Rubble (ر.د.م)

Public Works

Backfilling (Radm) as a Process of Rewriting History

[Burying – backfilling – obliterating – erasing – blinding – silencing]

A farmer once recounted to  me that the word “kfar”, found in the names of many villages (such as KfarKila, KfarNabrakh, and others), stems from the belief that the act of planting seeds is blasphemous (kufr): when the peasant sows, s/he “backfills” the grain in soil. Although sowing is a life-creating process, as the grain produces other grains, the initial burial of the seed kills it before enabling it to give life. Though the farmer’s anecdote is likely not true, given that most etymological sources agree that the word “kfar” comes from the Aramaic word for farm, It does however, get at our core premise: the notion of backfilling, not as an act of creation, but as a process of killing, obliterating, burying, and forgetting. 

Backfilling is the act of refilling a site with rubble. In Arabic, the same root word radm can designate rubble when used as a noun or backfilling when conjugated as a verb. But what are the multiple connotations of radm (backfilling) as a double entendre? How do we choose to backfill some things and leave others, and what happens when one backfills? 

To speak of backfilling is to address a historical act, which is to say, a process that aims to change a historical narrative beyond its current value, to historicize it differently through collective memory, urban planning, and spatial transformation. In our own text and throughout the subsequent five contributions, radm is a material process aimed at erasing the other’s history, narrative, self, and place. Three recurring questions structured our conversations with the invited contributors: what do we backfill, with what, and why?

What is backfilled in the Lebanese reality begins with our cities, villages, valleys, and sea; and moves to our history, collective memory, and daily lives, with the intention to create privatized spaces for a real estate market able to compete with major cities in the region. Women, the missing of the war, refugees, and migrant workers are backfilled, as is the rubble of the pain and trauma of the disasters we experience. War crimes, their history and memory, their location and language are backfilled, along with their resulting devastation. Low income neighborhoods are backfilled, along with the history and the daily lives that inhabit them. Everything that is deemed unproductive and useless is backfilled, like those who have lost a leg, hand, or eye in the war. Political deals and agreements are swept under the rug, and suppressed is the right of people to decide upon the fate of their cities, regions, and history —which is to say their right to choose what they want to backfill and what they want to hold onto. Finally, what is repressed is what is not to be heard, seen, known, or felt. From this standpoint backfilling is an anti-archiving process, a false historiography. Those in positions of power backfill to protect themselves from what could hurt them: their memories, the crimes they committed, the victims of these crimes and any proof of their occurrence. They backfill what they deem shameful, so as  to remain in power. They backfill evidence of a truth different than the one they desire,  so as to open a path to absolute truths.

Through these varying acts of backfilling and the motivations that engender them, we will tend to three ideas: the backfilling of narrative, shame as a cause of backfilling, and backfilling as a mechanism for communal conspiracy. These three ideas explore the relationship between the city, its people; and the political, economic, social, and spatial implications of the process of radm or backfilling.

Backfilling Narrative and Space

Hegemonic power backfills the people and their city, to conceal its own history and hide the traces of its actions. While we do not see backfilling as the only way to hide the past, silence people, or control a narrative, it is certainly one of the more powerful mechanisms to achieve those goals, particularly through the instrumentalization of planning and reconstruction projects.

Within the practice of backfilling space and narrative, we can observe three kinds of operations that have occurred and continue to take place since the beginning of the Civil War: first is the process of dumping domestic and toxic waste throughout the mountainous regions of Lebanon – a practice which constitutes a huge source of income for the country’s warlords.[1] The second is the process of seaside land reclamation using the remains of the destroyed and burnt city.[2] These two cases are directly related to capital accumulation, as backfilling becomes a quasi-renewable source of profit in the hands of the dominant class who concocted a way to produce prime real estate for free.[3] These two processes converge with a third kind of burial, an emotional backfilling of the missing, the wounded, and victims of the war and the possibility of socio-political reckoning with the memories and narratives of the War.[4]

Seen in this way, burying rubble is a silencing mechanism which aims to enforce amnesia by concealing marginalized groups in the dark corners of collective history, so as to allow for the production of an immaculate and singular historical narrative. Through this kind of backfilling, untold narratives remain suppressed and hushed, buried under layers of silence, fear, and intimidation, not unlike a mass grave. What is not narrated, however, does not disappear. Rather, it swells inside the hole it has been forced into until the day it must resurface. The backfilling of these various forms of collective memory is a suppression of a diversity of narratives pertaining to women, refugees, urban and rural poor, and displaced communities who have spent a lifetime in Beirut but will always be perceived by the state as parasites invading the capital from the periphery.[5] In this regard, this actnot only operates at the level of the content of these narratives, but also changes their language and signifiers.

