Refugee Hosts local researcher, Leonie Harsch, has encountered an archive of photos during her extensive mapping of the Hamra neighbourhood in Beirut. In this piece, Leonie reflects on some of these photos, which form the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi, as a way of approaching questions of hospitality, refugee-host encounters and ‘the local’. In particular, these photos capture something of Hamra’s recent history – as both a place that has been shaped by conflict, but also by overlapping displacements: of Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis and Lebanese. The fact that these photos are themselves ‘hosted’ in a space where refugees and hosts can receive some form of support provides a poignant example of the role that heritage and archives can and often do play in framing refugee wellbeing. The Refugee Hosts project will be further exploring notions of ‘heritage’ in more detail through the ‘Moving Objects’ project, as well as the ongoing analysis of interviews, workshops and field notes. If you find this piece of interest, please also see the suggested readings at the end of this piece for more.

Historical Photos of Hamra, Beirut

By Leonie Harsch, Refugee Hosts local researcher

Michel Bekhazi is a Mukhtar in Hamra, one of several elected local civil servants in the area of Ras Beirut, of which Hamra is a part. Residents of the neighbourhood come to his office in order to register newborns, renew their passports, or issue death certificates. The Mukhtar offers his administrative services to anyone living in the area, including refugees – provided that they have a valid residency permit. The office is located on the ground floor, with a window front opening towards a patio around which a few clothing and phone stores are grouped.

Passing by the office, I noticed that it hosts an extensive collection of historical photographs of the neighbourhood, offering glimpses into how the streets and architecture have changed through the decades. With the Mukhtar’s kind permission, I was allowed to take pictures of this living archive. Meanwhile, the office’s secretary generously shared anecdotes and explanations relating to the photographed locations, offering a narrative of the area’s history that resonates with what several groups of people have been telling me in the course of the field research: drawing on her memories, she described how Hamra, before and during parts of the Lebanese civil war, was Beirut’s cosmopolitan centre, a multi-confessional space characterised by its nightlife and debates in sidewalk cafés, bars, and cinemas. This started to recede with the war and its aftermath.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The following series of images features impressions from the times of the Ottoman Empire through the period of French Colonialism and until the middle of the twentieth century. These photos are a record of the neighbourhood’s past which residents of Hamra, hosts and refugees alike, encounter in their daily lives when seeking services from the Mukhtar. They invite reflections on how the area of Hamra has urbanised and physically changed – while some part of the past remains hosted in the space of the office. As such, this photo collection relates to the Refugee Hosts project’s focus on history and memory as central elements of the dynamics shaping contemporary experiences and perceptions of hosting. The Refugee Hosts project will be exploring this in more detail through the exhibition ‘Moving Objects’, due to take place in early 2019.

Historical view from the sea over the Rawche rocks and Ras Beirut, including the area of Hamra, undated. The glass mirrors parts of the Mukhtar’s photographic archive of the neighbourhood. A Lebanese flag in the corner of his office reminds of his role as local civil servant. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
Close up of the view over Rawche and Ras Beirut. The glass reflects a local resident who came to the Mukhtar’s office for some paperwork. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
An alley through a cactus field in the place of today’s Hamra Street, in 1898. It has transformed into one of Beirut’s main streets, lined with local stores, cafés, and restaurants as well as branches of global food and fashion retail chains. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
View over the neighbourhood with Bliss Street and the American University of Beirut, undated. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
The new entrance of the American University of Beirut during its construction in 1902. The American University, founded in 1866, was the first of several universities which are located in and around Hamra today. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
View on Bliss Street next to the American University of Beirut with a tram that used to pass through the street until the mid-1960s, undated. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
Lighthouse with the sea in the background, undated. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
Abdel Aziz Street with a hospital on the right, undated. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
View on to the main street of Hamra in the 1940s. The picture title highlights the calmness and notes how cars once went in both directions. It is now a one-way street. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.
Street at Rawche by the seaside near Hamra, undated, around the mid-twentieth century. The street leads along the coastline shown from above at the beginning of this series. (c) the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi.

All photos reproduced with kind permission from the archive of Mukhtar Michel Bekhazi. 

Read more pieces from the Refugee Hosts blog:

Ager, A. (2017) ‘Sounds from Hamra, Lebanon

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2018) ‘Contextualising the Localisation of Aid Agenda

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. (2017) ‘Representations of Displacement Series: Introduction

Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, E. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugee-Refugee Solidarity in Death and Dying

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Refugees are Dialectical Beings Part One: Writing the Camp-Archive

Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2016) ‘Writing the Camp

Stonebridge, L. (2018) ‘Memory as Host: Poetry and History in Baddawi

Stonebridge, L. (2016) ‘Poetry as a Host

Stonebridge, L. and Qasmiyeh, Y. M. (2017) ‘Time Machine: Views from Palestine, 1900


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s