges, as if the rubble distorts the language, thereby disconnecting all meanings.

The Literature of the City

“As if the sea drowned the entire commercial center in this terrible storm, and besieged me all by myself in the “City Palace” cinema, which stands here on its own, unrestored since the time of its ruination.”[12]

Trauma and paving the sea go hand in hand. On the beach, children know that the sea remains the master of space even if they were to throw sand into it. They also know that if they build sand castles, the waves will eventually swallow them whole. The child knows that the sea cannot be backfilled, yet paving the sea seems to be an essential part of the formation of the individual subject and the collective trauma that revolves around our spatial relation to cities.

Systematic demolition is also an essential part of these successive traumas; by transforming the city into backfilled rubble, trauma remains confined by its traumatized owners. Rabih Jaber’s spatiotemporal choice comes as a convergence between a historically and politically buried city, the post-war commercial center, and the reconstruction policies imposed on the city. It is also a convergence between the City Center building and the sea avenging its own backfilling by burying the city in turn.

The two novels then seem to be possible translations of a political act that consists in exercising one’s right to reclaim urban rubble, as a model for archiving the city and preserving its memory.

This is the potential of linking linguistic and urban rubble, the sensory and the non-sensory, in a narrative that unfolds identity and place as realities lived in urban and literary imaginaries.

Translation: Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal.

[1]  “خَفّفِ الوَطْء ما أظُنّ أدِيمَ الـ      أرْضِ إلاّ مِنْ هَذِهِ الأجْسادِ

وقَبيحٌ بنَا وإنْ قَدُمَ العَهْـ                   ـدُ هَوَانُ الآبَاءِ والأجْدادِ”

 Translated by Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal.

Abū al-ʿAlāʾ Amad ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Sulaymān al-Tanūkhī al-Maʿarrī, 973 – 1057 AD, was a thinker and poet from the Abbasid era.

[2] “The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.”
David, Harvey. “The right to the city.” New Left Review 53 (2008): 23-40

[3] Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Beacon Press, 1994.P. 7.

[4] By modern architecture, I mean the late nineteenth century architecture, created as a reaction to the previous architectural types. Modern architecture was influenced by the industrial revolution at the level of construction processes and newly used tools, like concrete and glass. Modern architecture adopts the concept of architecture as function, as well as other concepts which led to making buildings belonging to the modern era more prone to decay, than constructions from other eras.

[5] Sharp, Deen Shariff. Corporate Urbanization: Between the Future and Survival in Lebanon. A dissertation submitted to the Graduate Faculty in Earth and Environmental Sciences in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, The City University of New York. 2018. p.5

[6] The events of October 17, 2019 are a series of demonstrations and included several confrontations between protesters and the Lebanese security forces. These events spanned from 2019 to 2020.

[7] By “violent” buildings I mean the buildings erected on heritage and archaeological sites or those which were deliberately demolished.

[8] De Certeau, Michel. The practice of everyday life. Translated by Steven Rendall from French to English. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1984. P97

[9] Rashid Al-Daif is a Lebanese novelist, poet, and academic, born in 1945

[10] Translated by Sassine Kawzalli and Jana Nakhal

[11] Rabih Jaber, Lebanese novelist and journalist, born in 1972

[12]  جابر، ربيع. بيريتوس مدينة تحت الأرض. ص 20