We can analyze the workings of the dominant class through Jacques Lacan’s work: the hegemon as Big Other, writes history and decides upon the language with which we might rationalize it, narrate it, and redact it. The Big Other tells us what of this history is to be buried and what is to be kept alive. He tells us that the Civil War is to be referred to as a series of “events” (ahdath, a word used by the majority of Lebanese to refer to the Civil War), that we should not talk about it, that we should continue our lives as if it did not happen, that the missing disappeared and that we are not to look for them, and that the city we live in is the best of what we deserve.

Beyond narrative and language; the sea, the defunct railway path, the old city, and its ruins are also backfilled; not to mention refugee camps, poor urban neighborhoods, and sites where massacres occurred. In other words, what is being backfilled is a collective identity carried in space.[6] And since this common space has been destroyed, the weight of memory becomes heavier on us than the obliterated act.[7] Through the act of radm, feelings transform into spatial phenomena: grief, shame, guilt, oppression, and injustice are reflected in space, embedded, encoded, and encrypted in it. These feelings are experienced in space, they sculpt and shape the confronted, imagined, and represented relationships that inhabit it[8]. These backfilled places become part of the geography of guilt and shame, resulting from our desire to completely remove them from our memory – a desire shared by the dominant class and we as a people, defeated or otherwise.  

Backfilling shame

Shame is simultaneously the result of backfilling andits very cause. In his text on the theory of sexuality, Sigmund Freud links shame to an act that requires repression: what was once a source of pleasure now brings shame and must therefore be suppressed. The war itself and its battles and massacres, which were once a source of joy, pride, and glory for party leaders became a source of post-war embarrassment. In a television interview, Walid Jumblatt admitted to the massacres committed by his political party during the War. In a speech about his political foes, the Lebanese Forces, in a tone that betrayed a sense of shame for his actions, Jumblatt claimed “they invaded and we invaded”.[9] Subsequently rejecting any admission of wrongdoing and sense of shame, he posed the question: “Who said that there are clean wars and unclean wars?” Feeling fragile and exposed by the scandal, the hegemon could not allow himself to appear vulnerable .

From the memory of the Civil War to the built reality of the city, the dominant class’s crime is inscribed in our history through the very projects of the ruling elite. Backfilling therefore becomes necessary, not only to conceal crimes they committed, but also as a mechanism for future amnesty. In Lacanian terms, backfilling is comparable to the Totem and Taboo: in order to remain in power in the aftermath of its crime, and permanently secure its position, the dominant class must conceal its actions.[10] Concealing the truth in this way takes on added importance, as the initial crime would have been in vain if left exposed. The visibility of the crime would debilitatethe dominant class and hinder its power. Backfilling is therefore intrinsically linked to the consolidationof power in the hands of the dominant class.

The Linord project north of Beirut, the Landfill north of Bourj Hammoud, the Beirut landfill, which became the “Biel” project, the Costa Brava landfill, Naameh and Sidon, all started as bad solutions to long-time problems. But these kinds of projects would become very convenient solutions to generate capital for the dominant class, and shielding them —along with their histories—from public debate became essential for the perpetuation of the authority of the warlords.[11] This sort of repression is evidentin the Lebanese media for instance, especially in talk shows and political discussion programs which continue to build collective amnesia through the creation of a parallel reality seemingly unaware of the Civil War and its consequences.[12]

In his research on the backfilling operations in Beirut, Eric Verdeil advances the relationship between money and power, explaining how political economy constitutes an essential entry point for understanding the reality of backfills in Lebanon.  He writes that the cost of stabilizing and reinforcing the “Biel” backfill to make it resistant to tsunamis, amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars paid by the Lebanese state to the sole benefit of Solidere—given that the area became the company’s property at no cost.[13] There is little doubt then, that backfilling is a source of income financing the dominant class’s grip on power.

Backfilling as a Collective Conspiracy

Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1973 short story about a fictional city, Omelas, begins with a detailed description of its early summer festival.[14] The beautiful city, as colorful and wide, as open and spacious as its myriad public spaces, would receive waves of women and men of all ages and trades. Even the snow-covered mountains that surrounded the city would be visible on that dazzling summer morning. Little by little, the signs of an ideal city emerge before readers’eyes, with pagesdescribing in detail the emotions, situations, and the kinds of things that one may come across in Omelas. After Le Guin builds up in the reader the desire to pack up to leave for Omelas, she reveals that under the most exquisite building in the entire city, in a room without windows, lies a child. A girl or boy, aged six or ten, lives in a small room filled with his/her own feces.No one visits him/her except to give him/her food. Children look at him/her, inspecting him/her with disgust. 

“They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. They all know that it has to be there. They all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.”

Omelas parents begin explaining this issue to their children from as early as the age of eight. Children go through the phases of trauma, rejecting the situation at first, and seeking to help him/her. But taking out this child to the sun, cleaning it, giving it warm clothes, feeding it and patting it on the shoulder, would be enough to destroy the lives and happiness of the people of the city. “The terms are strict and absolute; there may not even be a kind word spoken to the child.” 

