Of all the stories about Lebanon and its provenance, one that most inspires hope is that told by Kamal Salibi (1929–2011) in The Modern History of Lebanon (1965) about the Danniyeh region in the north of the country. Mountainous and rich with oak and juniper trees, Danniyeh lies east of Tripoli and abounds with countless species of plants, flowers, and birds. But it was not yet called by this name when a group of Batiniyyah mystics were drawn to its natural beauty and adopted it as their home. They settled in this lush patch of green in eastern Lebanon, a place that resonated with their beliefs – characterized by secrecy and skepticism – or zhann in Arabic. From zhann came the word zhanniyeh, which in turn became Danniyeh, the region’s name in the vernacular. It was named for the people of faith who were drawn there, alluding to the perfect, natural cycles of the earth, its creatures, and their languages.

The Batiniyyah who were drawn to the place came to be known as the folk of Danniyeh, and they were impassioned by what they saw in nature: a mirror of their own lives, a reflection of their deepest beliefs. They were inspired by the mysteries hidden in hills, caves, and valleys, by the shady thicket, the colors of the seasons, and the secrets of sound. The place, in turn, was drawn to them; and from that day on, it took the mystics’ traits for its name: a name that befits the mountainous earth and vast stretches of forest, mysterious in all that it is and all that it contains.

This was the dawn of the second millennium: a crucial point in the early days of Lebanon’s inception, before the rumble of politics and its entangled future, a moment wherein the earth and its creatures began to interact, a prelude. In the tale of Danniyeh, the land and its creatures were bound to one another at their very core, through language and passion – both on the surface and on a deeper, hidden level. This was Nature and her cosmos at work: encompassing the breadth of life, its beings great and small, taking the urban and rural, their habitats and creatures, and stitching their very cells together, weaving them together in a single ring, binding them at their origins, their roots, by what lies beneath the surface and perhaps beyond, in the depths of the earth.

In Lebanon’s Danniyeh region, as elsewhere, the forest represents Nature’s cosmos.
It is the very foundation and order of life: the interconnectedness of all beings, which would become a pattern for all that followed, including the city. When we contemplate the forest and how it relates to its surroundings, we must consider our own development and how dramatically the way we live has changed, for better and for worse. The pursuit of such lines of inquiry entails a vibrant intellectual endeavor to connect with the roots, origins, and very foundation of the human experience and to truly examine them.

In writing about the origins and fundamental dynamics of this connection, we turn to a place not far from Danniyeh, to the northeast of the Orontes River, where mountains descend and canyons converge in sweeping steppes and plains. Here, in the late nineteenth century, Francis Fathallah Marrash of Aleppo invoked the forest as a metaphor in his inspiring utopian dream. Marrash was an intellectual, born in the greatest historical metropolis in the Levant second to Damascus. He was a cultural pioneer amid growing European influence in his hometown; mastering French at an early age, his ideas were informed by the European Enlightenment and the principles of the French Revolution. In this historic moment between the fall of the Ottoman Empire, which had reigned for nearly three centuries, and the beginning of the European Mandate period, Marrash wrote Ghabat Al Haq (The Forest Righteous). In his book, he sought to bring Arab culture, in whose language he wrote and to whose knowledge he was dedicated, into conversation with thought emanating from Western Europe, which called for societal reform and equal rights, citizenship and freedom.

We took Marrash as our inspiration for the call for contributions to “Forest,” launched in autumn 2013. For us, Marrash represents a pioneering Arab intellectual experiment, traversing rigid cultural boundaries to connect with a common humanity. The utopian forest imagined by Marrash in Ghabat Al Haq represents a space in which to establish a system of diversity, where we can reimagine interconnectivity and epistemic frontiers along with their manifold materializations. It is a space that asks us to reconsider, to rethink where we are headed.

Such a cultural proposition has become incredibly urgent today in our region, which has demonstrated unfailing perseverance in summoning notions of roots and origins. Yet as we have witnessed, these origins have given rise to much anxiety and doubt, and at times even extremism. In Arabic, the word for “fundamentalism” comes from the word for “origins”; this alone points to the cultural predicament we find ourselves in and the need to address such existential questions.

The relationships between our social, political, spatial, and urban existence as humans, our way of life, and the natural world are flawed – significantly and fundamentally. Take, for example, Basra’s historic palm forests: their fate and relationship to the city no longer seem merely a passing crisis but rather an utter tragedy. These days, we seem to be moving deeper toward calamity. For the past three years, we have witnessed cities and towns being wiped out in broad daylight. With our own eyes, we have seen cities crushed, their suburbs, countryside, and surrounding greenery demolished: starting in Daraa, Rakka, and Deir Ezzor; moving on to Damascus, its Al Ghutah – a vast, fertile swath of agricultural land that gave way to urbanization decades ago – and then Aleppo (Marrash’s city), Hama, and Homs. In the north of Lebanon, the Danniyeh region too has followed these tragedies, watching them unfold with its own eyes. Tripoli, the city closest to Danniyeh, has been affected by these events, as time and again the city’s edges are set aflame.

As we reflect on “Forest” today in the fourth issue of Portal 9, we aim to probe the intricacies of how we construct and inhabit our built environment – as architecture and concept – and how the natural world and its phenomena manifest particular meanings of notions such as borders, divisions, and the environment. When investigating our cities in the context of the ecosystem, both tomorrow and in the distant wilderness of the future, these are questions we must ask now more than ever. This issue of Portal 9, filled with responses to our call for proposals, travels far across the map: starting in our region and its wooded lands, both past and present as well as in thought and in practice, it moves on to other parts of the world where “Forest” and city reverberate, from the Amazon and Central and North Africa all the way to Vietnam in the Far East. The writings in this issue span the globe, enabling us to trace and compare various experiences in human-environmental and urban history, especially those incipient moments
of the city, and perhaps even to rewrite our future. This comparative exercise calls on us to question what we consider “formative” or “structural” about the idea of the city.

Cities have always compelled us to think beyond them: beyond their municipal and national borders, as more than just physical spaces through which people, capital, and commerce circulate. In the same way, the forest – as an ecological system and as a concept – embodies our ultimate attempt to transcend the city’s limitations and hold it accountable once again. It returns the city to its infancy, to its roots.


Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette

 Fadi Tofeili, is a Lebanese writer, poet, and translator. He is the editor-in-chief of Portal 9.

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