Then something momentous begins to happen, writes Le Guin, every once in a while after visiting the child, a girl or a boy would disappear. They would not return home; simply leaving the city and never returning. “The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”    

The premise of Le Guin’s short story resembles the collective shame we bear in the face of the Civil War, of the killing, the backfilling of the sea, and the resulting devastation. Like a collective conspiracy of sorts, what has happened since the end of the war is similar to what Le Guin described. A collective denial of the suffering of a minority, and a heavy silence that envelops the missing, the families of victims, those who suffered loss of rights and land… to preserve the comfort of the majority.  

The war on the Nahr al-Bared campis a case in point. Fourteen years on, after fifteen weeks of battles, 47 civilians killed, the near complete destruction of the camp, the displacement of more than 30,000 of its residents, and the complicated status of their return resulting from delays in the reconstructionprocess; the crimes of Nahr al-Bared remain completely forgotten and the suffering of its people silenced. The Nahr al-Bared war has all but disappeared from the media and political discourse.

Writing on the siege of Nahr al-Bared camp, Samer Abboud recounts the uprooting of residents and the long-term impact caused by the war, the loss of housing, and entire neighborhoods of the camp.[15] Experiences that have been omitted from the tragic narratives of suffering endured by the peoples of the region as a whole. In this sense, the Nahr al-Bared war never happened, and its victims are nonexistent. The collectivememory has excluded this event from its historiographyso that the majority of the population maylive without guilt, without questioning the reasons behind this war, or the disproportionate actions of the Lebanese Army, in their complete annihilation of the camp for the sake of hunting down handfuls of armed men.

We have worked in this issue on approaching “backfilling” from a variety of angles, each enriching our conception of backfilling as a political, socio-economic, and spatial process. In addition to it being a historical tool used to erase, silence, obscure, conceal, obliterate and sacrifice many communities in exchange for the happiness of one; it remains a means to accumulate profit for the few at the expense of the majority, as capitalist law dictates. 

The issue unfolds across five articles. First, Karim Sadek writes about backfilling from a philosophical standpoint, proposing to end the ongoing radm of our history. Then, Leila El-Sayed Hussein writes about backfilling the layers of the city, while Eric Verdeil presents a paper on the backfilling undertaken by political parties in rural and urban parts of Lebanon. Our fourth contributor, Dalia Al-Khamisy, shares her experience as a photographer working with the families of missing persons in Lebanon. Our final contributor Thurayya Zreik provides an anthropological and psychological reading of the consequences of backfilling on the most marginalized groups.

In our region where people die, crushed day after day, under mundane or acute layers of disenfranchisement, impoverishment, deprivation, amnesia, and silence; it is imperative that we understandbackfilling as an erasure of our extended selves across space, narrative, history, and language. Between the moment of the event and the present, between sea and city, there are spaces that we have the right to discover and come to know. Backfilling such spaces is designed to prevent communities from knowing of them and making use of them. In this denial lies some deceitfulness and a profound injustice.

Jana Nakhal of Public works

Translation: Alia Al Rosan – Haig Aivazian – Lori Kharpoutlian


[2]Haugbolle, S. (2011). The historiography and the memory of the Lebanese civil war. Online encyclopedia of mass violence, 5.

[3]Verdeil, É. (2017). Des déchets aux remblais: imaginaire aménageur, corruption et dérèglements métaboliques à Beyrouth.

[4]Jaquemet, I. (2009). Fighting amnesia: Ways to uncover the truth about Lebanon’s missing. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 3(1), 69-90.

[5]Larkin, C. (2010). Beyond the war? The Lebanese postmemory experience. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 615-635.

[6]Haugbolle, S. (2005). Public and Private Memory of the Lebanese Civil War. Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East25 (1), 191-203.

[7]Vanolo, A. (2020). Shame, Guilt, and the Production of Urban Space. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520942304.

[8]Vanolo, A. (2020). Shame, Guilt, and the Production of Urban Space. Progress in Human Geography, 0309132520942304.

[9]For more details:

[10]Building on the Freudian story of the Totem, Jacques Lacan proposes a reading of the relationship to the father, where the patriarch – holder of power and property, including land and women- is killed by the sons, for them to have access to power and property. but in order for them to create the perfect murder, they eat the father, so that first his power runs through them, and that their crime is equally distributed amongst each and every one of them, thus making sure the crime will be kept a secret. In this story, the guilt of the crime is shared, and so is hiding it. 

[11]For more details on such projects in Lebanon:

[12]Dib, A. (2019). The Un (Civil) War: Media Framing and Memory Construction in Wartime and Postwar Lebanon (Doctoral dissertation), pp. 36-44.     

[13]Verdeil, É. (2017). Des déchets aux remblais: imaginaire aménageur, corruption et dérèglements métaboliques à Beyrouth.

[14]Le Guin, Ursula K. “The ones who walk away from Omelas.” Evil and the hiddenness of God (1973): 23-26

[15]Abboud, S. (2009). The Seige of Nahr Al-Bared and the Palestinian Refugees in Lebanon. Arab Studies Quarterly, 31-48.